Queerness is in everything I talk about

Jodie Mitchell

Jodie Mitchell is a comedian, actor and writer, whose writing credits include Season 3 of the Netflix hit Sex Education. They are also a member of the award-winning troupe Pecs Drag Kings, helped found the queer women and non-binary comedy collective The LOL Word and they co-host the hit podcast Secret Dinosaur Cult. After running a drag workshop for our queer elders this summer, Jodie talks us through how they have developed as a queer performer.

What was your journey into queer performance?
When I was younger, people told me all the time that I was very funny but I got quite defensive because I wanted to be an actor and I took people telling me I was funny as almost like invalidating my legitimacy as an actor. When I was at university, I had this really bad breakup with someone who had really mocked a lot of the university theatre that I’d been doing. Having to overcome this feeling of being shamed over doing student theatre made me think, ‘What else have I been shamed out of doing?’ And then I sort of realised, ‘I’ve always loved comedy and I’ve always wanted to try it but I’d never done it because it would have felt almost like giving in.’ And in that moment, I thought, ‘Fuck it, that’s ridiculous, I’m funny – that’s actually something I really like about myself, so why wouldn’t I do that on stage?’ So I signed up for this student competition. This would be about 2015. When I went on stage, the first 20 seconds seemed to stretch on forever, waiting for that first laugh. But when it arrived, it was such a rush and I realised in that moment, ‘I have so far to go with it and I have so much to learn about it but I can tell that I can do it and I’m in love with it already’. It just sort of went from there. And I was able to start talking about my queerness through it. And then when drag came into my life, there was so much more scope for that – it’s like a boulder rolling down a hill, and now queerness is in everything I talk about. But why wouldn’t it be? Straightness is much of what most comics talk about – it’s just that we don’t notice it because we accept straightness as the neutral.

And how did you start performing in drag?
had been trying to get into this Edinburgh resident improv troupe called The Improverts – very hard to get into and there were hardly ever any non-cis men in it at the time. They kept telling me that I wasn’t confident – even though I felt very confident. And I kept thinking, ‘What is this word “confident” a synonym for?’. And then one day it clicked and I realised they meant I was coming in as characters that could be read as female and that they perceived to be low status. I was basing these characters off my actual life experience, being socialised as a woman (I identify as non-binary now) and being a queer person – and these were all low status to them and therefore not confident. So one day I walked in and did a very masculine character and immediately they were like, ‘That’s the confidence!’. And within two weeks I got in – after a year of trying.

Do you consider that the beginning of your drag journey?
Originally, I did. And that is where I started making that conscious choice. But when I was growing up, I did lots of plays and pantos – I was always the boy parts in the school plays, and they were always the best parts, which obviously annoyed all the boys! I got my hair cut short for one of them when I was a kid. Thank god for theatre’s tradition of drag for giving me an allowable reason to express my gender identity as a child! Because it was completely fine for me to cut my hair short for the school play, just not for personal comfort.

John Travulva

How did you come to join Pecs?
The directors of Pecs happened to see me do a show at the Fringe in 2016 and they asked me to participate. I’d been a big fan of the show so I was trying to play it cool and not get too over-excited! I was still living in Edinburgh then and they were very much London-based but when I moved down to London the following year, we sat down and they handed me a list of questions about my inner king and I knew the answers to all of them. It was John Travulva – I’d been sort of finessing this character without even realising it. And when I was recruited to Pecs, I was given the space to play with it properly.

What is it that makes Pecs shows stand out for you?

It is still so taboo to celebrate non-cis male masculinity, especially to sexualise it, because butch women and masculine-presenting people are so othered. There aren’t many spaces where the attractiveness of masculinity on non-cis men is recognised or celebrated and there aren’t many spaces where taking up space as non-cis men is actively celebrated and there isn’t that space to celebrate trans bodies (so many of the drag king community are gender non-conforming or trans people) and I think that’s why it’s such an intensely celebratory space because it isn’t paralleled anywhere else. So it’s a huge deal. The drag queen world has come so far and I’m so glad that’s happening. But I do think trans masculine visibility is still very poor. Getting that representation out there is so important because trans people are not provided with the kind of representation, which goes a long way to combat that kind of loneliness and shame that people can feel having trans bodies.

