Toward a Trans Canon

A Memory

It is the last day of our workshop at the Stratford Lab.

I am standing naked in the center of a group of performers and artists. Someone is reading aloud the scene from the film The Crying Game where [spoiler] the main character is revealed to be a trans woman. It’s a violent and shocking scene. As I remove my last item of clothing, I turn to face everyone and catch their eye. It feels marvelous and safe. I never allow my body to be seen like this, not even by lovers, and yet the previous two weeks of work had provided a context—a framework—that I felt could safely hold my trans, white, femme, medicalized, gender-hacked body and allow me to be seen in all my complexity. This was not how I thought this workshop would end.

We were rehearsing Galatea, a sixteenth-century English play by John Lyly. It’s a feminist, queer love story about goddesses, nymphs, and mortals, and it contains a trans romance. It has never been professionally performed since its initial run in 1589 when it was performed in front of Queen Elizabeth I. In the past, theatre scholars have said that it was un-performable. Having spent the last four years exploring its beautiful verse and complex, uplifting narratives, I assume they meant that its politics have been considered un-performable. When asked what she thinks of the trans, queer lovers whose narrative runs central to the story, Venus (the Goddess of Love) says, “I like it well, and allow it.” It’s a pretty unequivocal endorsement of trans love.

an actor posing with a trans pride flag with "love" written upon it

Cassandra James dressed as Venus, Goddess of Love. Photo courtesy of The Stratford Festival

The moment that inspired my memory took place spontaneously during a sharing of Galatea on our final afternoon. I had set a group exercise where we would improvise our way through the entire plot and storyline, with space to also introduce other elements that we had touched on in our investigations: contemporary texts, personal memories, songs.

At the end of the performance, we—a group made up of Two-Spirit, trans, and cis people together—marched from our rehearsal space, past the crowds of audience arriving for the afternoon matinee, across the main theatre courtyard. Held high at the front of our parade was a trans flag, stolen from the London Pride march in the UK a few weeks earlier. Subira Wahogo, an artist who had accompanied me to Turtle Island from the UK and alongside whom I had marched at the head of London Pride started chanting “Please know your history, Black trans women fought for me!” and the group joined them, voices raised. We stood around the Stratford Festival Theatre’s flagpole, and there was a fanfare from the festival orchestra and cheers as our flag was raised and flown from the top.

It was an incredible moment. At a venue where the more recognizable rainbow pride flag had only recently been flown for the first time; in a town where every member of my trans company experienced harassment during our stay; in a country where LGBT sex education was being removed from school curriculums and at a time when all over the world trans people experience violence and persecution on a daily basis, we stood in that place, cheered, and flew our flag.

Was this the trans canon at work? How did we get there? And, more importantly, what comes next?

When you hire people to be themselves, bring their own lived experiences, and represent their communities, additional care is required.

What Came Before?

In 2018, I was invited to join a different Stratford Lab workshop as an actor. The workshop was called Engendering the Stage and looked at early modern plays where characters subvert mainstream gender expectations—characters written as female demonstrating “masculine” traits like displaying anger and engaging in sword play. There were a number of academics and actors from the theatre’s season involved, as well as several other artists who identified as Two-Spirit and/or transgender: four of us in the room.

Although this was a small intervention, it felt groundbreaking to me. There were four of us! We had the corners. We had each other’s backs.

Our presence derailed the expectations of the workshop in a really glorious way. Instead of approaching the texts from a cisgender perspective, our knowledge and presence encouraged the room to further deconstruct their held assumptions of gender and think differently. The week-long process was gloriously messy, inconclusive, exhausting, and expansive.

Following that experience, in the summer of 2019 I was invited to return to the Stratford Lab, this time to lead a longer investigation under the title “Towards a Trans Canon.” Similarly to the previous year, we had an ensemble of cisgender Festival actors, and I invited six other Two-Spirit and/or trans identified performers.

This core affinity group was me, Beric Manywounds, Cole Alvis (who had also been present the year before), Rhiannon Collett, Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, Subira Wahogo, and Cassandra James. They were mainly from Turtle Island with the exception of Subira, who I invited because I did not want to be the only person from my home community to benefit from the Lab, as well as being aware that my experience is not representative of all UK trans people.

[Our canons] interlink and crossover, creating beautiful spiraling patterns, Venn diagrams of intersecting violence and joys, but something specific about the trans experience is that, on some level, one must experience it alone.

Tread Softly: The Core Group

We began gently, allowing time for everyone to meet each other and for us to have space to listen deeply to where we were coming from. Our weeks were divided into days when both groups would be present together and days when the core trans group would meet independently. It was extremely important for the trans-identified group to build trust and to have a space to be able to debrief and check in without feeling the pressure of being observed, or of being in a teaching role. This private space gave us permission to be messy and to explore.

Our central question was: Can there be a “trans canon”? A shared cultural history beyond cycles of violence, celebration, and erasure?

