The Adventures of a Male-Bodied Transwoman in Drama School
This week on HowlRound we have several articles from transgender theater artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theater and the world.
I was six years old when the entire student body of Miss Murray’s Dance Academy was recruited for a local production of Gypsy. I wasn’t allowed to take ballet, but tap was okay for a boy—this was one of many compromises my parents would make over the years in their efforts to both foster my artistic growth and curb my effeminacy. I identified as female, but the world saw me differently.
As a teenager, I joined the local community theater and my high school drama program. Questions about gender didn’t come up too much in those days. Theater was a refuge for many gay kids. The basketball player who took acting class to boost his confidence thought it was funny that I looked and sounded so much like a girl, but the teacher quickly put an end to the teasing. And so I learned there were spheres where “fairies” had made a mark and had earned our place.
I was often cast in small roles or the chorus. I learned to watch and listen. Creating a point of view about everything that happens onstage—even when I didn’t have a single line—was invaluable experience. I could make up whatever backstory I wanted. The many pages and youths I played didn’t have strict binary restrictions, so in my heart I was the saucy kitchen wench.
As my studies continued, I began to get more speaking roles. Being a skinny, effeminate boy with a high voice pretty much restricted me to character roles. I certainly wasn’t the leading man type, but still being male-bodied, leading ladies were out. My imagination allowed me to thrive on the small roles I was given. Years later, during the first year of my transition, a classmate told me, as if she was breaking a hard truth, “You’ll never be an ingénue…” By then, all I could think was, “Who the fuck wants to be an ingénue?”
My gender became more of an issue as I entered Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts BFA program after high school. I could sense the dark cloud of disapproval approaching, but I was so excited to be in a program where I was immersed in theater constantly that I ignored it.
At Rutgers having a “type” and being easy to cast were terribly important. The school was young and needed to make its mark with working graduates. Transitioning at that time was out of the question—when getting a C in a performance class was grounds for expulsion, coming back after winter break with breasts was definitely out.
When we worked on scenes in class, it was little surprise that I never got the roles I wanted. I adapted. On the outside, I did what was expected of me. But internally I was creating a female character that I could identify with. I constructed a series of “as-ifs” that would foster both the expected end result onstage, and the proper inner motivation I needed. We had learned about “as-ifs" and substitutions—this was just taking it to a whole other level. While playing a scene as a love-besotted youth expressing his undying devotion directly to his intended, I’d rewrite the character as a love-besotted woman telling her dear friend about her bounteous feelings for a man. It may sound complicated, but it worked. In H.M.S Pinafore, instead of a sailor, I saw myself as a Titian-haired shipwreck survivor. In The Gondoliers, instead of the macho gondola driver Francesco, I was Francesca, a dazzling, Venetian courtesan. In Saint Joan, I was a young camp follower, rather than Dunois’ Page.
I trained diligently, but found myself, once again, languishing in the chorus. Though I’d gotten a few small roles as pages and servants, I wasn’t fourteen anymore. If I didn’t’t get a significant speaking part soon, I’d get kicked out.
The tipping point came when after the junior year cattle calls I didn’t get a single callback. In a highly competitive program, this was the kiss of death. I was called into a meeting with faculty. I was “too effeminate.” There weren’t enough roles for effeminate men. I wouldn’t work unless I “butched up.” My head was on the chopping block. Once again, I had to construct a “more masculine” camouflage in order to hide the woman within. Yet no matter how I tried to mask and protect her, she was bleeding through. Because she was me. I felt lost and alone, and suffocated by the layers of deception. The only time I have truly “performed gender” was when I masked my true self with that boyish shell—and I wasn’t even good at it!
Thankfully, that summer Michael Nash, one of the Directing professors, cast me in a summer stock company he had formed in Cape May using all Mason Gross actors. Michael hadn’t written me off as a “chorus fag” like much of the faculty had. He had faith that I could make offbeat roles work. That summer, I thrived. I threw myself into every role. The crowning jewel was the fop poet in Moliere’s Learned Ladies. I played that part to the feminine hilt and killed. Imbuing a role with extreme theatricality, yet supporting it with truth, was my new calling.
We took Learned Ladies back to Rutgers and we were a hit. I had made my mark. In class, my dear voice teacher, Martin Waldron, handed me a playbill from The Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s production of Gallas, starring Charles Ludlam. “That’s the kind of work you should be doing…” I was overjoyed. There was a place for me in New York—a style of performance and genre of theater awaiting me once I graduated.
I transitioned, and I have thrived in the world of theater ever since. I no longer have to maintain my male camouflage or create “as-ifs” for gender—and it’s a lot less work.