Gender Euphoria, Episode 7: Trans Theatre and the Autobiographical Assumption

Nicolas: And she stood up and took her bow.

Jesse: Right, so it was just this moment of being… The power that the auto biographical imperative has over people’s understanding of trans people and what we’re here to do, which is just to be people in the world and live a human existence the way that everybody else does. That was the key for us in that piece as well was we wanted to create something that wasn’t for a cis audience. We wanted to be something that a cis audience could enjoy as a piece of theater, but it was not meant to be something that would fulfill that role of teaching you something about trans people.

One of my favorite anecdotes about the show is our metric every night for what kind of audience we had was, in one of the very early scenes, two of the characters are discussing… This show is based around a woman who opens her home up to trans youth who need a place to stay. They’re discussing how to organize all the mail that comes to all the different people who live in the house. One of them suggests a labeled cubby system, and she says, “We could call it assigned mail.” Then we would all sit backstage and wait to see what the audience reaction to that line was going to be. Some nights it was dead silence because nobody understood the joke. Some nights there were a couple of little chuckles, and then some nights you knew it was going to be a good night if that got uproarious laughter. You know what the level of comfort and understanding the audience had based on their response to that line.

Nicolas: I think I had a similar experience touring my first solo show to fringe festivals. It’s called Five and a Half Feet of Fearsome. I start out. I’m at this recruitment meeting; I’m running it. It is the annual meeting of the gender deviants and other queer folk of whatever state I’m performing in. Item number one on this agenda is to welcome the new recruits. I just try and pick the straightest looking row of the audience and have them stand up and we applaud them, and I tell them they’re very brave.

Jesse: Yes.

Nicolas: Then, I let them know that their uniforms are on back order. They’re come in the mail. I would know how queer the audience was on any given night based on my explanations of the lesbian uniform, which is your standard issue, red plaid men’s cut flannel. In the right breast pocket, you will find a tube of chapstick and a pair of nail clippers.

If the audience was just sitting there nodding along, I was just like, “Okay, I’m performing for straight people. I see. You are taking me very seriously and trying to learn my story. I’m supposed to be telling you story, and I am not. I am just this weirdo in eyeliner and lipstick and combat boots, and you’re very confused.” I would immediately also find all the queer people in the audience because those were the people who knew what I was talking about in that line.

Jesse: Yes.

Nicolas: They didn’t have to think through, “Why do lesbians need nail clippers? Why does this teen boy know that?”

Jesse: They have the comfort to laugh at it too.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Jesse: That’s the other thing. Sometimes you get the dead silence of not understanding. Then sometimes you get the stilted laughter of, “Oh that was a joke. Am I allowed to laugh at that? Oh shit, is it…is it rude if I laugh at that? I’m just—I’m going to quietly chuckle to show that—”

Nicolas: It’s not okay to laugh at trans people anymore I’ve heard.

Jesse: — “I’m cool with it.” Right, right. Exactly. Somebody’s—

Nicolas: I’m like, this is going to be so awkward if you don’t laugh.

Jesse: Somebody’s state mandated diversity training was like, “Don’t laugh at them.” They were like, “But what if they make a funny joke? Am I allowed to laugh then?”

Nicolas: Trans people can be funny. We have to be.

Jesse: We often are.

Nicolas: Yeah. It’s my theory. It is a survival technique.

Jesse: 100 percent.

Nicolas: Being funny. I did have one girl in one of the back rows that I had stand up was really excited because she was already wearing a flannel.

Jesse: Yes.

Nicolas: She’s like, “I’m so ready.” I’m like, “Yes, come down. Model it.”

Jesse: That reminds me one of my favorite moments from a show ever, not a show that I was a part of, but Annie Danger’s Fully Functional Cabaret where they have one of the performers, who is a trans woman, is in the audience as a plant in boy drag and comes up to the stage. Then the other trans women who are part of the cast are trying to help this person…basically help her to pass. They turn to the audience for suggestions. It is the most deliciously uncomfortable thing in the world because everyone in the audience is like, “Oh no. We’re not supposed to do that. We’re not supposed to… No, we’re not supposed to do that.” They won’t move forward until somebody says something, and it’s just that… Oh, that wonderful moment of really…going back to the beginning of our conversation, right? It’s asking you to do something.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Jesse: In this case, it’s asking you to do something that in any other context would be so harmful and so but facing it in this context of the people who would be harmed by it are entirely in control of it.

Nicolas: There’s a different episode of the podcast I talked to Rebecca Kling and she’s a solo performer and pre-surgery after her shows she would do a talk back type thing. She called it a Strip Q and A. For each question the audience asked, she would take off an article of clothing. I wrote about that one in my dissertation because it just makes this such an interesting conflict, which is like, “How badly do I want to know this information? How vulnerable am I making you be?”

Jesse: Yes.

Nicolas: “Is my question worth it?”

Jesse: Totally. Ah! And again, the way that uses the body to show this actual, this literal vulnerability of getting naked or removing your clothing, but also the, just that physical manifestation of the ways that those questions do absolutely attempt to strip you bare metaphorically, but also sometimes, literally.

Nicolas: Yeah.

Jesse: Ah, it’s so brilliant.

