A Call for Exciting Trans Theatre

I’ve noticed a troubling trend in the world of transgender theatre. When I hear about a show with a trans character, even starring a trans actor, I rush to see it, wondering, What new frontiers of gender and identity will we be exploring tonight? And, almost very time, the answer is: None.

I should specify before I continue that I am a transgender theatre artist, who, like many of my trans comrades, is a little starved for representation. We don’t really see ourselves in media—any media—and, when we are “represented,” it’s often a crude and hurtful facsimile of a trans person, usually played by a cis (= not trans) person.

The cis response to this is usually something along the lines of: Surely you should be satisfied seeing a trans character onstage!

Here’s the thing: I’m not. When I go see that same actor play the same trans character for the eighth time—the brave victim stuck in the wrong body—I don’t find myself feeling particularly seen. Regardless, these trans stories, which lack depth and personality, are the ones that get told. They’re uncomplicated, and they allow cis theatre artists and audience members to pat themselves on the back for being such good allies.

I believe that, at least among cis audiences, there is still a bit of mystery surrounding trans people. “Transgender” itself can be a difficult concept for some to comprehend. It feels dramatic and foreign—people changing everything about themselves and asking for others to use new and unfamiliar words. Although trans people have been around for thousands of years, our cultures and existences have been suppressed and erased, and we’ve ended up with a cis majority who know little to nothing about us. What they do know has usually been learned from mass media representations, which can be hit or miss. The cis theatre artist who wishes to tackle trans issues is challenged to feature a subject that most of their audience (assumedly) has little knowledge about. A difficult challenge, sure, but the answer cannot be to narrow the trans experience down to a couple of well-worn tropes that are easily digestible and understood.

It’s not the lack of knowledge on the audience’s part that bothers me; I acknowledge that we all have to start somewhere. But there is no excuse for a cis playwright to be lazy. As outsiders telling marginalized stories, cis playwrights have an obligation to make those stories honest and not dumbed down. They may be providing something new and exciting to cis audiences, but they are not doing the same for the trans people there. And we deserve daring, honest theatre that challenges us, on our terms, as well.           

To many playwrights, the very existence of trans people is enough to make up an entire plot, because it’s just that strange. It often doesn’t end up mattering where we come from, who we love, what we think—to be trans is so new and bizarre that everything in the play must be dedicated to parsing that, with almost no attention given to the other important factors that make up our lives.

When I go see that same actor play the same trans character for the eighth time—the brave victim stuck in the wrong body—I don’t find myself feeling particularly seen.

This kind of fetishization does not have to be fueled by hatred to make it harmful. The wonderment in these shows places us on pedestals. Suddenly we become heroes, our very existence a testament to our fighting spirit. Our lives are depicted as an endless struggle just because we are trans. We can do no wrong—and that’s just not true. We are human beings, multidimensional and diverse, and our stories reflect that. My experience as a white, Jewish trans man is going to differ from the experience of a black, Muslim trans man, or a Swedish intersex trans woman, or a disabled Latinx nonbinary person who’s allergic to peanuts, etc. These aren’t meaningless identity combinations—these are all real people who exist. We are everywhere. We are unbelievably complex and unique, and that complexity needs to be present on the stage as well. 

One of my favorite multidimensional trans characters can be found in the play Orange Julius by Basil Kreimendahl, a trans artist. Orange Julius tells of the relationship between a young trans man, Nut, and his father, Julius, who is a Vietnam War vet. Although the play stars a trans character, it goes much further than just the trials of trans life. It’s about the relationship between a father and a son—one that is tainted by illness, war, death, and uncertainty. We watch as Nut, both in real life and through his hyper-masculine proxy Ol’ Boy, tries to connect with his father as he cares for him. Yes, Nut struggles with being trans, but that is just one thread in the tapestry. What Kreimendahl does so well is weave together various threads—of trans struggle, of caring for loved ones, of surviving war and life after it—into one cohesive and heart-wrenching story.

one actor holds up another actor onstage

Stephen Payne (left) and Jess Barbagallo (right) in the New York premiere of Orange Julius at Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater. Photo by Sandra Coudert Graham.

This is not to say that the protagonist’s gender identity should or can be ignored. I’ve seen that argument too—why do we need to have “trans” stories, why not just “human” stories? It’s an oversimplification of the issue facing trans artists and audiences today. Kreimendahl neither shies away from writing an honest trans character, nor does he allow it to dominate the play. Now, the playwright does have an advantage over the average cis playwright, if you could call it that. There is something to be said about the importance of real lived experience in telling a story. That kind of deep understanding, which cannot really be explained or taught, combined with a mastery of storytelling produces the kind of honest and engaging theatre I find myself craving.

This does not mean cis artists cannot produce the same kind of exciting theatre, and cis playwrights should not give up on writing trans characters completely. However, it’s important for cis artists to understand that whenever they attempt to write a trans character, they will be writing as an outsider looking in. I do believe cis playwrights can write authentic trans characters, in a way that is both respectful and exciting, but that takes work—work I feel is mostly not being done.

