Transgender representation in theatre and media at large is slowly but noticeably increasing. As we appear on more stages and TV screens, trans performers are often being asked to develop characters, originate characters, or reimagine existing roles.
As a non-binary director, I have found myself trusted with the exciting responsibility of developing transgender roles with a variety of actors. This is something that, even as a trans creator, is relatively new for me. There are all sorts of guidelines and best practices I could offer, but it is important to be clear that I am not centering myself as an expert in how to direct a new play with a transgender role.
I strongly believe that short of firsthand experience, the best way to learn about something is to step outside yourself and gather the experiences of others. This impulse resulted in a deep reflection on my own practices, as well as an invitation to a handful of other performers in the Chicago community to share their thoughts. As we are creating safer and braver spaces, trans performers are often creating the rules of engagement as they go. I invited a handful of other TGNC performers in the Chicago community to share their thoughts as well. They included:
August Forman (they/them), an actor and playwright who has performed at Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre, San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre, and recently workshopped Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes with me at the Story Theatre; Theo Germaine (they/he), an actor and writer who has been seen onstage at TimeLine, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre, and most recently Showtime’s Work in Progress and Ryan Murphy’s The Politician on Netflix; Angelica Grace, who has performed with About Face Theatre and the New Colony, appeared on Work in Progress, and is cast in Brynne Frauenhoffer’s Pro-Am (the Kilroys List), which I’ll be directing at Sideshow Theatre; and Parker Guidry (they/them), a musical theatre actor who has taken on a range of roles, from Lucas in If/Then at Brown Paper Box Co. to Pythio in Head Over Heels at Kokandy Productions, and most recently Work in Progress on Showtime.
They generously responded to three simple questions, all about their most positive and their most challenging work experiences when it comes addressing gender on- and offstage. Their answers were so rich, they inspired me to create a list of prompts for producer/directors hiring trans talent, which I’ve included at the end of the interview. Here we offer the results of our conversations in the hope that they will invite you to begin your own.
REGINA VICTOR: What is one thing a director did before you got in the room that enhanced your process?
AUGUST FORMAN: Any time a director would start the process with the discussions of pronouns or had already set up a game plan for pronouns: If we’re in the room and somebody mixes up a pronoun, this is our plan of attack and how we’ll address it. It can get muddy as hell mixing up character and actor pronouns in the room.
ANGELICA GRACE: This is about tech week and not rehearsals. Before I came out as a trans woman, I was nonbinary. During that time, I did a show where I was the only trans person, and my director asked me which dressing room I felt more comfortable being in.
PARKER GUIDRY: Honestly, the number one thing a director has done to enhance my process is to also be trans. But obviously we can’t sit here and try to pretend that every director has to be trans in order to have trans people in their play. I do a lot of musicals, and unfortunately musical theatre is heavily gendered, so a lot of what I do ends up being a trans person cast in a role that was originally written as cis; when companies buy the rights, they are not allowed to change the script. So many auditions these days come with a pre-audition form you fill out prior to getting into the room that includes questions like, what are your pronouns, what genders are you comfortable performing onstage, are you comfortable playing a character with she/her/hers pronouns or he/him/his pronouns? Which is helpful. It also helps when theatres are upfront about their willingness to change the keys of songs, and doing so at the audition or callback level. Being able to do that in the audition is important rather than leaving it up to chance, or a vague promise the key will be changed later.
THEO GERMAINE: The first thing I can think of in regards to a play is the first time I ever auditioned for a director who was trans. I went home and I cried afterwards. I still have a lot of anxiety when I audition, and that was the first time I’d been in a room with someone like me; having someone in the same boat made me feel great. That and getting to talk to the director about having those anxieties. If I can know that somebody will look out for those habits—when somebody sees you and is like, “Cool, this is something you struggle with and I’m going to look out for it.”
When someone clearly expresses that they want you to succeed, it will make for a better audition or better work experience. Giving the tiniest bit of positive reinforcement makes everybody’s work better. Being considerate, being collaborative. Most of these positive experiences have been with a woman or someone who is not straight or who is not cis.
What is one mistake theatre companies often make when hiring trans performers?
