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.

MJ Kaufman
MJ Kaufman. Photo by the Public Theater. 

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.

Research
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.

 

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I received a grant from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to do a Transgender Performance Project but some of my intended participants are no longer able to work with me on it. I need 3-4 transmasculine or transfeminine performers to help me do what is going to be a combination documentary and stage show before end of June 2015 at my theater in Manhattan. If anyone on this thread has any leads or wants to join me, please contact me at cking3@gmail.com. Thank you.

Just going to put out one little devil's advocate here: why is one of the primary arguments for casting trans* actors in trans* roles about the time it takes in rehearsal to "train" a cis-gendered actor to understand both the trans* experience and speak with the correct terminology? I absolutely think the thinking and practices around casting trans* actors for both trans* roles and male/female roles needs to be revolutionized, but time spent training cis actors wouldn't be a compelling reason for me as a director to cast a trans* actor. To me, that learning process is not losing time in rehearsal, it is experiential time that may evolve that actor for that and future projects.

In addition, there is an assumption that a trans* actor would have the same or similar experience as the character they are playing, which is dangerous ground to get into--if we bring back what other commenters have said about race, it's like assuming that any black or Latino actor would have experienced the same feelings and stories as the characters they are playing, so that they would need no explaining about that character's experiences.

I love this article, and am so glad this conversation is coming to forefront, but we can't lose the complexity of this desired change as it is (hopefully) happening around the country.

Hello,

I would like to know if it is possible to quote parts of this essay in an article I'm writing about why it is problematic to cast a cis person rather than a trans person. This essay is incredibly well-written and has a professionnal point of view, and the point of view of a non-cis person, which is very precious for this subject.

LSG

Absolutely! Scroll all the way down to the footer of this website to view our policy and licensing information regarding "intellectual property" for this commons-based platform. We use a CC-BY license, so you just need to attribute MJ Kaufman as the author and HowlRound.com as the publisher—that's it. Link back to the article and please do share where your article will be. In Twitter, we use #newplay and our account is @HowlRound. Thanks!

Hi everyone! I am producing a theatre piece based on the Lawrence King murder and as he was starting to identify as transgender when he was murdered I wanted to make sure to include as many trans actors as I could to audition. In doing research, as the article states, I had a hard time finding portfolios etc. Is there anywhere some sort of collaborative website/message board that I am missing? If not would anyone be able to recommend some NYC based actors? Ages 18-22? I can be emailed at michelleamaccarone@gmail.com. Thanks!

This was an eye-opening piece. You've made me change how I'm casting an upcoming piece I'm working on. Thank you, thank you.

As a cis-sort-of-butch-GWM I'm concerned about inadvertently hijacking this thread by bringing this up, so please bring it back if I'm leading it astray. This is about how one identifies a transgender actor.

I just noticed that Theatre Bay Area's (SF) options for gender are Male, Female and Other - see resume. It is possible to check more than one of the three. So TBA's site has the ability to register transgender actors.

Of the three actors choosing Other - see resume, two have nothing on their resume reflecting this information. The other has played Frank 'n' Furter and his website refers to his drag abilities, drag not being the same as transgender although certainly genderqueer.

Oh, yeah, and I'm not sure why my name is showing up as ChasSF here and Chas Belov below.

As of this moment, I can't find a self-identified FTM or MTF actor from the TBA database. Putting oneself on the TBA database does require paid TBA membership, which could be a barrier for some.

The next question is: Does the actor have to be visibly transgender? While I'd guess this depends on the script, this is not an academic question. The one FTM actor I mentioned in my previous comment, I've known him for years and he's a guy as far as I'm concerned. I've only known he's transgender for the last few years because I Googled him, not because he told me. He reads as a guy, not as FTM. Would that disqualify him for an explicitly FTM role?

Perhaps 2/3 the FTM and half the MTF's I've known as transgendered read as transgendered. There is the point that such actors, as MJ Kaufman points out, don't need to be trained as they've already been through it. Genderqueers (which I don't identify as) have been through much of it, so I wonder if they could qualify as well.

The upside of a genderqueer/trans actor database is the ability to cast. The downside is the risk of discrimination - which may have led to my FTM actor friend to choose not to out himself to me. So where do we begin making this information available to be put to good use?

