Asked to speak about the ways theatre can build environments that support, mentor, and uplift TGNC students and artists, Anh and Rad navigate the inquiry with the knowledge of queer theatre and theatremakers’ historic erasure and loss. While in the traditional sense, one could be considered a “mentee” and the other a “mentor,” in truth they are equally both and neither on a continuum of intergenerational legacy and learning. Since young TGNC artists, specifically young BIPOC TGNC artists, face institutional barriers, theatres should look to TGNC artists like these, as they queer the image of what mentorship can be.
Daydreaming and Queer Loss
The idea that an artist should be able to see themselves, at least partly, in their mentor has always seemed alien in my life. It never occurred to me that I should seek out and learn from an older figure who, like me, migrated from Vietnam to become an experimental choreographer and who also happens to be gay/queer/non-binary and make sexually explicit works about anti-colonial revolutions and intergenerational war trauma. Such a mentor, I assume, does not exist.
Being mentored by someone sharing my marginalized identity categories would certainly help sooth the abstract yet visceral feelings of loneliness and isolation of being a racial and sexual minority in the cutthroat economy of theatre. Where, though, could I access this mentor as a young person? Academic institutions, summer programs, unpaid apprenticeships, internships, or “merit-based’ residencies and fellowships for “emerging” artists require barriers of entry that are inherently inaccessible to low-income, trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC), and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) youth. From this perspective, strategic institutional efforts do have the reparative capacity to foster a communal space of solidarity and intergenerational exchange between folks at the margin. However, this kind of mentorship, developed through diversity initiatives and institutional matchmaking, has its limits.
These limits rest on the assumption of what a mentor is—someone who shares our histories and empathizes with our artistic concerns, thus having the capacity to hold our hands and walk us through the creative process, as well as up the economic ladder. This individualistic thinking places extreme weight on finding the right mentor. The solution seemingly becomes: We just need to devise better matchmaking systems.
This paternalistic approach to mentorship is perhaps more suited to ensuring the economic success of young artists than it is to the nurturing of the creative process itself. In fact, the overbearing grip of the individual mentor has to be loosened and eventually broken away if we want to enrich our imagination and grow our artistic voices. In his memoir The Motion of Light In Water, sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany shies away from the paternal figure and welcomes the more speculative currents when he reflects on the influences in his writings.
Writers who influence us […] are not usually the ones we read thoroughly and confront with our complete attention, but rather the ill- and partially read writers we start on, often in troubled awe, only to close the book after pages or chapters, when our imagination works up beyond the point where we can continue to submit our fancies to theirs.
To know someone’s work too well, too thoroughly is to already rationalize and confine it within our intellectual faculties, leaving no room for us to daydream and mythicize about possibilities of the unknown, the not-yet-known. Similarly, a mentor who has a firm grasp of our work, and vice versa, whose work we identify and align too closely with, can only restrict our imagination in the mentor’s attempt to provide us guidance. The question, then, is not how can we devise better matchmaking systems to pair us with suitable mentors, but how can the mentors in our lives approximate the “ill- and partially read writers”? What are the implications, both for mentor and mentee, of having an ill- and partially conceived relationship that is not built upon a mutual and comprehensive understanding of each other?
In this more expansive sense, our mentors are the playwright whose name constantly slips out of our memory, the director whose work we never get to experience in person, the performer we are obsessed with but too intimidated to speak to, the poet we write to but from whom we never receive a response, the choreographer we stumble upon in a book passage without much else in the archive.
Certainly, I do have mentors in a more institutional sense (who all happen to be white women). They have taught me a whole lot and helped me tremendously in navigating this economy. But when it comes to the engine behind my artistic process, I always return to the more speculative figures in my life: author Sam Delany, theorist José Esteban Muñoz, dancer Fred Herko, filmmaker Trinh T. Minh Ha, pornographer Annie Sprinkle, philosopher Paul Preciado—all of whom I’ve never met. Nor do I have the desire to meet them, just in case it might ruin our “relationships.” In the studio, I would imagine talking with them and they would subsequently guide me through whatever creative hurdles I’m struggling with.
It might sound dreamy and poetic to be craving these fan-fiction-like relationships. Nevertheless, this enigmatic model of social and historical relations is fundamental to queer survival, to the extent that queerness is characterized by its exclusion and erasure from the cultural canon and the collective memory. Most spectacularly, queerness is marked by the loss of a generation to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s. This historical loss we inherit renders impossible our access to the paternal mentor figure, leaving us little choice but to imagine alternative ways of connecting to the previous generations.
“To accept loss is to accept queerness,” writes queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. Accepting loss is not only coming to terms with the amount of mourning we queers have borne, but also embracing a speculative relationship to history that is necessitated by loss. In other words, we did not lose our history. Loss lives on and materializes in fleeting traces, ephemeral gestures, and incidental encounters—always incomplete and indeterminate against the straightening imperative of heterosexuality. The lack of queer mentors, hence, exceeds the condition of absence. This lack carves out a space for us to relate to previous generations with an imaginative desire beyond rational knowing.
