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Queer Intimacies in Too-Near Dystopian Futures

With Guest Leanna Keyes

Nicolas Shannon Savard: Hello, and welcome to Gender Euphoria: The Podcast, a series produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Nicolas Shannon Savard. My pronouns are they, them, and theirs. For today’s episode, I sat down with playwright, designer, producer, editor, thoroughly multi-hyphenate theatre professional Leanna Keyes to discuss what has become her most well-known play, Doctor Voynich and Her Children. The play is published in The Methuen Drama Book of Trans Plays, which she co-edited. And I’d like to note this collection, which came out in 2021, is the first anthology of its kind in the US, with eight full-length plays by trans playwrights, featuring trans characters, each one introduced with a critical essay. Listeners of the podcast will recognize a couple of our previous guests in the table of contents—Azure D. Osborne-Lee and Jesse O’Rear—plus over a dozen other brilliant writers. It is so good. As soon as you’re done listening to this, go find it. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Anyway, Leanna’s other recent work includes a Shakespeare adaptation called Two Ladies of Vermont, which is a tennis play about sports legend Renee Richards, and a still-in-development prequel to Doctor Voynich and Her Children. When she isn’t a playwright, she works as the co-founder of Transcend Streaming in Brooklyn, where she lives with her partner in all things, Kyra; their cat, Azzie; and their snake, ASM.

Doctor Voynich: the story, set in a not-too-distant future United States where most reproductive healthcare and sex education have been outlawed, follows a trans doctor and her apprentice as they travel across the Midwest in their mobile medical clinic. We’ll explore the play’s themes of intimacy, interdependence, choice, and power. Then we’ll reflect on some of its most recent productions (I had the chance to see the one at Ohio University back in October) and what it means to stage the story in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the ongoing legislative attacks against both reproductive rights and the trans community across the US. We’ll explore how Leanna’s work offers portraits of queer love, sexuality, and relationships while also speaking to how large-scale political hostilities and structural inequity play out on and between trans bodies. So, let’s dive in.

Rebecca Kling: Gender euphoria is—

Dillon Yruegas: Bliss.

Siri Gurudev: Freedom to experience masculinity, femininity, and everything in between.

Azure D. Osborne-Lee: Getting to show up–

Siri: Without any other thought but my own pleasure.

Azure: As my full self.

Rebecca: Gender euphoria is opening the door to your body and being home.

Dillon: Unabashed bliss.

Joshua Bastian Cole: You can feel it. You can feel the relief.

Azure: Feel safe.

Joshua: And the sense of validation—

Azure: Celebrated.

Joshua: Or actualization.

Azure: Or sometimes it means—

Rebecca: Being confident in who you are.

Azure: But also to see yourself reflected back.

Rebecca: Or maybe not, but being excited to find out.

Leanna Keyes: Hi, thank you for having me. Like you said, my name is Leanna Keyes. I use she/her pronouns. I am a theatre multi-hyphenate. I like to say that I do everything in theatre other than dance, because no one wants to see that. But primarily I am known as a playwright, and that’s why I’m here today. But I’m also a producer. I co-own a production company called Transcend Streaming. I do a fair amount of design. I have acted once upon a time. And I’m here to talk about queer intimacies, I believe.

Nicolas: We are. That is one of the major themes of this season of Gender Euphoria: The Podcast. We’re looking at queer intimacies.

Something I really admire about your writing is the depth and complexity of the queer relationships that you bring onto the stage. One of the things that came up repeatedly in the first season of the podcast was this trend of the lone trans character or the lone queer character. Your plays are thoroughly populated with trans folks, queer folks, queered relationships I see quite a bit of in there. Could you talk a little bit about how you approach or how you think about intimacy and relationships in your writing?

Because looking through even just a brief synopsis of your many plays, I see an expansive, and very much queer, sense of intimacy in a variety of kinds of relationships beyond just what we tend to think of as our traditional romantic and sexual relationships that we see most of the time on stage. How do you think about and approach intimacy and relationships in your writing?