A common mistake many cis artists make when writing trans characters is taking the story of one trans person and presenting it as some sort of transgender everyman.

Paul Lucas, however, is a great example of a playwright who has put in the work and been successful. His play Trans Scripts (Part 1, The Women) is an ambitious attempt to tell the individual stories of seven very different trans women, and Lucas presents the stories with a certain self-awareness and care I have not found elsewhere. The play is structured around milestones in the women’s lives, a narrative following the classic Hero’s Journey. Using titles like Earliest Childhood Memory and Baptism By Fire, Lucas lets his characters tell their unique stories while maintaining a cohesive thread of common struggle throughout. No woman is like another—some are drag queens, some are intersex, some are gay, and some are straight—but they have all experienced hardship, love, joy, and sorrow in their respective trans journeys.

Trans Scripts is based on more than seventy-five interviews with real trans women, conducted by the playwright himself, and those interviews are what set it aside from other plays. A common mistake many cis artists make when writing trans characters is taking the story of one trans person and presenting it as some sort of transgender everyman. If there is a trans person in the cast, chances are they are the only trans person on the entire artistic team. If a trans person was consulted by the playwright, they were probably the only one consulted (maybe even the only trans person that playwright knows). There is a certain arrogance on the part of the playwright here: to do the absolute minimum amount of work and still expect to be lauded as a revolutionary for writing a play about a trans person. Lucas avoids this trap by approaching the subject with humility. In the process of writing this play, he acknowledged a dearth of awareness on his part and worked to educate himself by learning from actual trans people.

This process will perhaps annoy some cis artists—“You mean I have to go spend two years talking to trans people before I can write a single trans character?” Maybe not two years, but you sure as hell better be gathering as much information as you can, which, in this day and age, is plenty. You should be following trans issues in the news, reading trans authors, and speaking to the trans people in your life. If there are none, ask yourself why that is, and seek them out. There’s no reason we should get short shrift because someone has not put in the necessary work to get to know us.

The theatre industry is dominated by cis voices. As we trans artists demand space for ourselves, cis artists need to listen. Hire us. Talk to us. Learn from us. Go beyond the first page of that Google search and plunge into the fascinating depths of trans life and history. We are unbelievably diverse, multidimensional human beings in your audiences starving for real attention, and it’s time for you to rise to the occasion.

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Just throwing out a question, what is the trans community going to say when I get my next play on stage with two trans lead characters, when I am a lesbian? I get really skittish when I read this kind of critique that makes me want to ditch the whole concept and cut the characters out completely.  

I don't think the answer is ever to just cut and run, but to self-crit/examine. Are the characters fleshed out? Is there more to them than the fact that they are trans? Is their entire struggle just being trans? Have you spoken to trans people about the characters, or gotten feedback from trans people on it? Even if they aren't "perfect", whatever that means in theatre, what's important is that the artist listens and learns and has a genuine interest in respecting/doing right by trans people. And the trans community may be divided on it too! God knows we agree on very few things, if any. 

TLDR - It's not "cis people can't write trans characters", it's "cis people need to work a little harder to write interesting trans characters".

 

Did Shakespeare know anything about ancient Rome, Verona or Ardenne? As writers, we walk into a character but we bring ourselves and our experiences to them.  Any character that I put on stage is going to be ultimately a version of me. In the same way that I write about male characters when I am not male, and rich characters when I am not rich, or evil when I am not, they are all part of me.    My motives in using trans characters is the same reason that I put any character on the stage, it is because I have something to say.

That's a actually a great analogy - Shakespeare did write about ancient Rome (when there were no ancient Romans left), and all those places (Verona, ancient Greece, etc.) that didn't have actual consequence to those he wrote about.

He also wrote a Jewish character, likely without having ever spoken to a Jew, working just off his own imagination and the things he had absorbed about them throughout his life in England. The result was an offensive and tired stereotype. One that was then used quite often, given that the folks it was written about were still around. Trans people are still around to see theatre, so why should we be satisfied with badly-researched cardboard cutouts of ourselves? Why should I sit in a dark theatre for 90 minutes watching something I can see the writer didn't put any thought into beyond reflecting themselves?

I wonder how many other trans playwrights clicked on this link, excited that there was a call for submissions for our plays. Womp womp

I'm not offering this up as an excuse... but I guess as a lesbian who's been around for over a half-century, my reaction to this piece was "Well, welcome to the club." I've seen it take over 50 years for gay and lesbian characters to begin to break out of banal stereotypes and lazy writing. And don't get me started on how writers and theaters handle women over the age of 40. Black actors understandably complain about their theatrical ruts (and they've been fighting their battles for hundreds of years.) Artists with physical disabilities justifiably remind us all that they are still largely invisible. Keep fighting! And if you figure out a way to speed up the process, let us all know please!