Jordan Gray steps out of the spotlight to give a little backstory to her upcoming self-penned, touring production, Is It A Bird...
Jordan is in a car being driven by her tour manager, on her phone on a Zoom call. The sun is shining where she is and the wi-fi is currently stable for us both. There is a sense of adventure as we both wonder whose signal is going to drop first. I have a limited window of time to get serious with this comedian.
How would you describe what you're about in terms of the performance settings in your production, ‘Is It A Bird’? Are you a flashing lights type of person, are you a spotlight person or are you giving the dimmed-and-a-little-bit-smoky-atmosphere vibe.
That's actually a unique question. I reckon I'm a spotlight person. I think that's right. I like a spotlight: all those frills, spills and chills. I like the smoke machines and stuff, but if I was being honest I'm not a particularly mysterious or enigmatic individual. I'm just there.
When you put this show together with this spotlight in mind, was it about saying, “This is me here I am”, or, “I'm going, I'm flying?”
That's it, yeah, I think the second one. You know what? The show is like… I'm transgender and when you are transgender you get put on such a pedestal anyway, even in everyday life. Just put on a pair of earrings and everyone around is, “Oh my god, you’re so beautiful, beautiful”, and you think, that's just a pair of earrings. You get celebrated a lot which is wonderful, so there's no need for me to come out and make more of a point of that.
I think because I'm an entertainer and comedian I've tried to make the funniest show that I can. If I was a baker, I would try to make the best bread and if I was a pilot, I would try to fly the plane really good, and because I’m a comedian it's just about being really funny. The agenda of the show is to be as funny as possible while circumstantially being a transgender person. Of course, it comes up. It’s not like I don't talk about it, but the show being funny is the statement that I guess I’m making. It's about bread and batman and babies and silly, silly things and there's meaning in there, but it's not a political show.
With your art, did you start off being a writer and then develop into acting then singing?
I was a singer for ten years straight out of school. I was in a professional recording situation. I was a recording artist for 10 years under the stage name Tall Dark Friend, hence my social media handle, and then I did The Voice in 2016 and realised I'd rather be a comedian instead, so I just put music on the shelf and I became the comedian. Then I slowly wove music back in, punctuating the show with songs, silly songs, musical comedy songs. At the same time, I became a comedian I was lucky to pick up a job writing in television. I wrote my first mini sitcom which is now being made for TV. I do get to write for television a lot at the same time as I get to tour this show.
Switching off the comedian for a moment, I’ll give you a serious answer
Can you see your writing being on the curriculum in schools in the immediate future? I think about the legacy of different artists and authors. In fact, recently a poet went missing at the Shambala festival and after a search it was found that he'd transitioned by suicide over the Bank Holiday weekend. This news really hit me because I knew of him as we were both performing at an online poetry event during #UKLockdown in 2020 and it was really interesting in terms of thinking, he's a writer, he's a poet, he's somebody who gave lectures and mentored people. And the impact that his life will have on other poets across the world, on young people. With your writing in different genres, in music for TV and the stage, would you consider producing, or somehow see your work, or your writing in the educational sphere?
(Leaning in close to fill the Zoom screen) Switching off the comedian for a moment, I’ll give you a serious answer and that it would be a wonderful thing to aspire to but... I used to, I was part of a government scheme that used to go into schools and teach kids. What I basically would teach them about is how to beatbox, but at the same time I was teaching them about the LGBTQ+ spectrum from a daddy and a daddy, mummy and a mummy sort of situation. Obviously not sexual just the meanings of those words and off the back of my performance on Friday Night Live I was stripped from being a patron of that school and removed because of a fear that was just a bit ill-founded that ended up blowing up in a lot of people's faces.
It was a really sad state of affairs because the work we did in those schools was so amazing and I really really think kids kind of know everything anyway. I just think about the beatbox, they don't have to but when they do they were annoying their parents for the rest of the month. So, the tragic answer is that perhaps by the very nature of being the political hot potato, this material that I'm doing will be kept out of schools for the short-term future. It'd be really cool to think one day, I mean I'm into my literature, I've got a wonderful publisher here at my agency, so you know fingers crossed maybe, maybe my silly little story will be told.
Let’s explore the intersectionality of your work in terms of occupying different parts of the Arts, Heritage and Cultural sector. I'm wondering how you navigate living across different self-identities and actualities. Some people may not fully understand that we are intersectional human beings. Your show with your heritage - how you grew up in Essex because I'm assuming that the bread that you're talking about baking in your show, you're putting that in there. You're putting that artisan flavour in there and a bit of the bird as well.
I am a working-class comedian before anything else, but it's not the first thing that people want to talk about. Naturally, the first thing is that light travels faster than sound. I look like a transgender woman so that's the first conversation people want to have. I mean it's in the title of the show. The reason it's called Is it a Bird is because it is obviously working backwards from the pun of, “Is it a bird, is it a plane”, it’s a superhero show, but I am from Essex.
I'm really proud of that title, I think that might be the best title I’ve ever come up with, but being a working-class comedian, it gives you a bit of grit being from Essex. Not to speak ill of anywhere, I kind of love where I'm from - Southend specifically, but I grew up in Thurrock. Like deep dark Thurrock. It's a commuter town so there's a bit of hopelessness there - everyone just kind of sleeps there, and works in London. There's a sense of wanting to get out, but there's also a sense of wanting to get out in a spectacular way. Like making your story and then you get to return as a returning hero. There’s nothing better for a working-class person than returning as a returning hero. Being transgender is expensive. Being working class means that some of that is kept away from you, so that's all part of it and getting out there, trying to make people laugh as much as possible without maybe being too self-indulgent about the political side of it - maybe that's why the show is the shape that it is. I'm having more success making jokes about dogs and marriage and Batman, than I am about going too deep and it means I'm paying my way through the world.
How do you look after your well-being because you're in a car right now, you're traveling distances regularly, you’re writing at pace as well. How do you find moments of quiet just to kind of gather yourself and remain sane?
(A pregnant pause. A beat, then a beaming smile) That’s such a considerate question and I wish I had a healthy answer for you. So, I've been so unwell and it's pure coincidence: I got Covid maybe a month ago, that's just bad luck. And off the back of that I had some terrible lung issues so they put me on steroids which gave me a kidney stone, which I passed on the way to a show in Liverpool. I’m with my tour manager now, bless him. He had to drive me to a hospital on the way to Liverpool, so I could pass the kidney stone and then off the back of that, I've had to go on this really low FODMAP diet, so I can't have anything spicy or sugary. So physical health, it's not because of the tour, it's just coincidence that I’m having a bad string of it. Mentally, I play a lot of Minecraft in the bath and I've got a lovely wife who's just a joy, an absolute joy of a person. She's a little bohemian genius, I love her. So yeah, I'm lucky enough to have a nice support network and a video game that I play on the Xbox. Yeah, and I eat jacket potatoes in the bath. My favourite thing is to have a jacket potato, beans and cheese in a bowl in the bath and then Minecraft. It’s like sitting there and I'm watching people playing Minecraft or I'm playing it myself on my phone. That's the de-stress.
I'm such a fan, and the people that do it - my favourite friends are people that meditate, you can just tell there's something about them. It's like being a clown, like a real Gaulier Clown, there's something about them that’s different. I've tried so hard but I can't switch off my brain from work: script, script, script.
The scene ends with the Zoom meeting link cut. But I think that Jordan’s story is just starting, with many words and actions to come.
Is it a Bird plays at Lakeside Arts Centre on 7.30pm, 13 October 2023.
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