What It Means to Be Trans in the Theatre

Playbill Pride   What It Means to Be Trans in the Theatre Six trans artists weigh in on identity, representation and theatre.
Aneesh Sheth, MJ Kaufman, Shakina Nayfack, Kate Bornstein<br/><br/>Aneesh Sheth<br/><br/>MJ Kaufman<br/>
Aneesh Sheth, MJ Kaufman, Shakina Nayfack and Kate Bornstein Photos by Eric McNatt, taken on location at The Covenant House headquarters.

“You know this thing about pronouns,” Kate Bornstein says with a sigh. “Is it the pronouns we want to know or the identity? I would rather people know me and then, from that, extrapolate. [Then] they would understand why I use ‘she’ or ‘they’. Growing up, I learned how to act. I learned how to pretend to be boy. That was acting!”

The group laughs at this. The group understands—they know what it is like to have to pretend to be someone you’re not. Bornstein is a trailblazer who was one of a handful of gender non-conforming artists sharing the trans experience in the early 1990s touring her one-woman shows with the “Purple Circuit,” a collective of theatres that promoted LGBTQ works in venues around the country.

Next to Bornstein are other artists—Aneesh Sheth, an Indian-born, American-raised actress and singer fresh off the musical Southern Comfort at the Public Theater; MJ Kaufman, a playwright currently under the tutelage of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group; Ty Defoe (Ojibwe/Oneida tribes) writer and multidisciplinary performing artist, Skyping in from the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Santa Fe; Shakina Nayfack, founding artistic director of the Musical Theatre Factory and the first trans woman to receive a Lilly Award for her contributions to American theatre.

The following conversation led by Nayfack—with written contributions from actor Brian Michael—is about the state of trans stories and the theatre, the headway we’ve made and—in keeping with our theme—what’s next?

Ty Defoe
Ty Defoe

Shakina Nayfack: How has theatre served your trans identity and vice versa?
Ty Defoe: Theatre gives me a safe place to talk about stories that aren’t heard often. That’s why I am happy and honored to be here with all of you.
Aneesh Sheth: As a trans-identifying female in musical theatre, I’m still learning how to navigate myself as a singer, not necessarily as an actor, but as a singer because I feel that I sound very manly sometimes. [It] has been a really big learning process for me in terms of developing my trans identity [onstage].
Brian Michael: [I] think the fact that I’m a trans person who has played cis [short for cisgender, or not transgender] characters invalidates a lot of biases that have kept trans people from being cast. Just like some people believe that gay or lesbian actors can’t play straight actors, there is a similar bias that trans people can’t play cis.

Where do you see the most change?
MJ Kaufman: I see it amongst the youth that I teach. … I see them disrupting the way we think and talk and tell stories to make space for new ways of understanding identity and desire. One is teaching playwriting at the university level and also leading a queer youth theatre workshop for grades 7–12. It’s incredible.
Kate Bornstein: I’d love to come see this!
MJK: They’d be so excited!
KB: I think transgender representation has reached a tipping point … but the vast fluidity of gender—it’s nowhere near a real tipping point. But it’s so heartening to see trans representation.

The American theatre has always been at the forefront of social movements. We were the first to have interracial relations onstage, well before they were acceptable on television or film. Same with same-sex relationships. But then it feels like, in terms of mainstream and commercial theatre and trans stories—it seems like we’re behind. Why do you think that is?
TD: There is the money issue—you’re asking theatres to take a risk and to get educated. All that requires time, money and capacity. You might have to break westernized theatre protocols to educate your front-of-house staff about gender neutral bathrooms or take your ushers aside and teach them how to engage with someone who’s gender neutral.
MJK: I think it’s happening at the fringe and smaller levels. I hope that one day actors get cast in a role because they’re right for the role and they’re good actors. Not because of their gender identity.
BM: I think safety is still an issue. There is a risk involved with visibility, as trans people are still facing violence and harassment. I also feel like there are still biases that almost all marginalized theatremakers face from financiers or venue owners who have their own personal disinterests in our stories or believe that our projects won’t attract a profitable audience.

What are we looking to imagine for our discipline?
MJK: I’m hoping and fighting for us to be the authors of our own stories. What I see around us—that other people call “trans visibility”—is a lot of cis people’s ideas of what “trans-ness” is. Anyone can write a great story—we should just get to write our own stories first.
AS: A big problem we face is the lack of opportunity to have a wide range of gender-identifying people tell a wide range of stories. Not just one that’s just going to make a buck because it’s sensationalizing a certain aspect of trans identity.
KB: I agree, but as soon as we get into a role, we make sure it’s not perfect, that it represents a real person and not the long-suffering person. We take whatever step forward we can take and then queer it—do something with it!

It has more to do than just with the actors, doesn’t it? It has to do with the writers, directors, production teams.
BM: I love that at this moment more and more artists are taking ownership of their stories and experiences by creating their own work and by turning down roles that misrepresent the community.

Brian Michael
Brian Michael

Aneesh, you had gender non-conforming folks on the Southern Comfort team—was that the first time you’ve been with other trans folks working on one project?
AS: Yes. It gave a team of cis theatre makers the opportunity to have new insight. I felt like, if there was something that I wasn’t comfortable with, I knew there were other people who had my back. We need to have trans folks and gender non-conforming folks in all aspects of the theatre.
TD: There’s this idea of the “one and done.” The “Oh, I have my one transgender or gender non-conforming person and they’re the end all, be all.” But like today, we’re in a group, and there are a multitude of experiences.
AS: A majority of the industry is cis theatre-makers and cis patrons. Being trans is a subject that’s so taboo and so sensationalized but for us, it’s just normal life.

Kate, can you talk about I Am Cait for a second, because I know it’s a mainstream endeavor that had to work really hard to not be exploitative.
KB: Have you ever worked with a large group of trans and gender non-conforming people?
GROUP: No.
KB: Well, that’s the thing! We’re just learning how to get along with one another. That was what was such a joy about coming onto I Am Cait. I’ve never hung out with a bunch of trans women. I went into solo theatre—not because I didn’t want to hang out with people. It was an impossibility! Can we create our own theatre company? That’s been done within other marginalized groups. And it doesn’t have to be all trans stuff, it can be Shakespeare—but to model that we can get along. Theatre is nothing if not cooperative.
TD: The About Face Theatre in Chicago or the Theater Offensive in Boston [have] been doing this kind of work for many decades. I think it would be interesting to reach out to them in terms of forming a national network.

So, what do we have to look forward to?
AS: For me, it’s involving trans people in all aspects of theatre-making, not just for trans-related theatre projects. We have a voice that speaks to more than just the trans experience.
MJK: I would love to see a festival of trans theatre—plays and performances of all kinds that are created and performed by trans people. And I would love to see a lot of theatres come together to make it happen.
KB: I’d like to see funding organizations and government agencies fund the kids you teach, MJ, and give them a chance to put stuff out there and take it on the road. Those are the folks that are going to be ultimately building a new circuit of theatres.
BM: Stories that go beyond the tragedies and cis-acceptance narratives that we’ve seen from writers outside of our community up until now, that showcase the breadth of the trans experience and intersectionality of all of our identities.
TD: Dedicated time between transgender youth and our elders—I think that’s something we can learn a lot from. I’d also love to see yearly trainings for people across the industry so they can learn about language shifts and stuff like that.

I’d love to see Broadway producers find ways to insist that trans people are represented in their shows in the same way that we’re making mandates to include people of color in shows. “Here is a palatable offering of a diverse array of people onstage telling a story. Don’t you love it?” And they are going to love it.