GRACE: If you’ve hired a trans actor, and you don’t make pronouns part of introductions, that’s a strike. I did a show with a large cast once where pronouns were an add-on after I said my own. The older cisgender actors made it comedic. You know what I mean.
“It’s just not normal how we get called in for stuff. They make everything special, they pit us against each other for a small amount of roles, call us in for things we don’t fit at all, and treat gender like a personality trait.”
GERMAINE: There’s a theatre company in Chicago that put out a call a while ago for a part that could be cast with a trans person or a cis person. The breakdown was like, “We’re opening this casting up to trans people,” and they called in every single trans actor in the city of Chicago that they could contact. Seventy-five percent of us came in and were like, we’re not dancers, we don’t fit this at all, they just called us in because of our gender identities, and we’re all going to make fools of ourselves. It was a role calling for very specific things, and as much as we know of ourselves, only so many of us can do that specific thing.
It’s just not normal how we get called in for stuff. They make everything special, they pit us against each other for a small amount of roles, call us in for things we don’t fit at all, and treat gender like a personality trait. Even companies who are more open are like: We’re going to cast an afab (assigned female at birth) person, or an afab nonbinary person, and usually it’s going to be a white person. So there’s a lot of racism that fucks everything up, and there can be a lot of TERFiness (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) that messes everything up in terms of what kind of trans people get called in the room.
We wonder why we have so many trans actors who are white and so many actors who are transmasculine, we have less amab (assigned male at birth) people who are working, and I’m like, that is not random. There are all these little ways in which society is trying to affirm its rules and binaries as much as possible. We love masculinity and we live in an androcentric society, and it makes sense to me that because of those TERF issues that we struggle with, that the people we would be most likely to include in shows would be people who appear to be moving toward androcentricism.
You know when people are like, art is an imitation of life? We live in a society that is like “me me me.” We’re encouraged to exploit, and we apply that to our jobs and our artmaking. As someone who is trying to examine all the ways capitalism is fucking up their life, it’s also fucking up the art world. It’s making us all into huge hypocrites when we talk about success, representation, and visibility. We need to pay attention to what bodies we are seeing onstage and which we are not. I think a lot about work and celebrity and how to mitigate those experiences and use them for good. How can we spin this yarn into gold for other people?
FORMAN: Bathrooms have been a big issue for me. In Chicago, a lot of theatre spaces are parts of churches, and there are not always individual stalls available for us. They’re not necessarily thinking of their artists who are not comfortable using the women’s or men’s restroom. It is hard to sit in a rehearsal room knowing we’re going on break and I’ll be using the restroom with a bunch of people who are going to look at me a funny way. I find myself asking more than a handful of times for this, and then I feel silly about being irritated.
GUIDRY: There’s this idea that hiring us or putting us in a role is making a statement—it’s across the board, whether you’re a lead, supporting, or ensemble character: “This is what we’re designating as the trans statement moment of this play.” Or if I’ve auditioned and appeared at callbacks or in talks with something, hearing, “We don’t know if we want to make that statement with this show.” And I get that on a certain level it does make a statement, because as ridiculous as it is, hiring trans people is not done enough. But the only way to get beyond it being a statement is to make it so common that it’s not a statement anymore. If we keep treating it like, well, if we hire a trans person in this role that’s saying something, we’re never gonna get anywhere.
What is one thing you wish folks would do/know/consider before hiring you in a new play process?
GRACE: If the trans actor is playing a trans role, please know there is a difference between character work and asking for emotional labor (example: trans actor is having to educate). Hire a dramaturg. Or pay me more.
GERMAINE: I just think that people really need to know that I cannot escape talking about gender. I can’t escape it. I make it a point to talk about it and be open and let people know who I am, but I also cannot escape talking about gender. Any question that you ask a trans performer, it’s something he/she/they etc. have already had to answer. Something that I’m understanding is that I was so conditioned to just let myself be tokenized in a lot of ways. And as someone who is really ethically not interested in doing that and smarter about not doing that now, at the end of the day it’s like—we so rarely just get to feel like performers.
