Don’t Call me Ma’am
On the Politics of Trans Casting
Casting gets at the very root of how we tell our stories. The bodies we see onstage make our experiences visible. For invisible people, like trans and gender nonconforming people, it is necessary that we use ourselves to tell our stories. When I write transgender roles in my plays they are almost exclusively cast with cisgender actors (a person who identifies with the gender assigned at birth, basically someone who is not trans). Producers and casting directors suggest very feminine women to play characters I understand as male. When I’ve asked for trans actors they report knowing none. When I’ve suggested trans actors I know, I’ve been told they didn’t have enough experience, or wouldn’t be able to fit into a festival because of double casting between plays, as though all roles in all other plays are by default cisgender and can only be played by cis actors.
Over the last three months I interviewed fifteen trans, gender nonconforming, and allied theatre artists around the country. I wanted to gather as much evidence as I could about transphobia in the theatre so that I could understand why transpeople still aren’t being cast in the roles written for them. I also wanted to understand the specific ways these casting choices were limiting the work of telling our stories.
Not only are we underrepresented in art and media, many transpeople face long periods of unemployment, trans youth are disproportionately homeless, and transwomen are disproportionately incarcerated. Trans theatre artists are no exception.
I think that casting trans actors in trans roles is important not only because we need to make our bodies visible, but because many transpeople’s lives are materially impacted by transphobia. Not only are we underrepresented in art and media, many transpeople face long periods of unemployment, trans youth are disproportionately homeless, and transwomen are disproportionately incarcerated. Trans theatre artists are no exception. Given that this is the current landscape for trans artists, it is politically unconscionable to give a job created for a transperson to a cis person. As actor and multi-media artist Dominic Bradley told me, “Why would you replicate that inequality onstage?”
Beyond the material impact of who gets jobs, there are many creative reasons why trans actors should be cast in trans roles. Here are some of them:
Visual and Physical
A trans body can do very important visual and physical work for communicating gender identity. Trans and gender nonconforming actors already have and are comfortable wearing clothing that fit their gender identity including makeup, tucking, bras, binders and packers. Cis actors take extra time to get used to these clothing items and sometimes experience great discomfort. Hair is a major consideration. Many artists I talked to encountered difficult situations when cis women cast in transmasculine roles don’t want to cut their hair. We end up wigging them or stuffing their hair into knit caps. Both options are obviously fake, and wigs are expensive. In development situations with little design, there is often no effort made to change or mask an actor’s hair length and so the characters’ gender identity doesn’t read.
Movement and Voice Work
How we move and talk are important ways of communicating gender. Many transpeople have spent years negotiating the subtleties of gender specific movement and voices in the real world. Trans actors are better able switch in and out of socialized gender patterns in body language and tone, a skill that is often necessary for playing a trans character. Artists I interviewed reported losing a great deal of rehearsal time working with cis actors on basic movement and voice work to get them to read as trans.
Cis actors often need to research something that a trans actor has lived firsthand. For example, a trans actor I worked with accessed impressive vulnerability when disclosing a chosen name for the first time and subtle anguish when transphobic characters use the wrong gender pronoun. These were all moments that I had to explain to a cis actor acting the same role.
Rehearsal Room Dynamics
Cis actors often have a hard time using the appropriate gender pronoun for their character, slowing down the process of building a character. Collaborators in the rehearsal room have a hard time using correct pronouns for a trans character, especially if the actor isn’t trans. Because theatre is the art of building a world together in our imaginations, it does no one any favors to spend weeks in a rehearsal room referring to a female-identified character as “he,” effectively erasing the character’s gender identity. Using the wrong gender pronoun or name for a trans character, even if we’re in a fictional play world, erases trans identity and furthers transphobia. Trans and gender nonconforming artists lose a lot of time in rehearsals, design meetings, and talkbacks educating our colleagues and audience members on basic language and facts about trans experience. When trans artists are employed we lose less time.
