Embark on a captivating journey with Joe Leather as he brings “Wasteman” to the Edinburgh Fringe. In this exclusive interview, Joe shares how his experiences as a binman and his passion for drag inspired this original play with music. Discover the intriguing origins of the show, from his Zoom quizzes as Mariah Scary to the meticulous process of crafting a story exploring gender expression and the freedom to be our true selves. Join us as we delve into the journey which brings Joe Leather, and “Wasteman” to #EdFringe 2023!
Well hello Joe! So let’s kick off with asking you what you’re bringing to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?
I’m bringing Wasteman, an original play with music about a binman who dreams of being a drag queen.
Super! Where did the idea come from?
It began because I was working as a refuse loader during lockdown. I had a day job in a jewellery shop, but it closed down due to Covid. I needed work and realised the bins weren’t going anywhere, and it paid well. So I started working as a binman and pursued my creative interests in the evenings. I began doing drag via Zoom, practicing makeup and hosting Zoom quizzes for friends. It evolved into drag aerobics. It really all started with dressing up like a Christmas-themed Mariah Carey, which led to my original drag name, Mariah Scary!
Absolutely. It’s interesting how real-life experiences can inspire creative endeavours and be tailored into a show for audiences. How was the process of putting the show together? Where did you start in bringing it from your life to something you wanted to showcase?
To begin with, I did research on hour-long shows inspired by real-life stories and one-person shows. I was particularly influenced by “Mood” (originally called “Superhoe”) by Nicôle Lecky‘ and, the obvious one, “Fleabag.”
Initially, I wrote down everything that happened, but soon realized that not all of it was relevant to the story. I focused on the theme of gender expression and the ability to be different things in different spaces. This theme guided me in crafting the story, which is inspired by my experiences but is not a direct replica.
As the show came together, did it crystallize around any particular themes or ideas?
Yes, as I started writing, I decided to explore both the light and shade, drawing from the challenging times we’ve all faced. Comedy, especially from diverse perspectives, can be a way of dealing with hardships. So, the play became a mix of tragedy and comedy, with a core love story based on a personal tragedy where a school friend miraculously woke up from a coma.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
The show is about being your authentic self, whatever that may be. No matter what the world tells you, I hope audience members feel inspired and it resonates with them, regardless of their story. It’s universal, right? It’s about them. So that’s what I want audience members to take away. I’d like us to laugh and cry together and leave feeling amazing. That would be a great journey for them to have.
Looking at the challenges of August and Edinburgh, how is the experience of getting everything sorted for getting into town and getting on stage?
It’s not my first time, so I’m lucky I’m not coming into it blind. I’m fortunate to have received funding this time, which is very helpful. Money always helps. I got the Keep It Fringe fund. It’s a lot of work, but that’s the joy. It’s such an effort, and there are chances to collaborate with people, whether in press, PR, or other artists. It creates that amazing sense of Edinburgh community. Reviewers, too, running around the whole city. It’s truly collaborative. So I feel stressed but optimistic. I just wish the bin strikes hadn’t been last year. It would’ve been really good publicity.
Yeah, absolutely. Still fresh in people’s minds, or not, as the case might be.
Very true. Yeah.
The name of your show, “Wasteman,” has connotations these days. I assume that’s deliberate.
Yeah. It’s obvious to a British audience, the multilevel, layered meaning of it.
It lets you title your show without having to give yourself one of these long strap planes that some people get trapped into trying to give people a free performance before a ticket has been bought.
A good name is very important, right?
I think it helps, the less time you have to spend selling your show to punters on the mile, the better. And so taking words out of your title is time saved to tell them to buy a ticket.
So, like you say, this isn’t your first time coming to Edinburgh. What brings you back?
I mean, first off, I just love it. I think it’s the most amazing place to go and be inspired and immersed in just creativity in all its forms. And also, it’s just a unique platform, isn’t it, for all work? It’s a chance to be seen by so many different people from all over the world. It’s also kind of like a rite of passage that so many performers go through, right? And…I just love Edinburgh, and I’m so glad I get to come back.
