Lucy Jane Parkinson, about to go on tour in Jon Brittain’s comedy Rotterdam, discusses theatre’s role in educating audiences about gender, the increasing prominence of queer stories and their desire to play a non-binary Puck
Shortly before coming to the end of touring a show called Bullish, about trans-masculine identity, Lucy Jane Parkinson saw that the producers of Jon Brittain’s Olivier-winning play Rotterdam were looking for trans and non-binary actors for its new touring production. The casting breakdown on Spotlight said: “Must be bullish.” Parkinson took this as a sign. In the end three out five members of the cast of Bullish ended up going for the same part.
Brittain’s play, which premiered at Theatre503 in 2015 before transferring to the West End, is a bittersweet romantic comedy that explores the emotional journey of a trans man as he transitions and the impact this has on his relationship with his girlfriend and brother.
Parkinson – who uses the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ – ended up being cast in the lead role of Adrian while trans actor Elijah W Harris was cast as Adrian’s cis-gender brother. Parkinson described this as a “turning point for theatre, both in terms of its subject matter and its casting of non-binary and trans actors”.
“It was always the intention to cast trans and non-binary performers in the touring production of Rotterdam,” explains Brittain. “Lucy brings a brilliant strength and defiance to the role, but also a great deal of humour and sensitivity.
“Lucy and Elijah, and also our new assistant director Livi Dunlop, bring a great deal of personal knowledge into the room,” he adds, “and that has been enriching for the whole company.”
The production will be touring mid-sized venues throughout the spring and summer. This is important to Parkinson because it means a lot of people will have the opportunity to see it and it’s likely that only a small percentage of that audience will be from the LGBT+ community.
It’s not just a question of educating people though, Parkinson says, it goes deeper. “Theatre opens people up to new ways of being. It offers an insight into relationships and shows people it’s not just about choosing a bathroom or all this bollocks you read in the newspapers. It’s not a choice at all.”
It’s a good moment in terms of the range of queer stories being told, be it on stage or in the mainstream media, in shows such as ITV’s Butterfly, Pose on BBC2 or in soap operas. Some of these are more heightened than others, Parkinson stresses, but it all adds up. “There’s this awakening to there being things beyond a binary way of life. There was resistance for so long.” If you didn’t fit into a particular box “people were made to feel that they were odd or that there was something wrong with them”. Things are changing. “There’s too many of us now. You can’t do that anymore.”
Parkinson always knew they wanted to perform, from a young age. After completing a master’s in contemporary performance making at Brunel School of Arts, they were left wondering: “Who was going to cast me? Unless they remake Tank Girl, I’m not going to get a job am I?”
What was your first job?
A cashier at a Chinese restaurant.
What was your first theatrical job?
Playing Alice in Alice Through the Looking Glass – I was 10.
What is your next job?
Never ask an actor what their next job is… They have no idea.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That everyone is castable and that there is a place and a role for everyone – they just need to find the right casting director.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
I know it sounds cliché but I don’t have a biggest influence – everything influences me, not just people. Except Ru Paul. They don’t influence me. They infuriate me…
Any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
My costume has to be washed every show. And I always have to watch an episode of The Simpsons before I go on stage. I also need a bit of time for myself, when no one is talking to me.
Living in London, the need to earn money was pressing. Parkinson had spent time on the cabaret scene, watching drag queens, and the majority were cis white men: “Pale, stale, male.” Parkinson decided to enter the Drag Idol competition. “I thought, why not? I can sing. I’ve got stage presence.”
Parkinson performed as Louis Cyfer – “a happy-go-lucky non-binary bloke” – and gained a following on the cabaret scene, winning Drag Idol UK in 2014. Soon after, they were contacted by theatre company Milk Presents to teach “kinging”. The company was in the process of making a show called Joan at the time, a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc through song and drag. They were on the look out for a performer to play the role: “A drag king who sings, a northerner, butch. It was the role for me.” It took Parkinson two weeks to ask to play Joan, though it turned out the company had already come to the same conclusion.
In the resulting show, according to critic Tracey Sinclair writing in The Stage, Joan is “gloriously and unapologetically reclaimed as a working-class hero”. As a result of the show, Parkinson says: “A lot of people opened their mind to how they look at bodies like mine and females in history.” The performance won them The Stage Edinburgh Award and the show toured internationally.
Having “smashed into the theatrical world with a huge bang”, Parkinson knew this was the right career. Joan was followed by another Milk Presents show, Bullish, which drew inspiration from the Minotaur myth. While they were touring the show one audience member returned to see it with ‘bullish’ tattooed on their knee “because it had touched them so much”. They even brought their mum, Parkinson says, smiling widely: “That’s what you do it for isn’t it? To tell people it’s not just you. You’re not on your own.”
Sarah Punshon, artistic director of the Dukes in Lancaster saw Joan and approached Parkinson about a project she had in mind: “A queering of The Three Musketeers.” Parkinson was cast as a female D’Artagnan, who pretends to be a boy. “It wasn’t too far away from Joan in terms of headspace,” the performer says. They learned to sword fight for the role and became the fight captain on the production, spending the summer “sword-fighting in a park with a community theatre”.
How does Parkinson feel about the current wave of ‘gender flipped’ productions, particularly of Shakespeare? “It makes sense to experiment,” Parkinson says. “And it can be a real opportunity for an audience to look at how binary they are in their thinking. I’d love to see a non-binary Taming of the Shrew though. I’d love to play Puck. A non-binary Puck. That would be brilliant.”
We discuss the question of casting and trans characters being played by actors who aren’t trans. Parkinson’s response is nuanced and thoughtful. “From a directorial point of view and an acting point of view, it makes sense,” to cast trans actors. “You have this bank of knowledge and understanding you can access.” If this wasn’t the case, “they would need to be someone in the room is familiar with trans experience”.
Parkinson’s passion for performing is clear, but being an actor is a lot of work, “a test of endurance”. Actors are “responsible for managing our own finances – you’ve got to be good at that. If you can’t handle that, maybe this isn’t right for you”.
Parkinson grows increasingly passionate. “We don’t have guaranteed work from one month to the next. We have to juggle everything. If you live in London, the rent is ridiculous. There are some fuckers who don’t even work with an equity scheme. You’ve got to really love it and love it even when it’s hard.”
Born: Bielefeld, West Germany
Training: Contemporary Theatre and Performance at Manchester Metropolitan University; Master’s in Contemporary Performance Making at Brunel School of Art
• Joan, Milk Presents (2016)
• Bullish, Milk Presents (2017)
• The Three Musketeers, the Dukes, Lancaster (2018)
Awards: Winner of Drag Idol UK 2014; The Stage Edinburgh Award 2016
Agent: Charlotte Boden
Rotterdam opens at Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames from April 4-6 ahead of a UK tour