Leanna: Well, it comes back to how I became a theatre person. I had done no theatre whatsoever before I came to college. And I thought, “Hey, theatre people are weird, and I’m kind of weird. Maybe I’ll make some weird friends while I’m busy becoming a biologist.” And then, very rapidly, it became the only thing that I was doing. And I was like, “Well, I guess I could do this.” And the reason I felt that I could do it was because I was working on new work. It literally didn’t occur to me for a couple months of being a “theatre person” that plays didn’t stop with Rent. That there was stuff that happened more recently than that. I was like, “Oh my God, people can write plays about things that are happening now! About social justice, about marginalized identities.” And I realized that I really wanted to see people like me on stage living full, complex, authentic lives, past, present, and future. It took a long time before there was a straight person in one of my plays. I had written a couple plays before that happened because—

Nicolas: That’s amazing.

Leanna: Thank you. Well, and the reason that that happened is I think illustrated by part of my process of writing my most famous play, which is Doctor Voynich and Her Children, which was, I was figuring out my cast of characters, who belongs in this world. And I realized fairly early that there should be a sheriff or a law enforcement officer, and I immediately recognized that I defaulted that to being a man. And I was like, wait a second, this relationship with the lead character becomes so much more complex and more interesting if it’s a woman. If a woman is actually the voice of authority in this role, it makes it so much more interesting and so much more complex. And it allowed me to talk about the beliefs of the character and not just write them off as, “Oh, well of course the cis man sheriff is upholding all these patriarchal values.” It’s so much more interesting if this is a woman in this role. And this is a play that you were able to see at the Ohio University production of this, so hopefully you have some resonances with what I’m saying.

Nicolas: I have so many questions about this! You’re just doing all of my transitions for me here. With Doctor Voynich and Her Children, we’ll dive in quite a bit into what the relationships between these characters are and how those interplay with politics. And dive into what is this show about later. But first, to set the scene for the folks listening, could you give a quick synopsis? What is this show?

Leanna: Sure. Doctor Voynich and Her Children is a post-Roe v. Wade play that I wrote before losing Roe v. Wade was a serious conversation. Essentially, it’s set in a future century where America’s red states and blue states have decided to part ways, and now we are in the red states and we are turning to herbal medicine for healthcare—and particularly reproductive healthcare. It specifically follows an herbalist and her apprentice as they travel to a town and are approached by a young woman who needs an abortion and doesn’t have any access to that from her local community. And essentially, it’s a race against time to get that done safely and secretly under the nose of the patient’s mother and the local sheriff.

Nicolas: Fantastic. Something that I really love about this piece is the way that your storytelling is really working simultaneously at this large scale cultural-political level at the same time as it’s exploring these very deeply intimate relationships. But I find all of these relationships are really fascinating, and there’s a few key ones that come to mind for me that are really shaped and complicated by these large-scale political and given circumstances of the play. I want to know a little bit about, what were some of the questions that you were exploring as you were writing these characters and their relationships between each other? What questions do you hope actors and directors will grapple with as they’re embodying them? And I specifically say questions, because I have a feeling you’ll resist telling me exactly “what does this mean?” having listened to you at the talkback from Ohio University.

Leanna: Sure. Rue and Fade… I did the opposite of what I was trained to do when I was becoming a playwright. What I was trained to do by my playwriting mentor, Cherríe Moraga, was that you start with characters. You find someone with an interesting voice, you write them, and then you figure out the story that they belong in. And I did the complete opposite with this play, which is that I started with the larger political questions. I started with setting. I started with an agenda and then figured out what characters are in that story. I knew that I wanted to tell a story about an herbalist, specifically a traveling herbalist. I knew that I wanted them to be in a converted ambulance or camper van. I knew that it was about motherhood. I knew that it was about parentage and legacy. I knew that it was about reproductive healthcare. And everything from there flowed from, “Okay, who is most interested in these things?”

