“It’s beautifully queer, told by beautiful queers”: writer/co-director Charlie Josephine and lead actor Vinnie Heaven wet our appetites for this autumn’s trans-Western play
BY KATIE CHAMBERS, IMAGE BY HENRI T RSC
From the 14 October, there’ll be some new sheriffs in town. Award-winning writer Charlie Josephine’s new play, Cowbois, is rolling into the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, and it’s a sexy, brave, euphoric explosion of gender expression. Charlie’s script brings audiences to a sleepy town in the Wild Wild West, full of women whose husbands are missing. It’s all boredom and waiting…until trans-masc outlaw Jack Cannon saunters into the saloon and starts a gender revolution.
Charlie’s previous writing for stage includes Bitch Boxer (2013), BLUSH (2016) and One of Them Ones (2023). Especially if their most recent queer-warrior play, I Joan (2022), is anything to go by, Cowbois is something to be really excited about. I’m lucky enough to talk to both Charlie and Vinnie Heaven, who plays Jack Cannon, in the thick of rehearsals. Their schedules are getting busier and busier, but there’s also a sense of exhilarating crescendo, as though everything’s coming together for opening night.
COWBOIS seems like it has the potential to be both incredibly fun and quite moving. Which of these would you say it is?
Charlie: Both, and more, like all good theatre should be.
Vinnie: It’s both, without doubt. I think Charlie has really nailed that balance. For me personally, it’s moving because of who the story focuses on and who is in the cast telling those stories. It’s beautifully queer, told by beautiful queers…who are also really funny!
Charlie, when you’re writing, how much is the audience’s reaction in your mind? Do you try to elicit a certain kind of response when writing, or just wait and see what happens when it’s on stage?
Charlie: I was asked to write a play by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the Swan Theatre, so I have written very deliberately for that particular venue – its architecture, shape and space. I also needed to take into consideration the very particular demographic that makes up the audience at the RSC. It’s still, partly because of dodgy transport links, a very white, cis, straight, middle-aged, middle-class audience.
There will be some audience members who have never met a trans person, never questioned their own relationship with gender, never examined their place in white supremacy, and never witnessed queer love. So I wrote with a balance of provoking, without being patronising or attacking. I’m really proud of the play and very excited for people to come see it.
Vinnie, this is your RSC debut! How are you feeling?
Vinnie: Ready. I didn’t go to drama school because I wasn’t welcome as my full self at that time. I’ve had to graft my way here over years and years. I’ve had to hold faith that people would start to write characters that would allow me to come to places like this. And here we are!
You play Jack Cannon, a trans-masc cowboy. That character profile is pretty much unheard of and flies in the face of stereotypical cis-het cowboys in traditional Westerns. Is it fun to play such a subversive character?
Vinnie: The brilliant Dr Ronx always says you cannot be what you do not see. So hopefully we’ll see more and more of these characters appear.
I think the brilliance of Jack is that it feels totally ordinary that they are a cowboy and trans. He just effortlessly does what he does and commands the space. And that normalcy will feel so refreshing and electric as it spreads through the audience.
How much of yourself do you put into your performance? Do you feel similar to Jack Cannon?
Vinnie: I’d say people might assume I’m similar to Jack if they didn’t know me. But the people who do know that we aren’t much alike. I mean, we do share a singing voice, but I would be useless in a shootout!
I try to keep separate from the characters so that I can leave them at work at the end of each day. I don’t want them all at home with me, I don’t have the space in my tiny flat!
When Jack Cannon comes on the scene in Cowbois, everything changes. There’s a “gender revolution” where the characters are allowed to explore their gender identities. Have there been any moments of “gender revolution” in your lives?
Vinnie: I have a gender revolution every other day! I see someone in the street or a cabaret act or an actor on a stage or a cafe worker or a person on the tube and I think…yeah, that’s a bit of me, that is. Once you step outside the prescribed gender boxes you can look around at so many types of people and find parts of yourself.
I also think that being loved wholly, and without expectation, by your partner and friends, inevitably allows for gender revolutions to occur.
Charlie: Yes, many. Most are too personal and precious to share in this format. Instead, I’ll say a public thank you to Yasser Zadeh, Elijah W Harris, Travis Alabanza, Joelle Taylor, Mercutio, that butch whose hair I used to cut as a teenager, Tink, Libro and Roman.
Charlie, you’ve said that COWBOIS is a love letter to the trans-masc people in history whose stories have been ignored. I’m also thinking of I Joan, and wondering whether rescuing historical trans people from erasure is something that’s important to you and your writing?
Charlie: Haha! I think it’d be pretty daft to think I’m rescuing anyone. I’m just making the art I needed to see growing up, that I still need to see. And part of that, currently, involves reminding people that trans people have always existed. And that history books are often written by white middle-class straight men and sometimes miss some of the gloriously messy truth. I’d highly recommend the work of historians Kit Heyam, Emily Skidmore and Jen Manion.
Trans expression has been co-opted into a “culture war” by politicians. Does showing trans joy onstage at the RSC feel like defiance, or are you tired of your work being politicised just because it is queer?
Vinnie: Joy can’t be politicised. It’s unsquashable, untameable and wild. It’s ours, and it can’t be taken. Ever. That’s all I know, and all I think about when I step on stage to share space with an audience. And there is joy to be found in COWBOIS, no matter your gender.
Charlie: I’m not engaging in the so-called “culture war”. In the interest of peaceful mental health, I practise focusing on the things I can change. Which is making the best art I can, and having a laugh. Other people’s opinions and pesky pigeon-holes are not in my control. Also, I reckon all art is political, ain’t it?!
I’d rather talk about the cast and creative team because I’m really fucking grateful to be collaborating with such a talented, hardworking, sexy, kind, brilliant bunch of humans. The cast is outstanding, and so talented, every single one of them is proper thrilling to watch. Sean, who I am co-directing the play with, and I worked hard to choose the creative team because we believe in diversity backstage as well as onstage. We selected theatre practitioners who have worked with trans and queer actors before, so everyone feels empowered. We’ve collaborated with the brilliant Gendered Intelligence and All About Trans. It’s not a perfectly diverse room, but it’s pretty fucking great, and it feels good to be there.
Charlie, you’re also working on a biopic about Nicola Adams – what can you tell us about that?
Charlie: Not a lot, unfortunately. It’s written. I’m excited about it. Just waiting for the producers to do their thing.
Is there a favourite moment in COWBOIS you could tease us with?
Vinnie: The whole show is a tease! A cheeky, cheeky tease that twists and turns and just keeps on teasing!
Charlie: There’s some steamy sexy bits, and some tender kindness, and some big sticky arguments, and a full-on gun fight against patriarchy.
DIVA magazine celebrates 29 years in print in 2023. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable.