Ivor MacAskill and Rosana Cade, creators and performers, The Making of Pinocchio
A sense that transformation, in all ways, is accessible and desirable, even when it seems impossible.
Rosana Cade (they/them) and Ivor MacAskill (he/him) are renowned Queer artists and facilitators based in Glasgow, Scotland. Partners in life and on stage, Ivor and Rosana’s work envelopes everything from contemporary theatre, live art and film to Queer cabaret and children’s performance. Their most recent work, The Making of Pinnocchio, is making its Australian exclusive debut at this year’s Brisbane Festival, after a hugely successful tour that spanned across the UK, Europe and to Montreal. This tale of love and transition, told through the story of Pinocchio, follows an autobiographical narrative of Ivor and Rosana’s relationship as they grapple with the complex emotions that come with Ivor’s gender transition. We spoke to Ivor and Rosana ahead of their Brisbane Festival appearance about the process of creating the show, the key themes that surround the show’s narrative and the importance of it to the LGBTIQA+ community.
We’d love to start right at the beginning of your love of acting and theatre – can you recall the moment when you sensed an inkling of affection for performing arts?
IM: I really enjoyed performing at school – somehow the rules of the stage made sense to me and I understood how to have an effect on the audience in a way that other kids didn’t seem to. Age 6, I took my role as head elephant in the hit musical The Circus very seriously, and can still remember the choreography, leading my classmates around an upturned bucket wearing a grey tracksuit and sugar paper mask. The next year I was Mary in the nativity (Mrs Lindsay had been impressed by my elephant) and I did a very good job of being very, very tired carrying the weight (both literally and figuratively) of Jesus. But in this version, the mother of God had no lines, and I just had to nudge Joseph when it was his turn. So I knew from then that I’d need to write my own scripts. An important moment was when I was 8 and taken to see the opera, The Marriage of Figaro, and was very taken by Cherubino, a ‘trouser role’. Seeing a woman embodying this sexual and desirable young man singing about love and young ladies was thrilling and very influential on a certain level, even if I didn’t know why at the time. It showed me that the theatre was a place I might be able to transcend the sex I was assigned at birth. In our show we celebrate the theatre as a space of possibility.
RC: I grew up in a small town in the south of England, which happened to have a theatre with quite a lively amateur dramatics scene. I had my stage debut there when I was 6 years old as a chorus member in the annual pantomime. I’ll never forget the feeling of being in front of an audience for the first time – it was an exhilaration like nothing else. I was hooked. I’m not sure if it was that year or the following year that I wet myself on stage whilst the woman playing Dick Wittington was singing a solo. But even this embarrassment didn’t put me off – perhaps it actually marked my first foray into radical performance art. Growing up in this small, fairly conservative town in the 90s, under the Section 28 Act which forbade the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ to children and young people, I think I was partly drawn to the theatre in a subconscious search for my queerness. At school and in my family I felt a pressure to conform and fit in, but at the theatre there was a sense of possibility, that I could be anyone. Here was a thrilling world of smoke machines and glitter, where men wore make-up, women dressed as men and slapped their thighs, and every night felt like a party. I knew this was the place for me.
After a hugely successful premiere season, your theatre work The Making of Pinocchio is making its Australian debut at this year’s Brisbane Festival. Can you shed some insight into what the audience can expect from this performance?
RC: The show premiered in Hamburg just before London in spring 2022, and has since toured across the UK, Europe, and over to Montreal. We’re really excited for its Australian premiere! The show is a unique and visually sumptuous theatrical experience, offering a warm-hearted insight into the experience of gender transition from the perspective of a queer couple. It’s set in a fictional film studio where Ivor and I are in the process of creating a new trans re-telling of Pinocchio. The idea of being in the creative making process works as a metaphor for our queer identities – the idea of transness as an unending state of becoming. We move between talking directly to the audience about our process and real-life experience, and performing fantastical scenes to camera as part of the Pinocchio we’re creating, playfully employing a smorgasbord of theatrical and cinematic tricks such as mime and forced perspective. It’s a bit like going to watch a film at the cinema, but getting to see how the film is made underneath the screen at the same time, from a different perspective. As the show progresses and new perspectives are revealed, the distinction between reality and fantasy becomes blurred, taking the audience to a space of wild imagination and possibility. It’s a funny, surprising and deeply moving performance, which centres around queer love, joy and transformation.
