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Oh Gender, Up Yours!

Three playwrights outside a door
From L to R: Sylvan Oswald, Basil Kreimendahl, Mashuq Deen at New Dramatists, New York City.

[This interview was conducted in person, transcribed, and edited for length.]


Critical Mass
Before we start can we state our pronouns?

Deen: Sure. I go by he. So, use male pronouns.

Basil: I go by gender-neutral pronouns, I prefer they, them.  

Sylvan: And I use he and him. Great. So, the reason I was inspired to do this was that I was like…wow, I’m heading into my last year at New Dramatists, and Basil I think you’re in your second year. And Deen, you’re in your first year, and I was like, critical mass!

Deen: In our incoming class at New Dramatists, seven out of eight writers are women, which is amazing, and it was based on the writing. Which I think is a good omen of things to come.

Sylvan: Were you the only masculine-identified person?

Deen: I was.

Sylvan: Amazing.

Deen: And that’s not to say we don’t have any transfeminine folks here in New Dramatists...I don't know if we do...?


The Secret Club
So I noticed that I was being honest when I said I was excited to meet you. But also, under that, I was not excited to meet both of you. In my mind there’s been this queer, trans-masculine, like, secret club that’s been meeting and I thought, “Oh, I’m not invited to the club, that’s weird.” I don’t rationally believe that, but there’s sometimes this feeling. So I came in with a little bit of a, “Who are these guys? They’re the secret club and now they want to talk to me and I don’t know if I want to talk to them.” And I thought that was worth mentioning.

Sylvan: As butch and transmasculine people we all feel so isolated to begin with. I don’t know whether it’s something that happens just in our circles. What do you think?

Basil: I don’t know if it’s a weird territorial thing? You know what I mean? It sometimes feels like there’s this distrust and I don’t know why. Because it feels like we should be together.

Sylvan: I’ve had jealousies of both of you guys for different reasons that have really no basis in reality. And now we have this magical one year of overlap in New Dramatists with you two entering and me leaving. I decided I don’t want to perpetuate the distance. I want to make space for us.

Deen: When you don’t know people, who they are becomes bigger or weirder. You just create a “Sylvan” or a “Basil” that’s not an actual person.

Basil: I think in this industry the names of people become things.  But you don’t even know that person.

Deen: Do you think that competitiveness comes in because there's this sense that every theater’s got one slot for their minorities, all their minorities, and then if you’re queer then what slot is that? Like once every five years or something, perhaps, or half a slot in the basement, and then is everyone fighting for that slot because we’re not just being seen as artists we’re being seen as queer artists or trans artists or something? I wonder if, on some subliminal level, that creates competition that doesn’t help us meet together and advocate for each other.

Sylvan: Whenever the season announcements come out it’s just so appalling when you get one that’s got no people of color in it or only one woman in it. I’m like “how dare you anymore?” Or when there’s only one woman and one person of color and it’s a single person. Makes me think of the Kilroys’ List. This year is the first year that they included trans artists.

Basil: I was on it last year. But they had a tiny footnote. (Find the excellent 2015 Kilroys’ List here. And a trans-intervention to last year’s list here in a post by Joshua Bastian Cole.)

Sylvan: Right.

Basil: And now it’s “female and trans*.”

Sylvan: Which is what it should be in my opinion. I’m interested in pushing the field in that direction. This is what it needs to be now, guys. Gender parity is for all genders.


Beyond Queer
All the plays we read by each other involve an inheritance of history and trauma. It might have to do with the fact that that trauma is a source of conflict and creating conflict is our job. Deen, in Draw of the Circle, and Basil, in Orange Julius, I see queerness portrayed as part of the fabric of society. And, Deen, in the Shaking Earth I was fascinated by the role of queer characters inside the context of a larger historical traumatic event. Basil, in your two plays I was seeing queerness in the structure of a nuclear family. Both kind of a composition of family and decomposition of family. And when I looked at my own work, I saw queerness more on the cellular level of the individual and intimate relations.

Basil: You know, I did realize that all of us like to monologue.  


Sylvan: I have mixed feelings about talking about being trans in a play, or for my web series Outtakes for that matter, but it seemed like it needed to happen. I was tired of waiting for people to be ready to air my story.

Basil: I haven’t quite put it together, but there is something about someone telling the story, I mean Deen in Draw the Circle…you’re playing everyone who is talking about you. And Sylvan in Outtakes, Becca Blackwell’s playing you. But you’re playing you too. I am wondering how that is a part of trans identity, or queer identity, or gender awareness.

