When invited to write a piece speaking to trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) equity in the U.S. theatre, it felt natural to commune, as co-authors, with other TGNC production managers (PMs) and stage managers (SMs). This larger community holds a collective wisdom and brilliance about gender equity which gives unique insight into leading a company of artists. More than 40 folks were crowdsourced through online forums and sent a survey with an invitation to a community interview. There were 30 replies to the survey, and 15 people attended the conversation.
The ideas and theories in this piece were crafted from the personal testimonies of 30 individuals across the spectrum of intersectionality, in service of adding to the conversation about equity in the American Theatre, and to shine a light on a community doing the work to move us forward. Here, implicit bias and inequity caused by racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, misogyny, shame, brutality, colonization and all other harmful and toxic behaviors are factual lived experiences. When supported, trusted, taken care of, and fairly compensated, TGNC managers can have the authority to exemplify what it means to prioritize safety, equity, and authenticity, influencing the culture of the process.
PMs and SMs are tasked with myriad responsibilities, which vary depending on the production, organization, location, and people involved, and often put them in the position of listening to underrepresented identities and unheard voices within a process. As a result, many SMs and PMs include activism and advocacy in the way they position themselves in their roles, to push systemic boundaries and drive toward positive change.
Leaders, regardless of their social location, lead the room by example. PMs and SMs set expectations at the top of a process. Managers set the tone for communication, demonstrate core values, document technical aspects of the show, and the needs of the company, and curate the conversations and paperwork that set up an efficient rehearsal room. These communications, which are standard at the start of a process, are primed for discussions around individual boundaries and the power dynamics in the room.
TGNC PMs and SMs discussed how to go above and beyond to make sure to incorporate these types of discussions. Charlie Lovejoy (they/them), a current stage manager and MFA candidate of Yale University, spoke to the importance of acknowledging power structures. They advocated for acknowledging and openly discussing with the company when hiring skews power dynamics. Hypothetical examples include if a white production stage manager (PSM) is managing a show with a predominantly Black cast, or when a cis director leads a show with transness as a major theme. In these and other cases, advocating for “immediate transparent acknowledgment/discussion of power dynamics” and “a clear/demonstrated commitment to listening and to genuine accountability for missteps, and leadership by example of vulnerability and compassion.”
“There’s a stigma around talking about ‘identity’ in the workplace—particularly for TGNC people.”
To craft the future as an industry, transformative practices across the power structure must be established. The cornerstone of the theatrical process is the rehearsal room. It’s where a company rehearses, problem-solves, and crafts a piece for the stage. Every member of the company and organization helps to create an entire new world, and the values determined by the group and the culture in the room will follow the company into the performance space and inform a show for its entire run. Folks can freely enter the room with their whole selves only when that room is intentionally built to encourage full expression of boundaries, histories, and emotions. Creating a culture of wholeness means that every person can craft art together as a manifold team that is multiracial, multi-gendered, socioeconomically diverse, intergenerational, and arrayed across the sexual orientation spectrum.
Rooms where collaborators are expected to leave the world, and often parts of themselves, at the door are not conducive to an authentic and equitable environment. SM Nic Labadie Bartz (they/them) defines a culture of wholeness in their own way as “a space where all collaborators feel that their voice, experience, and craft is valued, and that there is room for it. A space where everybody’s role is clear, and there’s no guesswork around whether or not you should be expected to perform certain duties. A space where as concerns come up collaborators feel safe, and free, to vocalize them (to the group or to an advocate).” In the Culture chapter of Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice: Cultivating a Creative Approach Lisa Porter (she/her) and Narda E. Alcorn (she/her) write, “Diagnosing and fostering specific cultural competencies can lead to rich collaboration and mutual respect. Recognizing the different facets of each culture, and creating an environment where all viewpoints are recognized, valued, and respected, is an important tool for the stage manager.”
Speaking up and leading by example by exhibiting radical transparency and vulnerability was a common theme discussed by the surveyed community. As John Meredith (they/them), AEA SM from Boston, points out, “There’s a stigma around talking about ‘identity’ in the workplace—particularly for TGNC people—that there’s no reason to talk about your gender, and, consequently, pronouns in a professional setting. But this erases the specific needs and realities of an entire population, and I hope by discussing these issues openly, as they pertain to myself, it will normalize these discussions.”