One thing I did since reading this article is go back and edit the casting requirements for my second play Hemlock to make it clear which roles could be cast visibly transgender or genderqueer.

But if someone, like my actor friend, is not visibly transgender, I don't think whether or not someone is actually transgender enters into it for a non-transgender role, so in my book he'd be castable for any male role.

For someone who is visibly transgender or genderqueer, whether they might be castable for a specifically male or female role would seem to depend on either their ability to act over it or the willingness of the director and playwright to explore what it does to the character's subtext to have the transgender-ness or genderqueer-ness be visible. It might work in some plays better than others, e.g., where the male character doesn't need to be butch/the female character doesn't have to be femme. I don't think there's a hard and fast answer; it's complicated.

I'm in London... and interested, very broadly, in gender and performance - in how we represent gender onstage and what that means for women, men, transgender and gender non conforming people, and anyone who doesn't fit neatly into that bullsh*t binary.

It sounds like there a number of us all over the map (San Francisco Bay Area, New York, London, Minneapolis... others?) who are interested in this idea of a showcase of trans writers and actors. I wonder if we could do a call for submissions for 10-15 minute plays from trans playwrights all over the US and UK, and then perform the same showcase in each of our cities with local trans actors. We could encourage twitter conversations among our national/international audiences who are seeing the same set of plays.

Just a first stab at what this might look like... other ideas or iterations?

Fantastic read!

.. Very glad Laverne Cox--that noble Black-tress--posted this on her Twitter feed.

It is extremely important for trans-individuals to be depicted in media such as TV, film, plays etc. appropriately. It helps those that live this gender-defying lifestyle visually grasp themselves in a realistic light. And serves to dash this ever-hounding "Am I not passable enough?" or "Am I not feminine-looking enough" b/s that comes with gender dysphoria.

Seeing someone that looks like me play a character that is supposed to be 'me' or someone I identify with makes me a whole lot more comfortable and the product (i.e. TV show, film) a lot more viable.

Great article, but should we really limit all trans roles, or any roles for that matter, to being played only by those who fit the description? A male Hamlet may be effective, but so may a Hamlet of any identified gender, race, or other relative quality. I would love to see a trans actor play Hamlet, not because of a perceived effect it would have on the play, but because it would mean more trans representation in theatre. Granted, this comes from a young, white woman, but be careful about advocating that any kind of role be limited.

Hamlet is a role made for a white cisgendered male. the whole point of having people who don't fit this description play this character is to bring something new to light. When a cis person plays a non-cis character, the story tells an ongoing lie and is the breeding ground for oppression and stereotypes. It makes the character simpler, not to mention the harm it would do to trans* people. Making a cis person play a trans* does the opposite of what giving Hamlet different idenitites does. It allows us to view the character in a more complex light--putting cis people in trans* roles does the opposite.

Great article and call to arms.

I'd also like to put forth my desire to see more roles for non-gender-conforming people in general, both trans and non. Constant reinforcement of our society's strict gender polarity isn't serving any of us. The very notion that we're still pretending there are two genders for the 7 billion people on this planet is laughable, no? I'd like to see more gender-inspecific roles and gender non-conforming roles from playwrights; and I'd like to see directors deliberately cast actors whose gender identification or gender appearance is unexpected, ambiguous, or blatantly non-conforming. And for that not to be a b.f.deal.

I've committed myself to devised and self-generated work for the time being, and that sure is an easier way to create more genderqueered roles and to cast non-gender-conforming actors. But it also reinforces Taylor Mac's directive to go and see trans actors in the performances where they're showcased: which is to say, not on the traditional stage. Perhaps we're at a good moment in theatre history for the explosion of devised work to help build and promote the trans and non-conforming talent pool.

RVCBard, what about a listing like "2M, 3W, 4T"? I think using "T," "FTM," or "MTF" in a casting listing would be recognizable and maybe you'll start a trend!

Morgan Gould, I *do* know you (LCT Directors Lab) and if I were in NYC, I'd join your merry band for sures.

