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The Trans Artistic Body

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This week on HowlRound we have several articles from transgender theater artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theater and the world.

Trans—moving across, beyond, through, changing thoroughly.

Isn’t this the life of the artist?

Moving across the country for that writing gig, or that acting job. Telling stories beyond what we had previously imagined. Getting through impossible circumstances—juggling day jobs, living in precarious financial circumstances, just getting through to the next time the art can be the thing. And always changing thoroughly—changing costumes, changing cities, the work itself changing us from the inside out.

Elkhart, London, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, DC, Boston.

Some cities I’ve called home. The journey towards the art has transported me around the world. Had I sat still, in one place, if I were still making home in Elkhart, Indiana, who would I be? What would New York City be if all the artists had stayed home? Or Chicago?

Art requires transitions from place to place. Maybe even transubstantiation—a good Catholic word, long on the tongue, you feel the change in the word even as you speak it—the bread and wine become embodied. So something about movement changes us, makes us more whole, more real, more inside our own bodies? Trans is action and wholeness.

I’m at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the women’s restroom washing my hands. A woman walks in, “I must be in the wrong place,” she says and walks out. Then she walks back in, “No, you’re in the wrong place,” she says, seething with confidence. I walk out, not sure of my place.

The body has so often been compared to home. The body is my temple. But my temple betrays me. The trans body can feel like perpetual homelessness—no definitive bricks and mortar—homelessness inside the contours of your own shape.

At sea inside your own self. The sea in mythology is always a place of transition, a moving away from or toward home and it’s never clear in the Greeks if the sea will kill us or deliver us.

I’ve never been sure if my body would kill me or deliver me.

And sometimes the combinations of homelessness—which city am I in now? Which body will be seen now?—can feel like too much. Will I be in New York seeing a show when they call me sir, will I be dramaturging in Los Angeles when it decides to “yes ma’m” me? Please Chicago, don’t call me lady. And oh my, the looks I got in North Dakota—I would have begged that state to pick any pronoun.

And we feel the pressure to settle down right? Don’t your parents ask your artist self things like: when are you going to buy a house? When are you going to get a real job? When are you planning to get serious? And living trans for me begs that question every morning: Which body will I settle down in today? Should I become something unambiguous? Should I make everyone else comfortable today and skip the tie? Should I transition in the fullest sense of that word, change thoroughly? And then will I suddenly become unambiguous? Will that be home?

It seems politically incorrect to suggest homelessness as a path, or to lobby for home as ambiguous. As a profession we’ve become pretty obsessed with the concrete. We like to build new theaters because it suggests stability—that we’re here to stay. But can art ever be so sure of itself? And we know the body is a crapshoot when it comes right down to it. My good friend in her early forties just got breast cancer. Some days the body, in a philosophical sense, just pisses me off so much in all its trans-ness—I only have so much control over its journey toward home.

Home turns in on itself. Remember the mortgage crisis when homes and everyone inside went under water? We’re at sea as a nation, and as a few people start to float to the surface to rebuild, will Wall Street sink us again? I don’t even know how to begin to talk globally about home and displacement. What do we do with our own border crisis? We’re all living on the edge. I know I’m not alone.

My trans body lives on the edge of home. My artistic body does too—so many cities over time. And it’s hard not to want to build foundations, to give in to the desire to pour concrete somewhere. But I’ve spent many years at the border of competing genders, learning to live without that sense of home—some days I thrive there, and other days I’m just flailing along. And it’s the imaginative home of theater where I rest most easily—where the stories we tell hold the possibility of reshaping the world, broadening the possibilities for how we can define ourselves and where we live.   


Thoughts from the curator

A series from trans theatre artists that highlight diverse stories of a trans community of practicing artists working to create visibility in the theatre and the world.

Transgender Series


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This post is sweet in all the non-treacly ways—it pulls on every soul-string there is. Thank you for your gorgeous writing and for making the very personal feel so utterly universal.

Nice piece."Please Chicago, don't call me lady....North Dakota--I would have begged that state to pick any pronoun..."Perfect.

Lovely. I feel this sense of invisible homelessness all the time, as an immigrant without a community of people from the same country. Perhaps in-between ness (literally neither here nor there) can be its own sort of home-- like a caravan.

Thank you, Polly. I'm inspired, as always, by your honesty and courage. The body's home and homelessness in all the ways you describe is something I will be thinking about for a long time.

Thank you Polly. To be deterritorialized and deterritorialization has often fascinated me. How a more nomadic existence or at least one less bound to place creates its own space based on the values, ideals, stories, sensibilities, songs, and prayers carried with it. In some ways, it makes the prayers stronger because they become connected to something not bound by place. In the small carpet is an entire cosmology and design on which is enough to pray and fly. Our theatre must have such imperatives. I'm sorry--I don't know where I'm going with this---you're pulling a string that triggers a lot of levers and pulleys and such about assimilation, outsiderness, value of certainty over ambiguity in our society, the march of modernity, rationalism, and the charge of theatre to transcend form and make culture....I think this is a profound inquiry you are sharing and I admire it greatly.

Polly, this is absolutely beautiful. In all the ways that I have felt "homeless", this notion of feeling "homeless" in ones own body has simply rocked me. You have forced me to think deeply...and on a Friday...Darn you and your brilliance Polly Carl!!!

This a beautiful, moving piece of writing. It gets me thinking about home, aging, family, identity...all things i think about a lot lately. All things you prod me to think deeper about.

Really inspiring writing, Polly. Home. I thnk of my home, my city, my memories of places no longer in existence. Home. So full of potential, so fraught with questions. You use that word, that feeling here to paint with honesty, with interrogation, with beauty and sensitivity. Thank you for your continued passion and insight. Respect.

What a wonderful way to wake up. A beautiful piece. And it has inspired me to write my column for our newsletter about the value of the temporary home for artists (eg Djerassi Resident Artists Program) where you can pick any pronoun, any body and any art you want for 30 days. Thank you.

Polly, I think this has been one of the most moving, interesting, conversation inducing, notion challenging weeks on Howl Round. Your post today most definitely included. Might I start the cry for another week of posts on this topic sometime soon? A state of the union check in in response to the week?