Two years ago, Berlin-based transgender performance artist Darling Fitch set out to create a piece that told a story. Not just a story that had already happened, but one that was to unfold before the audience's very eyes. Fitch had been assembling material about life and change and coming to terms with the ups and downs of living in Berlin's trans community for over a year, but the final piece was still missing. Until everything fell into place with a trip to the doctor.
In February 2016, Fitch began taking the hormone testosterone as part of a physical gender transition (Fitch identifies as non-binary, which complicated the decision to take this step). Fitch's reasoning was as follows:
"I just wanted to try it out, a little at a time, to see what would happen. Becoming very 'masculine' or pushing to achieve a certain look or presentation wasn't a big goal for me. I guess I just figured it was worth trying, as I wasn't very happy with how things were going and I thought well, hey, I'll start with a very low dose and see how I feel. Just as an experiment. There was also the element of 'well, if I do this people will start to take my identity more seriously' - something I think trans people, especially those who choose not to transition physically, often struggle with a lot. I immediately felt better after trying a small dose of (testosterone) gel - like within seconds! I wasn't expecting that at all. It was actually kind of a shock."
From there, the decision for Fitch was clear.
"I knew I was going to keep going with [hormone therapy] and that I was also putting together a big performance piece. So I thought, well, why not put the two things together? That's when it really clicked with A Stranger Sound coming together."
The idea was to create a performance that told a double narrative: both a story of the past, and a document of Fitch's now-unfolding gender transition. Fitch had already released an EP under the title A Stranger Sound in summer 2015, and had been working on a collection of poetry with themes related to those in the songs: the often tumultuous experiences of Berlin's trans and queer subcultures, specifically those revolving around the city's notorious underground party culture (often a beacon of hope for LGBT people coming from all over the world, but not without its dark side as well). Fitch decided to take the pre-existing music and poetry and flesh it out into a 45 minute interactive performance piece combine these elements with the durational aspect of an ongoing gender transition and set the goal of doing a show once a month, and singing live over the vocals of the tracks that had been recorded pre-testosterone. The performance would be different every time, as Fitch's voice and body changed, but it would also remain the same. A story of change inside a story of change, all drawn from Fitch's everyday life.
"I had had some very charged experiences with partying and drugs and certain relationships I had formed that were simultaneously scarring and liberating and I wanted to explore that from an artistic point of view - partially as a way of processing some of the things that had happened to me, and also as a way of standing firm and really declaring myself and how I felt about things. There's also the nerdy side of me that kind of sees this as an auto-ethnographic project - documenting some of the things that are common to this culture so that those of us inside it can examine and talk about it and make a little sense of our lives collectively. But there's also a kind of moral imperative to the piece... a message of hope. It's that you shouldn't give up on yourself, and that no matter what, the way to build community is to really show up for yourself and for others and really push for what you believe in, because there's plenty of nasty stuff out there and we need to have each other's backs, and build stuff up rather than tear everything down. I've gotten a lot of responses from people who can really relate, whether they are trans or not, or whether they are familiar with Berlin's various subcultures. I think in a lot of ways it's a pretty universal story of going through some rough stuff to get to the truth of who you are and where you really want to be."
This combination of gritty reality mixed with resolute hope has brought Fitch much praise for the project, and the response has been positive enough that Fitch is currently planning a third US tour with the piece. A Stranger Sound has been performed everywhere from college campuses to art galleries to warehouse spaces, once even at an outdoor rave.
The success of the project and the support of a newfound community emboldened Fitch to take a step they had been contemplating for ten years: for the past six months they have been raising money to undergo gender transition surgery in the form of a double mastectomy, often called top surgery. Fitch had wanted the opportunity to take this step in physical transition for years, but a mix of money problems, insurance restrictions, lack of support and general instability had made it all but impossible.
In late 2017 Fitch re-recorded the A Stranger Sound EP, adding new vocals to "duet" with their old pre-transition voice and adding totally new recordings of the spoken word pieces from the live show. The new, full-length version of the A Stranger Sound album is currently only available via two sites: Fitch's bandcamp and their official fundraising page.
To encourage donations, Fitch offers supporters a copy of the re-recorded album along with a glitter-bound book of the show's lyrics and poetry for twenty-five euros and up. So far, the support has been both a relief and an inspiration to Fitch:
"I started the fundraiser as a leap of faith at the encouragement of a friend because I knew I needed to do something. I never thought I would garner so much support and I'm actually quite surprised - it sounds cheesy but it's that sort of George Bailey feeling like, oh I (maybe stupidly) didn't realize how much the people in my life and my community really support me and care about me. Especially since my experience has often been like I talk about in the show - kind of cold and dark and isolated, to feel like I've moved to a place of light and support and growth is so humbling and wonderful."
What comes next for Fitch?
"Well, I still have to raise the rest of the money for my surgery (a little less than a thousand euros at this point) and then I have to fly to the surgeon, get it all done and recover. Before surgery I'm going on a final US tour of the A Stranger Sound project, which I'm really excited about. And then I'm gonna put the project to bed. You can only stick with the same narrative for so long, and I'm ready to move on from this particular 'transition' and into the next one. I've already begun work on a new album and performance project, Revelations, that will hopefully be ready by mid-2018.
As always, Fitch seems ready for a big change.
To read more about Darling Fitch and check out their donation page and information on upcoming dates, visit their website at www.darlingfitch.com.