Given these realities, why don’t most theatres cast trans actors? The answer that came up over and over again in my interviews with trans and allied theatre artists was that companies tend to work with artists they already know. Most theatres don’t know many trans actors. It is only recently that trans and gender nonconforming roles are being written with any regularity and they are by and large not cast with trans actors, so it is very difficult for trans actors to get the exposure that would help industry professionals know them. Instead trans and gender nonconforming actors have mostly gathered experience through self-produced, alternative, and performance art worlds. Many trans actors I spoke with felt more comfortable creating their own work than facing the transphobia or ignorance of the mainstream theatre world. Actor Azure D. Osborne-Lee told me: “If I were to walk into a room and a casting director were to give me their sixty-second once-over, my body would appear to them as female. So, if there’s something that I want to see out there, I’m going to have to produce it. No one’s going to extend the casting call for that show, I have to create it.”
Many artists described a tradeoff between casting a more experienced (cisgender) actor and a trans performer. Producer Lisa McNulty felt that “the compromise you make is either to help (cis actors) learn how to be butch/femme or help (early career trans actors) grow into themselves as performers.” Some playwrights felt concerned that pushing for trans actors in trans roles might compromise the quality of a first production, if inexperienced actors couldn’t carry a large role. But McNulty expressed that while it may seem “easier to choose someone with more experience, we have a responsibility in the field to grow underrepresented acting pools.” Playwright Taylor Mac confirmed: “The challenge for me as a playwright is to cast trans people and give them the tools they need in order to improve.”
Why aren’t there more trained trans actors? Many acting training programs enforce a strong gender binary and police gender performance rigorously by encouraging actors to conform to narrow gender types. McNulty said, “the field as a whole doesn’t reward women for being more masculine or men for being more feminine…most women aren’t considered beautiful enough or feminine enough to succeed in this business so actresses who’ve stepped even further outside that box face an even greater risk.” Playwright Francis Rabkin felt that “the standard for professional actors is to be a certain sort of neutral. You have to come into the casting room with neutral looks and then have layers added onto them.”
Clearly this expectation of “neutral” affects not just gender identity but also race, ability, body type, and more. I hope that undoing expectations around normative gender identity will force unraveling expectations of “neutral” biases towards white, able-bodied, and skinny actors. If the stories we tell onstage reflect the world we live in and the world we want to build, we have a responsibility to reflect that world through the bodies on stage. It is regressive to cast “neutral,” i.e., white, gender-normative, able-bodied, skinny actors to play more marginalized characters. We need to make marginalized bodies visible by casting them, not indicating their existence through makeup and costuming. As actor Azure D. Osborne-Lee said, “I think it can be really difficult for people to look past the ways in which we sometimes look different from cis people. We might be taller or rounder or more angular or what have you. Where will we change costumes? Will we even fit into the costumes? Will we be believable? Will the audience be distracted and confused? It can be an uphill battle.”
Trans actors who attend acting training programs before transitioning meet difficulty if they change their name or physical appearance. Teagan Widmer, a playwright and scholar told me, “I purposely created distance because I was worried about the impact when I did come out. How do we reconnect after that?” Playwright and performer Annie Danger expressed that “many transpeople who do not transition young end up having no work experience in a way, because they feel they can’t show their old work experience. This is a major cause of unemployment and poverty.” This is particularly difficult in an industry as dependent on networking as the theatre.
I encountered a few situations in which roles written for transpeople were difficult to cast with trans actors because of body modifications, and so cis actors were cast instead. Some roles require trans actors to have had specific surgeries or hormone therapy. These specialized medical procedures are very expensive, made near impossible to access through the transphobic medical industrial complex. In fact, most transpeople don’t have surgery of any kind. Trans theatre artists are no more able to afford or access these expensive surgeries than the general trans population. Because of this, we need to change our assumptions about whose bodies count as male or female and who can play what roles. It is unacceptable to ask actors private information about their secondary sex characteristics at an audition. Denying an actor a role because of a surgery they can’t afford borders on discrimination. Let’s ask critical questions of stories that focus on body modification or require an actor who has had a specialized, expensive surgery.
