When writer-composer-lyricist Preston Max Allen was in high school, the first story he ever wrote was the screenplay for a potential Disney Channel pilot called Emily in Production. “It’s about this very mediocre girl in this very prestigious art school, trying to appreciate herself and figure out how to be a part of it all as someone who wasn’t quite at the level of other people,” Allen explains. Knowing Allen’s personal journey of identity, it seems he may have been writing about himself more than he knew at the time.
Allen was assigned female at birth but, growing up as Rebekah, struggled with gender identity.
Growing Up Female
“I’ve always been a media-obsessed person. I was in love with Broadway, I was in love with cinema and I was [in middle school] coming into queerness from a female-identifying place and was falling in love with actresses and their careers,” says Allen. “I disconnected personally to a female identity, but, believing myself to be female,” built an identity from images in the media.
“You’re looking at people’s bodies in entertainment, and make-up and clothing,” Allen recalls. “I was trying to meet this standard. I just thought I was a failure at femininity.”
Allen found solace in art. He began writing screenplays at age ten and learned guitar in high school. A musical theatre kid, Allen was eventually cast as Ilona in the high school production of She Loves Me and was nominated for the regional Betty Buckley Award (whose finalist gets sent to the famous Jimmy Awards) and decided to apply to Columbia College in Chicago to study musical theatre performance.
While at Columbia, Allen realized: “All the other women in my program are substantially more talented than I am. I still love writing. I love to write for these women, I’d love to create work for these women. I don’t want to perform anymore.” That’s when his musical We Are the Tigers was born.
“Tigers came from an incredibly female place of trying to understand society’s expectations of femininity,” he says. Plus, in a program oversaturated with female talent and a catalog of musicals always serving male talent, “I thought, ‘If I had an opportunity, I would write a show that is very female-focused for these very female, female-identifying programs.’”
Allen created the Tigers, the lowest-ranking cheerleading squad in the state whose captain tries to boost morale with a sleepover that takes a gory turn. Beginning with a workshop that bowed two days before Columbia graduation, then a 2018 concert reading at Joe’s Pub, a full production (produced by S. Asher Gelman and Midnight Theatricals) currently runs Off-Broadway through April 17.
While a horror musical about a team of high school cheerleaders might sound cliché, Allen embraces and expands the bounds of the old trope and its archetypes. “I want singular women who each have fully formed thoughts and opinions and full-fledged backstories,” he says. “Why did this person become this way? Why do we have this stereotype of the loner or the popular ‘bitch’ character, the drunk?
“There are characters who are more sexually inclined, characters who are sexually repressed. How do those become stereotypes and archetypes?”
A Personal Evolution
Allen isn’t someone who felt born in the wrong body—which is how transgender identity is often verbalized and speaks to many, but not all, transgender experiences. “That is very valid for people to feel that they identified with masculinity and that’s the way that their childhood formative years were,” he says. “That wasn’t for me, I didn’t identify with masculinity as much as a [disconnection to] femininity.” Much of that feeling had to do with body image and “no trans presence in my formative years,” he says.
After years of struggle, Allen experienced a deep depression and realized, “I have no connection to my name, I have no connection to my pronouns.” What’s more, Allen experienced feelings of jealousy towards trans men.
“That’s a hard thing to say to yourself when you’re 23: ‘Maybe I’ve been in the wrong seat, maybe this car—the whole time I’m trying to drive and there’s no wheel. And I’m jealous of the person holding a wheel and they’re right next to me,’” Allen describes. But there is no such thing as too late when it comes to discovering who you are—and for Allen that meant transitioning.
Just two years ago, Allen changed his pronouns; a year later, he legally changed his name. He cut his hair short (“I would always cover my face [with my long hair], so the metaphor was alive and well,” he says with a laugh), he began taking testosterone (which he will take for the rest of his life), and he underwent top surgery. “I’m very open about it on Instagram, [but] I don’t want to associate anatomy with sex or gender,” he clarifies. “I don’t see anatomy and think they identify a person.”
For Allen, the physical changes have led to a healthier mindset and a healthier lifestyle. “I have the body I want to take care of,” he says. “I am only proud to be trans.”
As Allen has been personally evolving, so too has the musical he began writing as a 20-year-old female.
A Musical Transformation
By letting go of a confining female-presenting identity, Allen has been able to better empathize with his characters and the story of Tigers. “The characters don’t have the pressure anymore of upholding femininity for me,” he says. “I get to create nine people who are all female-identified and I get to take myself out of the equation and just support what every character needs to succeed untainted by what I needed out of them.”
The show has found its identity, just as Allen reconciled his own sense of self.
Allen advocates introspection and questioning and hopes allies will continue to be open and compassionate towards the process of discovery when it comes to gender. “I think if society was more comfortable accepting experimentation and growth through trial, everyone would be healthier,” he says.
“Certainly, people feel their whole lives that they’ve felt this. I think people should also be able to be like, ‘I wonder if I’m trans,’” he says. “You don’t buy a blouse until you try it on in the dressing room and see how it looks and how it feels. So it’s like, you can’t discover something like that about yourself until you try it on.”