That’s fabulous. Given the audience, do you feel that the arts are still a valuable place to try to say important things? Sometimes people lose hope that art can change society. Do you still have some?
I mean, I firmly believe in the power of art. Yes, it’s becoming harder and harder for so many reasons, financially, to make creation viable. But then that’s why it’s even more important, especially for marginalized stories. They just need to be told. The stories that I see now, if they had those when I was a kid, it would have been so comforting and inspiring.
And we are changing things, aren’t we? The odds can be stacked against us. But fundamentally, the show is about everyone having a voice. Everyone deserves to tell their story and to tell their own story. That’s something that’s changing more recently, an emphasis on people telling authentic stories, which is important.
Absolutely. So, obviously, you’re outfitting for the show. Have you had a lot of fun sourcing hi-vis stuff from workwear shops and such? That must be quite a unique shopping experience.
Oh, like, God, I’ve had the best time trying to find hi-vis stuff in drag. That was the real struggle. The costumes have been extremely fun! I kept to purple and yellow, partly because purple and yellow is a great contrast with the hi-vis yellow. It also incorporates the non-binary colours, so it’s a nice theme. Finding the work gear was easier because, funnily enough, the bin men round where I live now wear purple and yellow. Maybe I was subconsciously thinking of that. And then I got some very talented queens and dressmakers to create some outfits, along with great wigs. They are very gorgeous, even though I can’t wear them for long since it’s a one-hour show.
So it’s one of these times where a show might be a one-person show, but really, it takes a community to make it happen.
A hundred percent!
So, are you happy with your venue?
I mean, I wanted to be kind of in the George Square, Bristo Square area because I’ve never experienced that before, and I’m doing Assembly underground in George Square Studios. I’m really happy about it. I’ve worked with Assembly in the past, and I find them very supportive. They also program a lot of drag and queer stuff, which is exciting for me.
Like, I loved Jordan Gray’s show, and that was in a similar area last year. The time slot was important to me because, with it being drag but also a play, I didn’t want it to be too late. I didn’t want people to assume it was a really raucous show, although it is raucous at times, it’s still a play at heart.
Getting that six o’clock slot, I was really happy about it. I feel like it’s ideal, and it also means I don’t have to wear makeup all night, which is great. I can wash it off after the show!
Do you think that using the play form potentially expands the audiences that you might attract?
I would hope so. I think we’ve seen this big shift of drag, you know, thanks to RuPaul. Obviously, drag has become mainstream as a result. So, I think it’s important that it starts getting explored in art forms beyond lip-syncing and cabaret – which are great in their own right, but why can’t it also be serious?
I think there’s a long history of theatre audiences being introduced to ideas that came out of other areas of culture that they would just not have run into anyplace else.
Yeah, yeah, definitely.
So what’s left to do until you land in Edinburgh
You know, I’m really getting there.!I’m rewriting one of the songs, so that is the current job. I’m having a few more days of R&D just to really shift it up. I’m getting some set built as well, which is nice, but…Generally, the show is done. It played the Vault Festival, so I’m not in a position like others who may still be busy getting theirs finished.
Good on you! To close out would you say you’ve enjoyed your journey into drag? Has it changed your life?
It’s just brought me so much joy and kind of comfort in my own skin, and I’m very lucky that I was raised by a big Jewish family that let me play with dolls when I was a kid. I never felt any shame about that. The ability to inhabit or express whatever your gender is just so liberating and thrilling. My cousin is trans, and I discovered that fairly recently. It’s been really powerful in terms of seeing their gender journey and being able to explore my own at the same time. It’s been really special. I think everyone should try it once. Everyone should get in drag once and just see how it feels.
Well, I’ve ended up in a dress during the Fringe before just because I’m one of those critics that volunteers for everything.
My milkshake wasn’t bringing anyone to the yard! I’m sure you’re stunning.