Nicolas: But like also she gets to be empowered. We’ll just continue like carrying herself as she would, and as she has been for the forty-five-minute performance. Just now completely naked.

Jesse: Oh, that’s so good.

Nicolas: I get to talk to so many great people who are brilliant, and I love it. Let’s see, I saw that you talked to Shakina Nayfack for your dissertation. I also got to talk with her about her One Woman Show. And we also talked a bit about this idea of ​​autobiography, and she used your term, the “autobiographical assumption.” And she said something that really stuck with me in that, when she was specifically performing for an audience of large majority cis people within the Broadway community, she felt so much pressure to just like really kind of exploit her own story and her own trauma. And I think she’s not alone in that kind of pressure in telling your own story and in the kind of trans narratives that are kind of, I guess, legible culturally. I think that’s something that I run into in my own work is walking that line of, “How vulnerable do I be? Yes, this is part of my story, but do I want to repeat it?”

Jesse: Yeah.

Nicolas: Or “If I’m going to repeat it, do I do it in the way that you’re expecting me to? And how do I kind of do it in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m performing my trauma for these kinds of voyeuristic cis onlookers?”

Jesse: Right.

Nicolas: I was wondering if you’d come across that additional tension.

Jesse: I always do. And so how do we do that, but also “How do we make sure that we’re also not sugarcoating and asking you to smile and say that everything is great, right? How do we acknowledge the different faces of experience? The experience of being queer or being trans in these contexts?” And I think it’s complicated. I think it’s complicated. And I think I personally have more of a tendency not to sugarcoat, but I do have more of a tendency to be like, “I just want joy! I just want trans joy!” And I’ve had creative collaborators and colleagues very gently remind me, right, to not compartmentalize in that way, and I appreciate those reminders. So yeah, I think that that’s why I tend to really lean on this terminology of thriving in an attempt to hold that balance in a way that feels healthy.

Nicolas: That seems like a lovely note to end this section of their conversation on. So I have a couple of questions before we wrap up. The overall thesis of this entire series is that trans people are everywhere, and we have always been here. So, you have mentioned a whole bunch of different folks throughout our conversation today, but I’m wondering if there is a member or members of your queer, trans artistic family tree that you’d like to give us a shout out to who has kind of helped show you the way, get you to where you are today.

Jesse: Yeah. Oh, I’m sure every guest has had this experience of being like, “I could tell you so many people.”

Nicolas: Oh yeah.

Jesse: I think that one, this is not going to be my only answer because this is an absolute cop-out answer, but I think that every single trans person I’ve ever met in my life has been influential and integral to my experience. And I consider every one of them to be a part of my extended family tree, whether they know it or not.

Nicolas: We’ve also talked about this is that sometimes the people who are part of our artistic and queer, trans lineages don’t even know we exist

Jesse: mm-hmm.

Nicolas: But that doesn’t mean they haven’t impacted us.

Jesse: Exactly. So with that very broad response to that being said, I think that who I have to make particular mention of are Dillon and Siri and the entire cast and creative group of TRANSOM. Being a part of a creative process that centered, not only centered trans and non-binary people, but also was a majority trans and non-binary people, really makes it hard to step into any other type of space because it was just so nourishing . And major person who’s a part of that I have to mention is Lisa Schepps, who is just doing an absolutely incredible job at Ground Floor Theatre. The work that they do is just… I mean, it’s high-quality theatre, and it’s also centering the experiences of historically marginalized people, not just trans people, but queer people, people of color. It’s just really, really groundbreaking work. And working with Lisa, alongside Lisa as a co-director and advisor in that process, was one of the most, I think, educational and fun and honestly healing experiences that I’ve ever had. And I’m very, very grateful to her for the work that she’s doing.

Nicolas: Fantastic. And finally, could you leave us with an image of what gender euphoria looks like for you in performance or in everyday life?

Jesse: Hmm. Gender euphoria in performance to me, I think, looks like getting to be on stage, whatever that means, whether it’s literally on stage or on a Zoom reading or something. But getting to play a character that gives you the opportunity to show that you are more than your assumed autobiography, I think. I have to also credit Dr. Cáel Keegan with this sense of reclaiming the bad transgender object, so I think gender euphoria to me would look like getting to play just a mean horrible but, like, delicious villain and also still being trans in doing that, right. And being able to do that without fear of what kind of “representation.” I’m using air quotes. On this audio format, I am gesticulating importantly.

Nicolas: Theater people, what can you do?

Jesse: I know. I think that’s what that is for me. Like just getting to play somebody that is really juicy and not worry about how it’s going to reflect on your audience’s understanding of your gender for whom you clearly speak.

Nicolas: Yes. Thank you so much for chatting with me.

Jesse: Thank you. I’m so glad that you’re doing this series.

Nicolas: Yeah, me too.

Gender Euphoria, the podcast, is hosted and edited by me, Nicolas Shannon Savard. The voices you heard in the opening poem were Rebecca Kling, Dillon Yruegas, Azure D. Osborne-Lee and Joshua Bastian Cole. Gender Euphoriathe podcast is sponsored by HowlRound Theater Commons, a free and open platform for theatermakers worldwide.

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