Many artists expressed to me that casting nontrans actors was connected to a larger problem of misrepresenting trans experience. As Osborne-Lee said, “When they cast someone who is a nontrans actor, the kind of experience they choose to represent is a white, upper-middle-class person who was getting surgery as the crown jewel of the transition. There needs to be more diversity of experience.” Popular media trans stories focus on wealthy white teenagers and their choices around body modification. We want stories about working class, elderly, and transpeople of color. We want stories that keep surgery decisions out of the spotlight, making visible many other expressions of gender presentation and transition and respecting transpeople’s private medical decisions.
Telling trans stories without transpeople involved is irresponsible and leads to potentially hurtful representations. The failure to cast trans actors in trans roles while rehashing tired and oppressive stereotypes is another layer of telling our stories without us.
Many trans and gender nonconforming actors reported being cast in pieces that used trans bodies only to reinforce harmful stereotypes. One of these particularly problematic stereotypes is “the moment of reveal,” in which a passing trans character is “exposed” for being trans. This often has to do with body modification, scars, hormones, the reveal of genitalia or an elastic bandage chest binder (which is dangerous in addition to being stereotypical because binding with elastic bandages poses a serious health risk) . Other harmful stereotypes that dominate the representation of transpeople include depressed and suicidal transpeople, transwomen, or drag queens doing sex work, violence by and against transpeople. In the last year I saw multiple plays at major theatres engaging all of these stereotypes. I saw these pieces lauded, without concern for the implications of their content on the lived realities of transpeople. As one playwright expressed to me, given how little visibility our community has, bad writing about us results in more oppression. Telling trans stories without transpeople involved is irresponsible and leads to potentially hurtful representations. The failure to cast trans actors in trans roles while rehashing tired and oppressive stereotypes is another layer of telling our stories without us.
Multiple productions I saw in the last year attempted to let themselves off the hook by neglecting to name trans experience. I saw plays by entirely cisgender companies about “drag queens,” “a man who had a sex change,” or male actors dressed as women for no reason other than to get another laugh. Regardless of whether a character self-identifies as trans, theatremakers have a responsibility to understand their works’ implications for the real lives of trans people. I sat in theatres where performers said the words transsexual or cross-dresser and held for a laugh. The audience responded with a healthy guffaw. Why does the terminology of gender transgression have inherent humor? None of these choices are neutral and they all have implications on someone’s lived experiences.
It’s clear that things need to change. Theatres need to cast trans actors in trans roles and educate themselves about trans issues. To do so, they’ll have to check out drag performers, alternative, self-produced, and ensemble companies. Casting directors will have to start building folders of trans and gender nonconforming actors. We’ll need to let actors self-define their gender identities and establish gender categories like genderqueer, transmasculine, and transfeminine. Everyone needs to start using correct pronouns for trans artists. If you don’t know, ask! If you’re doing work involving trans experience, educate yourself on correct language and terminology. Theatres (just like schools, restaurants, and other shared spaces) should make sure they have gender-neutral bathrooms and dressing rooms. Don’t assign trans artists to a binary-gendered dressing room that you assume will be right for them. Favor trans-supportive health care and require education about trans lives all around.
There are hosts of brilliant trans and queer art makers forging innovative casting practices that the mainstream theatre community can learn from. Taylor Mac encourages scouting shows to see performers where they are most talented, rather than a blind audition call. Annie Danger circulated a survey monkey about a show she wanted to make asking potential performers to answer questions about the show’s themes. When blending the approaches and talents of a gender transgressing performance world with traditional theatre, the possibilities are myriad. We live in a time of shifting language and framework around gender. Let’s welcome this opportunity to break down barriers.