If there’s an herbalist, they need to be providing something to someone. And so we have a patient. If this thing is illegal, there’s probably a voice of law enforcement. And so we have a sheriff. So everything started from the framework. I’m a very structural playwright. I wrote out beat for beat everything that happened in this play before I wrote a single word of dialogue, which is, again, the opposite of what I was told, but it’s how I was able to structure it for myself. And so in approaching the relationship between Rue and Fade, Rue is very, very adamant throughout the play that Fade is not their child, that they are just an apprentice, that Fade in some fashion came into her life when she was young but is just along for the ride. And Fade is fairly okay with that at times, but then also very much listens to… “You’re clearly my parental role, you’re my caregiver. I travel with you everywhere. We sleep in the same van. Why are we pretending that this isn’t the way that it is?” Which for me is basically a way for me to explore a trans woman’s relationship with offspring, and the idea of passing things on, and the fact that reproductive healthcare is very complicated for trans people. Whatever your gender identity, whatever vector you’re on in that spectrum, reproduction is complicated.

Nicolas: Question about Rue, specifically, and her role in this traveling abortion care situation. I think particularly—and especially in more recent political conversations—we’ve got a push for trans inclusion, which goes a bit off the rails and cis folks are confused. You know?

Leanna: As they so often are.

Nicolas: As they so often are… And generally try to bring in trans women, when really folks are trying to advocate for transmasc folks to be part of this conversation. I had a pretty long rant in my Criticizing TV class about CNN bringing on Caitlyn Jenner to talk about the abortion debate.

Leanna: A guest who should never be involved in anything at any point.

Nicolas: Like, she is the least relevant voice in this conversation. And it just felt very weird and tokenistic. But you seem to be up to something really different with Rue here, and I think part of that ties back to what you were saying about the complications of reproductive care and family, motherhood with trans folks generally. How do you see Rue in that context?

Leanna: I, from the beginning, was very interested in the idea of someone who cannot get pregnant being in charge or providing abortions. I think that’s an interesting idea.

Can you truly block out a question or an assumption that you have about another person? Or is it always there affecting what you do?

Nicolas: And it’s even a point of conflict between her and Fade at one point.

Leanna: It absolutely is. It absolutely is. If we’re being honest here, in a lot of ways that’s just me processing my own feelings about motherhood for myself and the ways in which things are and aren’t possible for me. One of the things that’s interesting to me about Rue as a healthcare provider is the idea of skin in the game. Who is most relevant in this conversation? Is it someone who can get pregnant or is it someone who helps others not become pregnant? Does she also provide fertility services?

For a long time, we were in this identity world in terms of the national political conversation where the only voices that were relevant on this debate were people who could get pregnant, and I totally understand the push towards doing that. And that viewpoint is narrow in terms of, okay, I understand why that was a useful conversation to get cis men out of the conversation as the dominant voice, but that doesn’t mean that only a very narrow subset of people has anything to say or to feel on that topic. And I think with Rue being a woman who cannot get pregnant and who provides abortions, it just gives me so many different complex ways to approach issues of abortion and fertility and motherhood and parenthood and passing things on.

Nicolas: Amazing.

Leanna: In terms of actors and directors who are approaching this play, either as in production or people who are just the scholars who are reading this text, a question that came up during the Linfield University production of this play: is Rue a good doctor? I actually go back and forth on this myself now as I approach it. As my initial touchstone for thinking about how Rue interacts with the world, I would often turn to the Ferengi from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where she’s a saleswoman. She has to present a certain image. She has all these rules about how she approaches commerce and relationships and guiding principles because she has this facade of like, “Oh, I’m a harmless traveling salesperson, I sell tea to people.” When in reality she’s providing abortions at night. And so, in thinking about Rue, she has complex relationships with her apprentice/child. She has complex relationships with her customers. She is not always very supportive. In the second scene, she’s notably mocking towards her patient.

And one of the interesting questions for me: how much of Rue is an affectation? How much of it is her being authentic? How much of it is her letting something slip through? How much of it is her playing a role? When does she slip and show her fully authentic self? How much of what she says is true?

I think, actually, most of the characters in this play lie much more than I think most directors and actors assume, or readers assume. Either that they are intentionally lying to try to get something or hide something, or that they are trying to convince themselves by saying something, like “fake it until you make it” type of lie.

Nicolas: That’s such an interesting question to approach from an acting perspective of, when is this character lying, and who are they lying to?

