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Michelle Tiwo

“Roles for queer performers won’t come if we don’t show up”
Michelle Tiwo
Michelle Tiwo

Michelle Tiwo plays the lead role in new musical Parakeet, by Brigitte Aphrodite with music by Quiet Boy, which premieres at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Tiwo tells Giverny Masso about their creative work outside theatre and explains how their biggest challenge as a queer performer was being signed with an agent…

What was your first role in theatre?
And the Rest of Me Floats at the Bush Theatre. Everything was autobiographical, so we had to write our own monologues. I explored having an African background and being queer and non-binary and how that affects me, and looked back to teenhood. I also looked at religion and how that affects queer African children of the diaspora, because if you have overly religious parents there’s a lot of fear attached to your sexuality and your gender identity.

What story does Parakeet tell?
It’s about this young girl who moves to Margate. She has always been a bit of an outsider and she’s obsessed with parakeets. She’s kind of a nerdy punk, and I love it. She discovers that there are parakeets in Margate and there’s a point where she follows them and they lead her to her soon-to-be best friends, who decide to start a punk band together. We developed the characters around who we are, but then tried to give them their own authenticity. My character is from south London, so I had to recall a lot of the things I would do between the ages of 15 and 17.

Can you tell me about your creative work outside theatre?
I started out as a poet, as poetry lets me channel my daydreams into words. I was always trying to write songs when I was 14 or 15, and they were terrible. Singing is something I’ve only started to claim this year, after doing And the Rest of Me Floats, because I was never really that confident about my singing voice. I also I started a podcast with my sister and best friend in 2015, called Sistren. We’ve had three radio shows and we currently have a residency at Foundation FM, where we talk about experiences that queer black women face in the UK.

What has been the biggest challenge in getting to where you are?
Being signed. If it wasn’t for the Queer House, I genuinely don’t know where I would be. After doing [web series] Ackee and Saltfish, it was quite a strange experience because we got so many amazing reviews from the New York Times and all these really prestigious publications, but no one came looking for the actual actors. I think agencies are not really sure what to do with queer performers, but Queer House literally saved me. I’m eager to see more queer and trans performers get into acting, because the roles won’t come if we don’t show up. I know we exist already, but now we can come out in our numbers.

What is next for you?
After Parakeet, I will be developing a solo show, which will be my first. I know I definitely want it to be based around family history and lineage, and there will be elements of religion and faith in there. It’s also going to explore mental health.

Parakeet, which is produced by Boundless Theatre and Boom Shakalaka Productions, runs at Summerhall, Edinburgh, until August 25. More information at: tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/parakeet

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