An empty stage warmly lit and adorned with nothing but two seats and a projector screen. I was unsure but excited to see what would unfold over the next seventy minutes sitting in the black box that is Basement Theatre. Sitting on one of the seats was Adam Rohe, lead in the one-man show Man Lessons, talking to his friend and cameraman Ben Sarten, who stood just by him. From this, I already knew that the show was going to be an intimate experience.
“There was a sense of uncertainty at times in terms of what would happen next, both in the room but also in Adam’s story.”
The black box began to fill up with patrons, wine in hand, and soon enough it was a full house. Music lowered, the crowd shifted their attention to the performance area where Adam welcomed us with a mihi and pepeha. He introduced us to Ben, who was to film the whole production as it happened, and also Briar who was Adam’s partner for much of the time of his transition.
Man Lessons is a mixed-media piece that successfully kept the audience engaged. Adam performed monologue pieces and utilised video clips to take the audience on a journey through his transition. There was a sense of uncertainty at times in terms of what would happen next, both in the room but also in Adam’s story. Not only did this assist in audience engagement by keeping us guessing, but it represented perfectly the non-linear progression of life. Throughout the piece, Adam described his transition as a “tumultuous journey”, and that he felt he was “too afraid to be honest” at times. Nevertheless, he works through this hardship via self-determination and support from those close to him.
At the approximate thirty-minute mark of the show, Adam insisted on restarting the show. This was startling to me, as it was so unexpected. I was weighing up in my mind whether this was planned or not, but concluded that it again represented life in a non-linear manner. As was seen mirrored in the video clips shown to the audience, which were documentary-style clips of everyday life and Adam discussing his lived experience, he expressed that he had spent the last thirty minutes talking about other people. Adam then decided that for the rest of the show, he was “going to be taking up space”.
Following the reclamation of space in the show, Adam dived into personal experiences during the time after he began taking testosterone. The show observed much deeper, and darker, experiences of Adam’s life during his transition. Balancing several jobs, a relationship, working in the theatre industry and transitioning lead Adam to experience mental distress. He shared verbal accounts of dysphoria, anxiety, depression, psychosis, as well as suicidal ideation. Adam’s storytelling painted strong imagery in my mind and I began to relate to him in various ways, in spite of different lived experiences.
Taking a philosophical turn, Adam shared with the audience his understanding of his name. While his middle and surname hold particular importance to him because of family ties, his first name, Adam, means ‘a man that was made’. Adam shared that while he was always himself, there were further changes that he wanted to make in order to become his full self.
Changes such as taking testosterone and undergoing top surgery heavily alter the body. While Adam shared these aspects of his transition with us, what followed were themes of self-doubt becoming apparent in the performance. These worries were exacerbated by medical staff who proceeded to deadname Adam, as well as second guess his identity only because he was in mental distress.
Through the video clips shared with the audience as well as the performed monologues, I jotted down a few lessons that I learnt (or have been reinforced for me, rather) in the seventy minutes that I had been enveloped in Adam’s story.
- Context is key
This one I already knew, but it was most definitely reinforced. I was reminded to not make assumptions about people, particularly not jumping to conclusions about their experiences. Personal experiences of life are so multifaceted and there is no way someone can understand the experience of another individual unless that individual shares it with them.
- Those actions which may be seemingly banal to some, can be very significant to others. Thus, it is important to treat others with compassion and kindness.
- Being a man means “uncovering new bits, then learning to take care of them”.
To Adam, this is what it means to be a man. It strays from all hegemonic traits of masculinity, such as aggression and domination, so it was particularly touching to me.
Man Lessons is an immersive show which gives the viewer insight into Adam Rohe’s transition and life. It is both thought-provoking and an excellent reminder to be empathetic towards others. Trans folk holding space in the arts is a step in the right direction in creating an accurate representation of society within cultural spheres.
Featured photo courtesy of Adam Rohe and Auckland Pride Festival.