Sylvan: I disagreed with a friend who called me an emerging artist. And he said “You’re going to be emerging for a really long time because, even if your career isn’t emerging your identity in the culture at large is still emerging.” There is something formally about the direct address that seems so urgent at this stage in our political history. We actually still have to take responsibility for representing ourselves.

Deen: Do you think that depends whether or not we are writing about queer/trans issues specifically?

Sylvan: I think it does. Because when I write plays about other things, I don’t have to put “myself” in the play. And I don’t cast Becca Blackwell, who I adore and write all my things for. But I need Becca when it’s time to tell a trans story. Because they’re my (unofficial) partner in that.

Basil: I was thinking about the development of Orange Julius and how that was not a play about gender identity for me. It’s a play about a relationship between a father and his child, legacies of war, and class. In the process, dramaturgically, there ended up being things that needed to be explained to the audience. And I felt uncomfortable about that. People need to be helped sometimes. I want to write things with everyone being queer. Whether they’re trans or queer, it’s not about that, it’s about the intersection of other things.

Sylvan: That’s what I meant about queerness in the fabric of history or family. It’s not an event. It just is. And we just are that way. And we are just living.

Deen: In Draw the Circle, I wrote the story, I wanted to write about my transition in a way I thought it would be useful to the world. But there are other things I want to tackle, or see through a queer lens. I want to “queer” history, but I also I want to write about other injustices that are happening in the world. With The Shaking Earth it was about what makes someone a hero. How you’re willing to walk through the things that you are scared of, just to do what you feel is right, even though it’s totally going to fuck you in the end. And that is a story I am interested in. Not necessarily because I want to keep telling the story of my transition, I mean people are going to keep asking me about it, but I am an artist and there are other things I want to say.      

Basil: Talking about this, talking about “trans this,” writing queerness into plays, how do we not get pigeonholed into that? I love that we’re writing queer stuff, but like Deen said there are other things we are capable of.

Sylvan: To that question of people needing help, your story of hearing from your agent that maybe people aren’t ready for gender neutral pronouns… At what point do we lend a hand and at what point are we like, “get with the program.” Sometimes I get impatient.

Basil: I tend to be more, “Get with the program.” There are only one or two lines in Orange Julius that I added for awareness. But my other work is intensely queer maybe even for a queer audience.

Sylvan: Like Sidewinders?

We hope that these stories move to a place that lets people see themselves inside of them instead of thinking, ‘it’s exotic to watch this, I don’t know anything about it, I’m learning so much.’ But instead thinking, ‘how am I like that person?’—Basil Kreimendahl

Basil: Like Sidewinders, and I am totally okay with that. Because there is a humanness going on. We hope that these stories move to a place that lets people see themselves inside of them instead of thinking, “it’s exotic to watch this, I don’t know anything about it, I’m learning so much.” But instead thinking, “how am I like that person?”

Deen: Sometimes I feel like Draw the Circle can be frustrating for me. It’s actually a universal story about family. People who see it who are not queer will relate to it, like, “Oh this reminds me of my mother” or “This reminds me of how frustrating it is trying to be true to myself around my family.” But in terms of marketing, and telling people what it’s about, it becomes “The Trans Story,” or like “The Queer Asian Story." And that might make audiences feel like, “That’s not a story for me” or “That's not something I'm interested in.” It becomes hard to talk about the work as more than an identity play because it is more than that. Yet it gets framed that way.

Sylvan: It is big of you to depict the struggles your characters have in dealing with “Deen.” You give your parents and your partner space to express their discomfort and angst about your transition. I find that terrifying.

Basil: Yeah, being vulnerable.

Sylvan: But that makes it universal. My family would love this play because it is speaking their concerns.

I sometimes think not that all my plays are about me being queer, but all my plays are about my mother.— Mashuq Deen

Basil: I have to tell you, I was struck by the mother. There was something about her struggle in particular. She was drawn with love. And I just felt so much empathy for her going through this.

Deen: I sometimes think not that all my plays are about me being queer, but all my plays are about my mother.

[Everyone laughs]

Deen: They're all these strange love letters to my mom, wrapped in all different wrapping papers and all different characters and different themes. They’re all about these people who love each other who can’t seem to communicate with each other clearly.

