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Queer-Trans Intimacy Work: Cracking Gender Open

With Guests Dr. Joy Brooke Fairfield and Raja Benz

Nicolas Shannon Savard: 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. This is going to be the first of a two-part episode where I’ll be talking with Joy Brooke Fairfield and Raja Benz about intimacy direction from a queer trans perspective. Dr. Joy Brooke Fairfield is a media studies scholar, new work director and intimacy professional. They teach theory and practice courses at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Raja Benz is a transgender, Filipina-American theatremaker, educator, intimacy professional, and cultural consultant based in Philadelphia. She is the co-founder of Queer and Trans Intimacy Education. Raja has worked professionally across a number of different projects (notably Apple TV’s Swagger), universities, and major theatre institutions including Tectonic Theatre Project, Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, and Virginia Repertory Theatre.

Both Joy and Raja are members of the faculty at Theatrical Intimacy Education, also known throughout this episode as TIE, where they, along with collaborator Leo Mock, co-designed the courses Working with Trans and Nonbinary Artists and Staging Intimacy Beyond the Binary, which will be the starting place for our conversation today. We’ll be exploring some of the ways the workshops are specific to working with trans and nonbinary actors, as well as how they extend beyond, “cracking gender open,” as Raja puts it. Many of the practices modeled and questions posed aim to resist and disrupt patriarchal and colonialist scripts and expectations that all actors are subject to regardless of their gender identity. I attended Part One: Working with Trans and Nonbinary Artists last spring, the first time they offered the workshop. Since then, it’s been refined and developed and expanded into a two-part course. We’ll dive into the process and the ideas and praxis fueling the design—both the original and where the workshop has gone since then.

First quick note on vocabulary for listeners who have yet to venture into the world of theatrical intimacy. Throughout this episode, you’ll hear a few different variations of that phrase used fairly interchangeably: intimacy direction, intimacy work, intimacy choreography, intimacy coordinator, sometimes just IC. For the purposes of this conversation, the distinctions between them aren’t that important. What you need to know is when we say “intimacy work” in this context, we’re referring to a set of directing, teaching, and collaborative performance practices that are consent-based, trauma-informed, and highly attentive to interpersonal and cultural power dynamics.

Traditionally, intimacy choreographers have staged stories with content of an intimate sexual nature. In recent years, though, the field has begun to think of intimacy more expansively. To borrow the definition crafted by Bliss Griffin of Actors Equity Association, Ann James of Intimacy Coordinators of Color, and TIE co-founders Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard, in addition to staging sexual content, “we have expanded the narrow definition of intimacy beyond sex to include leveraging an artist’s characteristics to staged heightened race, gender, pregnancy, disability, religion, national origin or age-related content.” To learn more about this work in and around performance, I recommend checking out Ann James’ series on HowlRound, Rebuilding a Future: A Convergence of Thought Leaders in Intimacy Practice, and the Journal of Consent-Based Performance. Both are free and accessible online. I will put links in the transcript. That said, on to the conversation with Joy and Raja.

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 as your full self.

Siri: Without any other thought but my own pleasure.

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: —and 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.

Nicolas: So a lot of these questions that I have for you are coming out of having taken the workshop and experienced it, rather than “please explain to me all of the things that I will learn in the workshop.” So I think I want to start with is… What was the impetus to create this workshop specifically within the context of TIE’s digital workshop curriculum? Why working with trans and nonbinary actors in the context of intimacy and consent?

Raja Benz: So, Joy, you might know the answer as to the “why” because you were working with TIE earlier than me. But what I do know is Chelsea and Laura, the co-founders—

Nicolas: That’s Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard.

Raja: —talked a bit about needing to make sure that we had the right people in it because I think there’s this impulse when identities become more visible to grab the first people we see and be like, “Teach us.” You know what I mean? And there was a sense of intentionality that I very much read into what TIE was doing. I was kind of on the outside of it because I was just coming up as an assistant faculty member. I was getting my teaching in, and I was taking my gigs. But what I kept going back to in my conversation with Laura and Chelsea was it was important for us not to just find some trans person, some nonbinary person and be like, “Go ahead and teach this.” You know what I mean? Because as I said before, I bring both lived experience and training, and one isn’t more valuable than the other, but the combination of both.

Joy Brooke Fairfield: You bring lived experience, training, and theory. You bring intellectual theory, embodied training, and lived experience. You bring a lot to the table.