For his part, SM Lucas Hart (he/him) tries to model vulnerability and transparency to combat the stigma of discussing identity. Says Hart, “I am open about my experiences and how I view and navigate the world, in case others need my specific brand of perspective and/or bravery.”
Acknowledging and respecting individual identities starts at the top, with directors and artistic leadership. Jokes made by cis colleagues about pronouns can leave TGNC collaborators feeling immediately disrespected, invalidated, unsafe, or distrustful of others. This is especially true if these jokes are made by those at the top of the power structure, including board members and donors. SMs and PMs surveyed advocated for implementing pronoun protocols prior to the rehearsal process by including pronouns on cast lists, contact sheets, and anything else with a person’s name on it. D.C.-based production administrator Sloane Spencer (they/them) says they work to make it “administratively easier” for TGNC people to use their chosen pronouns at work by working with Human Resources to include pronouns on new hire paperwork. Management can then advocate that in the rehearsal process, during invited runs and tech, everyone begins by introducing themselves with their pronouns if they are comfortable doing so. By clearly stating that jokes about pronouns won’t be permitted, and correcting fellow collaborators when an incorrect pronoun or name is used, strong standards are set for community accountability, helping to lift some of the weight from TGNC colleagues in the room.
Many surveyed spoke of the importance of discussing and establishing protocol to fulfill necessary accommodations at the beginning of a process to minimize time spent mismanaging hurt and conflict later on. In her book The Stage Manager’s Tool Kit, Laurie Kincman (she/her) offers three words as “key elements of successful communication”: tactful, timely, and specific. For their part, Cary GiIlett (she/her) and Jay Sheehan (he/him), who wrote The Production Manager’s Tool Kit, offer three more “communication words”: genuine, respect and empathy. By adopting all of these—the adjectives tactful, timely, and specific, and genuine, and the nouns respect and empathy—into our protocols, collaborators can focus on the work because the foundation of accommodating safety and needs is already in place.
Wisconsin-based production manager, producer, director, and performer K. Woodzick (they/them) notes, “We create our best work when we are respected and relaxed. When [folks] feel the need to be hypervigilant about their collaborators honoring the intersections of their identities, creating one’s best work becomes difficult. Simply put, creating an equitable and authentic room serves the purpose of empowering all to give greater focus to the work itself.”
Stage Management as a Guide to Practice supports this theory, stating, “While stage managers may not have a legal obligation to address the emotional safety of the production’s participants, the way they do so will be shaped by their own ethics. Production processes that are civil, communicative, fair, supportive, and free of harassment and hostility can create an environment where team members feel safe and collaboration and creativity can thrive.” Some tangible protocols that can be implemented at the beginning of any process in service of creating this environment include collecting, recording, and addressing the individual needs of a company (i.e., health, accessibility, specific costuming or makeup, dressing rooms, bathrooms, etc.); being upfront with anti-harrassment, anti-racism, and anti-discrimination policies and procedures; discussing available resources; assigning an advocate people can go to with concerns; setting up a safe word and protocols for when it is used; and identifying and discussing sensitive or potentially triggering language/topics and moments when intimacy direction may be needed within the script.
A favorite strategy, which can aid any interpersonal relationship, is to mindfully schedule or make time for check-ins intended to allow space for collaborators to share how they’re doing, to give or receive feedback, and to address any unresolved issues. These check-ins can happen as a full company, in small groups, or one on one. L.A.-based SM, JP Pollinger (they/them), who interned at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., even suggested adopting self-check-ins. “I always make sure to do a check-in with myself, both in the car before I enter the creative space, and after the work is done for the day and everyone has gone home. I check in mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This is so that I can see where I am at and what I need in that specific moment.”
The need to code switch affects those with the most intersectionality.
