Who Counts as Trans Onstage?
This series will explore questions of gender, power, and politics in the work we are making, how we are making it, and how it is received.
In a theatre class I teach I introduce my students to the work of Bertolt Brecht. Because many of them are performers I spend a good amount of time on Brecht’s thoughts about acting. My students are very interested in Brecht’s idea of a “double role,” the idea that the actor is not playing the character but showing the audience the character, the idea that the audience should see the actor and the character at the same time. In A Short Organum on Theatre, he states:
At no moment must he go so far as to be wholly transformed into the character played. The verdict: “he didn’t act Lear, he was Lear” would be an annihilating blow to him.
The audience should have a keen awareness that they are seeing the actor’s interpretation of a character, a presentation of the phenomenon of Lear. Brecht even encouraged casting across gender to achieve this performance style.
The double role works because an audience watches theatre in a unique way. The audience of a movie set in Victorian England is looking for proof—they want to see the streets, the houses, the clothing, the accents. But in the theatre, an actor can simply hold up a sign that says, “Victorian England,” and the audience will suspend disbelief. I, for one, enjoy a performance that acknowledges the distance between our world and the play-world over one that asks us to collapse our worlds completely. So in fact as theatre artists we know our audience will go with us on huge jumps of suspending disbelief, and, most likely, enjoy them. But still I find lack of buy-in around the idea of a double role, particularly where trans characters come in. I see artists focused much more exclusively on who can believably “pass” as trans. For a cisgender audience.
I think about how this question has impacted the idea of “color-blind” casting, which is language I struggle with. I feel uncomfortable with the assertion that we are aiming for “blindness,” 1) because it has problematic ableist connotations, and 2) because we should not be turning a blind eye to the power dynamics of race when casting. Our choices have implications and we should be acknowledging and considering those, not pretending we do not see them. Could we say “color-conscious,” instead? I think that, very occasionally and slowly, we’ve started to learn how rich and vast our opportunities are for disregarding this realist style of collapsing character and actor where race is concerned. We’ve started to see how, in fact, casting actors of color as founding fathers of American history in Hamilton, can keep us deeply aware of the theatricality, history, and craft in a performance.
How can we push the creative languages we are working with away from realism in order to acknowledge and celebrate the bodies we want to see onstage? Investing in the double-ness of character and actor can work not only to ease casting woes but to generate exciting theatre.
What makes a trans character credible onstage? Sometimes I hear from folks looking to cast a trans actor who the audience can clearly identify as their assigned sex. Sometimes I hear from folks whose casting criteria is an actor that can provide gender ambiguity. Rarely do I hear anyone looking to cast an actor who is trans but whose “trans-ness” won’t be obvious to the audience. But in real life many trans humans’ trans-ness is not obvious. At least not in the way many theatregoing folks might imagine. I fear this need to collapse trans character with trans actor arises from a combination of few reference points or imagination around what a trans-person can look like and lack of trust in the audience. But what if we moved beyond this? What if we invited audiences to see a trans actor as trans, whether or not the actor conforms to their assumptions of what a trans-person looks like?
Embracing the double role provides an exciting opportunity to wed our creative choices to progressive labor politics. If, suddenly, a character written as a white straight man does not need to be cast as a white straight man because we trust the audience enough to suspend disbelief, how might we cast that role in a way that considers who is typically cast and who is not? How can we push the creative languages we are working with away from realism in order to acknowledge and celebrate the bodies we want to see onstage? Investing in the double-ness of character and actor can work not only to ease casting woes but to generate exciting theatre.
Conscious casting where trans people are concerned is actually education. We have an opportunity to teach an audience to see trans-people not as near cis-people or people in a process of becoming cisgender but as people exactly as we are, people who may never conform to the binary gender system. Do this for characters that are specifically trans and characters that are not. Do this in a way that acknowledges whose stories you are used to seeing and whose stories you aren’t, what bodies are acceptable/familiar, and what bodies aren’t. Our work is choosing what is visible, so let’s make our choices count.