I’ve been fielding requests this week from cisgender theatre allies asking how best to support transgender and gender non-conforming theatre artists. Much of this discussion is coming out of the horrific decision to cast cisgender actress Scarlett Johansson in the role of a transgender man named Dante “Tex” Gill.
(Great summary here by Meredith Talusan: https://www.them.us/story/why-scarlett-johansson-or-any-cis-actor-should-never-play-trans-roles.)
Many of the conversations online have gotten heated–some cisgender actors have tried unsuccessfully to use the logic that acting is about putting on the role of another–gender shouldn’t be a pre-requisite. Um. NOPE. No no no no no. Please don’t use this reasoning. In the words of Nico Case:
“Dear fellow cis people:
Please stop explaining to transgender people who are upset about Scarlett Johansson being cast as a trans man what ‘acting’ is, as if they’ve never heard of the concept before. They get it. LGBTQ folks are forced to pretend to be people we are not for years—and even decades—before announcing to the world who we are. Many queer and trans people continue to be forced to put on personas or conceal portions of ourselves to escape violence and discrimination every day—to keep jobs, homes, families, friends, and even sadly our lives.
So please—for the love of Stella Adler—save that speech. The people leading this discussion know more about acting than you ever will.”
Here is a list of actions that I’d recommend for allies in the theatre industry who want to support trans & gnc theatre artists. I will frame this list by saying that I am a white, non-binary and genderqueer actor, director and producer who was assigned female at birth and these suggestions come either from my personal experience. I have a BA in Theatre/Dance, an MFA in Contemporary Performance and will be starting my PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies in the fall. I am also the founder of The Non-Binary Monologues Project.
This list is by no means comprehensive and my overarching piece of advice is to read pieces written by folx in the trans community, include them in discussions where decisions get made and actively listen and make steps towards the changes they recommend.
1) Challenge conversations where casting professionals/directors say things like, “I’d love to find a trans actor for this role, but I can’t find one/the ones I do know don’t have enough training.”
Trans & GNC performers are actively looking for work, and often it’s a matter of getting the right connector/networking piece in place so we know that we’re invited to the party. If folx are having a hard time plugging into this network, I invite them to reach out to me at email@example.com and I’m happy to post to a private resource that reaches nearly 500 trans & GNC actors across the country.
Personally, I think it is unacceptable to cast a cisgender actor in a trans role (most, if not all trans & GNC actors that I’ve spoken to feel this way as well.) Ryan Cassata eloquently breaks down the reasons why in this piece: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trans-actors-for-trans-characters_us_59beb399e4b0390a1564deac.
You will not win this argument, please don’t try to engage us in the “well, straight actors can play gay roles, shouldn’t everybody get a chance to try to portray the range of humanity?” Nope. Not in this case. Not even a little bit. No. No. No. No. And, it expends a lot of emotional labor on the part of trans & GNC artists trying to explain it to you, trying to prove to you that we exist and that we should tell our stories. LISTEN TO US, PLEASE.
The more you’re able to invite trans & GNC artists to be in positions of power, the more you will be connected to trans & GNC talent.
If you’re connected to educational/training programs: what are you doing to actively recruit trans & GNC actors? Are you allowing all of your students to audition for roles that align with their gender? (This can piggyback off of your “are there specific roles you’re interested in?” Adding a “Are there specific genders that you are or are not willing to play?”)
Also, allow for the possibility that your team simply isn’t looking hard enough or in the right places. In the interviews I conducted for my MFA thesis, one of the best points raised on this front was from casting professional Ada Karamanyan. Quite simply, she posed the question “Are you going to the places where transgender and gender non-conforming artists perform?” Actively look for these opportunities to see these performers in their element, which may be at fringe festivals, drag shows and nontraditional venues.
2) Challenge the notion that all roles that are not specifically described as trans are by default cisgender roles.
Many trans & GNC actors I know (myself included!) are hungry to be cast in roles that do not center on their gender.
Also, get rid of the rhetoric of “Yes, trans actors should play trans roles, but I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with them playing cis characters.” It’s transphobic. It’s cissexism. Let us show you what we can do and make your decisions off of our audition before shutting the door in our face before we even get in the room.
