Some friends and I went to go see a production of Mamma Mia! staged two towns away from ours. Being the only one with a car, all five of us packed into my little Ford and we drove the forty miles to see a night guaranteeing a good time and even better music. And the first act went fine, despite our Meryl Streep stand-in talk-singing through it all, and the well done, but rather unenthusiastic, choreography. However, after intermission, “Under Attack” began, and at first, I didn’t notice it.
While Sophie is singing, the ensemble covers behind her and mocks out her marriage, complete with a bride in a wedding dress and her dads fighting over who walks her down the aisle. Then, the bride’s veil is lifted, and suddenly, the night is quickly soured when we get another, tired “man-in-a-dress” gag. I can feel the pit in my stomach grow and knot as the audience laughs along and I squeeze my friends’ hands, a silent “I’m sorry”, because I know the cisgender director doesn’t see anything wrong with what she did, and certainly won’t apologize for it, but at least I can offer something to acknowledge the wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time this happened, and it won’t be the last. I wish it was. I wish more than anything that I wouldn’t have to worry about if a show is going to be triggering to a friend’s or my own identity. I wish cisgender audiences wouldn’t laugh at such an insidious “joke” that acts as the bare minimum, incorrect understanding of what a transgender person is to the binary onlookers. But mostly, I wish we could abandon these tropes and replace them with desperately needed transgender and nonbinary representation. As a transgender man, I don’t see shows about people like me, ever. And, in fairness, it wasn’t until I had written a play that featured a character that was also a transgender man that I had really realized that. And then, it wasn’t until that play was shown to my peers and colleagues, my friends that were also trans or nonbinary, that I realized the kind of impact these stories could have. We are starving, and the crumbs we get are far from sustaining us.
There’s a thriving community of transgender and nonbinary people in the performing arts, on and offstage. I was able to interview three theatre-makers to get their thoughts on the topic of our representation.
First was Bailie. Bailie works mostly as a stage manager, and currently he’s doing an internship at the Santa Fe Opera House as a props runner. He’s 19 years old and has been in the theatre for three years- I met him a little over a year ago. I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do in theatre, but feel like he couldn’t, due to his gender status.
“I’ve been very privileged to not experience any roadblocks thus far.” He said. But, that being said, “I’ve personally observed the most issue with inclusivity in the acting portion of theatre. Casting directors need to cast transgender/nb people for those roles, but for cisgender roles as well.” He then gave a statement I reflect as well: “Casting a cisgender person in a trans role creates space for ugly stereotypes and incorrect representation, since that cisgender person has no idea what it’s like to have a gender identity that doesn’t align with the one assigned to them at birth, and, often, that’s what trans/nb roles ask of the actor.”
Bailie offers important insight into the general state of theatre for trans people, but what about specifically trans and nonbinary actors? I talked to Caleb next, a 21-year-old transgender man who has been in theatre for the past nine years. I asked him about possible limitations he feels in the theatre due to being trans.
“There are always those thoughts of not being able to do something because of my gender.” He said. “I feel like people are quick to disregard my talents and look at me differently because I’m trans… I remember my senior year of high school, I went to audition for one of the plays that my drama class was doing, and all the students came up to me saying that our drama teacher made an announcement that this year, gendered roles were gonna go to their respective genders no matter what, and went on to make a bunch of transphobic comments… Honestly, I don’t think my identity has affected my performance much. I think the only thing it’s really done is made me a bit scared to audition as male characters without people looking at me like I’m weird or wrong.” He also goes on to mirror Bailie’s statement. “I feel that it’s wrong for anyone who is not trans to play trans characters. That’s taking roles away from us… It’s the only thing we have, if we’re even lucky to be casted.”
My third and final interviewee, Sanskruti, a nonbinary actor and costume designer, weighed in on the matter from a different perspective, but one that still shows the ire that is felt in our community.
“I was acting in Lysistrata once as a woman trying to seduce a man and it made me sick to my stomach to do,” They began. “But my director couldn’t fully understand why. I had to perform it like that anyways… Sometimes, roles can be far too feminine for me. Especially on days when I’m feeling dysphoric.” I asked them how they think we can work to make the theatre more inclusive to trans and nonbinary people. “Don’t cast completely based on gender, if it’s possible, and definitely don’t make “genderbending” a comedic twist. It’s our genders and our lives, not an edgy joke. Representation is absolutely important. Kids and adults both need to see perspectives different than their own. Not only that, but they could realize that the perspective matches theirs and helps them learn about themselves.”
All three gave such important testimonies to their time in the theatre and the need to see themselves. I, too, share this sentiment. In the 21st century, we love to talk about how progressive we are, and, in comparison to the past, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop progressing. If anything, we must keep going and keep doing more. We must extend beyond representation and tolerance to acceptance and love, genuine care for our trans and nonbinary comrades. Abandon harmful tropes that actively hurt the ones already under our society’s foot.
Theatre has a deep history of rooting for the underdog and showing content that challenges society, and there’s nothing wrong with getting back to our roots. Sanskruti summarized it perfectly: “…That’s what theatre is meant to do; provide an insight into the human condition. We can’t do that if we remain stuck in the cisgender, heterosexual version of it.”
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