The Unexpected Challenges of Musical Theatre for Trans Performers

Playbill Pride   The Unexpected Challenges of Musical Theatre for Trans Performers
For Donnie Cianciotto, transitioning meant choosing between his career—a lifelong dream—and his happiness.
Donnie Cianciotto
Donnie Cianciotto

Donnie Cianciotto’s story begins like most actors’: He fell in love with musicals at an early age, listening to cast albums and performing at the local children’s theatre. When that childhood passion persisted into adulthood, Donnie decided to pursue a career in musical theatre, leading to a stint at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. There, things started to get tricky. Donnie is trans—he recently marked his fifth anniversary on testosterone hormone therapy—which meant that becoming an actor had an additional set of challenges.

DONNIE CIANCIOTTO at #IdentityWeek.jpg
Donnie Cianciotto at #IdentityWeek Christian Amato

As a student—Donnie was out as a lesbian but had not yet begun transitioning at the time—he quickly realized that his education was limited by a strict, gender-as-binary expectation, which was both confusing and restrictive. “I don’t think it’s intentionally transphobic,” says Donnie, “it’s just that we’re taught for our specific gender. I went to college and learned how to dance in high heel shoes and wore tights and dance skirts. If I had gone to school for accounting, I would have gotten the exact same education as the men in my class.” For Donnie, wearing skirts and heels always felt “insulting, or like a lie.” Often, it felt like dressing in drag.

The confusion Donnie experienced in college was exacerbated by the fact that he didn’t look the “typical” female part. “I always had short hair and looked more masculine…but I had a very high mezzo soprano belt, so it was really challenging to get roles,” Donnie says. “I have the voice of an ingénue, but I was never going to play one based on what I look like.” It wasn’t until a few years later, after being exposed to the transgender community, that things started to click.

As Donnie weighed up transitioning, there were two things that posed the biggest challenges: would changing his name erase his footprint as an actor, and would he lose his singing voice? “My first name [used to be] Dana, so if you Google Dana Cianciotto, you get reviews from everything I did before—from high school, to community shows to professional productions,” says Donnie. “I was afraid to step away from the name as it felt like was abandoning everything I had done up to that point… It’s like your whole work experience has disappeared.” Donnie was also concerned about the ways in which hormones would affect his voice. “I love to sing, and I was afraid of never having that back.”

In the end, Donnie says that if he didn’t transition, he was never going to live a happy life. “Being authentic to myself became the most important thing, I was miserable while trying to live this kind of lie…I [had to choose] between living my authentic life and pursuing a life-long dream. That was really hard.”

Taking the decision to transition was a relief for Donnie, who finally felt as if he was on the path to a more truthful existence, but it didn’t lessen the burden of trying to navigate his acting career. Though he was mentally prepared to take on male roles, physically, it was difficult to “pass.” It took three years to grow facial hair, and his biggest deterrent was his chest. “I was a size 40 DD that was just virtually impossible to hide,” explains Donnie. Even after years of taking testosterone, facial hair, and the use of a binder—which acts like a corset in flattening the chest—Donnie would be misgendered at least two or three times a week. This proved to be a challenge and a distraction during auditions, and posed problems with costuming.

After five years of taking hormones, Donnie decided that in order to properly pursue an acting career, he would need to have his breast surgically removed—better known as top surgery. But what followed was a laborious and painful journey. While living in Tucson, Arizona, Donnie was denied the surgery three times, where it was deemed cosmetic and not medically necessary. Last spring, a role in The Public Theater’s production of Southern Comfort brought Donnie to New York City, where, he assumed, New York State Medicaid would cover the procedure. But instead, Donnie was asked to jump through a never-ending number of hoops, all the while being told that he needed more paperwork, more proof, and more consultations. Being denied the surgery in New York, says Donnie, was “an overwhelming blow.”

Robin Skye and Donnie Cianciotto in <i>Southern Comfort</i>
Robin Skye and Donnie Cianciotto in Southern Comfort Carol Rosegg

After numerous road blocks—and an aggressive confrontation with a transphobic commuter on the New York subway—it was Donnie’s wife Rebecca who took a leap of faith and decided to crowd-source the surgery. To both their surprise, they successfully raised the money almost immediately, and this January, Donnie and Rebecca went to Baltimore and paid for the surgery directly out of pocket.

The road ahead still has its challenges—as it does for any actor or any artist—but it seems considerably more accessible. In April, Donnie returned to the stage in The Swish Ally Fund’s benefit at (Le) Poisson Rouge. “It was the first time that I looked at myself and thought, you look good,” says Donnie. “Instead of faking confidence, I got to actually enjoy it. I got to be me and it was a revelation. An extraordinarily wonderful experience.”

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