A manifesto by Headlong Dance Theater’s Amy Smith and playwright MJ Kaufman

Towards justice for transgender artists

A recent production of Tim Price's The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, produced by Inis Nua Theatre Company, prompted many private conversations, an open letter, and a robust conversation in our close-knit theater community about how transgender people are represented in theater both locally and nationally. This piece of writing is a summary and next-steps aspirational document, meant to help cisgender artists who are working with trans artists. Please share it widely.

MJ Kaufman, playwright, (Photo courtesy of MJ Kaufman)

We decided to try to create some basic guidelines for future theater (and dance) productions that work with trans themes or trans people. This is by no means meant to represent the full scope of beliefs held by the advocates and artists who signed the original open letter. It is a manifesto of sorts, written by MJ Kaufman and Amy Smith.  MJ is a trans playwright and performer based in Philadelphia, whose work often involves trans themes. Amy is a Co-Director of Headlong Dance Theater, which has collaborated several times with trans people as creator/performers in their work, and has had many trans and genderqueer students at their Headlong Performance Institute.

1) Nothing about us without us. (This phrase was coined by the disability rights movement) 

Please don’t produce a play about a trans person without any trans people involved. A post-show panel does not count. Trans people need to be involved in the creation of work about trans people. You shouldn’t produce a play about a trans person written by a cis playwright, directed by a cis director and with an all-cis cast, without any trans presence. If you are producing work about trans people, please also produce work by trans people. Telling our stories without us risks falling into harmful stereotypes that have material effects on people’s lives. In our current political moment cis writers’ stories about trans people are privileged over trans writers writing their own stories, and this needs to change. 

2) Please don’t exploit trans stories to be “edgy” and only show tragic trans characters. 

There are trans parents, trans accountants, trans teens, trans bus drivers in our city and there should be as many plays about them as there are about Chelsea Manning. Tragedy and ordinariness are all possible. Why not just take a character in a play that’s not about trans people, hire a trans actor, and make that role a trans person? 

3) We are in a state of emergency. 

In this country, trans lives are constantly in danger. This year saw a record number of murders of trans people, in particular trans women of color. We live in a culture of violence, and theater can actually help raise awareness of trans stories and trans lives, but only if it’s done with sensitivity and awareness. Perpetrating harmful stereotypes has huge consequences on people's lives.

4) Need help “finding” the trans artists in our community? 

Put out a casting call or open call for new plays. There are many trans theater and dance artists in our city who would love to be offered an opportunity to direct, act, dance, workshop, or have their play produced. Spend time building meaningful relationships with trans artists and audiences.

 5) Don’t assume gender.

At auditions, workshops, or rehearsals, when people introduce themselves, ask everyone to say what gender pronoun they use, and then use it. 

6) Be thoughtful about costuming.

Of course theater often involves “dressing up” and playing characters that are far away from who we really are. But for trans people it can be difficult when they feel pressure from directors or costume designers to wear clothing based on their gender at birth, if it has no impact on the meaning of the piece. The same goes for dressing rooms, or costume fittings. Be sensitive and mindful of their feelings; ask all artists involved in a project what dressing room they would be most comfortable in.

7) Don’t assume. Do research; educate yourself and your co-workers

There are answers to all of your questions readily available on the internet. There are educators who you can pay to train your staff on trans awareness.  Ask your questions of the internet and educators rather than requiring trans artists to educate you. This is exhausting work, and not all trans people are comfortable answering your questions.

This is meant as an initial offering and we hope that trans artists will continue to add to and develop these guidelines.  

(For Henrik Eger's interview with playwright Tim Price, click here. For Mark Cofta's review of Inis Nua's production of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, click here.)

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on May 23, 2016

I salute you for your courage in addressing this sensitive issue. But your first guideline strikes me as counterproductive.

Good theater requires actors, playwrights, directors, and their audiences to become what they are not— to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. In the process, ideally, everyone involved develops empathy for people unlike themselves. That’s what happens when, say, Al Pacino plays Shylock, or a white actor plays Othello, or a black actor plays Simon Legree (in EgoPo’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), or Kathryn Hunter plays Richard III, or a celebrated straight actor like Peter Finch plays a gay man (in Sunday Bloody Sunday), or a gay actor like Kevin Spacey plays a straight husband and father (in American Beauty).

We live in an age when millions of Americans (rightly or wrongly) feel threatened by transgender/bathroom/privacy issues and most Americans (according to the polls) don’t even know what a transgender person is. Restricting transgender theater to transgender artists strikes me as a poor method for generating empathy for your cause or for expanding your audience beyond those who already support you.

Seeley Quest

of Olympia, WA on June 23, 2016

Dan R., I don't think the authors call for restricting transgender theater to transgender artists, but for collaboration: cisgender theater makers to work with trans theater makers, on productions that both directly engage trans experiences in storylines, and that don't overtly. Other guidelines here suggest it won't necessarily be hard to connect with interested trans theater participants who are publicly "out" if open searches are advertised.

What it means to produce Othello with a white actor in the part, or for a black actor to play a slave master, or whether in fact it's millions of Americans who feel threatened about bathroom access are separate complex issues to consider. But I think opportunities to expand audience are more possible working from a premise of "We know there are more trans and gender non-conforming folks in our communities than we realized, and we're interested to work together to present more inclusive and representative theater."

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