Decades after the AIDS crisis, we are getting to a point where the vacuum of queer mentorship for TGNC youth is gradually becoming filled. However, we cannot forget the sensibility developed around queer loss. The paternal mentor figure has to become superfluous within our destabilized approach to mentorship. This figure dissipates into the larger ecology, in which everyone and everything supports and influences one another in a more unpredictable manner. A good mentor lets go of their desire to mentor and to guide. They simply have to be there, giving way to the larger socio-historical currents passing through their mentee’s life.
This mode of being might feel too conceptual, too utopian, and hardly an actionable blueprint for the future. But I am not talking about the future. The space of ambiguity is where many of us queers have been and are still living—our abstract and almost illegible form of social relations allows us to be fugitive and resilient in face of hetero-patriarchal violence. My writing does not aim to find a solution to the institutional problem of mentorship for TGNC youth; rather, I am simply tending to our history of queer survival.
Anh Vo (they/he) is a Vietnamese choreographer, dancer, theorist, and activist. Their writings focus on experimental practices and socioeconomic relations in contemporary dance and pornography.
Move at the Speed of Trust
When people say the theatre is dying, I say, “Good.” The theatre they mean is exclusive and elitist and reeks of white patriarchal superiority. We, the “American” body are the land, are the people, are the theatre. We are disembodied, fractured, and disconnected. If the land is hurting, we are hurting; if we hurt the land, we hurt ourselves. We are in a crisis of imagination of our own making. This is why the theatre is dying: We have almost completely lost touch with the people, and if the blood isn’t flowing to all parts, death is imminent.
My elders and mentors have instilled in me that storytelling is medicine, an obligation and a calling to serve, preserve, and heal that comes from beyond myself. We are the medicine we need. There is a Haudenosaunee principle that says we must consider our impact on seven generations after ours. This means aligning our actions with our ethics and beliefs to ensure that the regenerative relationships necessary to life-giving practices are nurtured. Black trans women have also taught me this with the concept of “each one, teach one.” Our knowledge, resources and traditions must be shared and imparted as we create or else it will end with us alone and exhausted shouting into the void wondering where we went astray.
In my youth, I was often told I was too much, too many things, too big. As an entirely diasporic body and queer spirit, I came to know that my many paths in life and art would be multidimensional, complex, and confusing. My interests ranged from theatre to decolonization to urban planning and healing. When I first migrated to Turtle Island (the U.S.), I found mentorship with the Jaimaican and Haitain lunch ladies in Plantation, Fla., and the rabbis who endlessly debated me. As I grew, my mentors became my first Black acting teacher, who introduced me to liberation work, and the radical elder communist mailman I worked with in high school. These mentors celebrated my queerness, my two-spiritness, my brownness, my unnamable wisdoms and curiosities, by asking questions, encouraging my spirit to go deeper, and flaming the fires of my boldness to have the courage to disagree and say no.
From a young age, I sensed that a traditional mentor who sips tea in their dusty armchair or strokes their beard in their mahogany ivory tower, the kind I saw in movies, wouldn’t be the match for me. I’ve had a wide assortment of mentors who have harmed and helped me. For me, mentorship wasn’t just about the cultivation of my artistic practice, guiding my career steps, or offering advice on resources and educational opportunities. Nourishing mentorship has been about navigating being an outsider in the industry, modeling how not to put people on pedestals, teaching me ways to interpret the layers of meaning in art and life, figuring out how to exist freely despite my religious family, developing discernment, encouraging me to trust my own wisdom, and so many more unquantifiable lessons. I have healed to hold gratitude and compassion toward the folks who did try to mentor me. But some of that mentorship was instead a projection of my mentors’ ideas of who they thought I should be, rather than actually seeing me and cultivating my instincts to illuminate my own path toward my authentic calling.
After a deep dive into experimental, participatory political performance, my first foray back into institutional theatre was a marvelous, all-femme adapation of The Tempest at Pittsburgh Public Theater with a majority BIPOC cast. I played Ferdinand, the gender-fluid young prince who is set adrift in a shipwreck and falls in love with Miranda, the daughter of the witch and the exiled Prospero. As a brown two-spirit person, I was nervous and a bit scared to leave my queer Brooklyn bubble for post-industrial steel town Potawatomi land (Pittsburgh) to perform a queer love story for 3,000 people eight times a week.
But then the girl’s chorus arrived at rehearsal and my world shifted. This amazing rainbow coalition of young women reminded me of the deep power of healing-centered intergenerational relationships. My spirit whispered that it was my turn to be a mentor. The cast and I grew friendships with the young women in which we could share stories about our lives and careers, so that they might witness the range of possibilities of a life in theatre. We modeled a relentless and joyful work ethic, commitment to big-hearted storytelling and virtuosic interpretation, but most importantly kindness, deep listening, and lots of fun.
I was in an extended state of awe once performances started, because trans, two-spirit, and gender nonconforming (T2GNC) youth from around Potawatomi would come and wait for me at the stage door. Fanboy status for real. We’d talk, take selfies, share some laughs, and some tears. Those who were privileged enough to have supportive parents would come to me teary-eyed and thank me for giving them and their kids hope. Teachers invited me to talk with their high school drama and LGBT2QIA+ clubs; they said this was the first time a lot of the students were excited about art in their hometown because they finally felt themselves reflected in me.