TGNC SMs and PMs who are seen to be advocating for their communities are often asked to advise on or lead Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives or to educate others about their identities while inside of a process. However, these requests often don’t come with additional compensation. Production and stage managers are already tasked with a weekly commitment of 60-plus hours. Hiring specific advisors and intimacy coordinators, and effectively compensating in-room peer advocates, can create a care network supporting the wellness of the overall company. This in turn provides colleagues for SMs and PMs to delegate to and collaborate with on the work of caring for others, instead of asking them to shoulder the majority of the responsibility and any consequences of needs not being met.
The additional emotional and intellectual labor of advocating for both themselves and others can be especially risky and burdensome for those who are part of underrepresented communities. “Especially as an ASM or intern, it can be daunting to speak up even in the most welcoming room,” says John Meredith (they/them). “But when actors, directors, SMs, and other people in power create a culture that makes light of or actively misgenders people or perpetuates racist ideas, speaking up can mean risking future employment in an already competitive field.”
Stories were recounted by those surveyed of being constantly misgendered within a process where no one helped correct missteps or took the misgenderings seriously, and of being openly deadnamed (labeled with their birth/given name) and misgendered by directors in the room. Students in theatrical programs discussed the effects of isolation from community, misgenderings, and transphobic comments and jokes from faculty, as well as a lack of systemic support. One SM was made to wear a gendered costume they actively expressed being uncomfortable in. Another noted having to have a conversation with a non-binary actor about having to move to the dressing room that matched their sex assigned at birth due to Actor’s Equity rules requiring gendered bathrooms and dressing rooms. Many spoke about the erasure of being lumped into one gender category and not having their identity recognized, or not feeling like they could bring that part of themselves into the room and the work.
Continuously being the advocate and listening ear, while potentially also managing micro and macro aggressions, without adequate support from collaborators, can lead to what some call “ambassador fatigue” and compassion fatigue. Folks can feel ambassador fatigue when expected to always be a representative, fighting for equitable treatment for themselves and others, while receiving the harms that come with being within the community themselves. Compassion fatigue, also known as “vicarious traumatization,” comes from working with and advocating for folks experiencing trauma. To combat these challenges, Woodzick suggests forming an alliance with accountability buddies in the room. “It is such a blessing to have someone else in the room who is willing to jump in to correct pronouns or make sure the action comes to a halt to acknowledge when microaggressions occur,” they say.
Additionally, TGNC theatre practitioners can adopt self-care routines and boundaries as part of their daily practice. PMs and SMs shared specific personal and professional strategies for this, which can be useful for anyone to integrate into their work. Some professional practices include setting time boundaries (in general and for digital access to themselves), stepping outside of the rehearsal room for breaks, practicing breathing exercises, using sensory grounding techniques, setting boundaries around taking on tasks outside of their contractual job description, building informational resource packets to share ahead of time and/or scheduling time outside of rehearsal for educational conversations, and making sure they always have their favorite snacks and toys around for personal and communal use. Personal practices include going to therapy, journaling, setting aside time for stretching or other physical activities, and making sure they engage in hobbies and community outside of the process.
TGNC SMs and PMs who hold intersecting identities bring intimate knowledge and awareness of what it means to truly be inclusive, equitable, and authentic. However, many spoke about needing to turn down or mute parts of themselves when in environments where power dynamics and oppressive systems are unacknowledged. This need to code switch affects those with the most intersectionality. Interviewees who are disabled expressed that they often feel like they can bring their queerness but not their disability to the room. One interviewee talked about bringing in their queerness while toning down their Blackness. A few others discussed altering their gender expression for the sake of recognition and/or safety. One interviewee even spoke about leaving behind the parts of themself that would be upset by being misgendered when in rooms where they know their gender isn’t truly acknowledged. All of these experiences can result in erasure, which is an effect of colonial, capitalistic hierarchy on the communities that deviate from the white, Christian, heteronormative, patriarchal norm. This effect often contributes to the risk that TGNC artists face when making themselves known and heard in organizations.
Oppressive systems shape the socialization of folks, historically creating stereotypes, caste systems, and trauma within marginalized communities. The industry must acknowledge that everyone is a microcosm of personal realities and generational histories, in turn leaving space for those most affected by systemic oppression to take ownership of their intersectional experience and lead the industry forward.