As an exercise, I asked this group to write down as many trans and Two-Spirit plays, films, performances, and artists as we could think of—an attempt to literally create a visual canon and create a sense of abundance rather than lack. The list that subsequently adorned our wall was erratic: people we knew personally, problematic mainstream representations that have aged poorly yet still resonate, artists from drag and club culture, and occasional gems that have survived (like Galatea)…but it did not feel cohesive or conclusive in any way.

Perhaps trans identity is too diverse to be gathered together in the idea of one canon? Rather than move towards the idea of a singular canon, we realized we need many: the canon that represents my transness would be different to that which represents Subira’s or Cole’s or Samson’s or Cassandra’s or Beric’s or Rhiannon’s…or yours. They interlink and crossover, creating beautiful spiraling patterns, Venn diagrams of intersecting violence and joys, but something specific about the trans experience is that, on some level, one must experience it alone.

We propose that a move towards a trans canon and towards decolonizing theatre must also move away from damaging hierarchies.

In Full Company

When both groups were together, we also worked gently. There was sharing of knowledge, terms, and experiences. One positive thing about working with gender as a theme is that everyone (particularly in Western Eurocentric culture) has some shared experience of enforced gender, whether we are trans or cis, and so we were quickly able to find points of context between us.

During our first session all together I brought a large, red hardback volume of the Complete Works of Shakespeare into the room. It was expensive and prestigious—a more perfect representation of The Canon could not have been possible! I invited the actors to, one at a time, step into the center of our circle and physically tear a page from the volume and to then transform that page into something else by folding, ripping, scrunching, eating… I suggested that this was a happy destiny for this book, to be interacted with in a more exciting manner than the many volumes that, I suspect, languish unread on bookshelves around the world.

The resistance and joy that this exercise unlocked was palpable. For some, this was catharsis—a chance to destroy an object that represents so many of the destructive forces of colonial violence and white oppression. For others it was deeply challenging. Some of the participants sought to find specific passages to rip, while others tore unceremoniously and seemingly at random. Every single interaction was incredibly potent to observe.

This physical representation of The Canon remained present throughout many of our subsequent exercises. We used the book as Cupid’s wings in a scene where Cupid’s feathers are torn out by the Goddess Diana’s nymphs. As Samson stood, screaming, while ripped pages littered the ground around his feet, it was impossible not to feel that something was shifting in our relationship to this existing canon. We also used pages to rewrite and create our own worlds by redacting text, revealing new speeches that responded to ourselves and our search for a trans presence. One such poem, redacted from a page of Coriolanus by Festival actor Denise Oucharek, felt very appropriate. It read:

Thy choice, thy pride, thyself.
Trust your will.
Arm yourself, they are prepared with accusations.
Answer in honour, assemble strength.

multiple people posing for a photo next to the stratford festival sign

Members of the Lab Ensemble gather around the flagpole on their final day. Photo courtesy of The Stratford Festival

What Comes Next?

As we neared the end of our time together, the core group wanted to do something to recognize that, although these moments of “lab” and “workshop” can be helpful and exciting, we are ready and eager to now take our bodies and our stories and our practice onto mainstream stages and into rehearsal rooms. We do not need further workshops to investigate if trans lives are worthy of performing; to “explore” how to reassure cisgender audiences that our presence will not destabilize their world. Our presence should change things. It must.

We collectively wrote a guidance document (available as a downloadable PDF, and shared in full below), which can be used when employing or working with trans people, and which also should be considered when a company is contemplating working on a story that represents trans narratives.

We wrote it specifically with theatre companies in mind, contemplating some of the specific issues that actors encounter in the mainstream theatre industry. We kept to the forefront of the document an awareness of the specific factors that impact trans people who are Indigenous, Black, or people of color and the extra steps that are required to support them.

Oftentimes the theatre industry does not work in a healthy way and actors often have the least input in a production hierarchy. We propose that a move towards a trans canon and towards decolonizing theatre must also move away from these damaging hierarchies. But we also recognize that in the shorter term, trans actors are likely to be hired under existing structures and expected to fit seamlessly into existing ways of working. This is unlikely to work.

Two-Spirit, trans, and gender variant people have been kept out of the Western performance industry and theatre culture for too many generations now and, if we are to move towards a body of work that one day could be considered a canon, it is necessary now to employ, celebrate, and center Two-Spirit and trans actors, directors, writers, and artists.

The following guidance document is a starting place for how theatres could begin to do this, now, today.

***

This document was compiled by Cole Alvis (they/them), Samson Bonkeabantu Brown (he/him), Rhiannon Collett (they/them), Emma Frankland (she/her), Cassandra James (she/her), Beric Manywounds (they/them), and Subira Wahogo (they/them) during a Lab investigation called Toward a Trans Canon, which took place at the Stratford Festival of Canada in August 2019.

When you hire people to be themselves, bring their own lived experiences, and represent their communities, additional care is required.