What makes you feel good? Being treated like a person. What would make somebody else feel good? Being treated like a person. Be open to being taught, if somebody volunteers to teach you why that isn’t the thing to do or say. That is how I would like things to be on set and in rehearsal. I am tired of talking about gender all the time. Talking to people can be good and gets cis people to be more open in their thoughts, but I’m really tired of it. I’m tired of it being made out to be a personality trait or some extra special thing. I know we’re all special because we decided what gender works for us and what gender doesn’t. I would love for that to not be special, I would love for that to be normal.
“There’s this idea that hiring us or putting us in a role is making a statement…The only way to get beyond it being a statement is to make it so common that it’s not a statement anymore.”
FORMAN: The big thing that I see is the one-size-fits-all trans dilemma that a lot of people have where—I’ve been called into auditions where I walk into a room for one very specific role, and there is every type of trans human. They’re not taking into account that I’m a white transmasculine person; the things I carry are drastically different from a Black trans woman. They are not seeing there are levels to our transness. To start seeing us as individual human beings rather than that one-size-fits-all—that would be beautiful.
GUIDRY: Make sure that you’re hiring at least one other trans person, so I’m not the only one. Whether that’s someone on the creative team, and if it’s not, at least my understudy. If the role is trans-specific, my understudy should also be trans; this is often overlooked. Knowing that we’re not a monolith. If you are expecting me to perform, direct, and dramaturg the trans experience and it’s not to your liking, then that’s on you for not educating yourself on our community as a whole.
That’s another thing: It’s one thing to just hire people, but in order to do that effectively you have to do the work to educate yourself on what it means for this role to be trans. What are the implications of this script? What are the specifics of this person’s trans identity, and how does that translate to the community? Rather than, “We’re going to hire three trans people for the show and it’ll be this, this, and this.”
A brief collaborative review of things to consider when inviting trans actors to develop work with you:
- Can you hire anyone trans to be on the core creative team?
- If not, are the writer, director, or dramaturg well-connected to and trusted by the trans community? If they have that relationship, try to hire consultants or mentors for your artists.
- Have you asked yourself why the character track is trans? Have you asked the writer?
- What are the character specifics? Is their gender a primary personality trait? (This actually happens a lot! We have hobbies, y’all!)
- Is this play “complete”? What levels of dramaturgy or cultural specificity am I asking the performer to bring to this role? Am I relying entirely on their experience for “authenticity”? If so, am I paying them more?
- If you are expecting dramaturgical support from the actor, have you discussed that explicitly with the playwright and actor, and worked out an emotionally safe way for notes to be transferred?
- Have you consulted a casting professional to ensure that your casting notices are inviting to the demographics you wish to audition?
- Are pronouns part of first-day introductions, and do you have a plan/rehearsal culture for when they are not respected?
- Are there bathrooms on site so your artists don’t have to do the Hidden Figures run to another bathroom?
- Have you consulted with the actor on a preferred dressing space?
- Has the performer been able to consult with anyone who would need to help them be at their best, such as a music director to change keys in music, or the costume designer ahead of first day fittings?
This is truly a non-exhaustive list, but I learned so much talking to these four individuals about what would make their work environment healthier. Investing in including trans artists has notably improved the quality of my work and the depth of the characters we’ve made together. As I said above, I am no expert. All I have done is live my experience, ask others about theirs, and consistently invest time in learning. Seek out your specific path to developing transgender characters by being unafraid of the conversation. Be willing to be taught. We have so much to learn from one another.
Regina Victor (they/them/theirs) is a multidisciplinary artist with an emphasis on directing and performance. They co-founded arts publication Rescripted.org in 2017. They are committed to using the power of radical hospitality and radical Black imagination to enact change in our industry.
Creative credits for production photos: Boy, by Anna Ziegler; direction: Damon Kiely; dramaturgy and gender identity consultant: Josephine Kearns; set design: Arnel Sancianco; costume design: Samantha C. Jones; lighting design: Jared Gooding; sound design: Karli Blalock; properties design: Archer Curry; intimacy designer: Charlie Baker. Rutherford and Son, by Githa Sowerby; direction: Mechelle Moe; sound design: Andrew Hansen; dramaturgy: Maren Robinson and Lucas Garcia; wig and hair designer: Megan E. Pirtle; set design: Michelle Lilly; costume design: Alexia Rutherford; lighting design: Brandon Wardell; properties design: Vivian Knouse; intimacy coordinator: Rachel Flesher.
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