To allegorize the trans experience, theatre artist S.E. Grummett, also known as Grumms, decided to turn themselves into a squid. Or, in their words: “a giant squid monster with tentacle penises.”
Told through live video, puppetry, and clown, Grumms’ semi-autobiographical solo show Something in the Water wields your typical monster transformation plot as a metaphor for coming out as transgender. It’s a “satirical way of looking at the way we talk about trans identities, trans bodies, and trans people,” Grumms told me over Zoom. In a world that paints trans people as monsters, Something in the Water attempts to reclaim the queer experience of otherness through laughter and joy.
With three years and over 100 performances under its belt, the show has wowed audiences from Australia and Sweden to the United Kingdom and the United States. Its next stop is Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival, which runs from October 18 to 29 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
The Saskatoon-born creator emphasizes how special it feels to finally bring the show to Toronto. “Anywhere in the world right now needs a little bit more queer joy and queer silliness,” Grumms said. “I’m really excited to… introduce myself, my work, and the aesthetics to the theatre scene here in Toronto, which I don’t know very well.”
“I come from the prairies, where [queerness] is not something that we really ever see on stage,” they explained. “If we are seeing it on stage, it’s from a family’s perspective… it’s not queer people telling our own stories. It’s not trans people telling our own stories.”
Grumms began developing the show when they were about a year into their gender journey. It was only after the pandemic halted the creation process and they returned to the play that they felt more grounded in their identity: “I knew who I was so much more. And as I’ve continued to tour the show over these three years, I know who I am even more.”
This accrued confidence plays an integral role in Grumms’ ability to adapt the show for audiences of varying ages. A family-friendly performance of Something in the Water is slated to play during Next Stage on October 22nd. When asked about this version, the creator laughed. “This is always a question that comes up when I say tentacle penises. They’re like, ‘but a kids version?’”
Grumms’ choice to program these modified shows was inspired by conversations with queer organizations and advocacy groups around the globe. When they approached associations and asked if they knew anyone who would be interested in the show, the answer was always the same: “We have a youth group from ages 12 to 16 who’d love to come see it!”
Recognizing this undeniable need for queer representation in youth programming, Grumms collaborated with artists skilled in theatre for young audiences to craft a version that would be suitable for younger attendees. Instead of the more phallic imagery in the original script, this version pokes fun at the squid’s other body parts. “All [of the] sexual content in the show is pared down,” Grumms assured. “So don’t worry, parents!”
Despite its dampening of certain design and text elements, the family-friendly version of Something in the Water still addresses gender identity head-on. Grumms expressed how important it is for “young people to hear stories about coming out and being trans,” particularly for those growing up in an environment where queerness is stigmatized.
“It certainly wasn’t a thing that I heard about until I was an adult,” they recalled. “I think that’s why I came out so much later in life.”
By making theatre like this available to audiences of all generations, we ensure that young queer people feel seen, safe, and empowered in their identities, while also “educat[ing] and creat[ing] meaningful change” for audience members who have perhaps never met a trans person before, said Grumms.
Now, you may still be thinking: “Why a squid?”
To that, Grumms replied: “If we can all laugh at how ridiculous it is that my squid monster is expected to put on a dress and high heels and try and get into the women’s bathroom, then we can all understand that it also feels ridiculous for me, a trans person, to have to present as an assigned gender I no longer identify with.”
Something in the Water, produced by Scantily Glad Theatre, runs at Next Stage Theatre Festival from October 19 to 28. You can learn more about the production here.