Raja: I do! I really do. And it’s not to say that I’m somehow trying to become the trans guru and everybody should learn from me about trans stuff in any way, but it does mean that, like, yeah, let’s resist that impulse to just be like, “All right, there’s trans people. They can teach us.” You know what I mean? Because that’s the same energy I get when I walk into a room and I’m not hired as a gender consultant, and all of a sudden I’m explaining what pronouns are to people. I’m like, “Wait a minute, that wasn’t the job I got hired for.”

Nicolas: That is day one of every job that I have done in teaching. It’s like, “All right, we’re getting a trans 101 because I’m here.”

Raja: But Joy maybe you know more about sort of—

Joy: Yeah, no, I think that’s basically the story. So, I had started teaching with them a little earlier and I don’t know if... I think I maybe sent an email that was like, “I’m interested in doing queer and trans specific courses, but I would like to do this with other people. I’d like to do this with other people bringing in different kinds of perspectives.” And I think they filed that in the back of their head. And then, Raja, you were working with the company and then they were like, “Oh, here we go, the team.”

Raja: Here it is.

Joy: And I remember Laura being like, “Oh, you’re really going to like Raja.” And we had like one meeting and I told my partner afterwards, I was like, “New friend! New friend!”

Raja: That’s how I felt too. And yeah, no, it’s very that when we get together, and we, I mean the collective we—we trans folks, we queer folks—we’re sort of always on paths to find each other. It was very much the sense I had meeting you and Leo, whose name I’ve been waiting to drop.

Nicolas: Leo Mock, since this recording has been promoted to assistant faculty with Theatrical Intimacy Education.

Joy: Yes.

Raja: For the big shoutout—

Joy: We’ll talk more about Leo.

Raja: ... we’ll talk more about them in a bit.

Joy: They’re so great.

Raja: And so many of these trans and queer people that I hold so dear is like, we are always finding each other across time and space. We always have. We always will. And it really did feel like when we met, it was the right moment to be like, “I think we could do something really important in this field. I think this field is ready to start learning from minds like ours.”

Nicolas: Could you tell me a little bit about how you approached the design of the workshop? Because in my experience of it anyway, it definitely did not seem like “we have the answers for you. Here’s what to say and what to do. Here’s all the right things.” I remember pretty vividly writing some poetry about my gender without referring to my body. And a few cis folks in the room had mini existential crises about their gender identity. And I was like, “Butch with glitter!”

Raja: Yeah, I think you came to the first one because that exercise has actually changed quite a bit for us here and there. What I will say is as we started doing this, I mean, I think five minutes into our first session we’re like, “All right, so we’re going to need two classes at least.” That became very clear very fast because what it was was trans thinkers coming into the room and being like, “There is so much here,” just when it’s the two of us talking, and noting that eventually that first meeting was just the two of us, and eventually we did bring in our third academic partner, Leo, who I’ve mentioned. But in that first one, yeah, it was really us just being like, “There’s a lot here. Where do you even start?” And where we started was just going back to our experience.

Joy: What did you say on our first meeting? You quoted someone and you said, “There’s so much work to do. We must go very slowly.”

We realized that to be truthful in this partnership together as educators, we had to be truthful with the fact that we are still unpacking a lot of these systems.

Raja: But yeah, we don’t have a lot of time, so let’s go really, really slow. We have a lot we need to cover, so let’s slow down, let’s look at all the things that we would want. I kind of kept asking myself, “What did I need people who educated me to know about my experience that would’ve helped them be better for me in the room?” And quickly I realized that that perspective assumed cis-ness on a lot of our participants. Nicolas, we were actually really, really glad to have you in our first class because, you know, I had known your work obviously, and I was like, “Yes. Oh my gosh. Of course this room is not a hundred percent cis, and how dare I assume it would be?”

Joy: Right. No rooms are, usually.

Raja: They never are!

Joy: Any time you have a gathering of more than a dozen or so people in a room, yeah.

Raja: Yeah, we’re going to be there.

Nicolas: I think I came into the room being like, “People keep coming to me as the trans expert, so I need to find out what other people are saying about things and be part of that conversation.”

Joy: Yeah. It definitely is tricky to build a workshop that can speak to people who are in a lot of different places on their sort of educational and just lived experience journey with this. And we talk about that a lot in the training, or in the planning for the training, is, “How this will land on different people in the room?” Another thing that I wanted to highlight out there: I think one of the reasons that Laura and Chelsea knew we’d get along, too, is we’re also both pretty like virulently anti-colonial or decolonial. I’m trying my best, as a descendant of European settlers on this land, to bring as much of decolonial thought and practice into what I do.

