Tips for on Allyship for Transgender & Gender Non-Conforming Theatre Artists

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 nonbinarymonologues@gmail.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.
PS:

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:

In Transit

 

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Don’t Be the Bunny

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The Easter Bunny has seen some shit.

Their bones are brittle, like those of a greyhound.
A violent insomniac (hazard of the job)
They lay awake at night 364 nights a year,
Thinking about the putrid pastel plastic egg corpses
Swirling onto the plastic island in the Pacific Ocean.
They worry about the reach of Big Sugar’s sticky fingers,
Reflect on the suicide rates of dentists,
Yet have their reservations about parents
Putting coins instead of candy
On the insides of eggs.
They are absolutely opposed
To those who hide actual eggs.
THERE’S ALWAYS ONE YOU CAN NEVER FIND.
Tonight, they’ll drink vodka and share
War stories with Mr. and Mrs. Claus,
The Tooth Fairy and the other assortment
Of immortal beings who slowly disintegrate
In the imaginations of children.
They disappear earlier and earlier every year.
The Easter Bunny has seen some shit.

intensate

I pretended to be a criminal, which no one expected.

To me, it was a natural evolution.
I take comfort in hidden corners,
shoplifting pieces of conversation
stuffing them into pockets
and later placing them on my mantle.

I saw the gumshoe
and made off with his magnifying glass,
securing it within my garter.
Ensconced there,
its weight felt appropriate.

This wildcat racket,
more senseless than scandalous…
Wiping my prints as I went,
I left no trace,
not even a smoking gun.

I pretended to be a criminal, which no one expected.

The Circus-less Clown

I.

I’d like to propose a toast
to the boys in high school
who agreed to me applying
their eyeliner before our plays.

I loved every one of you dearly.
I wanted to wrap myself in
each of your costumes
after curtain call.

II.

Here’s to the liquor store
clerk who pretends to look
at my ID when in fact she
just glances. She knows
that bourbon is my vice
and just smiles and nods,
slides the receipt over
the counter for me to sign.

III.

Hedwig—
you were the first piece
of art that helped me
come home to myself.
To this day, I let
my eyeliner linger
in the corners of my eyes
at the end of a long day.

A badge of honor.

A profound reminder
that no one can

tear
me
down.

Someday, Someone

My parents were married at a courthouse.
I’m not sure if there was even a dress,
or a suit, I don’t think any family
attended. By all accounts, it was a
perfunctory affair. They never talked
to me about dating. Or sex.

No one has
ever taught me about these aspects of
relating to other humans in a romantic
way, so my knowledge base is primarily
middle school sex ed delivered in a
Midwestern classroom, paired with tropes
from all the PG and PG-13 rom coms
I borrowed on VHS at my local library.

I
feel
damaged,
like a bird
with a broken wing:
I can still hop around,
but I can’t fly.

The thing I want most in this world
is for someone to see the full brilliance
of my entire being, to see the brilliance
and the scars, and the parts that scare me,
to see all of that and say,
“That’s my person.
That’s who I want to wake up to every morning.
That’s who I want to whisper all my hopes and
fears to, that’s who I want to pack a lunch for
and hold hands with and tell them,

‘You are exactly who you were meant to be
and I will love you just as you are
until my lungs can no longer take
another breath.’”

I clutch this dream of my someone tightly,
hiding it under my pillow at night.

Someday, I keep telling myself.

Someday, they will find me.

Cigarettes & Candy

When we were kids
we used to have contests
to see who could keep a
candy cigarette going
the longest.

We’d puff
elegantly, pretending
to be James Dean or
Marlene Dietrich. We
wanted to be more
sinister and cunning
than we actually were.

In the aisles of the
Ben Franklin arts
and crafts store, we
reigned like bloated
tyrants with our
allowance money.

(In those days, dignity only cost 75 cents.)

We were never more ourselves
then when were were seven:

listening to the cellophane
crinkle as we rolled the
package of candy cigarettes
into the sleeves of our
thrift store t-shirts.

Ellis Bell

I saw you standing there,
six foot two
glorious sideburns
swagger that you
didn’t know you had.

And I couldn’t decide
if I wanted to fuck you
or be you.

I turned the question
over and over
perpetual motion:
two sides of a slick coin
hidden in my corduroy pocket.

You are a wicked saint.

One to which I would gladly
bow down and pay obeisance.
I would wash your feet
with my hair,
if it were only
long enough.

I imagine you whispering
things sacred and profane
as my lips quiver,
yearning to crunch
the wafer of your body
drink the wine of your blood.

Instead,
I will keep you
at arm’s length,
praying to you
intermittently.

It is unwise to touch a saint.