Leanna: This is something that I have a little bit of an investigator brain where I’m always like, “Okay, what’s the source of this assumption that we have?” If a character is saying something to another person, are they truthfully relaying an experience as they remember it happening? Are they presenting a version of it? Are they just straight up lying to try to get something from the other person? And I think this play has a lot of moments where you’re like, “Oh, this is clearly deception.” We are trying to hide the fact that we are seeking an abortion. We cannot let people know, so we’re going to totally deceive people. And I think that leads many people who are engaging with the text to assume that everything that isn’t that is completely truthful, when I think the reality is much more complex.

Nicolas: I want to go back to this idea of lying, and why, and to whom, because I feel like that’s a really present dynamic in the relationship between Rue and Harrison, who’s the sheriff in the town. Let’s unpack what’s going on with those two. From my reading, it seems like Rue has been through this town several times and is supposed to have a romantic relationship that cannot be out in the open. Because, from what I understand, queerness is illegal in this future post-Roe v. Wade red state America—which may or may not be Ohio, where I am currently recording from.

Leanna: As someone from Ohio, Ohio is my cultural touchstone for that region. But it’s also an Ohio that’s several decades in the future, post climate change, post sundering of the country. So, it may be familiar as Ohio, but who knows what its borders look like.

Nicolas: In this relationship between Rue and Harrison, let’s talk a little bit about... What questions do you hope actors, directors are exploring with that one? What questions were you exploring with those two as you were writing?

Leanna: Sure. Some questions that I have in mind when I think about these two: what feels good about doing something you know is wrong? If you know that something is wrong, does that make it more or less fun to do? Can you truly be willfully ignorant about something? Can you truly block out a question or an assumption that you have about another person, or is it always there affecting what you do? How much of their relationship is practical in terms of, “Oh, if I’m in a relationship with the sheriff, it becomes harder for the sheriff to bust me for my illegal activities?” How much of it is seeking comfort? In what ways are they actually good for each other?

Part of the challenge of Harrison as a character is that I think a surface level reading by most people would assume that Harrison is the villain. And for many reasons, I think that’s a totally valid interpretation. But in writing Harrison, I always kept touchstone of, Harrison is the protagonist of Harrison’s play. This is Doctor Voynich and Her Children. But in the version that centers Harrison, where that’s the character we primarily follow and check-in on her crime scenes and stuff, she thinks that she’s doing the right thing most of the time. Even when she’s engaging in something that is illegal, she thinks that’s the right thing to do, that she in some way earns that behavior through her other actions. And so I really hope that anyone engaging with this play takes Harrison, and the people who are like her in the real world, seriously. Because if you just write off people who are anti-abortion, for example, they gain so much power because you don’t take them seriously. And they can get away with a lot more and do a lot more and be much more effective in their agendas if you don’t take that person seriously. Not to get political on this podcast about transness.

Nicolas: Whoa, we don’t deal with politics here.

Leanna: Oh, God, no.

Nicolas: Woah.

Leanna: Not politically, but philosophically, let’s say. There’s the common phrase that the moral arc of the universe bends towards goodness and rightness, which just assumes that over time things will just become better? More liberal, more lefty. Which completely ignores the fact that it requires effort to bend time in a certain direction. It’s not just something that happens by magic. And by just assuming that’s going to happen, we hand over our power to the universe, and fascists are very good at using unused power for their own purposes.

Nicolas: I had not considered this reading before, how you framed it this way. But the question of… why are these two in a relationship, and how much of it is that they’re actually good for each other and doing something for each other? And how much of it is, “this is convenient or this is useful for Rue?” And then I just have this thought, Oh my God, is she the villain? Is Rue the villain of this story?

Leanna: Depends on who you ask, right?

Nicolas: Yeah. I think that’s a layer that I hadn’t thought of before, that there can be an element of manipulation from her.

I was like, “Oh, all trans people should be perfect heroes because then people will treat me better in real life if they see how heroic I am,” when in reality, things are so much more complex than that.