So to me, I needed someone who wanted to get angry about gender and cultural and colonial norms and settler sexuality with me in a workshop. I didn’t want to start from, like, “If you’re putting a binder on someone, make sure you...” You know? I didn’t want to start from there. I wanted to start, “Fuck the white cis-heteropatriarchy and the colonial norms they have impacted on our body.” So I was really happy to have someone who also wanted to start from that place.

Raja: Right? Because you see so many, I mean, so many of us who are trans or nonbinary are getting asked to teach these Trans 101 style workshops, and really they ask us to reduce ourselves down to a few good practices and a few terms. And what we are trying to do as makers and creators in this world is so far beyond that, that on day one we’re like, “We are not doing this pronoun, this thing.” And at times we have. We have had to break these things down, and I’m glad we did, you know what I mean?

But quickly we realized that to be truthful in this partnership together as educators, we had to be truthful with the fact that we are still unpacking a lot of these systems. I am somebody who, while I am of mixed race, whiteness found its way into my bloodline, and it oppressed and took me away from some of my Filipino roots. And I’m still in a process of unpacking that and understanding what it means to be an artist with mixed heritage when for so long I saw myself as a white artist. It means unpacking that violence as something that we do together in a way in many forms. Because yeah, effectively teaching is not about, “All right, let’s give them the tips so they know how to work with us.” And that is a form of harm reduction. It really is. I would so much rather a costumer understand what binding is and what tucking is when they go on set, and that is not going to solve the systemic inequality and power differentials that are being navigated in this system; and that’s the kind of person I want to be on set.

Joy: Yeah, there’s this thing about being a very small minority; and trans and nonbinary is many things, but so far, at least right now, one thing we are is a pretty small minority. I don’t know why the religious right has their panties all tied in a twist about the few of us who are out here doing this. And as I always say to my students in my gender and sexuality class, I love looking at the map of how left-handedness seemed to increase once the prejudice against left-handedness started to go away. So of course we still do not know—

Nicolas: When people were allowed to just be left-handed.

Joy: Yeah, it turns out. So we still don’t know the percentage of the minority that we might be in a more Muñozian utopian world. But as it is now, we are a small minority and that means it’s a small minority of stories out there. And that’s not just random. That’s also the Hays Code and oppression of representation of gender and queer people everywhere.

Nicolas: Quick aside about the Hays Code, or the original Motion Picture Production Code: it was the US film industry’s first set of official guidelines governing what could and could not be shown on screen in effect from the 1930s to the late sixties. Under the Hays Code, explicit depictions of queerness were forbidden flat out. There is a great documentary exploring how queerness made it onto the screen in more coded ways, both for better and for worse, called The Celluloid Closet. Go check that out, link in the transcript.

As an historical document itself, the Hays Code is fascinating, oddly specific in its definitions of which spaces and bodies are deemed moral and immoral and full of contradictions. Calling my fellow teachers here, it’s a great primary source document to unpack with your students and discussions around representations of gender, sexuality, and race both historically and for today, since the Hays Code guidelines were essentially the precursor to our modern film rating system. The specifics of all of that are a tangent for another day. Back to Joy’s point about the current heightened politicization of trans existence.

Joy: The workshop is an interesting place to explore the politics of the currently very politicized but still quite small minority that we’re living as right now.

Raja: There’s a sort of degree of mixed fluency in the rooms we enter into, and that became very clear to us very quickly, because it was very easy to assume that the audience would come to us and say, like, “Teach us about trans things. We know nothing, we’re not going to do our own work.” That exercise you referenced came out of that thought to try and ask people to think about their gender, for many people the first time. And quickly, I think, the first meeting we had after that first session we’re like, “I don’t know if this lands because it’s a little… I don’t want to say accusatory, but to assume that no one in that room had investigated.” And I guess that’s not the assumption we’re making, but we all navigate gender.

Joy: Yeah, I think… So one of the things that happens when you’re a small minority is that people… it’s really easy to Other a small minority, right? This is how violence happens towards minorities. Those small people, those people over there, there’s not very many of them. There must be something taboo about this minority. And it’s so easy to objectify: trans are people like this, nonbinary are people like this. And I think part of what we wanted to start doing was to think about just gender. Like, what happens if we just start thinking about how weird gender is and destabilize whatever people might be coming in with about gender? To start with the destabilization. And again, that lands so differently with trans or cis or questioning people. But what we are working on—there’s a couple of new things coming out with our new workshop. And again, I don’t want to give too much away—but one thing we are trying to focus on is beautiful examples of trans and nonbinary intimacy.

