Queer Intimacies, Trans Futures, Grief, and Radical Hope in Seahorse
With Guest J.C. Pankratz
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. In this episode, you’ll hear an interview I recorded last spring with J.C. Pankratz about their play Seahorse.
J.C. Pankratz is a proud queer, non-binary, transgender playwright and educator writing genre-defying work about gender, class, trauma, and magic. J.C. graduated this spring with their MFA in playwriting from Boston University and is a 2022-2023 core apprentice with the Playwrights’ Center. Current and previous collaborators include Company One, Theatre Masters, Clubbed Thumb, the Kitchen Dog Theatre, Lily & Joan Theatre Company, Seattle Theatre Works, and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Their play, God and the Painter, was included in the 2022 Theatre Masters Take Ten program to be published in a collection through Concord Theatricals and Samuel French. And later this year, you’ll find J.C.’s work again, Bombyx Mori, in a non-binary play collection with Next Stage Press.
Their play, Seahorse, received the 2021 Frank Moffett Mosier Fellowship for Works in Heightened Language from Synecdoche Works. And that is where this play, and Gender Euphoria: The Podcast, and our interconnected network of trans and non-binary theatre artist-educator-advocates converged. There are a few pieces to this puzzle and this story, so stick with me. So J. C. Pankratz wins the fellowship from Synecdoche Works. Synecdoche’s artistic director, Jennifer Mosier, takes a course on supporting transgender artists and creatives from Maybe Burke. I interview Maybe about that course. That was Season One, Episode Four of Gender Euphoria: The Podcast. Jennifer with Synecdoche finds the podcast through Maybe, listens... She decides she likes my style of interviewing. She tracks down my email to ask if I’d be interested in recording an interview for the Synecdoche Works website with a non-binary playwright who just won their fellowship.
She also asked if I could pass along the audition information for the Zoom reading of the play. I received this message just five days after HowlRound aired that episode with Maybe Burke in early March in a parking garage in Cleveland on my way to give a presentation, also about the podcast, at the Mid-America Theatre Conference. I read the play description.
Seahorse: Reuben is a trans man continuing his attempts to conceive a child after the death of his husband. In processing his grief and hope, Reuben turns his insemination endeavors into moments of self-recognition by donning different costumes and personas for each try. Juliet, Zeus, and St. Francis all make appearances. Instead of a funerary parade, this one-person play seeks the purpose of life for the living, for the dead, and for the not yet arrived.”
I’m intrigued. I open up the first PDF, one page, the audition side for the role of Reuben, an excerpt from the St. Francis scene, and I get to this section.
I know they must have talked about God
miracles and whatnot
But the ordinary days
specks of cheese caught in a beard
laughing with a full mouth of bread
spittle and choking on a dirty joke
“Oh, honey, your stigmata’s getting on the Taleggio.”
There was a cave they’d go
St. Francis and his lover,
to seclude themselves
I loved that.
Not to hide
the choice to be alone beneath the earth
as though they could have rolled around in the sun
and decided to be responsible about it.
And I sat for another five minutes in that parking garage, underground, under the KeyBank Center on a gray, snowy March day in downtown Cleveland and just cried at this audition side PDF.
I told J.C. as soon as we ended the recording for that interview that I was going to direct their play. I’d already decided; they were stuck with me. We’ll return to talk about that production later in the season. It intersects with multiple of the other ideas, practices, and questions that you’ll hear about in upcoming episodes with other guests. But I want to start here because this conversation was where I started scheming the “queer intimacies” theme for this season. So, taking us back just over a year ago, in April of 2022, here is J.C. Pankratz on their play, Seahorse.
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 Kling: 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—
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.
J.C., would you like to give a little introduction for yourself before we dive into the play?
JC Pankratz: Sure. My name is J.C. I use they/them pronouns. I am a playwright. I’m also a Cancer sun, Libra moon, Virgo rising, just in case anybody wants to know. Sometimes that’s really important. And I’m really excited to be here.
Nicolas: How do you describe this piece, stylistically? I’ll start with that question. Four follow-ups within it, but we’ll go a piece at a time.
J.C.: Yeah. Stylistically, Seahorse is a one-person show about a trans man who is trying to get pregnant using an artificial insemination process, and it is done in a style of stream of consciousness, poetry... As well as, there are some typical constructions that I think we would see in a play that’s divided into scenes, which each represent a time where Reuben, the main character, is doing his monthly attempt using a sperm sample from his dead husband’s brother. When he is doing these attempts, in order to... A little bit of hyping yourself up and a little bit of dealing with just the massive amounts of emotion that are happening, there’s also this sense of he is dressing up as these different historical or mythological figures, a little bit as a drag performance and a little bit just as, “I enjoy putting on costumes because they make me feel good.” I’m not sure if that’s a style, but those are the different ingredients that are getting mixed up in there.
Nicolas: So in short, a lot.
J.C.: There’s a lot.
Nicolas: There’s a lot going on.
J.C.: It’s a little messy because that’s how we like things.
I just really love trans people, and I think we are the best. And I also think that we live lives that require us to use our imagination in order to figure out, sometimes, how to survive but also how to thrive.
Nicolas: Yes. Messy, but as I read it, it was a mess that I wanted to live in, and stay in, and it fit the world. Can we talk a little bit about these moments of drag with these historical and mythical and dramatically quite famous figures? It seemed to me, as I read, him dressing up as Juliet, and Zeus, and St. Francis... Part of the donning the costumes seemed like a ritual, preparing himself to do this thing, whether that’s emotionally or physically, literally, just getting ready. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired those specific figures? And what is going on in these drag moments of spectacular costuming?
J.C.: Yeah. So I was trying to think of... I think when of these moments, I think in general, when I think of people I’ve known or friends who have engaged in any intentional contraceptive process, levels of discomfort may vary, but it is always a really vulnerable process where there are aspects of physical or emotional discomfort, I think. Remembering hearing people talk about their partners making them laugh, or these things you do in the moment to make this happen... Thinking about this person who doesn’t have any of those things, where would he look to find a companion?
I think in a lot of ways, the play is a lot about Reuben is talking to us, the audience, and is remembering his late husband and is going through this thing, but a lot of this is a conversation between Reuben and his own body in a way. I think trying to not make peace exactly, but to just try to make sense out of how ridiculous it is to grieve, and to try to bring life into the world, and all these really impossible things that we somehow do every day. And so, in figuring out who would appear and this Top Girls, “come on in!”... His moment of realization is when he’s trying to do this, and then he starts remembering when he was playing Juliet, when he was a younger person. And that feeling of being alone in a tomb at the end of the play, and everybody is gone. And it’s very melodramatic. And then from there, there’s this point of discovery where the next character he dresses up as is Zeus, mythologically is the dude. He’s causing a lot of trouble and having a lot of children.
A very fertile God is Zeus, I guess, and all the complicated machinations that Zeus goes through in order to make his conquest happen. That one I think is a little more about playing with power and not... I don’t know if trope, is the right word. But I feel like people in queer and trans communities are sometimes very familiar with mythology. Or it’s a thing that sometimes folks really dial into at a young age. And being like, “Oh, these people who can change at will...” And sometimes, they’re things we focus on or we remember as being something that was really interesting and beautiful. And then moving on to how about the saint that my dead husband was named after? Which is, we thought this was messy. What if we kept dialing it up? And talk about sainthood, and what does that mean? These costume moments are ways for him to have a moment of talking to himself and his own body. And it’s a way to physically represent that in some ways when you are alone on stage.
Nicolas: Fantastic. I had not made that connection between trans community and mythology, but it’s a pattern, definitely. I wonder if it’s something like being able to transform at will, not being bound by the rules of the everyday. There’s something comforting and inspiring about that. It’s really hopeful.
J.C.: Right, aspirational content. Dude, I would like to do this one day, just turn into a bird. That sounds like a great time.
Nicolas: Can you talk a little bit about space, and time, and the fluidity of it in this piece?
J.C.: Sure. Writing a play that’s about one person, there are moments where Reuben is the memory of his husband. But there’s something really reflective about writing a one-person show in a way that feels very different from when you have multiple people talking, or interacting, or being alive. And I think in terms of what space and time means to the play, I think that something I feel is really important. In terms of, what we’re learning and what Reuben is learning is that imagination is really powerful in ways beyond creating something beautiful, but also in terms of imagining a future for yourself and imagining what your life could be. When I think of being anybody who is going to choose to create life and bring it into the world, you have to have—and I really think that this is universally true—is that when you have that intention, you are imagining a future.
I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for how powerful that is, and I do think it’s something that can bend space and time. That sounds cheesy, but it’s how we go towards a better world, I think, in a real zoomed out way. But in terms of ourselves being like, “I can imagine a world where I have a child, and also the person I love isn’t in that world anymore, but I found a way that we’re all together, because I can make that so...” His memory and this life are both alive in me still. I think we really all have the capability to do that. I just really love trans people, and I think we are the best. And I also think that we live lives that require us to use our imagination in order to figure out, sometimes, how to survive but also how to thrive, especially if we are imagining something we’ve never seen. And I think that really is possible for everybody, and it’s something I think that we can learn from one another.
And in this world, which is Reuben’s world in Reuben’s bedroom, Reuben can be in the sky. Reuben can be on the ocean floor, if that’s where Reuben has to go to figure out what is happening and how to really feel the grief, the joy, the everything that’s happening in his life during this really messy, wild moment where he is, maybe audaciously, trying to bring a new life into the world. And I think that’s really possible for everybody.
I’m so constantly inspired by how queer and trans people have had to be so creative and so tenacious in wanting to create families.
Nicolas: Can we talk a little bit about how you see the relationship with the audience in this play? Because there are definitely moments where Reuben is talking directly to us. There are moments where he’s in his own world a bit, talking to himself more. There are moments even in the stage directions somewhat... One of them that really struck me right from the beginning was, “It’s 5:00 a.m. in a bedroom. We are ovulating.” And I am inside your body now.
For a little context to give you an idea of what we’re talking about here, here are the stage directions that opened the play, read by Samantha Cocco and Minor Stokes who performed in the production that I directed this spring.
Samantha Cocco: First try, Juliet.
Minor: Deep, habitable darkness of an apartment asleep. We can see the shapes of a bed, a table, a lamp, and somebody placing a plastic container down, and then a door closing. A smartphone lights up, illuminating the room in a starry blue light. A text.
Samantha: A moment.
Minor: Another moment.
Samantha: A stir. And then, stillness.
Minor: Then another stir, real this time.
Samantha: We are blinking awake. We are realizing it is 5:00 a.m.
Minor: We are remembering what today is.
Samantha and Minor: We are ovulating!
Emmett Podgorski (as Reuben) No, no, no, no. Fuck.
Samantha: A lamp comes on, and bathes the room, in the hazy yellow light of too early in the morning.
Minor: Reuben shifts—
Samantha: Very carefully.
Minor:—to pick up a thermometer from the side table and places it under his tongue.
Samantha: Ten seconds.
Minor: They are tense.
Nicolas: So yeah, what are you playing with there? What is going on with it?
J.C.: A great question. What am I doing? I think that I, what I am... And I think probably, this is a very common experience for anybody who is sitting down to write characters. You do so from this point of really intense empathy where I am really present with you as I write the words that are coming out of your mouth, and I write the horrible things that are happening around you. Maybe not horrible, but sometimes. I think I really wanted that to be extended to the people who are in the theatre.
I’m so constantly inspired by how queer and trans people have had to be so creative and so tenacious in wanting to create families. I think I also felt that if you are a person who this is maybe your first brush with this concept, that sitting in the audience, a person might be like, “Why are you doing this? Shouldn’t you get yourself figured out before you are trying to do this thing that is so hard? And if you do succeed, this is the easy part, in comparison to what the body goes through and all this stuff.” And I think I wanted everybody to be in a place where we are all, from the start, wanting Reuben to do what Reuben wants to do, to try to get us in a place where we are involved. We’re all trying to conceive this moment with him, and to try to leave judgments or preconceived notions of who gets to do this and why...
And that, I think, is a thing that extends far beyond gender. Anybody who is trying to have a child on their own and is trying to conceive, I think, has run into some of these objections that people have. And I think the way to do that is to be like, “We’re all really here. And we are all going to sit with you while you do this and understand that this is not a light decision.” I think too, this is something that I have learned a little more recently, is that sometimes people who are really just not very familiar with trans people or trans masculine people sometimes think that the conception process is part of the magical realism of the play, as opposed to a process that the body is still capable of after transition. And so, I hope that those moments clue people in also. That this is a thing that can, does, and will continue to happen as trans people exist.
Nicolas: When we were recording, I had to take a moment to process just how little the general public understands about trans bodies. How many other ways does my daily life exist in the realm of magical realism in the eyes of cishet folks? Tangent for another day.
Back to Seahorse. I think that leads pretty nicely in thinking about not only that relationship to the audience, but also how you’re using the stage directions. Because like you described earlier on, stylistically, the stage directions seem to weave between giving us insight into Reuben’s inner monologue, and also narrating action, and also just giving us poetry at times. So how are you playing with stage directions? And coming from a directing designing perspective, I found them really exciting, how they shift between this is an objective description of what is happening versus I am inside somebody’s head.
J.C.: That is so exciting to hear. Whenever I’m writing a play, I really like to give a lot in that vein where I’m just like, “This is everything in my brain and you can take it or cross it out.” I hope you won’t cross it out, but that is... I might not be there. I can’t stop you. And I really seeing where people’s brain goes. And sometimes if the stage directions are like that, it can push everybody to be having fun, playing in that space a little bit.
We are, in this reading, doing something that I have never done before and I’m really excited by. Which is, Reuben is played by an actor, and then we have the stage directions being read by a narrator character, and then they’re going to switch and do the play again and have their roles switched. And so, the person who’s Reuben will be this narrator. And then, the narrator will become Reuben. And I’m really excited to learn more about the play from that process.
Because the short answer I think is, I’m not always sure how to bring that from the page to the space. Because the stage directions are really specific, and then also are sometimes taking on the quality of the play in a way where sometimes when they’re not there something is missing. And so, I am trying to figure out too, is this a situation where actually this is not a solo play? And the only thing, the only example I can think of right now, is Beckett, which is very pretentious. But Beckett has several plays that are essentially plays for one person, but there’s some horrible demon dressed in a hood in the corner who’s listening and nodding. And it’s this whole... Which is very Beckett.
But the opposite of that, where you have someone who is there who is listening actively with you. And so, I think that this play in particular has a lot of opportunity to play with stage directions, and play with that in a space where it’s not the typical... When this is done, these fade away. Can see this isn’t... Oh, what are they called it? Is it a closet drama? Are those plays that you’re meant to read them and not see them?
J.C.: The closet dramas. This is not a closet drama.
Nicolas: That takes on so many more layers in this context.
J.C.: Yes, absolutely. And then, maybe that’s just when you’re developing the visual language of the play, is that all the translation that’s needed? And so, really, this is a lot of ways of saying, “I’m not sure, but I’m excited.” But that, it’s a fun space to play in, and I am trying, I think, to just push the limits and see what they can become, I think, in some ways.
Nicolas: Absolutely. I think there’s just so much possibility for play in there. In terms of, can Reuben also hear the stage directions?
Nicolas: Does he interact with them? Are all the things spoken or only some of them? Who knows?
J.C.: Those are such good questions. I love thinking about that. What does it mean when the character on stage can hear what you’re writing about them? Do I want them to know?
Nicolas: I’m wondering a little bit about, through your creative process, how have you approached the story of Reuben and Seahorse in relation to this very specific—I read it as very trans—narrative, versus one that might be read as a more universal story? And I think I’m highly skeptical of the term universal, but it’s the one we use in the field. But as you were crafting this piece, what was that relationship like between the very specific and this broader universal? Was it something you were trying to balance? Were they in tension with each other? Is that even a relevant dichotomy?
I love being surprised, and I think that is why I love watching plays that have elements of magical realism.
J.C.: That is so relevant. That’s such a good question. And I think when I was writing it, I think I maybe assumed in some ways... I think I am of a particular age where I am watching lots of people around me go through this process—cis couples, trans couples, queer couples—and everybody’s story is so different. It’s even different when I think about people I know who are two cis people who are conceiving a child together—their journey, and how long that takes, and what the process of that is like—versus friends I had who were in their apartment inviting someone over, and then using a turkey baster or a syringe from CVS.
I think maybe I just hoped that because there’s always this element of obstacle that, that would make it universal. And I think maybe this is how I approach things, versus how someone else might approach this text. Where I was like, “Oh. Asking your dead husband’s brother to give you sperm so that you can conceive a child is a very practical solution to a lot of the obstacles of money, the obstacle of ‘who do I ask? Do I want to know this person? Do I want to have the DNA of my partner as part of the child?’” Along the path of that, there’s just always obstacles. I hoped that we have enough understanding that these are processes that, when people are trying to do them, there are always hiccups, but there would be a moment of empathy or, “Oh, yes. This is not totally unlike when...” It’s taking much more time for a couple to conceive a child than they thought it would, because it can take a really long time. When it suddenly happens very fast, and people are not as ready. Things are not according to plan.
Nicolas: I am interested in this idea of magical realism in your work and how you’re playing with it, both in this piece and also some of your other work. Because I checked out your website and want to read all of the things now. But magical realism is a theme across many of the pieces that you do. So I’m wondering a little bit about that and about how this piece is in conversation with other works that you’re doing. How is it breaking off and doing new things? Where does this fit within your work as a playwright as a whole?
J.C.: That’s a great question. I love being surprised, and I think that is why I love watching plays that have elements of magical realism. And I like writing it because it’s my favorite sensation in the theatre, to just be like, “Oh, I didn’t know that could happen.” And so, I feel like I’m always chasing that sensation. I would say this, if I really think about it, which this great question has made me ponder... I think in this play, in terms of the magical realism, I would say usually, at least the flavor that I tend to write in, is that it’s a real clash of naturalism and magical realism. Where you have people who talk very naturalistically and seems ordinary. And then, they encounter something...
I have a play about a girl who lays an egg or something like that. And it’s not just, “Oh, this is part of the world. We all lay eggs.” It’s, “Why did you lay an egg? This is really crazy.” And then this play, because I wonder, because we just really live with Reuben... Reuben does not question very much of being at the bottom of the ocean or being up in the sky. In some ways, maybe that trends into absurdity, but I really don’t think that’s the tenor of the play. But I think in that way, sometimes the play feels more... Even though the play is inherently, “we’re going to all these places,” in some ways it feels more realistic to me because we are just on his journey so totally. That if Reuben doesn’t question it, there’s not that reflex in the text to be like, “Why is this happening? Why am I at the bottom of the ocean? Why is there this little seahorse here?” It’s just like, “Oh, it’s here. I’ll talk to it.”
And then, that’s how it plays out, which is really... In that way, it definitely takes its own turn away from other things I’ve written, where people are more aware that, in the world of the play, that something is awry. I think that’s the magic of the solo play, is because you are really with that one person. You might question something. Like I, watching it, would probably be like, “Oh, we’re just at the bottom of the ocean.” But even I think in writing it, I was just like, “Oh, I don’t think Reuben would question this.” This is the journey, and this is what it is.
Nicolas: Yeah, I definitely got that sense of, “Of course, this is where we are. Okay. Yeah. This is possible.”
J.C.: Yeah, of course.
J.C.: Yeah. And maybe I don’t want to be here. Maybe I don’t want to be up in the sky, dangling from a parachute, but this is where we are, so this is what I would think about here.
Nicolas: Yeah. Just this total acceptance of… this is the reality now.
J.C.: Totally. And it doesn’t matter if it’s completely fantastic, or I’m inside a painting. There’s a part in the play where, typically, it is him inseminating himself in the conventional manner. There’s one time where he’s talking about stigmata. And so at the end of the scene, he puts the syringe in through the stigmata that’s the side wound of Jesus. And that’s where he puts the syringe. And I think it’s just because we’re just so unified with him the whole time that it’s just not even... Just like, “That’s how it happened that time.” And whether or not it’s the way it really happened or whatever, it’s not really a question.
Nicolas: For purposes of the podcast, I ask all of my guests two questions to close us out. First of all, the main thesis of the entire series is: trans people are everywhere, and we have always been here. I’d like to ask, would you like to take a moment to shout-out a member of your own queer, trans, artistic family tree? Knowing that sometimes those identities overlap, sometimes they don’t. Who has inspired your work, supported it, helped you get to where you are?
J.C.: I love this question. I love that you ask everyone that. I think that’s really delightful. The first person I think of is the playwright, Basil Kreimendahl. I met Basil ten years ago when I was an undergrad. We were both at a conference together, and I was not in a place where I was like, “I’m trans,” or, “I’m transitioning.” And I had really met so few trans people, maybe none, when I met Basil. And Basil had just written Orange Julius, which is about a young person who is gender non-conforming, who is dealing with generational trauma. And their dad is a Vietnam vet. And it was such an interesting story.
And Basil was very kind to me. And I remember we were on a plane, because we were both headed in the same direction out of the conference, and I traded seats with someone so we could sit together. And I remember Basil explaining to the flight attendant that they weren’t a boy or a girl. And it was such a moment of like, “Oh, this is totally possible.” And Basil was writing stories about trans people. And we were at this conference, and nobody was like, “You can’t do that,” or, “Oh, that’s so weird.” Not that they didn’t experience that. I guess just in terms of how I perceived it, it was just like, “Oh yeah, this is totally legitimate.” And so, I think that is a moment that has meant a lot to me. It happened a long time ago, but it’s something I remember very, very vividly.
Nicolas: Those little interactions, a lot of the time, that just show you what’s possible. And also, Orange Julius is just a gorgeous, gorgeous play. It’s so good.
Nicolas: And finally, would you leave us with an image of one way that you experience gender euphoria in performance, or in everyday life, or in writing, if that is something that happens for you? Gender euphoria.
J.C.: Yeah. The first thing that came to my brain was something that had nothing to do with theatre or writing, but was when I had to sign for a delivery and show my ID to someone. And the person looked at my ID and looked at me, and then looked at my ID and looked at me again, and decided that they were just going to refer to me as “boss” for the rest of the conversation. And it was literally the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It was funny in a way where I was just really delighted by it. This had never happened to me before. And I was like, “I just love that this was the choice you made.” And I was like, “This is great.”
Nicolas: Thank you so much for listening. Later in the season, you’ll hear more about some of those unanswered questions and our journey bringing a very queer, experimental, audio-described production of Seahorse to the stage in Cleveland. Maybe I can convince JC to come back on the mic again. In the meantime, you can check out their work on the New Play Exchange or jcpankratz.com. Till next time, Happy Pride Month. May your June be filled with joy, community, justice, and queer rebellion.
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.
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