Leanna: Yes. This is a huge challenge for a lot of people approaching this play, is that they either don’t see the manipulation that a lot of these characters engage in, or they see it and they decide that it’s uncomfortable, and so they steer away from it. I think we’re still at a point where culturally there are so few trans roles out there in the world that we have an innate desire for that role to be a good person, a likable character. Like a hero. And by many metrics, yeah, sure. She risks her life going around providing healthcare that very easily could get her imprisoned or executed—that is pretty close to objectively a good thing, in my mind—and manipulates everyone around her. Very, very rarely does Rue do something that does not benefit her own agenda. Very rarely is she truly selfless, in my opinion.

And that’s a very, very challenging character to play, and a challenging character to direct and think about and philosophize and theorize about. I just want to give a little bit of historical context to this as well. The title of this play is an intentional reference to Mother Courage and Her Children by Brecht, which is a super interesting play for me. And don’t cite me as a scholar on this, but the story that I have always been told about that play is that Brecht basically wrote this play and sent it out into the world, and everyone other than Brecht was like, “Oh, poor Mother Courage. What a tragic hero, all of her kids die, it’s so sad. We stan Mother Courage!” And Brecht was like, “No, you morons. My whole point in writing this play was, yes, she loses all of her children, but she’s also literally a war criminal. And we cannot allow sentiment to cloud our judgment of war criminals.” Right?

Nicolas: Very much sounds like that is on brand response for Brecht.

Leanna: Yes, exactly. Right? And so for me, Rue is someone who is very easy as a creator or as an audience member to be like, “Oh, we stan. Obviously, she’s the best.” And from other perspectives, she is a mass murderer. She is providing abortions across the Heartland. Has probably performed hundreds of abortions, according to her, which means that to some people she’s a mass murderer, she’s a serial killer, and if you don’t take that seriously, I don’t think you fully are engaging with the complexities—both of this specific play and this specific character and the stakes in the real-life present-day conversations around abortion.

Nicolas: Thank you for the historical context.

Leanna: Yeah.

Nicolas: Going to go be a theatre history nerd later. I’m like, I need to go read reviews and see how people were responding, now.

Leanna: If that historical anecdote is not true, don’t tell me, because I really like it and I really like telling it on talkbacks.

Nicolas: I think that stories are equally powerful, even when they’re not true. They still do work in the world. They still matter.

Let’s talk a little bit about our other pairing in this show, Fade and Hannah. We’ve got Fade, the apprentice… is learning to be an herbalist, and Hannah, a young woman coming to seek an abortion. What questions were you thinking about while you were writing? What questions do you hope actors, directors explore with these characters?

Leanna: Sure. Fade and Hannah, it’s so cute and also so unethical. By most standards, getting romantically and sexually involved with your patient is a bad thing to do, which is a discussion that Rue and Fade have explicitly in the text of the play that I hope people take seriously. Fade, to my reading, and I think to most interpretations, is probably the least slick, the least sly, the most straightforwardly honest person in this play; and interpretations of Hannah range wildly between productions. Some people think of Hannah as actually, I don’t mean this disparagingly, but a little dumb. Not super intelligent, not super educated, really is in a mess.

And then other people think of Hannah as deeply intelligent, deeply manipulative, conniving. And it’s such an interesting way to play the relationship between them two. To talk about the elephant in the room in terms of queer intimacy, these two have sex on stage. And in the stage directions, which I love a playful stage direction, I’m really explicit. Listen, you can just fade to black and nothing can happen. Whatever your intimacy director and your actors are comfortable with and want to put on stage, this is something that I leave to you to decide. Textually though, this is what happens, whether or not you actually should include it in your production.

Nicolas: This is what happens; we need to know that it happened.

Leanna: Yes, and there’s enough text on either side of that moment that makes it clear what happens. But I think what that means is it really feels dangerous. That relationship feels so dangerous, given the intensely different levels of power that those characters have, and how high the stakes are in all possible directions. Yeah, I love high stakes.

And again, this is another set of characters where it’s super interesting to go through and track when they are lying to each other, when they’re lying to themselves. What’s a deliberate tactic versus what is a half-truth? God, I would love to sit a couple actors down with highlighters where they could just highlight things that they think are true and highlight things that they think might be deceptions, and just compare. Like five different actors takes on, specifically Hannah, because she’s very divisive.

