NTS celebrate transgender experiences with Adam

Based on real life experiences, the National Theatre of Scotland's Adam has a worldwide, digital cast of over 100 transgender and non-binary persons. We visit Rockvilla to find out more.

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 31 Jul 2017

It’s the hottest day (probably ever) when The Skinny visits Rockvilla, the National Theatre of Scotland’s brand new home, or 'engine room', on the banks of the Forth and Clyde canal. After ten years without a building to call its own, the NTS has collected its astonishing team of makers, directors, writers, builders, designers and actors under one roof. It’s a theatre nerd’s dream: props from previous performances hang on the walls, the costume department glitters with sequins, and a mirrored set is half-built in Rockvilla’s largest rehearsal space. There are hawks (!) on the lawn outside. Still, the NTS hasn’t lost its original “theatres without walls” premise – the company creates work here, but will continue to perform in venues the length and breadth of Scotland, and beyond.

We’re here to talk about Adam – a brand new show which will run at the Traverse for the duration of the Fringe. It’s one half of a duo of productions which elevate transgender experiences: Eve will be performed by veteran of the boards Jo Clifford, while Adam stars Adam Kashmiry and Nesha Caplan, plus a digital choir of 100+ transgender and non-binary individuals from all over the world. Kashmiry and project manager Leonie Gasson are here to discuss how this ambitious performance has evolved.

They explain that the impetus for the show came from a single Google search. Kashmiry was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and sought asylum in the UK when he was just 19. After spending time in London, he was moved to a detention center (“To this day, I still have no idea where it was”) before being relocated to Glasgow. Although there’s no explicit ruling against transgender people in Egypt, LGBTQI+ rights are systematically and aggressively threatened. Individuals can be prosecuted on grounds of “debauchery” and methods of entrapment have been employed by a so-called “morality police”. As a result, trans issues are kept far from the public eye. In an interview for the Refugee Week Scotland in 2013, Kashmiry remembers thinking that “I was probably the only person who had ever felt this way”.

After arriving in Scotland, Kashmiry began to search the internet for a way to describe his experiences, and a digital universe of faces and stories unfurled. “What I wrote down [on Google] was, ‘Can the soul of a man be trapped in a girl’s body? I didn’t know the term ‘trans’, so…” he says, shrugging.

“I remember seeing YouTube videos of people who were already transitioned. They started talking, and I’m like, ‘Oh? I’m looking at this wrong. He has a beard and stuff.’ I just thought, no, that’s not related to me, that’s not what I’m talking about. Then later I realised, crap – that’s actually a trans man like me, but after transition. I just didn’t realise how much you can change.”

As information flooded into his Glasgow flat, Kashmiry realised that he was far from alone – and that transitioning could change his life. To illustrate the power of online interconnectedness, the NTS have formed the Adam World Choir – a digital community with over 140 self-identifying members, and counting. Gasson, who manages the choir and keeps its contributors safe, describes how the group was born from “this idea of suddenly having access to all these people around the world, who you don’t know. And it doesn’t matter that you don’t know them, because it matters that they exist, and that you can see them.”

Pre-recorded videos of choir members singing an original score, written by Jocelyn Pook, will make up a certain part of the show – but that’s as much as Kashmiry and Gasson are willing to reveal. The recorded element was vital, though – “It’s much more inclusive,” Gasson explains. “If you’re in Russia and you’re trying to submit, you can do it in your own time. You don’t need fancy tech or a brilliant internet connection that’s going to get you into the Trav. It’s all been recorded on phones or laptops. Anything that anyone had to hand, that was the right kit.”

This immense, global project is a world first – but Adam also marks Kashmiry’s theatrical debut. Asking him if he’s always been interested in theatre is answered by a big laugh, and a loud “No!” He describes “the change of heart” as having “happened very suddenly,” but by now Adam’s been in the pipeline for several years. Kashmiry first met director Cora Bissett “at a community work sort of thing, funded by the Scottish Refugee Council.” He explains, “Straight after I’d been granted refugee status, I was told that I should go on jobseekers. I didn’t really understand these things, so I had no money and had to visit the SRC. Someone was like, ‘Hey man, there’s this thing happening. You get free food and stuff.’ I wasn’t really interested, but maybe a week later I decided to give it a go.

“There were Scottish people, refugees, asylum seekers, kind of a mix. Everyone took part and gave a story. After the performance, [Bissett] said hi, and that she’d been really touched. We met for coffee a few weeks later, and she’s saying, ‘I’d love to do something with your story… are you happy with that?’ ‘Yeah!’ Then, two years later…”

Initially he found the development process strange. Playwright Frances Poet turned his story into a script, and Kashmiry remembers watching the team read it for the first time: “Everyone’s analysing the character saying, ‘Oh, Adam must have felt that way…’ And I’m like, ‘YES, he must have felt that way!’ But now it’s all a bit different, because I don’t connect myself to the characters so much. Adam is a character in a play. Now when we analyse the characters I can ask Cora, ‘So, what’s Adam feeling at this point?’

“The story is a little bit different, which I actually like a lot. It’s odd when you say, ‘This is a story about one person’ – it feels like you’re completely neglecting everybody else. Are you saying that just because this person is trans, that’s why this story is important? But when you talk about an entire community, then that is a cause. That’s powerful.

“So lots of bits in the story didn’t necessarily happen to me, but they happened to somebody else and it’s in there to show the variety of different, or horrible, things that have happened to trans people. The fiction is not so fiction – it represents a cause, and it’s a cause that’s much needed right now.”

To depict Adam, Kashmiry’s joined by a co-star, Neshla Caplan. “It’s quite brilliant that there’s two actors,” he grins. “They’re two parts of Adam. There was a lot of conflict in that period of my life, and having two people to tell it gives you the real feeling of how that was. So that bit is kind of real.”

As the timeline for the show shifted, the Choir took on a momentum of its own. Gasson enthuses, “Now the Adam World Choir is not a group of singers, it’s a project. Everything we’ve done has been in response to what people are interested in: we’ve got a book being released, we live-streamed a digital symposium, and we have an album of music – one of the choir members produced it, and different members submitted songs. Because the choir part that’s in the play uses people’s faces, some people said, ‘Well, I can’t do that’. The book is a great way of giving people time and space to tell their story, in a way that isn’t threatening. You can be totally anonymous.”

Gasson lists members from Slovenia, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Australia, Russia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Jordan, and describes that the key ambition of the choir is to provide a safe space of expression for a “geographically, socially and politically diverse” digital community. For a theatre without walls, but a brand new home, it feels right that the National Theatre of Scotland should be seeking to break down other kinds of boundaries and borders. Adam opened on July 30, but the projects are ongoing: “We’re still open! You can still join the choir, if you want. I hope that once people see the show it’ll be like, ‘Wow. I’d like to be a part of that’.”

Adam, Traverse, Edinburgh, 5-27 Aug
Also: Macrobert Art Centre, Stirling, 5-6 Sep; Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, 13-16 Sep