So if you have any listeners out there who would like to share with us any of their favorite great scenes of trans and nonbinary intimacy that they have the rights to access that they could let us show in a workshop, we’re still looking. Part of queer and trans intimacy choreography is knowing and understanding physical dance, theatre movement, touch-based in lineages from within queer culture—so trying to show and showcase some of those in the workshop and give people an opportunity to both be inspired by and also sort of practice transcribing choreography.

We’re still over Zoom; we’re still not in person with actual bodies. So, it’s a good time for some of the sort of theoretical, some of the sort of choreographic watching and discussing, role plays. It’s a good space for a lot of that, and hopefully someday we will get to do this workshop in person so we will get to actually bring some of our beautiful gender transgressive bodies into space together.

Raja: Yeah, and you noted even here in the notes is part one of this teaching wasn’t just like, “All right, here’s how you prepare to work with somebody who happens to be trans.” As Joy said, we’re cracking gender open, and it is, I mean, part one is a theory-based course. And now part two is where we’re going to start getting into the practice, and how do you have that practice with this embodied knowledge? And it’s why it’s important for us that people do take part one first because it’s real easy to be like, “Oh, well I’m an ally, so whatever. I can start choreographing queer and trans bodies.” And it’s like, I mean, can you? I mean, you could do choreography. You could even get pronouns right. You could even be the most inclusively-minded person. But if you don’t understand queer lineage and history and all of a sudden you’re putting things like handkerchiefs in back pockets because that’s what you saw on the TV… You know what I mean?

There’s just this way of, like… there’s a sense of knowledge, and it goes beyond just, “Do you know the facts? Do you know what pronouns to call this person?” And goes really into when we choreograph, we have to watch the theory and practice. And that’s kind of what a lot of what we ended up doing was: looking at these things like best practices that were already existing and helping people understand how they apply to working with trans and nonbinary people. Because the best practices and these thresholds under which intimacy is trying to test itself, if you will, or the sort of bars in which we hope it clears, they translate into trans and nonbinary related issues. Just sometimes people need to understand that, like, “Oh, that is a way that I make sure that it takes care of the most vulnerable in the room,” or “This is a way that I curate a culture of consent. I just too frequently was thinking about that as something that applies equally to everybody,” and it just doesn’t. It just doesn’t.

Joy: Another thing I feel like our first workshop is trying to do, and I’d love to hear from other people if this comes through, is to contextualize intimacy choreography as already itself a part of queer and genderqueer interpersonal technology and lineage. And this is very evidenced in the use of, like, we say “self-care cue” versus “safe word,” but obviously “safe word” coming from queer kink communities this turn of the century putting forward ideas of safer sex. Even sort of “safe spaces” coming from LGBTQ activism and AIDS activism.

So there’s ways in which part of the workshop is also saying, “Thank you for coming. Welcome to the work that queer and trans people have been doing in your community since time immemorial.” We have been here. We have been doing this. Now there are systems being built up around it to help bring some of these consent and intimacy technologies that have been innovated on in the quiet secret spaces of queer love and intimacy and bring them to the huddled hetero masses wanting to be free. So, I don’t know if that comes across in the workshop too, but that’s part of the goal.

Nicolas: I remembered thinking: these connections make sense as to why this is here. This aligns with a whole lot of queer subcultural things and practices. And even things like just not assuming someone’s experience and explicit communication around “how is this going to go?” Or thinking through boundaries as to why someone would or would not want to take on a role for reasons other than personal homophobia.

Joy: I’m going to talk about this in an essay that I’m hoping to put out about awkwardness and the sort of productive power of awkwardness in intimacy choreography. This idea that it kind of slows things down. And we have this false binary of things that are natural are good and things that are awkward are bad. And of course, if you’re a trans or nonbinary person, this term “natural” has been weaponized against you your whole life. So if the options are natural or awkward, I’ll actually take awkward, and I haven’t had the choice but to take awkward in my body—

Nicolas: I feel like as queer folks we just constantly embody and embrace awkward.

Joy: We do, and I love—

Raja: Because we’re learning, right?

Nicolas: Yeah.

If we don’t acknowledge the ways that power is mediated between the real bodies and the characters’ bodies, then it’s like we’re not having a real conversation.