Basil: That is so generous to acknowledge deeply that people have to grieve something. Grieve ideas. The identities they put on us. There was something in [Sylvan’s play] A Kind of Weather that touched on that too. The identities they put on us, they have to grieve that too because it isn’t going to be the image they thought. And it’s okay to acknowledge that there is actually real sadness to that. And we can be generous in our sensitivity towards that as we ask for sensitivity back.

It was such a shock when my mom said she was grieving her daughter, I was like ‘what?’ ‘who?’ ‘When was I that?’ But I had to acknowledge it. It’s so surprising when you learn how attached other people are to your gender.— Sylvan Oswald

Sylvan: Yeah, it’s true. Although it was such a shock when my mom said she was grieving her daughter, I was like “what?” “who?” “When was I that—what, did we get a manicure, what are you talking about?” But I mean yeah, I had to acknowledge it. It’s so surprising when you learn how attached other people are to your gender.

Basil: I mean it seems in particular when you’re a parent, you have a child and you project a whole life on that child.


There Is No Pause
You know structurally there’s something going on in all of our work that might be a part of the queer lens.

Sylvan: I was noticing a sort of circularity.

Deen: Something nonlinear is happening?

Basil: Fluidity in all kinds of ways.

Sylvan: What does that fluidity look like?

Basil: I mean... time. I noticed it in your play also. I hate being nailed in time. I think people need to know “Where are we? What happened? How much time has passed?” and I get that for actors. But for some reason time is not like that for me in my head, it’s just… it’s a big ball instead of a line.

Sylvan: Yeah it’s like a nebula for me.

Basil: Yeah.

Sylvan: …and then this and then that and then reaching into all those different directions.

Basil: It’s experiential instead of like marking...I don’t know. There’s all kinds of fluidity in our work that’s not about time. I mean Draw The Circle, jumping between all these characters.

Deen: Yeah, there is no pause.

Basil: And there’s something like, “I’m not waiting for you to catch up with me. This train is going. Get out of the way or get on board.”

Sylvan: I feel that way with Orange Julius as well. I don’t even remember what in the play is 101-like because I must have skipped over it...One of my primary experiences of that play is that we’re not talking about identity.

Deen: Which I loved.

Sylvan: Yeah it’s like [the main character] Nut is saying, “my masculinity is in the context of my family and my childhood, of my father and my father’s trauma. It’s what I’m inheriting. It’s what I’m wrestling with as I form my own identity and become a grownup. This is my thing and I don’t need to explain it to myself.”

Basil: Yeah.

Sylvan: Because it’s a subjective experience. But in terms of identifying publicly, it’s something I go back and forth about. Like, does trans go in my bio?

Basil: You wouldn’t have “straight playwright.” So I don’t know. My choice for an upcoming production was not to put it out front. But now I’m sort of like maybe there is a need for that.

Deen: I use the word queer in my bio, or I used to, I'm not sure if I do anymore. It seems relevant now because I use it as a personal identity, yes, but I also use it as a political identity and I think it’s relevant to the lens through which I create work. I think I still use South Asian American too. But at some point will I drop that if it seems less relevant? I don’t know. But I don’t put trans in there because that's personal, that’s mine. It’s not a thing I wear on my sleeve. If you know of me, you know that about me, I'm not shy about telling people. And it's in my work, it's online, it's out there.

Sylvan: Yes.

Deen: And I think queer is also amorphous in a way that it lets people know something but it’s not pinning me in a certain box.  

Basil: I feel like it’s the all-encompassing term. It’s the word for everything. There’s an older generation where queer was a bad word and we’ve sort of reclaimed it. But not everybody jumped on that train.

Sylvan: Right. There is a generation of people who identify as gay, gay, gay. I was eavesdropping on some network marketing people in a café and they were talking about Generation Z and how everybody’s freaking out about Generation Z and I’m like What’s that? I think it’s the generation post millennials and I think I may be Generation Y cause I’m not Generation X and I’m not a millennial. Are you?

Basil: You know…I’m on the line…I’m Generation X actually but at the very end…

Deen: I think I’m X. Technically.

Sylvan: You’re X?

Deen: Think so.

Sylvan: Well what does X…? What are the…?  

Basil: Well, how old are you?

Sylvan: I’m 35 going on 36.

Basil: You’re X.

Sylvan: I’m X? But what’s Y.

Basil: I feel like we’re at a special place in our generation.

Sylvan: We’re XY. Ha ha ha.

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