In order to create rooms where no contributor is limited by their identity and is instead celebrated for their unique outlook, leadership from theatrical organizations need to acknowledge and be grounded in the realities of the world. Early instances of harms against the TGNC community are documented in diaries of New World colonizers of 16th century—in the way conquistadors saw TGNC gender expression, i.e., “with amazement, dismay, disgust, and occasionally, when they weren’t dependent on the natives’ goodwill, with violence,” says queer scholar Will Rosoce (he/him). A documented act of this violence is Nuño de Guzmán burning alive someone he identified as male for assuming the role of a woman by adopting femine dress and duties. The industry at large can no longer ignore the power structures and inequities of capitalism, or the harms of the world and the effects on collaborators.
Leaders at theatrical institutions have the power and ability to actively effect change in service of dismantling outdated and oppressive systems. “This culture change cannot rest on one person’s shoulders, particularly if they are already in a vulnerable position based on their identity,” says John Meredith. Noting that it’s not enough to establish people-centric protocols, JuJu Laurie (he/him) adds, “You can’t just say you’re creating that environment if you don’t check in with those [you] have created the environment for.” As Cody Whitfield (she/her), production and stage manager based in D.C., points out, inequitable work environments don’t just affect the health of workers but that of the organization as well. “Above all, a theatre company needs to invest in its people in order to sustain its own growth,” she says. “Inequity and inauthenticity lead to high turnover rates, which lead to circular paths, which lead to stagnation instead of innovation.”
Traditional Western theatre was forged in the colonial, capitalistic, hierarchical nature of its man-made surroundings, as evidenced by Broadway’s history and its links to Wall Street. It is not possible for institutions and organizations to truly invest in their members and preach holistic values while continuing to subscribe to a culture of capitalism rooted in white supremacy that perpetuates urgency and product over people. Collective divestment from these systems of oppression, by way of integrating authentic and radically inclusive practices, has the ability to mend wounds inflicted by the past while actively separating ourselves from those choices and the continued accompanying harm.
Organizations are already doing healing work with/for underrepresented communities providing examples of ways to move forward, such as Groundwater Arts, with its Green New Theatre; Sins Invalid, which curated the Tenets of Disability Justice and centers queer artist with disabilities; and the Blackcat cabaret led by TGNC artistic director Renato Estacio-Burdick (they/them), which is opening a new space for queer youth to create theatre in Albuquerque, N.M. If every company were to center this culture change, theatre could showcase the results of healing to those outside of our industry, creating cross-movement liberation.
The benefits of this liberation could be felt not just in professional settings, but also in the most fundamental of ways pertaining to the basic right to life of TGNC individuals. As of 2020, the number of transgender people murdered has already surpassed the total for all of 2019, and 25 percent of LGBTQ youth use they/them [pronouns] exclusively. Members of the TGNC community enter every room weighted by these contending facts. This weight is why TGNC SMs and PMs are pushing to have these difficult conversations now. In some cases looking past themselves to create immense possibilities for future generations, they also honor those who have died trying to bring their whole selves to the world. Collective action is needed in order to move toward a future where all trans and gender nonconforming folks can express authentic wholeness in global equity. Act well your part, there all honor lies.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of actions that institutions and allies can adopt to craft authenticity into the future:
- Read and accommodate the artist demands at https://www.weseeyouwat.com/
- Utilize the many resources available and do independent research before inviting communities into your space.
- Allow people to identify themselves. Instead of guessing, allow individuals to control their narratives around their identity. At the same time, remember that they have autonomy and can choose not to answer.
- Use genderless language. Using statements like “Ladies and Gentlemen” or “you guys” to address a room, or she/he on contracts, reinforces a binary that has historically eradicated all identities that deviate from the norm. By continuing the use of this language, it signifies the belief in the model and the continuation of its dominance. Instead try: “Company of (insert show title here),” “Good (insert time of day) everyone!,” “Folks,” or “Y’all/All.”
- Normalize stating, asking, and advocating for pronouns everywhere/time someone’s name is introduced. All pronouns, like identities, are valid. Lack of knowledge does not invalidate someone else’s sense of self. The first step towards this is to realize that gender and sex are not the same concepts.
