San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre recently hosted a thought-provoking discussion on trans and gender nonconforming portrayal in theatre today. The event was sponsored by Transfamily Support Services, the Human Rights Campaign, the Metropolitan Community Church of San Diego, the North County LGBT Resource Center, and Neutral Corner.
Matt Morrow, executive artistic director of Diversionary theatre, moderated the event. He noted that the Diversionary theatre is now in its 34th season, and is the 3rd oldest LGBT theatre in the country. He admits that historically, they have been negligent in representing the trans sector of the LGBT community. Because of this, Diversionary’s current season’s theme is WE ARE: inclusiveness and opening up the conversation about gender nonconformity. Diversionary has recently produced the well known play Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Queer Heartache by spoken word artist Kit Yan. This season will include two gendercentric plays A Kind of Weather and Plot Points in Our Sexual Development.
The Panelists included: Sylvan Oswald, Los Angeles based playwright and interdisciplinary artist. Al Johnson, Community Engagement Coordinator for TransFamily Support Services. Jeremy Wilson, formerly New York drag performer Ophelia Nightingale and star of the San Diego production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Cody Sloan, graduate of Boston University and currently first-year student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UCSD. Beth Kind, CEO at Quadrants Scientific Inc. and coordinator of Trans* Spiritual Connection at the Metropolitan Community Church.
What role do the arts play in the overall struggle towards equality? Beth observes there are still 30 states that do not have laws to protect transpeople. There are two parts to addressing this. The CORRECTIVE part is what the Human Rights Campaign does: In the legislatures, creating positive laws, fighting negative laws, and electing candidates who will protect us. The PREVENTATIVE part is through the arts. To teach the public why we’re special, why we’re unique, and why we matter. Al expanded on this by saying that the theatre is a safe space for people to explore gender issues. “It only happens with theatre and actors and people who get you” and for transyouth “It’s always the art teacher you come out to!”
However, the current state of arts trans-representation needs serious improvement. Jeremy noted that “Any trans playwright has to work ten times as hard to get their work seen”. What theatres present is what they feel donors and audiences want to see, so they err on the side of caution. They don’t want something that makes too much of a statement. Sylvan said that there is a growing crew of active transartists, but it still feels like a small pool. There are a number of transmasculine playwrights, but few transfeminine ones. Most of the plays being produced about trans themes are by cisgender people. Basically, “We’re out there, but we’re still knocking on doors” .
During the brief Question and Answer session, an audience member named Sussily asked the steep question “What is missing (for transpeople) from the theatre world?”
Jeremy said the representative is still disproportionate, but that’s true for many minorities. Sloan wants there to be roles where transpeople can be full, complex, sexy and in relationships. Trans-stories should not have to be just about the transition process. And there needs to be more access for people are not cispassing, who don’t look in a normative way. Al would like to see more nonbinary roles. And Sylvan poses the challenging idea that we need to decouple transness from a trans-body, to stop focusing on the physical/genital issues and focus more on the trans mind and how transpeople PERCEIVE themselves. In other words, to not produce plays that objectify the trans body.
In conclusion, Matt called for more courageous leadership in the American theatre about programming, and the need for more visionary leaders. Al said that we need to be both CRITICAL and APPRECIATIVE: Critical of what we’re currently getting in the art scene, but appreciative for what we’ve achieved so far.