Notes from the Trans Theatre Artists Convening

The first Trans Theatre Artists Convening took place on December 5th and 6th, 2015, and was organized by HowlRound and hosted by New Dramatists. Developed from a conversation between Sylvan Oswald, Polly Carl, MJ Kaufman, and Kate Bornstein (who was unable to attend), the convening included approximately twenty trans theatre artists from across the United States, supported by key staff members from both HowlRound and New Dramatists.

The convening envisioned a future that prioritizes inclusivity and accessibility, removes barriers of funding and space, and allows trans theatre artists to become leaders making meaningful contributions to theatre and society at large.

The convening had a number of goals centered around connecting trans theatre artists and strategizing for future actions. Though there are numerous trans people working in the theatre industry, many participants in the convening did not yet know each other, or only knew a few fellow artists. Some participants noted that they had never before been in a room with so many other trans theatre artists. The convening gave an opportunity for artists to meet each other, discuss their experiences, and counteract isolation.

The bulk of the first day of the convening was spent sharing work. After dinner and basic introductions, each participant of the convening was given five minutes to share their art with the group. Some shared video work samples, some read excerpts of their recent writing, and others performed parts of their solo shows. Still other artists simply described their work or passed the proverbial mic to others who needed more time. The content and themes of the work presented were as diverse as the participants, including explorations of sound, bodies, and movement in transition, spoken word poetry, character-based work, autobiographical narratives, as well as scripts that incorporated trans characters without making transition the focus of the plot. As the first day drew to a close, participants had a better sense of the breadth of the talent and experience gathered in the room.

The convening was an opportunity to “find the possible”: after meeting and connecting, the participants were committed to determining the next actionable steps towards better support and representation of trans people in theatre and bringing more trans theatre artists into the conversation.

The second day of the convening was opened by actress, writer, and director Bianca Leigh, who graciously agreed to take on the enormous and perhaps impossible task of presenting a concise history of trans theatre artists. What was shared in the allotted hour was a fragment of the history of trans theatre artists, one that largely centered on white artists based in New York City. Leigh noted that her presentation was limited by the lack of readily available documentation of trans theatre artists, leading her to focus on work with which she was personally familiar. As with much of the convening, this session generated perhaps more questions than answers. Some of those included: where is the work of trans theatre artists being documented, if anywhere? Who gets included? Who’s being omitted? Who has access to this history?

group photo
The full convening group on the steps of New Dramatists. Photo by Ramona Ostrowski. 

After reflecting on the history of trans theatre artists, the convening moved on to envisioning the future. In a visioning exercise led by performer and producer Ignacio Rivera, first individuals and then small groups imagined where trans theatre could be in ten years. Groups envisioned trans theatre artists restructuring the theatrical landscape, presenting their art on Broadway, in the street, and everywhere in between. Common themes that emerged from all of the visions included increased funding and resources for trans theatre artists, and the ability for trans theatre to move beyond a focus on gender. The convening envisioned a future that prioritizes inclusivity and accessibility, removes barriers of funding and space, and allows trans theatre artists to become leaders making meaningful contributions to theatre and society at large.

In the afternoon of the second day, participants gathered in small breakout groups to further explore the ideas and themes that had emerged over the course of the convening. These groups then returned to share the highlights of the discussions with the group as a whole. Expertly led by playwright, director, producer, performer, and performing artist Annie Danger, participants then synthesized the breakout discussions into short-term projects, long-term goals, and overarching questions.

In the short term (one to two years), members of the convening proposed: focusing on skill development and mentorship by and for trans artists, developing a manifesto/”better practices” guide and training for artistic leaders and theatre staff, planning a festival of “transition” pieces, allying with other marginalized groups and looking to other models (such as the Latina/o Theatre Commons), creating funding/fellowship opportunities for trans artists, compiling lists of available resources that could be shared via a database or listserv, and publishing an anthology of trans plays and performance texts. All of these projects were designed to support long-term goals: establishing trans leaders at artistic institutions, creating models for transitioning leadership across generations, fighting trans tokenization, developing funding opportunities with intersectionality across race, gender, and class, increasing the depth and breadth of published trans theatrical work, and documenting trans theatrical history.

The first actionable step toward the next convening was the creation of this very write-up—a way to share notes with our community, to garner support and gain momentum.

As these goals were created, key questions were identified to further guide the work: What is trans theatre history, and who gets to tell it? What does success look like? How can trans theatre amplify non-binary voices? How can participants share their skills and stories, with each other and with the broader theatrical community? How can trans theatre artists best empower and support each other? What is trans theatre?

After identifying goals and guiding questions, the convening assembled an action plan, a sort of blueprint for stepping into the future of trans theatre. It was decided that this convening would work towards another, larger convening, one including a wider representation of trans theatre artists. The first actionable step toward the next convening was the creation of this very write-up—a way to share notes with our community, to garner support and gain momentum. From there, work on longer-term goals can begin: developing a “better practices” guide for theatres and artistic leaders, publishing an anthology, and establishing sustainable mentorships.

This process—writing up the event and sharing it with the community—has taken longer than originally anticipated, but it has begun. We look forward to taking the next steps into the future.

If you’d like to get involved with the next steps of any of the projects, please fill out this form and someone will be in touch.

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hello from montreal. sounds like a great convening. i like the word convening, used in this way. i'm just reaching out, saying hello, letting you know about my brother and me…we have a show, it's in two pieces, one that i made in 2009 about how i worked out some identity issues while my brother (who is trans) was having a baby, and a response piece that we made together in 2014 to tell his side of the story and right some wrongs i'd wrought in the first piece. we now tour them together as my pregnant brother/my playwright sister. please feel welcome to connect with us through facebook at "my pregnant brother" and if you'd like to talk about a cross-border convening, that would be cool. warm regards, johanna