In the first of our three special blogs from the team behind Rachael’s Cafe which opens at London’s Old Red Lion theatre on the 25th Feb, Writer and Director Lucy Danser talks about the inspiration behind the production.
In 2008 while studying Drama and Theatre at the University of Kent I spent a year abroad at Indiana University. My Playwriting professor often set tasks that involved sitting in cafés eavesdropping on unassuming coffee drinkers and using their conversations to learn about character and dialogue. Doing this in a place like Bloomington, a mish mash of college students, musicians, artists, academics, hippies, families and business owners dropped into the middle of Indiana, we ended up with an eclectic bunch of characters and tales to share back at base. I, for one, remember copying a conversation down verbatim that I thought might be in an alien language. Handing out copies for classmates to read I was informed by an enlightened member of our group that I’d sat in on two linguistics professors discussing very highbrow, new technology that was, apparently, fascinating progress.
It was in trying to find new cafés to practise this activity in that I came across Rachael’s Café, a bohemian style, slightly rundown, artsy looking building on the corner of my street. A friend and I wandered over and were greeted effusively by someone who, as they appeared to me in that moment, I can only describe as a tall, good looking, middle aged and muscular man dressed head to toe as a woman. I need to stress that Rachael dresses elegantly, her make up is subtle and she’s a very attractive person. However I was instantly aware that this was not a woman. Although it didn’t occur to me then, it strikes me now as odd that as someone born and bred in London, this moment in this small town in Indiana was the first time I’d properly, that I’m aware of, met a transgender person. Rachael doesn’t leave people hanging. Hailing from what she herself refers to as Redneck America, she’s aware that people need gentle handling to deal with the unfamiliar. Greeting us with a huge smile and a warm welcome she swept my companion and myself into the café, sat us down at a table and reeled off the menu.
The Midwest can be a bit of a culture shock for us English. The openness of people, their friendliness and eagerness to talk is so incredibly different to the silent, don’t-even-make-eye-contact London life that I was used to. Rachael epitomises this wonderful Midwestern character trait and, before we knew what was happening, we were discussing her kids, her decision to live as Rachael rather than Eric and her hopes for the café. A few weeks later when our playwriting professor asked us to find someone to interview on the theme of ‘hunting’ I popped over and awkwardly asked Rachael if she’d consider discussing her ‘hunt for gender’ with me. She agreed without hesitation and we talked for five hours. I edited this down to a twenty minute monologue which was performed at the University.
Although my initial interview with Rachael had focused on the fact that she was transgender our friendship blossomed and, for a long time, I forgot to even consider the concept of gender in regards to her. A shopping trip to Goodwill highlighted this shift when I spent a good ten minutes asking a shop assistant where the woman I’d come in with had disappeared to. When the assistant finally, exasperatedly, uttered ‘Oh, you mean that guy you came in with? He’s in the changing room trying on a dress’ I was surprised by the mix of emotions I suddenly felt. Amazement at this person’s inability to recognise Rachael as the woman she was, anger at her refusal to recognise her as a female and shock at realising that, in such a short time of friendship, I had lost the ability to see Rachael as Eric and had just completely failed to grasp the reality that Rachael was visible to others as a male.
After I left Indiana I missed Rachael’s friendship greatly. Reading articles online that made me notice the impact the café was having on people in Bloomington, remembering how warm she’d been when I’d felt homesick I realised how unique and fascinating a person Rachael was. After discussing the idea with her on the phone I flew back a year later to spend two weeks interviewing her with the view to creating a full length play. We staged the first version at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, took it to Dublin and Brighton in 2012 and this year we are finally presenting a new, longer and up-to-date version in London at the Old Red Lion Theatre. We started rehearsals last week, the real Rachael arrives next week to see her life on stage and we open at the end of this month.