Vanessa Van Durme, a Belgian writer and performer, has a knack for picking the right word. After all, she’s had some practice. Van Durme became Belgium’s first transsexual before the vocabulary for the transition existed.
“It wasn’t that simple then,” she says over the phone from Belgium. “It was a big, big struggle because you couldn’t even pronounce the word, because it didn’t exist at that time.”
Now, at the age of 64, she has told her story in three different languages all over the world.
Van Durme will perform her one-woman show, Look Mummy, I’m Dancing, at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver.
The performance is a 90-minute monologue that tells the story of a young boy who was happiest when dressed in his mother’s clothes, wearing red lipstick and dancing.
The show is simply staged, just Van Durme in a pink slip, at a table with two dolls, one male and one female. She transitions between her parents’ voices and her own child’s voice. In a way, she says, the show is a tribute to her parents.
“They’re lovely people. I had lovely parents, working-class people. I thought, what was it for them, having a child like me in the ’60s? It wasn’t a simple thing. They were full of understanding.”
She has performed the show 250 times so far, all over the world, including four times in Canada. That’s at least 100 times more than she anticipated.
“I thought, oh 20 performances. Who will be interested in that performance? But they are.”
She performs in English, French and Dutch, but she says responses have been the same regardless of language or location. “Reactions in every country were exactly the same. People were very enthusiastic.”
She believes it’s the personal connection people feel with her story that touches them. “It’s not an actress who’s playing a role, you know. I’m talking about me and my own story, and that’s why they’re so touched. You can think, oh well, it’s an actor or an actress who’s playing that, but I’m telling my own story, and that’s one of the reasons for success.”
Van Durme says the show helps dispel misconceptions and prejudice simply by exposing audiences to a story they may never have heard before.
“There are people who come in with prejudice, then they will say, okay, I saw a person like that and she was in front of me and telling her story so honestly and openly, and now I can understand it and I don’t have to be afraid of her anymore.”
She says some people need to see for themselves that the space between them and her is not so great.
The veteran performer is frank about her struggles, the long and difficult journey she has made, but reluctant to dwell on it. “You don’t have a choice,” she says matter-of-factly. “You do this or you stay unhappy for the rest of your life. You make that decision, and I’m very happy about it, of course.”
Van Durme is one of a handful of queer artists who will perform at Club PuSh, the festival’s experimental, salon-style venue at Performance Works on Granville Island.
Vancouver multidisciplinary artist Vanessa Kwan curates Sad Sack, by Night, an evening of words, music and images; and Montrealer Daniel Barrow will show Winnipeg Babysitter, part performance, part documentary about public-access television in Winnipeg in the 1970s and ’80s.
Vancouver singer/songwriter Sarah Wheeler will perform from her third and latest album, titled Out of the Woodwork, released in December. It will be her first show with an almost all-new band, and she’s taking advantage of the chance to try some new things.
“Most of my music has been kind of roots-based music, alt country, lots of finger picking,” she says. “Recently I’ve been getting into electronic music. It’s actually quite different from anything I’ve done before.”
Wheeler says the experimental nature of PuSh makes it a fantastic venue for queer artists. “I think this festival is basically all about pushing boundaries, and the gay community is largely involved in the arts community, so there’s a lot of crossover there.”
Comedian Jan Derbyshire will perform her new show, Stood, inspired by a road trip she took last year with her dad.
“I was a tomboy and grew up to be a tomman, and my dad was a boy and grew up to be a man. And there we are, here and now, travelling along in a little truck for six days with a lot in common but no way to talk about it.”
Derbyshire, who initially wanted the new show to make people laugh, ended up exploring where on the gender spectrum her humour plays best.
“There’s this comic I have inside me and then there’s just me, and we’re doing this show together that looks like standup in the guise of theatre, or maybe theatre in the guise of standup. Anyway, there’s a lot of guise in the show. And a few gals, too. And they’re all me.”
The Human Library, an interactive exhibit run in conjunction with the Vancouver Public Library, is curated by gay playwright Dave Deveau and will feature Xtra’s own Still QQ columnist, Kevin Dale McKeown.
The library is made up of people who fall under titles such as Drag Queen, Occupy Activist and Refugee. Members of the public can go to the Human Library circulation desk at the central branch and “check out” one of these titles for a conversation.
For a complete list of festival shows, visit pushfestival.ca.
Here is a YouTube trailer of Van Durme’s performance: