How trans theatremakers are emerging into the limelight
As a wide variety of trans-themed shows take London and Edinburgh by storm, writers and performers tell Tom Wicker about the ways trans theatre is becoming more visible and questioning the cisgendered mainstream.
As a child growing up in Leamington Spa, Ash Palmisciano remembers that transgender people were invisible in popular culture: there was no transgender content on television or in theatre “at all”. Now 28, he says that lack of trans role models was tough, adding: “I had these feelings going on about myself and yet nothing to reference it to.”
Palmisciano is now something of a role model himself. The actor, who began transitioning from female to male in 2013, recently finished playing Jack in Rikki Beadle-Blair’s new romantic comedy, Summer in London, at Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was developed in conversation with – and starred – an all-trans cast.
Trans visibility on stage has increased in recent years. Trans actor Griffyn Gilligan attributes this “to the greater political visibility that’s happened in the past five years or so. And I think a lot of that comes from the accessibility of the internet in more rural places,” enabling young trans people to find each other earlier than before and to question their lack of representation.
Last month, Jon Brittain’s Olivier award-winning Rotterdam – about transitioning while in a relationship – ended a West End run; a trans character (played by Gilligan) had a prominent role in Taylor Mac’s Hir at the Bush Theatre; and National Theatre of Scotland’s Eve/Adam, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, follows two people in transition.
Theatre is wonderful for “sharing stories that we might not encounter otherwise”, says Gilligan. “I’m guessing most people know a transgender person, but they may not know it.”
On stage, he continues, audiences “get to see those characters portrayed as real people, with the same worries as everyone else.” He relishes the opportunity for dialogue this creates.
The trans theatremakers and actors I spoke to welcome the raised profile of trans stories in British theatre. But it is also vitally important to them to be able to take ownership of that work. Palmisciano calls Rotterdam’s West End run “fantastic for trans representation”. However, he adds: “That wasn’t produced by a trans writer and didn’t have trans actors playing the parts.”
Industry-wide, Gilligan would like to see more trans people in creative decision-making positions. Palmisciano echoes this. “To at least have a trans adviser on board when producing these pieces is really important,” he believes. “This would help give a real insight and authenticity to the story.”
“We’re the next big thing – we’re ‘it’,” jokes trans writer and performer Kate O’Donnell. She created 2015’s autobiographical Big Girl’s Blouse and this year is bringing You’ve Changed to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
You’ve Changed is a co-production between Contact Theatre and Trans Creative, which O’Donnell – as founding artistic director – launched earlier this year. Over three years, the Manchester-based, trans-led theatre company will receive £134,528 from Arts Council England’s diversity-focused Elevate fund.
Six trans-themed Edinburgh shows
201’s contemporary hip-hop ensemble returns with Skin: a boy’s journey through gender transition.
One year after transgender man Kit receives his first injection of testosterone he enters a male gym changing room for the first time.
Diversity and access are key to reflecting a modern society. With funds such as Elevate and a greater focus on regional work, ACE is making advances – Trans Creative’s funding was specifically to promote work in the north.
Gilligan would also like to see travel bursaries and ticket discounts for trans people, to help them see London-based work, if it isn’t touring. “Many trans people are facing healthcare and legal costs,” he says. “And if their families aren’t supportive, they’re trying to go to school or support themselves by working.”
O’Donnell established Trans Creative to provide positive representations of trans people – countering tokenistic or negative stereotypes – and to give other trans artists a platform. When many trans narratives are still being written and performed by cisgendered (non-trans) people, she says, “trans stories, told by a trans person in a live setting, have a massive impact”.
To this end, in July, Trans Creative curated Spark, a new trans arts festival in Manchester. Venues from the Manchester Art Gallery and the People’s History Museum to the Portico Library, hosted film, literature, art and cabaret nights involving 50 trans performers, writers and artists. “It was really special,” says O’Donnell. “And part of that was to ‘trans up’ Manchester.”
A plurality of voices, stories and types of work is important in this context, because – of course – the experience of being (and living as) trans, non-binary or gender-fluid differs greatly from one person to another. It can also depend on economic or ethnic background.
Theatre company Milk Presents explores identity and gender in a multilayered, diverse way. Gilligan praises the company’s “beautiful dramaturgy, which is really mindful of how those multiplicities of identity come through”. Its latest show, Bullish, uses Greek mythology to do so.
Krishna Istha, a gender-fluid theatremaker and performer, is part of the cast that has devised Bullish. Istha welcomes the mix of trans, non-binary and cisgender creatives involved: “The people in that room are so diverse and different, the show that will come out at the end encompasses all of our experiences.”
Bullish is a commission by Camden People’s Theatre in London, and will headline its Come As You Are festival in September. Over three weeks, theatre companies and artists will explore a variety of trans, non-binary and gender-queer issues on stage.
Gilligan welcomes festivals such as Come as You Are. “It’s making a commitment to bringing issues to light,” he says. “We’re building lots of relationships with transgender artists who, for a variety of reasons, have not had quite as many anchors in their career.”
Trans-inclusivity is also about the language used in the work and the environment of a theatre itself. “If you haven’t done the research to see what terms people are using about themselves, it’s hard for people to want to come to a venue, let alone imagine themselves on stage there.” says Gilligan.
Advising on these issues, Gilligan credits venues such as CPT and the Bush for their “enthusiasm and willingness to reach out and have those conversations”. For example, CPT now has a gender inclusive policy and action plan that addresses toilet signage and asking visiting companies ahead of time about preferred pronouns.
Industry-wide education is key to building on these positive steps – from looking at how agents categorise their clients online, to raising casting directors’ awareness of the number of trans actors out there, to ensuring that drama schools are trans-inclusive spaces.
In summer 2015, trans charity Gendered Intelligence teamed up with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to offer a transgender acting course. Ash Palmisciano, who went, recalls it as “a fantastic experience” and “really confidence-building”. He got to meet other trans actors, connect with casting agents, and left with a renewed drive for acting.
Before accepting the role in Summer in London, Palmisciano briefly worried “that people would forget that I’m a guy, who’s an actor, who happens to be transgender,” he says. “But, actually, now, I realise that if I want to make a change in the world, I want to give someone a role model.”
Palmisciano cites a shocking statistic from a recent report by LGBT charity Stonewall that more than two in five young trans people have tried to take their own life. He sees theatre as crucial to changing this picture.
“As theatre starts teaching that it’s okay to be yourself, to be you, to be different to society’s script,” he says. “I think we’re going to see massive changes. That’s exciting.”
Bullish is part of the Come As You Are festival, running at Camden People’s Theatre from September 12 to 30