What was it about Pinocchio’s character or story that felt relatable to yours?
IM: When we started working with Pinocchio – ‘the puppet who wants to be a real boy’ – we described it as being a perfectly imperfect trans narrative. Of course gender transition is not really like a magical wooden carving becoming flesh, but even though most of the time we’re taking a tongue-in-cheek approach, there are definitely elements that ring true emotionally. In the story, Pinocchio arrives as this magical, strange creature in the shape of a boy, and he doesn’t really make sense in the world. He tries to fit himself into traditional structures but ends up getting things wrong and causing mayhem. It’s unclear where he gets the idea that he wants to be a ‘real boy’, but I could relate to the sense of chasing after a new identity and being beholden to other gatekeepers who decide when you’ve made it. How we relate to the story is also always evolving. Obviously we’ve been working with Pinocchio to speak to a trans experience, but I’ve recently discovered I’m autistic and there’s something very neurodivergent about the way Pinocchio engages with the world and how he’s perceived. So that’s a new layer.
RC: Pinocchio is well known for being a lying puppet who wants to be a ‘real boy’. We drew particularly from Disney’s Pinocchio, which was the omnipresent representation for us as children. In the Disney version they emphasise his central quest to become a ‘real boy’ – which opened up questions for us around what it means to be seen as real, and who gets to decide this – questions at the heart of our show. We asked ourselves, are we as queers trying to mould ourselves into existing categories in order to be seen as real? Are we in the act of creating new categories and demanding that they be recognised as legitimate? Or is our queer strategy to undermine the idea of the real in any sense, and inhabit a more playful space somewhere between reality and fantasy? Pinocchio has to prove himself over and over again, in a world that he doesn’t understand. Creating this show at the same time as Ivor was undergoing a medical transition process meant that Ivor was having to tell a particular narrative about his life repeatedly in the ‘real’ world to access the treatment he needed. This story he was forced to tell had to be legible to the cis doctor’s understanding of gender, and fit their pathologising model. For us, working with a piece of fantasy like Pinocchio allowed us to find more expansive and imaginative aesthetic languages for understanding and communicating our experience.
The Making of Pinocchio has been in the works since 2018. Five years on, have you noticed any themes or ideas that have become more or less relevant?
IM: Unfortunately one thing that has become worse over this time is the state of trans healthcare, and how difficult it is for trans and non-gender-conforming people to access the support we need. In the show I say directly how long I’ve been on the waiting list for my first appointment (five years and counting) and how much money I’ve had to spend to pay for hormones, surgery, ongoing doctors’ appointments and blood tests (over £13,000). I definitely imagined that by the time we were touring this show I would have moved over to funded care – the NHS targets say that you shouldn’t have to wait more than 18 weeks. Obviously that’s disappointing and affects my mental health, even though I’ve had the privilege of being able to pay for private care. What’s also frustrating is that transphobes will still fight against us accessing this vital gender-affirming healthcare, saying that it’s too easy and quick to get hormones, when in reality it can be painfully slow and protracted, and we’re losing too many of our siblings who need to medically transition and feel stuck in limbo.
RC: At the beginning, in 2018/19 we were using the making process as a way of us responding creatively together to the very personal journey we were experiencing with Ivor’s gender transition, and the big changes that were happening for us as a couple. We had been living together and making work as lesbians, exploring that identity in our work, so moving towards being trans and non-binary was a big shift both personally and professionally. Now, five years later, we have settled somewhat into our new identities, and the show is ‘finished’, but every time we re-perform the piece it reminds us to stay connected to the idea of change and possibility, not to be complacent, and to stay committed to each other’s growth and our ongoing evolution. Sadly, in the UK, transphobia is still being weaponised by people in power and the media, where false information is being widely disseminated via legitimate platforms, whipping up fear and proliferating the idea that trans people pose a threat to children and women. Themes of trans joy and connection to queer lineage are incredibly important to us in response to this hateful climate, which seeks to delegitimise our identities.
