Speaking on a recent panel called Trans Visibility in the Theatre, actor Alexandra Billings said: “The number is only a handful, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s enormous.”
The event followed a Sunday matinee of The Nap, Richard Bean’s comedy, which had its US premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway this season. Billings, a trans woman who has appeared on television’s Transparent, played the trans character of Waxy Bush, a local gangster, in Bean’s tangled tale of snooker competition.
Billings was referring to the trans performers seen in Broadway shows, who include Kate Bornstein in Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men and Peppermint, from the original cast of Head Over Heels. She also noted that Bianca Leigh, who was moderating the panel, was her understudy in The Nap – but was also understudying Joanna Day, a non-trans actor, in what was most likely a Broadway first.
The panel included Will Davis, a trans director, and Marquise Vilson, a trans actor, as well as non-trans casting director Alexa Fogel. Over the course of 30 minutes, the quintet managed a quick survey of the issues facing trans actors, in the theatre as well as in film and on television.
As a director, Davis spoke about the responsibility he feels in advancing opportunities for trans actors, saying: “We have to invest in people who have that experience and tell stories about that experience.”
Davis also outlined what he referred to as his “trans play rubric,” namely the criteria by which he considers whether to take on a project in which trans characters appear. Those personal guidelines included: “If the dramaturgical centre of the play is about the burden of the non-cisgender person, I will not do it. If the non-cisgender person is the ‘B-story’ or has a zoological function, I will not do it, and if the trans person dies, I will not do it.”
As an actor, Billings added that her criteria include not playing trans characters whose primary function is to come on a stage or screen and ask the white, cisgender characters: “How are you doing?”
Leigh spoke of seeking roles “that happen to be trans” and there was a general consensus among the panel about the breakthroughs that will come when trans actors are cast in roles simply according to their gender identity. Vilson spoke of the layers of identity in play for him, as a black trans man.
Billings recounted having issues with points in the script of The Nap specific to the depiction of a trans character, but that she took the role regardless, saying: “Before you change the rules, you have to get in the game.” She described waiting for the right moment in the process before sharing her concerns with the creative team, ultimately pointing out such issues as misgendered references. The response, she said, was a receptive: “How do we fix this?”
Of the process of better informing her colleagues and collaborators, Billings said, “If you approach another human being with empathy, with kindness, and with other knowledge, you can engage in conversation, not debate.”
Davis noted, however, that some trans performers are reticent, even when the opportunity arises, noting: “When you’re the only one of you, there’s something in the back of your mind that doesn’t want to rock the boat.”
It was impossible to gauge how precisely the audience was taking in the information shared at the panel. However, it was evident that there was an education taking place at least for some. This was most apparent when Davis, while discussing people who are non-binary, asked whether anyone didn’t understand what that term meant, and many hands went up.
For those who archly denigrate post-performance discussions, I would be the first to point to MTC’s Trans Visibility panel as a prime example of what can be achieved in such events, above and beyond the content of the play that proceeds it. Indeed, my rudimentary note-taking skills were tested as wise, thoughtful statements poured out of the panellists, who showed a desire to inform – not to teach or lecture – about transgender and non-binary people and performers.
“We are all here to do service work for humanity to continue,” said Billings. “Every moment is a chance for newness for the stranger you have yet to meet.” Most pointedly, she said she constantly asks herself, “How can I have a conversation with the person who disagrees with me the most?”