Raja: If you’ve been told that your body moves X, Y, and Z ways your whole life, and now that you’re out, it’s supposed to move in A, B, and C ways, yeah, it might be awkward while you’re learning. You know what I mean? How this new body moves. And at the same time, nobody should be telling you that that body should move in A, B, C ways. A truly radical perspective on choreography would be to say, “Let’s figure out what the choreography is without referring to it must be X, Y, Z or A, B, C,” because frankly I don’t know the relationship that they might have to that. It’s one of the things that we deal with when we get scripts with trans intimacy is I’m like, “Okay, you’ve never imagined that this person has to be the top, that person has to be a bottom because there’s the trans story and wouldn’t be so revolutionary if X, Y, and Z does this act because that’s transgressive?”

I’m like, “It’s not really transgressive if you’re trans. It’s just what we do.” This is why I’ll go into any room, and I’ll be working on a cis scene, and they’ll, like, start getting ready to choreograph. And I’m like, “Why are we assuming that this is the penetrative partner and that’s the receptive partner? Because I don’t see that in the script.” Maybe that’s the truth, but these heterosexual scripts, they’re so pervasive. The director had never imagined that bodies could function different than the way that he had perceived them. And my trans-ness was a form of intervention in that way that just said, “Yeah, I don’t want to be tokenized,” and the reminder that bodies could function different. And that’s what I needed to see when I was younger.

And I sometimes try to resist this narrative of my work is worth it because young trans people will see me and be inspired. I think that we hear that narrative a lot and it’s really useful. It’s kind of the thing that Drag Race and other mainstream culture tries to tell us, is our significance is in the fact that we inspire younger generations. And while that’s really, really helpful, I don’t know, I just, like, I want to be more than an inspiration to somebody. I think that’s a way if we talk about what motherhood is meant, motherhood often looked like sacrifice. And why do we keep telling trans women that they’re best when they’re mothers? Why do we systemically push trans women into these binaries of, like, “Okay, well, you’re trans, so go get in your actual gender.” And that’s a violence that can get enacted in classrooms if people are looking at trans-ness as like, “Oh, I just need to treat them like any other woman.”

And no, my body is—I hate the idea of being visibly trans because what the fuck does that mean? —and if you put me on stage and you put me into a role that is not consistent with what my body looks like, the audience notices that. Why are we pretending that they don’t? Again, something that came out of the Power Play course is power is inevitable on stage. Power is inevitable in the rehearsal room. They coexist in the space at the performance, and if we don’t acknowledge the ways that power is mediated between the real bodies and the characters’ bodies, then it’s like we’re not having a real conversation. You just put a trans body on stage and refused to acknowledge power systems that exist with them. And that’s, for me, really weak theatre. You know what I mean? I had a callback for a show where—I mean, it’s a show that’s traditionally done with five women—and I was the uptight, never-been-queer woman.

And I was like, “Oh, it’s camp, I get it.” And that wasn’t what the director was going for. And I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, in that case, how the hell am I supposed to play this role?” Because they’re going to see that I’m trans. And then if it’s not acknowledged either in the script or in the staging of it, why are you putting me up there? Don’t do it. And I didn’t get that role, thank God. But it was a question I had asked: does this director want to have a conversation about what the power dynamics of me being the only trans body in this room is? Because it’s in a rehearsal and on stage.

I pointed out to a production recently, I said, “Hey, I really appreciate that you casted diversely, but did you notice that the main characters are all the white people in the cast and the ensemble is all the people of color?” Because we see that. And I know that you say you don’t see that, but we do. And we have to account for that because right now what you staged was ten people of color uplifting the story of three white people. How do you not acknowledge it when it’s on stage?

And that’s really the big intervention I’ve been dealing with lately is power is inherent. Power is always there. The audience will always read the power. We have a responsibility of shaping what that power means, both in the context of the story and the real bodies on stage.

Nicolas: There’s also a queer great embodiment of calling out those power structures and making everybody else in the room feel awkward about it.

Raja: Absolutely.

Nicolas: I think it is something that anytime we advocate for ourselves, it’s kind of like a productive awkwardness that we tend to be more comfortable causing in rooms that were not built for us.

Raja: Well, because discomfort frequently comes from ambiguity for people, and for many queer people, the ambiguity is quite comforting. I love getting caught in the darkness of a nightclub where my body and a body next to mine sort of meld into the space in a way. And what we do is we find each other fluidly through these spaces and we move together in this sort of protection. And that’s why it’s so important that we defend queer spaces and why queer spaces both don’t gatekeep who can come in and who cannot, but also are willing to protect themselves—

Joy: Privacy, boundaries.

Raja: Privacy, boundaries. Who can come in? How are photos navigated in the club? These sorts of things. They matter because we find each other in the darkness so often, and we find and embrace each other in our ambiguities. And that, for me, is queer praxis. For many people who have never functioned in that way before, it feels awkward. It feels very awkward to be like, “Why do you keep calling me cis?” I’m like, “Because that’s the language. That’s the word I need to use right now.”

Joy: The technique that we sometimes suggest in our workshops, which is if you see a director or an actor using something that’s particularly stereotypical that you just name it: “Oh, you’re playing with a stereotype of a genderqueer person,” “Oh, you’re playing with the asexual hermaphrodite trope,” “Oh, you’re playing with the sex worker trans woman trope.” To just name it that they’re doing it. And then follow up questions are like, “So why? To what end? How does that develop? What is the next step of that stereotype’s story?” Because there are ways in which sometimes you bring stereotypes into a performance space in order to critique them or try to subvert them. Or Anne Bogart says, “Light a fire under them.” Sometimes things are stereotypical, but we have to be very clear when we are using them—

Nicolas: Or we take them to the extreme and make it camp.

Raja: Camp is a very queer form of critique. And the question frequently becomes, is this critique or is this a stereotype? Because queer people are always renegotiating the stereotypes about who they are and what resonates as true and what does not. And so, who are we to say that it’s a bad thing to put those things on stage? It’s not. It’s the same thing–I was working on a production at Studio Theatre, on Hot Wing King, and there’s a character one could read as a stereotypically flamboyant Black man. And I think that there are some people who have read that script in the past—not necessarily the show or anybody from this production—they’re like, “Oh, he’s whatever, whatever. This just feels like such a stereotypical approach on Blackness.” I said, “I promise you Katori Hall didn’t do that on accident. I promise you she’s too smart to let that accidentally slide.”

Joy: That’s right.

Raja: You know, I mean?

Joy: One of Memphis’s—I live in Memphis—so one of our most famed artists, I’m sure she did that on purpose.

Raja: Absolutely, not a doubt in my mind, not a doubt in my mind. You know what I mean?

Joy: For sure.

Raja: And then, yeah, it was one of those things that I just fear that some people will see that play and just be like, “Oh, I saw stereotypes of Blackness.” I said, “No, you saw Black artists negotiating and reevaluating and critiquing the existence of these and having a conversation and that maybe it was a little more internal and maybe you didn’t get in on because you’re not part of that. That’s not your lived experience, so what you’re seeing is performativity. And what’s happening is both performativity and critique.”

Nicolas: Just to bring in another Muñoz concept in here: it’s disidentification, working on and against these limiting roles that are kind of thrust upon us.

Joy: Yep, absolutely.

Nicolas: Which are really difficult to recognize when you’re not in on that conversation.

Joy: Yeah.

Raja: Yeah. Yep. Yeah.

Nicolas: Running with this theme of how we negotiate tropes, stereotypes, our own identities and orientations to these narratives versus how the audience reads us, I want to make a connection to Raja’s reflection on Theatrical Intimacy Education’s presentation at the Association for Theatre and Higher Education conference last summer, “Boundaries and Bad Guys,” which speaks to some of these tensions specifically for actors.

Raja: That kind of idea is really what sparked Laura Rikard, Greg Geffrard, and I, creating the “Boundaries and Bad Guys” that we presented at ATHE. We were running into these situations where a lot of people were coming up and being like, “Hey, I can’t play this role. This is a really villainous character,” and that’s a certain form of difficulty, and “there’s boundaries and consent in place, but there’s not boundaries in consent in place for people who have to play the villains, the most horrible people that we put on stage. And what do I do with that?” I’m like, “Ah, here’s the thing. You might be trying to reach the threshold of being enthusiastic about it. I hope you’re not enthusiastic about throwing out racialized language at another actor. Let’s make that only something that comes up in the most necessary moments of rehearsal. Let’s use placeholders until then. Let’s not ask you to be enthusiastic about taking on a character who does things that are racist or bigoted or sexist or violent.”

And that’s the thing with actors is, especially at a young age, they’re worried that their peers are going to see them as that person if they do it too good. If they act too good, then what happens if, oh, the boundary of self and character gets too blurred? For most actors, it doesn’t. But it’s fair to also be curious if your audience is going to know how to navigate those things. And it’s something that we do have to think about if we’re going to be responsible and teaching young students who are coming up into their careers, playing these characters is hard. And please stop trying to be enthusiastic about having to say this word. Let’s go ahead and figure out how we can get in and out of it in a way that does the least amount of harm in the room.

Joy: I have definitely been noticing how much students in my care over the past decade or so, yeah, they don’t like to play villains. Yeah.