Nicolas: And also whether the other character they’re talking to perceives the deception or not.

Leanna: Or chooses to ignore it, right? Yeah. “I think you’re playing me, but also, I’m down to play.” I gave those opportunities to performers in the way that Fade and Hannah are written.

Nicolas: Let’s talk a little bit about specifically looking at the productions that you’ve seen. This has mostly been produced at universities.

Leanna: Primarily, yes.

Nicolas: You’ve gotten to go and travel to go and see at least two of them recently and interact with the creative teams involved, the students. What kinds of feedback were you getting from student actors? And what and who were they connecting with in this story?

Leanna: Yeah. I love working with students. They just have such different things that they care about in stories. It also means that I rarely have an age-appropriate cast for this play. I think that something... Okay, something that was true about me when I was a student is that I was scared of complexity. I really was looking for ideological purity in my entertainment. But I also think that it speaks to a fear that people who are more powerful than me will take fiction as a representation of reality and so make assumptions about real trans people based on the trans people that could be in media. And so, I was like, “Oh, all trans people should be perfect heroes because then people will treat me better in real life if they see how heroic I am,” when in reality, things are so much more complex than that.

And I think amongst the students that I have seen do this play, I think some people are in that impulse of wanting to find “positive representation”. And I think others are more in the interesting representation route. And I’m glad, I’m glad for that. I also don’t want to get to a point where I’m like, “Oh, I could put anything on stage as long as it’s interesting.” I want to be a responsible playwright and never ask my collaborators to do anything that they don’t want to do. I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the developmental history of this play, which is that—

Nicolas: All right. I want to hear about it.

Leanna: Well, okay, here’s the specific thing that’s interesting. Fade, as a character, originally is a cis woman, and then the people that we were casting in the early workshops of this play kept transitioning and coming out during the process. And so now in the published text of this play I write in that you can play Fade as non-binary or as a woman, and I give suggestions of text alterations. I’m like, “Okay, if this is what you’re doing, this is how the other characters change their language or significantly don’t change their language when talking to and about Fade.” There are times that a character might specifically intentionally choose to misgender Fade because they need to deceive or because they want to hurt or because they want to protect in some fashion.

And that is just because the students who were working on the early drafts of this play found something in that character that resonated with them. And now I think most productions of this play that happen now tend towards a non-binary character, or at the very least a non-binary actor in that track. Yeah, I just wanted to honor the developmental history and the students who actually helped me find that character.

Nicolas: I love that so much. It makes me so happy. And also, of course, the actors were drawn to the play with the trans people in it, and then we’re like, “You know what?”

More and more and more, I think we do have queer communities that are just like, “yeah, we accept as a given that everyone in a given situation can be a queer person or a trans person.”

Leanna: Oh yeah, it’s just a coincidence. But I feel like maybe this play is speaking to something in me.

Nicolas: In thinking about the different productions across different places, I’m wondering, did you see a difference in the response to the show or the kinds of conversations you were witnessing folks having around it, depending on geographically where it was happening? I guess this is also a time question, too, of, are we in the realm of—when your full title is Doctor Voynich and Her Children: A Prediction—pre- the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade? Has the conversations around this been different pre and post- that moment? Or in places like California, Minnesota, Oregon, where abortion and also trans rights are relatively safe, versus Tennessee and Ohio where they’re very much not? We’ll add in additional context in post-production to get the details right, but it’s not great.

Okay. Ohio, at the time of the production, had a trigger ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. It took effect in June of 2022 after Roe vs. Wade was overturned. It was blocked by a court in September and has been held up in the courts ever since then. So as of June 2023, abortion is still legal in Ohio, but tenuously so.

Leanna: Yeah. The subtitle of this play is, “A Prediction by Leanna Keyes,” but that actually wasn’t always true. The subtitle of this play originally was just the Bog Standard, “A New Play by Leanna Keyes.” And then after the Standing Rock protests part of the play came true, in a way, which is that a school bus was converted into a traveling herbal medicine facility, that’s a real thing that happened; and at that point I was like, “Well, damn, this thing that was speculative fiction for me to explore some ideas really does feel like not just the future, but the present in a lot of ways.” And so the subtitle was changed to “A Prediction by Leanna Keyes,” and I do think that there have been different responses from audiences before and after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I think that beforehand we had some really interesting conversations about what it was like to win the right to abortion.