- Sign up for Pronoun Practice. An interactive workshop, led by Estrellita (starr/e) that helps folks practice asking, using, and advocating for others‘ pronouns. The workshop starts with a brief lesson about the gender spectrum and its complex history. After the teach-in, participants are paired up, speed dating-style, to practice asking and advocating for pronouns across the spectrum using scripted conversations.
- Lead by example inside and outside of the theatre. If you claim to be radically inclusive, inclusivity must be a priority in every factor of your organization. Some examples of the ways this can manifest are:
- Your definition of inclusivity matches the meaning of the community you are serving.
- Implement conscious and inclusive programming, hiring, and casting practices. Is there adequate representation (not just “one trans show” a season, etc.)? Is there gatekeeping for some and not others? Are marginalized individuals being hired at all levels and being accurately represented onstage, backstage, and in the office? Is everyone fairly compensated?
- Folks of all abilities can access your programming, without them having to advocate for themselves.
- All spaces are inclusive of all genders and abilities (including bathrooms, dressing rooms, etc.).
- Inclusivity practices are a part of every conversation inside of the organization, not just for the press, and all staff is trained on inclusive language and practices.
- Continue to evaluate the progress your organization is or isn’t making in these practices.
- Have transparent systems of accountability in place for when mistakes occur.
- Prioritize making sure everyone is comfortable and knowledgeable about all conflict resolution plans before there is conflict. Be willing to adjust rules and processes to fit every unique community.
- Take the time to address harm when it happens. These conversations are not distractions but necessary to the core process, even when they occur at inopportune times. “Addressing issues in the moment [is] far more effective in establishing such a room as opposed to pulling someone aside on a break since it reinforces norms for the entire room rather than a single individual” (Bryan P. Clements, they/them).
- Get comfortable with taking risks and shaping change, and use the privileges you have to advocate for others, even when it comes at a cost.
- You will never be able to forsake your privileges, so you might as well use them to benefit the liberation of others.
- Trying to shrink or martyr yourself isn’t helpful to our collective liberation.
- Be clear on who your organization is serving. The people, community, and artists? Or is it the board and benefactors? Your audience base? The harsh reality is these groups might not have the same needs or values at the same time. Having a firm understanding about who you are serving will help you know who’s needs and values to center.
- Come to terms that there is no magical destination or checklist. There is no finishing this work, and this is the intersectional work that everyone is being called to, inside and outside of the theatre industry. There is no fix-all solution, only constant excavation, growing, living, adaptation, and iteration.
Contributors to this piece:
Flannery Bendel-Simso (they/them)
Salem Brophy (sé/é/his)
TJ Burton (he/him)
Skylar Campbell (they/he)
Nathan K. Claus (they/them/their/Nate)
Bryan P. Clements (they/them)
Georgina Coffey (g/g/g’s)
Niomi Collard (she/hers)
Renato Estacio-Burdick (they/them)
Joseph “Jo” Fernandez Jr. (he/they)
Lucas Hart (he/him)
Apollonia Hoag (they/them)
Nic Labadie-Bartz (they/them)
Sammy Landau (they/them)
JuJu Laurie (he/him/his)
Charlie Lovejoy (they/them/theirs)
Ally MacLean (they/them/theirs)
Mads Massey (they/them)
John Meredith (they/them)
Quinn Mishra (he/him)
Bre O’Brien (they/them)
JP Pollinger (they/them)
Sloane Spencer (they/them)
Maybe Stewart (they/them)
Cindy Wade (they/them)
Cody Whitfield (she/her)
K. Woodzick (they/them)
Veronica Wylie (they/she)
Estrellita Beatriz Edwell (starr/e) is a PM, SM, Artistic Shaper, Facilitator, Writer, Doula and Intimacy Coordinator in training. E is based on the homelands of the Piscataway people, more commonly known as Washington, D.C. Contact starr at estrellita.net or on Instagram.
Kasson Marroquin (he/they) is an AEA SM based in NYC, homeland of the Lenape people. You can reach Kasson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!