Real-world example of casting a trans or GNC actor in a cisgender role: I was recently cast in a devised Nirvana/Hamlet mash-up titled Nirvamlet. The casting process was such that we worked in the room devising for 3-4 weeks before casting was finalized. I reached out to the director and told her that while I’m open to playing characters of all genders, I prefer to play male roles. She took that into consideration, and I was cast as Laertes. We’re not making a commentary on the role of Laertes by this casting–I, (a non-binary actor assigned female at birth) will be playing a cisgender male character. And I am so excited!
We have to open our casting decisions as an industry to expand our representations of humanity on the stage. We cannot and should not limit our understanding of the gender of actors to the designation that was made on their birth certificates or what we assume someone’s gender is by looking at their headshot.
3) Add your pronouns to your resume and include them when you slate at auditions.
If you don’t see a line for pronouns on an audition form, ask folx to consider adding that line in subsequent audition forms. If all folx in the cast are comfortable, it’s great to add them to the contact sheet or call sheet as well.
Bonus points if you add your pronouns to your email signature and to your social media profile. The more cis folx that include their pronouns as often as they include their names helps to make others think of the world in this way.
4) When you see audition calls, do they use language like “actors of all genders are encouraged to submit”?
(Also, race, ethnicity and ability!) If not, ask why not.
5) Group intros.
I’ll be honest–this is tricky and folx have different opinions. This is my opinion–I love it (especially when pronouns are an option on an audition form) if the director or facilitator of a callback or first rehearsal leads by example and says something along the lines of “I’m X, my pronouns are X, X, and X. Let’s around the circle and say our names and there’s an invitation to share your pronouns as well.”
I know of friends who are only comfortable sharing pronouns if they know that it’s a supportive room, friends who are afraid of being outed by being forced to share their pronouns and also have friends who prefer not to share their pronouns publicly because they prefer whichever pronouns people choose when they see them.
For me, I prefer to have pronouns shared in introductions, because I am afraid of getting misgendered if I don’t. It also helps to reinforce the notion that you can’t accurately ascertain someone’s gender just by looking at them.
If you do invite folx to offer pronouns during introductions, I’d encourage you to frame it like this:
“Hi, I’m Woodzick, and my pronouns are they, them and theirs. Let’s go around the circle and say our names, and there’s an invitation for pronouns as well–the purpose of sharing pronouns for those who choose to do so is to address each other with respect. Also, let’s add a fun fact related to this show. Put your ‘bits’ in the in the fun fact section. If you do a bit in the pronoun section, it’s disrespectful.”
(Shout out to Allison Page, the Artistic Director of Killing My Lobster for her advice in framing intros.)
If you have a trans or GNC actor in your cast, the best piece of advice I can give is for you to reach out to them privately and ask them how they like introductions to be handled.
And never out a trans person without their explicit permission. Realize that their comfort with being open about their gender and/or pronouns may change depending on the space/group of humans. (For example, personally–I NEED to have other folx in the rehearsal room know my pronouns in order to feel safe and do my best work theatrically. However, if I’m going to a bar with cast mates after a rehearsal, I may not feel safe disclosing my gender or pronouns for fear of someone creating a public altercation.)
6) Educate yourself on the differences between drag and being trans and/or GNC.
Doing drag and being trans are NOT THE SAME THING. Separate these two things very distinctly in your mind. Yes, there are many trans and GNC folx who have found drag a meaningful and important exploration in realizing their gender more fully. As a cis person, you don’t get to decide what counts for drag and what counts as being trans or GNC. Don’t police this in others.
7) Listen. Listen, listen, listen.
Yes, we want to build environments as creators where everyone can make mistakes and fail beautifully. But we also need to prioritize making marginalized populations feel safe and valued in these creative spaces as well. If someone corrects you on pronouns, take the note gracefully, apologize, and move on. If you aren’t well-versed in trans identities, educate yourself (here’s a good place to start.) Be willing to de-center your discomfort in the moment to make yourself a stronger ally. Be willing to use your privilege to make the lives of those around you safer and better.
I want to leave you with some hope. There are people out there who get it right. This last weekend, I had the honor of directing a world-premiere reading as Curious Theatre Company as part of the 2018 National Collective Festival.
My piece was titled In Transit, and it was written by a trans playwright (Holden Thomas–remember the name!), and was authentically cast with a trans actor in a trans role. It was a thoughtfully written, poignant piece. By having three trans artists in the room, we were able to achieve shorthand of our collective experiences of moving through the world that allowed us to go deeper and elevate the piece emotionally in a way that I doubt would have happened with a cis director or actor.
Simply put: we deserve to tell our own stories.
Here’s our crew: