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Inside the Trans Literacy Project from Honest Accomplice Theatre
I grew up with deep roots in musical theatre. I was trained as a director in theatre arts. I studied and was immersed in mainstream theatre from a very young age. I loved it, but soon came to learn that there wasn't much of a place for me there. As a trans person and an advocate, it was hard to find projects that excited me. The work I wanted to do, the characters I wanted to create, and the stories I wanted to tell just weren't in the canon. I wanted to change the game, to be in charge of how I was represented, to expand the dialogue about trans people beyond transitioning and surgery, but those roles didn't exist. So I became a director and worked as a stage manager as a way to stay engaged with a community I loved without compromising on how I presented my identity. But I still found it frustrating to work with material that ignored my very existence or to watch people trying to articulate my experience for me.
See, in the rising conversation about trans people in the media, I find myself watching cisgender people try to write "trans stories" or play trans characters, without really understanding the lived experience. This is frustrating when I'm standing right here. I direct; I write; I perform; I work in theatre. But people with actual lived experience are too seldom asked to be involved in productions that comment on their communities. As a result, the stories being told the loudest are inaccurate, two dimensional, and sometimes outright offensive.
In my quest to find an artistic home, I stumbled upon The Birds and the Bees; Unabridged, a devised show about female and trans sexuality presented by Honest Accomplice Theatre (HAT). The company was working to revise and reshape a previous version of the play and was starting a new round of rehearsals. I knew my voice belonged in the room, but I was nervous about joining a new group. Would I be the token trans cast member, giving them an opportunity to say they're being inclusive? Or would I have a chance to make theatre I was passionate about? After meeting co-directors and founders Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Rachel Sullivan, I signed up to give it a try.
I walked into a room of people, mostly cisgender (people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth), ranging in age from 20-70. They all had different levels of understanding about sexuality and gender. It was pretty clear that a portion of the ensemble had never met someone like me, which I had unfortunately grown accustomed to. Luckily, I am a person who enjoys talking about gender and identity, so working with these folks helped me find the most effective ways to do so. There was a lot of explaining and educating to be done, but I was happy. I was going to be creating my own lines and story for a trans character. For the first time, I was in a room where my voice was welcome and my opinions were openly validated.
I quickly learned that HAT was invested in making sure that we as a team represented issues in ways that were truthful, accessible, and creative. We all worked together to figure out how to present the trans characters in the show - how to make the material honest, validating for trans people, and transformative for cis audience members. I could walk up to Maggie and Rachel and say, "Can we talk about that moment/scene/line? It could be taken the wrong way." This not only helped us shape a character that was free of assumptions, but also helped the other ensemble members realize just how complex and ambiguous language can be in certain contexts. Watching them listen and taking action taught me to grow as a creator of content, as an advocate for trans people, and as an ally to others.
We performed The Birds and Bees: Unabridged to audiences in NYC and on college campuses throughout the Northeast. In post-show surveys we learned time and time again that people were craving more information about trans people, more opportunities to discuss the content, and more trans narratives. So Maggie and Rachel basically asked me, "What do you want to do? How can we, as a company and ensemble, respond to this? How do we make our work accessible to more folks?"
Those questions sparked what is now The Trans Literacy Project. With modern technology, videos can spread online like wildfire, so we figured a video series was the fastest way to reach as many people as we could.
Our approach to the video series mirrored our approach to theatre projects. We surveyed people of all gender identities and invited more trans artists, advocates, and activists to join us. We brought these folks together with our ensemble for many hours of discussions. We were sure to have cis people in the room to help brainstorm and ask questions. I realized this was necessary, because I wanted to know what cis people were thinking. To make sure I was explaining trans experience to the best of my abilities, it was so helpful to talk to people who don't live it every day. We rehearsed scenes, saw which concepts didn't work, tried new ideas, and finally ended up ready to shoot. But even on set, if something wasn't worded in the best way, folks were welcome to speak up. We would discuss what wasn't working and rewrite bits to make sure we were being as precise as possible. It made for a long filming process, but we were focused on getting the best product possible.
Over the course of a couple of months, our team put together a series of four episodes. They cover everything from Trans 101 to Transphobia in the LGB community. And we aren't stopping there. With these videos we hope to inspire more conversation and more understanding. To let folks know they can change how they think, how they create, and how they listen.
I want to change the game. I want to make sure cis people know how to talk to and about trans people without being confused or offensive or feeling like they don't have the answers. I want trans people to be in charge of how they are referenced. I want people to have a stronger sense of what life is like for a trans person, even if they've never met one. I want trans people to see themselves represented positively and honestly on an accessible but respectable platform. I want the language surrounding trans identity to be commonplace and mainstream. I want people to be literate in all things relating to trans experience and gender non-conformity. I want young people to feel like there is a place for them in the theatre world and beyond, a place where they don't have to compromise their ideas or identities.
Simply put, I want Trans Literacy.
NOTE: Videos in the Trans Literacy Project will premiere on Monday, September 19 at an Honest Accomplice event. They will be available online shortly thereafter. Check the company's website for updates.
Maybe Burke is an Artistic Associate with Honest Accomplice Theatre
Photos provided by Honest Accomplice Theatre. Top photo: The author (center, in purple) performs in a video for the Trans Literacy Project.