Raja: And as somebody who was tall and frequently people saw my slightly melanated skin and tall, big frame and said, “Ah, the villain,” you know what I mean? And for a while I embraced it because I was like, “Ooh, queer villainy!” That’s been sussed through a million times. And it started getting harder, and it started getting harder and harder, and I had a very distinct memory of working with an actor who could not understand me as somebody who was at work. And the things I had to say to her was not me, it was the words that were written on the page.

And frankly, that show was the last show that I did before I got into this industry. And I think they’re related because I all of a sudden became aware that this actor didn’t understand what was craft and what was real. And all of a sudden—I am actively coming out, mind you—am in this dressing room with this actor, “I’m not saying the same words this man is saying. I actually don’t even think I am a man, let alone saying these words.” And until we can have space for the fact that it does come from that body, it was my instrument ultimately that said those words; the actor, the character, that was the craft. And that’s really huge and is consistent with my experience of my transness and my queerness is I am not always just playing 6’2’’ Filipino American trans woman. I wouldn’t get work. So I have craft.

Nicolas: Even more complicated with specifically trans roles—not necessarily for the actor themselves, but for the other (usually cishet) actors on stage and the audiences—I’ve noticed really consistently in reviews of trans shows and responses from audiences, they have a really hard time not reading trans stories as autobiographical.

Raja: Yeah.

Nicolas: And in those cases, that separation gets really, really messy.

One of my biggest problems with queer theory and IC work is that it means I’ve got to turn down a lot of gigs because they’re sexist and homophobic.

Raja: And it’s really hard because when so much of what we… I’ll speak for myself, I guess. It’s that it’s this weird thing I have to navigate of, like, yes, I want to have a desexualized room, and I don’t want to bring in my personal experience. I’m not going to come talk about my sex life in a room that I’m working with. And it informs my work. And people don’t seem to understand that I don’t have to have a lived experience to have the craft to tell that story. What I have is the competency and understanding necessary to tell it even if it’s not exactly to my own. And that is just something that we are forced to think about a lot more. You know what I mean? Because there’s an assumption that—un-shockingly, when you think about how trans bodies have been deeply sexualized over and over again—that of course people who have only ever seen us in sex worker roles on SVU assume that anything that we’re bringing in is lived experience.

And my lived experience informs me, but it’s not the only thing I bring. And the lived experience more than anything teaches me how to navigate the oppressive system that didn’t want me in the room. And that’s really the value of hiring somebody with a lived experience, is I don’t get to just step away from this when it becomes difficult. So my resiliency to tell this story is just something that I’ve worked on for a long time, and that’s when we get a lot of questions about, like, “When do I call the queer person to do this intimacy, or when do I do it?” And I’m like, that’s not necessarily the question. I think the question is who’s going to support this production, and what factors help them support it? And sometimes it’s a resiliency to work within a system that is the thing that you need in the room, more than the exact knowledge of was it who and who that wrote this article or that article and this theory?

That’s really helpful for those of us in academia that are trying to talk about it, but in the room, it’s really about how my lived experience informs my ability to do this work consistently, because eight shows in, passion fades. You know what I mean? And if I’m somebody who has to live with this trans body and love this trans body day in and day out, it’s a lot easier for me to figure out how I bring that to the stage than somebody who just hasn’t built that resiliency, who learned about us from a book.

Joy: Sort of, still I would say one of my biggest problems with queer theory and IC work is that it means I’ve got to turn down a lot of gigs because they’re sexist and homophobic. I’m like, “No.” I mean, it’s not that many gigs. I wish I were turning down more, but it’s like I can’t go pursue certain things because don’t want to work on shit that’s homophobic. And sorry, am I allowed to swear on a podcast?

Nicolas: Absolutely.

Joy: Queer theory keeps me out of some circles, I think, a lot of them having to do with Hollywood and the sort of continuing sexual violence of Hollywood.

Raja: Well, yeah, because half of the time they want us to come in and give them a stamp of approval on some terrible work, and I’m just not going to do that.

Joy: This queer ain’t going to do that.

Raja: Just because you brought a queer person on here doesn’t make it less problematic. The script is still problematic.

Joy: And our cis and straight ICs out there who are doing queer and trans work, please try to push back as much as you can if you’re taking these gigs that we’re saying no to. I mean, not that they’re asking me really, but if you’re working on those shows, you’ve got to push them forward, because it can’t stay like this.