I’ve been very fortunate that oftentimes audiences are willing to share their experiences of what it was like to seek abortions before abortions were widely available. And now that we are in a post-Roe v. Wade society, those conversations absolutely still happen. But in a weird way, people have become a lot more interested in the mechanics of how that happened. It happens differently in the play than it did in real life. And so, some people actually get caught up on, “Oh, how is this different from reality? How are things alternate?” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no. That’s not the point.” However we get there, we’re there.

But I did have a very interesting conversation while I was in Oregon. During that production, the neighboring state, Idaho... Again, this is secondhand knowledge. Don’t cite me. But basically the governor of that state was like, “Hey, you all, abortion is too political. You can no longer discuss anything abortion related in college classes. You just can’t do it. We’re just going to avoid it until more stuff shakes out with the Supreme Court and the national conversation.” Da, da, da, da, da.

Nicolas: A little bit more context here. Idaho’s No Public Funds for Abortion Act went into effect in September of 2022. In response, the general legal counsel for the University of Idaho, since it is a state institution, issued guidance to faculty and staff cautioning, and I quote, “Classroom discussion of the topic should be approached carefully. While academic freedom supports classroom discussions of topics related to abortion, these should be limited to discussions and topics relevant to the class subject. The laws discussed above, specifically including those addressing promoting abortion, counseling in favor of abortion, and referring for abortion will remain applicable. Academic freedom is not a defense to violation of law, and faculty or others in charge of classroom topics and discussions must themselves remain neutral on the topic, and cannot conduct or engage in discussions in violation of these prohibitions without risking prosecution.”

Officially, the law is not a gag order. Discussion is technically allowed. In practice, good luck meeting the state’s definition of neutrality and never letting on that you might have a perspective on reproductive healthcare. Really, it’s a distinction without a difference.

Leanna: The way that the Oregonians interpreted that was, “Okay, right across our border, we could not produce this play if we were a couple miles that direction versus where we are now. We couldn’t even teach this play if we were a couple miles that direction, as opposed to here in Oregon.” Now, I don’t know whether that will shake out in that particular way, but it is certainly amping up the stakes for people who are engaging with this play, the extent to which they, their neighbors, their families, are living the situations that are in this play.

Nicolas: As we talked a bit ago, I got to see the production at Ohio University back in October. I noticed during the talkback after the production that the audience and the cast, and the questions that were asked initially, and where the actors ended up going with their responses seemed to be responding a lot more actively to the abortion storyline than the queer elements of the play. Has that been something consistent across the different productions where that is so much more of the focus? Has that shifted with the political changes recently?

Leanna: Oh, a good question.

Nicolas: What do you make of all of that?

Leanna: Oh, what a good question. Okay, so I think-

Nicolas: I suppose as an audience member who was witnessing that, did you see this too?

Leanna: Well, I’m going to... Yes, and. Which is, I think when the students are conversing in the talkback setting, very often talkbacks do end up primarily discussing abortion because it feels so present. And most of the time when I’m talking with students offhandedly or between things, or just hanging out, having a dinner or whatever, most of the conversation is not actually about that. They’re much more interested in the world of the play, they’re interested in which character slept with who. What’s the relationship, what are the given circumstances? When did this happen? What is the detail of this world? When did the blue states and the red states go their own ways? I do think you’re picking up on something that audiences and people who work on this will sometimes focus on different things.

I do think that the talkbacks have definitely skewed much more to be about reproductive healthcare since Roe v. Wade was lost. I think that certainly did happen. And I don’t criticize anyone for that. That totally makes sense to me that would move in that direction. I also think that increasingly my performers and some of my audiences live in primarily queer circles, that actually the cast of this play is not that dissimilar from a lot of college campuses, and I think that it becomes easier to just accept that as a given as time goes on because more and more and more, I think, we do have queer communities that are just like, “yeah, we accept as a given that everyone in a given situation can be a queer person or a trans person.” But what are they doing? What’s happening to them? Which maybe was not the case when this play was originally conceived.

