Sydney Festival Review: Tomboy Survival Guide is a powerful, important festival highlight (Performances to 29 January)

Described as “part anthem, part campfire story, and part instructions for the dismantling of the gender stories we tell”, Tomboy Survival Guide comes to Sydney Festival all the way from the Yukon in Canada, and serves as one of the most powerful performances to grace this year’s festival.

The show is led by Ivan Coyote, who approaches the show like a night of beat poetry at a smokey jazz club, while accompanied by Sally Zori on drums and percussion, Pebbles Willekes on bass guitar and Alison Gorman on trumpet. Against the backdrop of their music – which runs from original material to covers of songs like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Another One Bites The Dust” – the award-winning transgender writer and performer shares personal stories of identity, fem tom boys, and the importance of “writing poems instead of punching walls”. You’ll also see the quartet dance while doing up a tie, and enter barbershop quartet mode.

The material in the piece is deeply personal; Ivan weaving through his life, across the 40-some years it’s taken him to find himself – from his first loves, days playing ice hockey as the only girl on a boys team – through stories, anecdotes and letters he’s written to people who have gotten in touch with him over the years asking for advice. A mother on what to tell her teenage daughter, who now identifies as her son. Someone who’s struggling to find comfort and happiness in their own body. The responses are well detailed, purposefully touching and well told on the stage.

The stories Ivan tells are at once confronting, brave, beautiful and emotional. They are stories that everyone needs to hear; the real experience of a trans person in the modern world. And in a modern world that is falls further and further right wing, these are stories that should be required viewing for all. Because the message is just too important – and it’s a message that can only be told and shared by someone who has experienced it. That it’s not trans people and trans bodies that are”wrong” – it’s the world that’s wrong – it’s the world that needs to make space to truly accept those who identify as trans. Because there is nothing “wrong” with them. They are who they are, and they are beautiful. It’s a message that anyone struggling to find their identity needs to hear, perhaps even to survive – as do those who come from the backwards towns of the world, quick to pass judgement but never ones to confront the realities.

To give you a taste of Ivan, you should watch his Ted Talk about gender neutral bathrooms – and if you’re in Sydney, don’t miss this excellent piece (and bring a neighbour or two while you’re at it!). It’s the must-see show of Sydney Festival.

Tomboy Survival Guide enjoys performances in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent in Hyde Park for Sydney Festival until 29th January. For tickets and more details head HERE.

Photo Credit: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival


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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.