What was the impetus behind setting up The LOL Word?
That happened by accident. Shelf, they’re a queer comedy double act and one of the founding members, were supposed to do a full run at the Fringe in 2017 but could only do half their run and already had this room for the month. So they messaged some queer women and non-binary people doing stand-up and said, ‘Do you want to do a mixed bill show?’ And we were like, ‘That sounds fantastic’. We came up with the name as a pun on The L Word because it says quite clearly what the vibe is and even if not everyone gets it, we’re fairly sure the lesbians will! And it worked. We were doing it in a tiny venue down on the Pink Triangle, the small LGBT district in Edinburgh. And people trekked to see the show. And then we got a gig at The Albany in Great Portland Street for the people that you don’t usually get to see doing comedy, for people who aren’t platformed as much because of their content and for performers who are queer but don’t feel they can do material about their queerness. And the audience grew massively because it wasn’t really being catered for in stand-up comedy and that’s how it’s picked up momentum. Our next two shows are at Soho Theatre, so it’s come a long way from that basement in the Pink Triangle.

How does your writing process work, and is it any different with your own stand-up and, say, Pecs?
You know what? I think they’re quite similar starting points in a way. With stand-up, I’ll just be walking through life and seeing something and thinking, ‘Why is that like that? That’s ridiculous!’ I really love surreal comedy because surrealism gives you so much more space to talk about queer experience. Because so much queer experience can be traumatic but looked at through the lens of surrealism you’re able to laugh at how stupid it is rather than feel sad that it’s stupid. So I try to sit with the ridiculous and then try to abstract it. With Pecs, the focal point for what I will talk about is dictated by the show – so we’ll decide together what we want the themes of the show to be and then I’ll go from there. So it’s a very collaborative process. Even if I’ve written material myself, I always show it to everyone and receive feedback on it because it is a show that’s owned by everyone.

When it comes to developing your career, where do you sit on the spectrum between, say, being open to possibilities as they develop organically and being more interventionist?

Interesting question. I think I am quite interventionist and I feel like setting up things like The LOL Word felt like a very exciting thing to do but it also felt almost political, especially in terms of setting that up just as I was moving down to London. Being on the scene, it was very much an active decision that I do want to be seen as a queer comedian. But to be honest, the stand-up circuit is so emotionally exhausting because it’s so behind the times. And I think that’s why I’m also so open to going where my career takes me and being open to other opportunities. I start to feel like my brain is melting if I’m only doing stand-up. Because I love writing and I love drag and I love acting – I love all those things. So I’m open to other opportunities because I’m aware of the limitations of stand-up. And I find limitations quite boring: as soon as they’re there, I want to be doing something else that allows me to explore more.

Who are the key people and networks that have supported you in your career?
Where to begin? I’ve had a lot of mentorship and I’ve been really lucky to have had that. One of the judges of that student stand-up competition got me my first paid gig at The Stand. And then everyone on The LOL Word, especially Shelf and Chloe Petts, they were so supportive and introduced me to people when I moved to London. I joined the Soho Theatre Young Company and I’d recommend that to anyone who’s looking at doing drag performance or stand-up in London – I met lots of other people that were starting out on the scene and lots of them are still in touch. And within Pecs, my producers almost act like an agency, putting us in touch with other gigs – Daisy Hale is an amazing producer and director and particularly well connected to the queer performance scene. And now I have an incredible agent, Brid Kirby, who gets all the queer stuff and gets me work that feels in keeping with my lived experience. And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t chosen to be my queer self in performing.

• Inky Cloak’s participation project, Inside Out, delivered weekly digital drama workshops for younger (18–27 years old) and older (55-plus) LGBTQ+ participants from May to September 2021 with the financial support of Arts Council England.