The show follows a narrative that is almost untold in popular culture. How important do you believe a story like this one is in gaining a further understanding of the complex and ever-evolving relationships with ourselves and partners, particularly of those in the LGBTIQ+ community?
IM: As queer people, we’re used to reaching out for recognition and having to make the most of tiny crumbs of familiarity. A lot of us have grown up with very few representations of people ‘like us’ in our neighbourhoods or on our screens and stages, and almost no ways to see what our futures might look like. It’s not without its challenges, but we want to be seen and to share how transness and queerness have opened up new worlds of possibility for us both as individuals, and strengthened our love and relationship. We try to revel in that and to have joy in the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next. We want to share this with all audiences, and celebrate it as a political act in defiance of those who would rather we didn’t exist at all.
RC: We think it’s incredibly important to have a range of queer and trans stories told by queer and trans people, both to spread understanding outside of our communities, and also so that we feel can learn from each other and feel affirmed, visible, and celebrated. Early on in the process we were trying to find other representations of queer couples in transition, but we found little that we could relate to. A lot of trans stories tended to be about solo people’s experience, or where there were representations of couples their stories often ended with them splitting up. Also, very often trans stories seemed to be framed through a binary cis understanding of gender. For us, our experience has felt like something far more fluid and less defined than this. And it has been important for us to hold onto that queerness and fluidity, and use this show as a way to tell a story that isn’t confined to cis-heteronormative possibilities, but that is full of multiplicity and potential.
Imagery and humour play a massive role in many of your theatre works, what is its purpose in The Making of Pinocchio?
IM: A lot of transphobic rhetoric tries to isolate trans people and frame us as unnatural, suspicious, even dangerous, basically very different from ‘normal’ people. Many trans narratives focus on the struggle and sorrow that can come from trying to live your authentic life in such a hostile environment. We’re determined to find joy and humour in our situation, not to deny the difficult times, but to allow ourselves to see the absurdity for everyone trying to exist as humans in these wild times. The humour and familiar images let people relax into watching the show so that we can go somewhere more complex and nuanced all together.
RC: We laugh a lot – it’s a big part of our relationship and who we are. It’s often the way we respond to the world, how we process it. I fell in love with Ivor because of how funny I found him. So for us, it’s natural that when we create performance together there is humour within it. In The Making of Pinocchio we feel that the humour helps us connect to the audience. There can be a lot of fear and tension in discussions around trans lives, but we are committed to creating a space where people feel relaxed and able to come into the journey of the show with us. Humour definitely helps with this. There is also something powerful in using humour in the face of oppression, which can be transformative when experienced in a collective space. Historically humour has often been used to mock those who are marginalised, but we find strength and freedom in laughing at the absurdity of the systems that try to confine us.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this show?
IM: A sense that transformation, in all ways, is accessible and desirable, even when it seems impossible. There are unimaginable new ways of being waiting for you if you can take the leap into not knowing, and it’s certainly easier to take that leap with the support of those who love you.
RC: The show definitely speaks differently to different people, and we’re always excited to hear about the different things people take from it. For those who’ve maybe felt like they don’t know a lot about trans people and have been scared to ask, we hope they come away with a deeper understanding of trans and non-binary experiences, and a feeling of connection to the struggle for trans rights. We hope that people think about the importance of love and imagination in changing ourselves and changing the world, and that they are left with a sense of possibility.
Aside from acting, writing and performing, what do you like to do to unwind in your free time?
IM: I love nature and bird-watching. During lockdowns in the pandemic I got into gardening and growing things. I find it soothing in itself, but it also teaches me about continuing to evolve and change. It’s a perfect way to practice hope and witness incredible transformations that lead to delicious fruition.
RC: I love dancing more than anything, particularly in queer spaces. Spending time with my friends, my queer family and having a laugh is incredibly important to me. I also really love walking, both in cities and in the countryside. If I really need to chill out then nothing can beat being at home stroking our two cats, Superstar Haggis and Jean Valjean.
You can catch Ivor and Rosana in The Making of Pinocchio, taking over Brisbane Powerhouse from September 13–16. Grab your tickets through the Brisbane Festival website.