Nicolas: Yeah. I wonder a bit about the idea of what is present in the audience’s minds, which—particularly acknowledging my own positionality, being in Ohio as a trans educator, where we’re facing many of the same issues that they were talking about at Linfield University with Ohio’s… both sides of their legislature have been introducing a whole slew of bills restricting what can you talk about in the classroom through higher education and equally restricting things like political speech, particularly surrounding abortion, particularly surrounding queerness. And within the world of play, queerness is also illegal. I’m wondering, Ohio’s also one of those states where they’re trying to get that six-week abortion ban through and have been for years, and have equally active attacks on trans rights. And I wonder, what do we end up losing if we don’t look at those things in conversation?

Leanna: What indeed, audience? What indeed, listener, what do we lose?

I mean, it all comes back to bodily autonomy… maybe.

Nicolas: Yeah. I don’t know if I have an answer to that question or not.

Leanna: Neither do I. Neither do I.

Nicolas: I don’t know. I feel like these are connected.

Leanna: It certainly seems like there are certain parallels between things that are happening to trans healthcare writ large, and reproductive healthcare for cis people writ large, and the increasing push across state legislatures to restrict access to transition care. All to protect the kids, right? In the same way that abortion being illegal protects the babies, the sweet little babies. That we imagine hypothetically, the sweet little babies.

Nicolas: That we imagine. We are not concerned about the children birthing those babies.

Leanna: Absolutely not. As long as they don’t take hormones or anything, they’re on their own.

Nicolas: If you do want to dive deeper into this relationship between anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation, trans historian Dr. Jules Gill-Peterson has much smarter things to say about it than I do and has a great essay called, “Toward a Trans History of Abortion.” There’s a link to it in the transcript.

Okay. A couple of questions that I like to close each episode with, and I’m just always interested in folks’ answers to them. Would you like to give a shout-out to a member of your queer, trans artistic family tree who has inspired you, supported your work, guided you toward the path you’re on now?

Leanna: They’ve already made a cameo on this podcast, which is Joy Brooke Fairfield. Joy Brooke Fairfield was a PhD student at Stanford while I was an undergrad at Stanford, and I absolutely would not be the theatre creator, scholar, thinker that I am now. Joy and one of her former partners were actually the first people to read this play out loud, other than me, in a living room in Memphis, Tennessee very, very soon after I had a first draft. So, intimately involved in the creation of this play as well as the season of the podcast.

Nicolas: Before you go, would you leave us with an image, a snapshot of how you experience gender euphoria in art or in your everyday life?

Leanna: A moment that is crystal clear to me… is when I was attending a dress rehearsal of a different play, and it was in the director’s apartment, and it’s a two-hander play that involves two trans people in love, and after the dress rehearsal, one of the actors raised this very astute, very, very complicated question about transness and how it related to... It was a very thorny question, basically. And I felt myself gathering all of my language to explain away this choice that I’d made in the play, and then I looked around the room and I was like, “Oh, wait, everyone in this room is trans. The performers are trans. I am trans. Director is trans. I can actually just tell these people the truth rather than explain away a choice.” And that was a moment of gender and artistic euphoria in my art making practice.

Nicolas: I love how they collide right there. That’s great. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It was a delight talking to you.

Leanna: Thank you. Thank you for having me, and thank you listener for listening.

Nicolas: This has been Gender Euphoria: The Podcast hosted and edited by me, Nicolas Shannon Savard. The voices you heard in the intro poem were Rebecca Kling, Dillon Yruegas, Siri Gurudev, Azure D. Osborne-Lee, and Joshua Bastian Cole. The show art was designed by Yaşam Gülseven. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes.

If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event that the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

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Thoughts from the curator

Hosted by Nicolas Savard, the Gender Euphoria podcast aims to amplify the voices of trans and gender nonconforming theater artists in the United States and creates an opportunity for trans artists to be in conversation with one another about their experiences working in a field that has a tendency to tokenize them. Each of these conversations will offer a space to share and explore the kinds of cultural work that trans/queer art is doing in the world from an intersectional perspective.

Gender Euphoria


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