Theatremakers including Teddy Lamb, Travis Alabanza, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Roy Alexander Weise have signed an open letter urging the musical theatre industry to work towards better representation for transgender actors.
The letter has been written as a result of “a number of casting announcements in which cisgender actors are cast as trans characters in new and pre-existing musicals”.
It argues that such casting choices are “failing the next generation of trans performers” and urges cisgender creatives to “consider why they wish to showcase trans characters in the first place”.
Performers Meg McGrady and Harrison Knights are behind the letter, which has contributions from members of Trans Voices Company, a venture set up by Knights to help address a lack of casting opportunities for non-cisgender actors.
Other signatories of the letter include writer Abi Zakarian, actor Tigger Blaize, theatremaker Jenifer Toksvig and artistic director at the Bunker Theatre Chris Sonnex.
It follows criticism over the decision to cast a male cisgender actor as a trans woman in Breakfast on Pluto at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Trans Voices Company is also meeting with Selladoor today (March 12) to discuss concerns over the casting of a male cisgender actor in a trans role in the musical Bring It On.
The letter states: “The casting of cisgender people, often cis men as trans women, is an insensitive choice that, even without intention to, gives further credit to harmful allegations, and reinforces the ideology that trans women are simply ‘men in dresses’.”
It argues that there is a “severe lack of transgender roles” within the musical theatre canon and it is “unjust and ridiculous” for these parts to go to cisgender performers.
The letter adds: “It is also important to explain that by casting cisgender performers as trans characters, we fail the next generation of trans performers.”
The letter offers a list of existing theatre companies, such as Trans Voices Company and Trans Creative, who are willing to consult with other organisations to address these issues.
It urges casting directors to reconsider the way they find and audition performers, suggesting more open calls and broader social media campaigns.
The letter adds: “In the unlikely scenario where casting trans talent is truly impossible, and one has referred to the aforementioned companies and agencies to source the full pool of trans performers, then the only option is to postpone or cancel your production.
“To persist with an inauthentic and politically dangerous theatrical performance is to be, at best, irresponsible.”
A second letter spearheaded by the LGBTQ Arts Review, Outbox Theatre and the Queer House criticising the casting decision in Breakfast on Pluto has received nearly 1,000 signatures.
An Open Letter to @DonmarWarehouse, @BirminghamRep, @LandmarkIreland & @GalwayIntArts regarding #BreakfastOnPluto from @thequeerhouse @outboxtheatre and @lgbtqarts. If you would like to add your signature do so here: t.co/eSWKp9Ss5m pic.twitter.com/yeW65I8Kul
— Outbox Theatre (@Outbox_Theatre)
An Open Letter to @DonmarWarehouse, @BirminghamRep, @LandmarkIreland & @GalwayIntArts regarding #BreakfastOnPluto from @thequeerhouse @outboxtheatre and @lgbtqarts. If you would like to add your signature do so here: https://t.co/eSWKp9Ss5m pic.twitter.com/yeW65I8Kul— Outbox Theatre (@Outbox_Theatre) March 10, 2020
In the last couple of months we have seen a number of casting announcements in which cisgender actors (cisgender, also “cis”, meaning those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) are cast as trans (trans being an umbrella term to signify the inclusion for those who identify within the scope of being “trans”, ie, transgender, transfeminine/masculine, non-binary/enby) characters in new and pre-existing musicals. It has become apparent that this is not down to a single casting decision by one production company, but is an industry wide issue that we wish to discuss. This is not an attempt to single out individual actors or casting directors, rather a chance for people to listen to the voices of trans and gender nonconforming (GNC) individuals within the theatre industry regarding the changes we need to implement.
What we are seeing is an issue with the casting process and how we, as an industry, search for, appeal for, and audition minority groups – this is not solely a trans-focused issue, but it is important to explore through a trans-focused lens in this instance. While we understand that the pond of trans performers is, comparatively, a small one, it is clear that trans musical theatre can thrive, by evidence of new smaller-scale productions successfully writing and finding parts for trans performers, as well as through focused trans events like Trans Voices Cabaret and Sinqueerly Me, both held at the Other Palace, not to mention live theatre created outside of the musical theatre sphere, in conjunction with the numerous trans-led/tailored theatre companies throughout the UK, such as Outbox, the Queer House, and Trans Creative.