The youth had deep queries about being a working T2GNC artist and about my relationship with my family. I would be real with them about the expectations of the commercial theatre world, the divine healing in queer chosen family, and the endless options available to them outside of Broadway and Hollywood. I taught them about grassroots organizing in their schools and communities. I told them about incredible T2GNC theatre and performance artists to follow on social media. I shared with them about the wild freedom in transdisciplinary media, where they could combine all their artistic and political passions into unique experiences rooted in their community. They expressed just wanting space to heal and commiserate and dream—space where they could be together to organize around seeking justice for various realities they were witnessing! They wanted opportunities for creative response and conversation about the art they were seeing while sharing snacks or a warm meal. They hoped for a chance to meet other artistic youth from around their city in less formal settings than classrooms—spaces where they could feel free and brave. They also wanted to spend more time with the T2GNC artists in the production. While unable to work with Pittsburgh Public Theatre to program opportunities, I was still eager to form bonds with the youth there.
My opportunity to co-create engagement activities for local youth at a regional theatre came during my time at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Piscataway land (Washington, D.C.,) performing in the world premiere of Ellen McLaughlin’s The Oresteia. During my time at Shakespeare Theatre, I worked with LeeAnet Noble on activities to engage the local youth based on capacity and available resources of the theatre. We invited the youth to use paint markers to respond to the central themes of the show on the big, beautiful glass windows of the theatre.
Their words, drawings, and poems accumulated during our month-long run. We’d have amazing conversations while they wrote and drew and collaborated on these responses. The level of excitement and engagement was aspirational. They drew connections between other answers they saw displayed and opened up about how the story of the play related to their own personal lives. Similarly to Potawatomi, the T2GNC youth in Piscataway also sought me out for selfies and commiseration and affirmation. They were hungry to connect with T2GNC future elders and have some kind of connection to a future in which they could thrive.
The opportunity for authentic dialogue and relationship-building can happen anywhere if we move at the speed of trust, while honoring our own boundaries and the boundaries of the youth and their caretakers. The theatre we need is not meant to be transactional; it has to grow roots and wings into the hearts and spirits of audiences and creatives alike to build a community we can rely on. I long to see more authentic opportunities for relationship-building so that we can honor and keep all of our stories alive.
One way the theatre can evolve and grow to meet the needs of the youth is by co-creating spaces where they are centered and uplifted. Often T2GNC youth just need a place to be—so open your lobbies and rehearsal rooms for after-school hang out space. Offer space and money to local T2GNC organizations or high school groups to host parties, workshops, dinners, or teach-ins. We can nurture communal spaces that are essential, so that we are not living in this extractive scarcity survival mode, but are actually ushering in the next seven generations of theatre people. Build opportunities to develop their agency and power by letting them create their own programming, not just forcing onto them what we think they want. Real, trusting relationships will arise from sharing knowledge and cultivating their organizing skills. Give them opportunities to build worlds and hold space to manifest what’s important to them. Invite them to help choose seasons through a youth council. They know their realities and can add complexity to our layers of understanding. No two communities are the same, so there must be varied approaches to listen and build together.
How can the theatre not only survive but thrive? The youth are definitely part of the answer. They are the pulse of our collective consciousness. They have powerful voices awaiting the space to be nurtured, heard, and valued. They will imagine beyond the limits of our own imaginations, and isn’t that beautiful? Beyond an educational setting, T2GNC youth need spaces where they are safe from often toxic living environments and can feel brave enough to dream, ideate, and cultivate the inner space to hear their own wisdom. We cannot expect youth to develop themselves in a vacuum of theory and proverb; their experiences must go hand in hand with opportunities and room to practice and fail and learn.
Storytelling helps my bones remember what art meant to my ancestors, before and during the wars and the genocides and the displacement and the forced removals and the land theft and the domination. We have always and will always gather around our stories. We story keepers, healers, and interpreters of cosmic wisdom are sacred to our communities. We were once revered, uplifted, and respected as critical members of our worlds. We were medicine and lightning and clarity, and were integral to the well-being of our people. We were sanctuary. By learning from and building community with people who have been already building sanctuaries with T2GNC youth, our theatres can be critical places of communion. We just need regular reminders and ongoing lessons on what it means to be an inclusive, life-affirming space.
Rad Pereira (they/them) is a two-spirit Afro-Indigenous, Jewish, Brazilian (im)migrant artist based in Lenapehoking (Brooklyn). Their practices range from renegade participatory ritual facilitation, to popular theatrical and TV/film performance, to community-based educational artmaking and healing centering an Afrofuturist longing for transformative justice and queer reindigenization of culture.
Creative credits for production photos: BABYLIFT, choreographed by Anh Vo; sound design: Isaac Silber; set design: Kyle B. Co.; lighting design: Lauren Libretti. The Tempest, adapted by Marya Sea Kaminski; direction: Kaminski; set and projection design: L.B. Morse; costume design: Nephelie Andonyadis; lighting design: Nicole Pearce; sound design and original music: Andre Pluess; choreography: Erika Chong Shuch.
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