Raja: And to set an example for maybe other trans nonbinary and queer intimacy folks, if you feel like you’re seeing somebody who you assume is straight and cis and you’re mad that they took a job taking this queer work… It’s like, just because you assumed they were straight doesn’t mean they are. Queerness is not always visible. It is so frequently not.

Joy: We can’t formalize, “You must be X to enter.” The minute you get into that, it gets, you know, it’s a lot of complicated gatekeeping there that we want to avoid.

Raja: Who’s queer enough to tell queer stories, right?

Joy: Yes, yeah. This is one of the things that Raja and I have been working on in our workshop too, is to try and have our participants do some self-reflection. So one of the things that we are asking you to do is to think about your own boundaries about work you are willing to take, and specifically around questions of gender, sexuality, majoritarian, minorities, identities to think this through in advance so you have some idea about what to say when someone comes to you with a gig or opportunity that might be a little bit outside your lane. Then you can say, “Look, I’ve already thought about this. and I really think it’s important for bisexual people to tell bisexual stories, so because I’m a monosexual or whatever, I’m going to step back, and I actually have a good recommendation for someone who should do that for you.” So I think a lot of it is a kind of self-reflection.

And that works no matter what your field is. Obviously if you’re a IC, you can do that kind of reflection. If you’re an actor, it’s also useful to think through what kinds of roles you feel ethical about taking on in terms of gender and sexuality. And as you are thinking about it, you can develop some relationships with other people that you could check in with. I feel like if this came up with me or Raja, we could check in with each other and be like, “Hey, I got an offer to do this. Is this the right thing for me? What do you think? Let’s talk it out.” But yeah, do that reflection at home if you’re an actor, director, producer, IC. Think through those questions.

Nicolas: And I have somebody to recommend who might be a better fit. Spread the work! Spread the love!

Raja: Part of what would happen is I appreciate the ideas of these micro labels that are emerging because they give us the specificity of talking about our experience. But our ability to talk about the specificities of our experience is not always a good guidance into what roles or jobs are appropriate for us to take. Because if I only took roles for large bodied Filipino trans women, I would never work. There’s not enough stories for me. And so who am I to, like… and it’s this question of how much do you have to fit the role to do it? And that just feels like not actually the question at hand. The question at hand is: where does your lived experience meet your ethics here, and how does that guide you into what you do?

Because we had a really great conversation about, like, also there’s other non-queer identities who do not have a lot of roles offered to them. There is a severe lack of roles for Black women in the theatre still. And it is not the same thing to look at a young Black actor and say, “You shouldn’t take this role because it’s reading as queer versus somebody else who might live other power identities.”

Joy: I wish I could remember the name of the person, our participant, who brought that to the surface. I would love to cite her in this moment.

Raja: I know, and it was so great.

Joy: But it was a really great point. She works with young Black women actresses who don’t have a lot of roles, and she doesn’t want to tell them, “Don’t take on a queer role because it’s outside your lane,” when that lane is already too small in a lot of ways, too narrow. And as soon as she said that, I was like, “Yeah, I agree. I really support that.” I think this is why thinking it through is important.

Raja: These are the kinds of things that make it why we can’t just say, “Oh, do this. Oh, do that.”

Nicolas: And that is where I’ll pause our conversation for this episode. You’ll hear from Joy and Raja again in a couple of weeks. We’ll be diving a bit deeper into how their work stands with one foot in academia and one foot in community and where queer theory and intimacy practice converge between the two. You’ll also hear a bit more about their queer trans artistic family trees.

To keep the series tradition, I want to give a quick shout out to a member of my own queer-trans artistic family tree. Joy Brooke Fairfield is the person who brought me into the queer performance scholarly community in 2019 through the Association for Theatre in Higher Education when I was a very overwhelmed first-year PhD student trying to figure out how to navigate conferences and where my work fit in the field. They were really intentional about creating academic spaces where conversations about trans art, experience, and scholarship could be led by trans people. And they took care to make sure that in those spaces you were never the only trans person in the room. And it was in one of those rooms that Joy in introduced me to Joshua Bastian Cole who was the very first guest on this podcast. I am so, so grateful to get to be in continued conversation with them. And finally, we’ll leave you with a snapshot of gender euphoria in everyday life from Joy.

Joy: Skateboarding. I thought about this question a lot. My other answers are—

Nicolas: I am finding the podcast makes it into classrooms.

Joy: Yeah, so my students don’t have to hear other answers to that. I feel like gender euphoria for me is relational. I love being bros with dudes and like I love being sisters with women. I love being queer siblings with enby siblings. And I really love skateboarding.

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, Dylan 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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