We would like to address why casting cisgender performers as trans characters is a serious problem, and explain the harm it does to trans performers, and the trans community as a whole.
For those not aware, large swathes of the British media at present are targeting trans people as a minority group. Whether it’s a broadsheet article defending the behaviour and discourse of some Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (or TERFs, a group of vocal individuals synonymous with opinion that modern feminism should exclude trans people), or sensationalism targeting trans children and puberty blockers, it is hard to deny that certain media outlets, and journalists, are entertaining a transphobic rhetoric.
Two in five trans people (41%) have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months, according to Stonewall’s Trans Report, and there has been a 37% rise in transphobic hate crime this year alone. The casting of cisgender people, often cis men as trans women, is an insensitive choice that, even without intention to, gives further credit to harmful allegations, and reinforces the ideology that trans women are simply “men in dresses”. If we cannot see this conservative reactionism challenged in theatre and dramatic art through the casting of trans performers as trans characters, then we are unlikely to see a broader change in attitudes towards trans and GNC individuals elsewhere.
The indispensability of trans actors playing trans characters is also exemplified in the severe lack of trans roles within the musical theatre canon. There are only four (widely recognised) major Broadway musicals with trans roles explicitly referenced in their libretto, and with so few trans characters available for trans and GNC performers to play, it is unjust and, frankly, ridiculous for these parts to go to cisgender performers.
It is worth noting there are quite a few new emerging musicals in Britain that we know of with trans writers, cast members, trans consultancy, or with trans people working on the teams that are setting an example. Shows like The Jury, The Phase, Steep Themselves in Night, Unicorn, Closets, STAGES, and Works of Arts are examples of theatre where trans people have been accurately written as (and cast in) major roles. If ground-level new musicals can have meaningful trans representation, then there is nothing stopping larger productions from doing the same.
It is also important to explain that by casting cisgender performers as trans characters, we fail the next generation of trans performers; these choices deny trans performers the opportunity to see themselves fitting into this industry, especially when roles are specifically written in their image – if the current cohort of trans performers cannot get cast, budding aspirationals are discouraged from pursuing their ambitions. In order to inspire future generations, to tap into their potential, and widen the selection of trans performers working in the UK, we must be visible to them, and imminently so.
Additionally, cisgender members of the industry must consider why they wish to showcase trans characters in the first place. The elevation of trans stories by cis creatives is, of course, imperative, but only if cast appropriately – if a production develops a show with trans characters, yet excludes trans actors from portraying them, then the sincerity of their support for our community becomes evident in its falsehood.
Having but scratched the surface on some pressing issues, we are willing to suggest solutions in order to achieve better trans representation. Existing companies to consult or refer to include Trans Voices Company, Milk Presents, Outbox Theatre, Queerly Productions, the Queer House, Trans Creative, all of whom seek to elevate trans productions and performers.
We can also look to casting directors to change the way that they seek and audition trans performers. We would encourage transparency in the casting process, as well as more open calls and broader social media campaigns to find trans performers who might not have access to Spotlight, or be represented by an agent. Industry creatives must prioritise finding people with the right experience and identity to play a role.
In the unlikely scenario where casting trans talent is truly impossible, and one has referred to the aforementioned companies and agencies to source the full pool of trans performers, then the only option is to postpone or cancel your production. To persist with an inauthentic and politically dangerous theatrical performance is to be, at best, irresponsible.
With the community of upcoming trans writers and performers flourishing in recent years, it’s certain that one’s desire to tell a particular trans-focused story will be achievable in the future, only if one reaches out (in earnest) to these creatives. If people are not willing to make this effort, then it is unlikely that they are the right people to tell trans stories at any date.
Casting is always political, always partisan; no theatre exists in a cultural and social vacuum, and this is no less true of musical theatre. By casting trans actors, you normalise and humanise the trans experience and trans bodies. When you cast a trans actor, they are able to give an authentic voice to the production as it grows and develops, and, more than a writing consult, an actor can work with issues that arise from the unwritten communication that is only found later in a production’s creation/outing. You can also be reactive and proactive simultaneously – we know, from experience, a trans actor can unite communities in simply doing the job they are paid to do.
No casting process is perfect and there are always various factors to consider. Perhaps in an ideal world, the gender of a character, and gender of respective actors, wouldn’t matter – but until trans actors are accepted and cast in trans and cis roles, we have an inequity which positive action can help to address.