Not to conflate issues of transgender casting with racial minority casting, but I'm hearing similar themes. For this comment I'll focus on findability. I'll cop to having had a staged reading of my play Rice Kugel where one of the characters is FTM transgender. I would have been thrilled to have an FTM transgender play that role, but the only FTM transgender actor I know, I didn't learn they were transgender until after the reading (and I would have had to bring them from several hundred miles away even if I had known.) So, I have such a role fail in my history, sorry. [At least the character's FTM status was revealed in the first scene and he was regular folk.]

Databases of actors aren't set up to list transgender actors. And even those set up to support race may let actors self-identify what races they can play (and may be set up similarly for transgender if and when they are set up for that info). I just did a search on one such database, and found 7 actors who claimed they could play 5 races/ethnicities that I picked (and I wouldn't have picked them for more than 2 of the races - if even that many - based on their headshots). I would expect the same issue to occur for a transgender-friendly database. So how do I find the real FTM or (for another play) real indigenous American?

Awesome article. I'm going to sound like a mushy moron, but it came just when I most needed to read it. Well, actually, I needed it years ago, but it comes when I'm feeling a bit discouraged and disappointed. Thanks for renewing my commitment to inclusive casting. Thank you for sharing, for speaking up, for being visible.

mj--this is wholly energizing. evidence is effort and the work you've put together here makes us all consider the most blatant and subtle forms of transphobia in our field. thank you for your steadfast pursuit of equality and the generous spirit in which you engage this conversation. i love that you've included multiple artists in this writing of advocacy. although must say, having worked with you and knowing you as a friend, i'm not at all surprised by your level of inclusion.

look forward to comments from more trans artists and allies. and @8e82c002bb9afd586b0c7e43a7eb1b87:disqus , count me in too.

MJ,Love this article.

No more "I don't know any trans performers". Enough of that! It's akin to blackface (yes, I said it!) to put cisgendered performers in roles meant for trans people and then claim you can't find trans performers! We would NEVER do that in a role for a black person. Why should this be any different?

To be fair, I think that most theater artists/ producers/ directors/ casting folks would like to include trans performers in trans roles, they just don't know how to begin (since, as you point out, trans performers often don't follow the same career trajectories as their cisgendered counterparts) and they are too lazy/ busy/ unaware/ overworked to invest the time. It's a more insidious version of transphobia--it's "I love trans performers! I just can't FIND them! It's THEIR fault/ the SYSTEM'S fault, etc etc". So okay. Let's give them access to some AMAZING trans performers and have them put their money where their mouth is. And let's simultaneously empower trans performers to excel by giving them appropriate material that showcases who they are and the particular chameleon-like skill sets many of them have. Let's produce a showcase specifically for actors on the trans spectrum.I know some killer trans performers and I'd like to know more. NOT just so I can cast "trans roles" (though that's of value here of course) but so I can meet more amazing artists to collaborate with on a myriad of projects.

I raise my hand to volunteer to help produce or put something together. You don't know me, but I'm serious.

Who else?

A great idea. A documentary theatre piece on this experience would be really cool to see as well. I assume there are many many many theatre companies all over the country that would be interested in hosting such a production-- maybe it could tour? It would be a great way to not only get conversations going in various communities and audience bases, but to also give trans performers in our culture a chance to tell the real story. Fantastic article.

Great article that explores the socially inherent biases of casting transgendered actors as transgendered characters. As a playwright, I actually insist on casting transgendered actors not only as transgendered characters but in wide-ranging roles as well, so as not to place gender constraints on trans-talent in any role they might play well. Bianca Leigh, for example, is a wonderful actor, who did a heartwarming, multi-dimensional, and emotionally sincere reading playing a therapist in my play Joey Variations.

Thank you so much for this! Very informative, easy to read, and helps define casting at its core: all inclusive to find the best possible person for a project. Thank you.

I'm so glad to finally come across a trans-centered piece here.

One of the things that I did for "Encanta" was write the play in such a way that trans* actors can play any of the parts. There is nothing about any of the roles or dialogue that requires any of the actors to be cis.

One of the things I'm committed to is making a trans*-inclusive audition process, which can be difficult when posting somewhere that requires you to put down how many "male" and "female" parts there are (even when such categories are irrelevant to the part). I have no idea how to work around this without making it harder for trans* actors to find my show.