This care can look like this:

Two-Spirit Consideration

When providing support for Indigenous artists, ensure that spiritual supporters/Elders share affinity and have a de-colonial perspective on Two-Spirit issues.

Trans Content

Trans people and the trans community need to be telling their own stories.

  • Is the writer, director, cast, etc. of trans experience?
  • If an institution cannot hire a trans person, strongly consider not telling this story.

Traumatic Content

Extra consideration is often necessary when work may be focused or rooted in a performer’s trauma.

  • Know this trauma may not necessarily be positioned within the work.
  • Are the performers safe?
  • Are they working in an environment where they can feel empowered?
  • Can the artists safely articulate their needs?

Consent

  • A trans person consenting to work does not explicitly consent to them being “out” and having their identity shared.
  • Respect privacy when sharing and establishing agency for trans artists in relationship to their own trauma.
  • Release expectations and obligations to share.
  • No sensationalizing of trans experiences.

Training

Commitment to providing up-to-date awareness training for all staff (administrators, production, front of house as well as creators) prior to inviting trans persons into a facility. This benefits the artists and audience members. Include in this training:

  • How to respect pronouns
  • Introduction to language, etc.

Paying for Additional Labor

  • If an artist is to be expected to facilitate, consult, etc. there must be compensation that sits outside their creative work fee. This additional labor might be: consulting on scripts, language and narrative, facilitating conversations in a formal setting, holding space for emotional labor.

Hiring

Commitment to hiring more than one person of any affinity group. If this is unavoidable, access to peer support is required and should be financially facilitated.

  • Understanding that providing a facilitator of trans experience who is outside the work may be necessary.
  • This person should be available to the artists in a formal way in the space and also digitally when they are not available in the space
  • This can look like scheduled time for debriefs, care, or counseling; a person capable of mental health first aid.
  • Ensuring that self-care resources that are made available to artists are also made financially accessible.

Accommodation and Travel Safety

Understanding that a company’s employment of trans persons extends outside the facility.

  • Providing safe travel after dark.
  • Ensuring landlords/roommates are safe.
  • Know that Two-Spirit and trans artists who are Black or people of color need specific information about their environment before they arrive.

Scheduling

Offer thoughtful consideration when communicating scheduling. Things to consider include:

  • Will the artists be changing outfits?
  • How long will the days be?
  • Are artists being photographed?
  • How strenuous will the work be?

These questions are useful for trans persons because they may bind / tuck or be recovering from surgery. A trans person’s sense of confidence in their appearance may fluctuate from day to day.

Appearance

Know that trans people have a different relationship to hair, makeup, and costume often due to gender/body dysphoria.

  • Include trans artists in meaningful conversations in this department.
  • Consider devoting time, resources and/or compensation to meet these additional needs.

Bathrooms

  • Provide access to all-gender bathroom facilities that are not also meeting physical accessibility needs.
  • Bathrooms shouldn’t be policed; for example, some trans people would like to use a gendered bathroom.

Communication

Talk to your trans employees.

  • Hold space for their own relationship to their identity before speaking about them to others.
  • Know that trans identities are intersectional.
  • No outing! (No use of “dead names”)
  • Keep your trans employees safe!
  • Believe trans people. They are the experts on their own experience.
  • Black trans people will have different needs. Commit to understanding their intersections.

Intersections

Trans people are not a monolith. Their intersections are valuable. These intersections can include:

  • Disability (visible and invisible)
  • Sex work
  • Race
  • Binary and non-binary
  • Intersex

Medical Needs

Trans persons often have additional medical needs.

  • Commit to creating an environment that considers this and allows trans people to access these needs.
  • Note that some medical appointments can be scheduled years in advance and cannot be rescheduled.

Decolonize!

  • Recognize power dynamics and hierarchies in a room.
  • Are people in power committing to the above considerations and creating an environment that is safe for trans people who may not feel empowered to speak up?
  • This work doesn’t begin when trans people enter a room; it must be integrated and established before we arrive.

Understand that if a strong commitment to these considerations is not present, trans artists who remain in a room may be in danger of tokenism, transphobia, and violence.

We recognize that change doesn’t happen immediately, but it’s time for meaningful engagement so we can all move forward.

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Thoughts from the curators

Canons act as both aspirational mirrors and genealogies for societies, but they also go beyond reflecting an image: they define how we make work and who is invited into the studio, on whose terms. Amid this catastrophe, we have an opportunity to rebuild: what stories will tell us who we are and how we got here, and how will we gather to tell them?This five-part series features curators and artists who participated in the Stratford Festival Lab’s “Beyond the Western Canon” workshop series in the Summer of 2019. This investigation was designed to push beyond the bounds of what is thought of as the theatre’s traditional artistic mandate: the “Western Canon.” In these articles and conversations, artists share their negotiations with dominant systems and structures, imagining holistic processes for a canon-to-come.

Beyond the Western Canon

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This is extremely powerful and important. Thank you for giving us a view into this delicate process and providing tools for people to move forward with this work.