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Five gender-nonconforming performers on their experiences in the theatre industry
When I set out to write about nonbinary and gender-nonconforming theatre performers, I wasn't sure where to begin. How could I cover all that needs to be said in an article? How could I celebrate the triumphs of an amazing group of actors, address the difficulties they encounter in a slow-to-evolve industry and give credence to the vast spectrum of identities that nonbinary individuals—myself included—exist in? I spoke with five nonbinary performers, Blair Baker (they/she), Mars Rucker (they/them), J. Riley Jr. (they/them), Kolton Krouse (all pronouns) and Peter Smith (she/they) and, as I suspected, I cannot tell every story in one story—the community is not a monolith. However, I can shine a spotlight on the challenges they face and the changes they would like to see onstage, backstage and offstage.
A person's identity touches every part of their art from the moment they walk into an audition. But the audition room is not always a safe place to be. Although these days many theatre casting directors say they are open to seeing nonbinary performers, they may not be genuine in their desire to cast them. "You read a casting notice and you kind of instantly know whether or not these people are just trying to seem inclusive, or if they are actually interested in telling a trans or nonbinary story," says Blair Baker, a Broadway veteran who most recently appeared in Goldie, Max and Milk at 59E59 Theaters. Even when a project allegedly calls for a gender-nonconforming performer, things can go awry. Baker shared an anecdote about auditioning for an explicitly nonbinary role and both they and the character they were reading for were misgendered throughout the entire process.
Sometimes, nonbinary performers can't get into the audition room in the first place. For years, dancer Kolton Krouse, who recently appeared in the Broadway-aimed revival of Bob Fosse's Dancin', had trouble getting seen. Krouse prefers to dance in heels—a choice that often relegates him to being considered for "female" roles—and his former agents were hesitant to submit him for those parts. So, he found a new agent. In Dancin', he became the first non-cisgender woman to perform Fosse's famous Trumpet Solo in "Sing, Sing, Sing" professionally. "I just showed up [to the audition] in a heel and a look—I don't think they were necessarily looking for someone nonbinary," he says. "But here I am! I can't really rely on [casting directors] telling me what they want because I don't know if they know."
Some actors, like Baker, are very intentional about the roles they audition for. "I would read the sides for things and be like, 'Is this a dress part? Or can I wear pants?'" Baker explains. If it's a "dress part," they aren't interested. Initially, Baker played characters whose femininity was beyond their comfort zone. However, they experienced a turning point when a director offhandedly remarked that Baker "became a woman" onstage during a performance, erasing their nonbinary identity and boxing them into a feminine stereotype. "Since then, I've been really, really selective about the cis women I play," Baker says. "If there's something that doesn't bring me joy, I'm gonna steer away from it if I can."
Other gender-nonconforming actors, such as Peter Smith, Mars Rucker and J. Riley Jr., are open to playing parts of any gender expression. Rucker is currently understudying Thoughts 1, 2 and 3 in Broadway's A Strange Loop, roles that embody multiple characters of various genders throughout the show. "Me being genderqueer completely makes sense for this," they explain. "I feel comfortable playing a man. I feel comfortable playing a woman. I feel comfortable playing myself. I don't really feel any limit around the gender I play."
Smith expresses a similar sentiment. "My gender experience allows me to play multiple different genders, and it's exciting for me," she says. Smith is currently understudying a half dozen parts in Macbeth on Broadway, including a nonbinary Malcolm. She says the creative team embraced her identity from the get-go and that she "discussed pronouns one-on-one" with director Sam Gold. Although he was willing to adapt the script if she was uncomfortable portraying a role of a certain gender, Smith opted to play the characters as written. "When I go on stage, I'll keep the pronouns for the character, because the character is, [for example], a man in this world."
Riley recently wrapped up Suffs at The Public Theater and was also impressed by the production's inclusivity. "The Friday before we started rehearsals, I was called in by [writer] Shaina [Taub] and our music director Andrea [Grody]," they recall. "And they were like, 'We just wanna make sure that the music sits well in your voice.' That was the first time I had ever had an experience like that, where I was working with people who were actually interested in changing things and making sure that I was comfortable, making sure that I could use my abilities to their best."
Riley would love to see that flexible approach employed for all performers, not just those who are trans or nonbinary. "In actuality, everyone struggles with singing really high and loud," Riley says with a laugh. "There's this myth that we don't have the talent or the skill or the capability to carry a show or sing the music when we do. Maybe you just have to change the key." After all, musical directors do that frequently to accommodate stars.
While it's gratifying to hear such stories of comfort and respect, Rucker and Riley caution that these are exceptions. Gender-nonconforming performers frequently experience harm, sometimes done out of ignorance, but that's no excuse. "I feel like a lot of people only really understand interacting with trans people based on whatever certain trans person they've had in their life," says Rucker. "The industry needs to go a step further once they cast us to actually understand, okay, who are you? I can't cast you and then think that the work is done. I need to cast you and then decolonize gender for myself, understand how I need to move around you and how I need to move around trans people."
That only happens on an individualized basis. "We're not all the same, our transness is different," echoes Riley. "Don't assume that because you've spoken to one trans person in the cast about how they feel about a certain thing that you can apply how they feel to the other trans person in cast." To that point, Riley shared a story about the costuming process for a number in Suffs where the entire ensemble dressed up as vaudevillian caricatures of men. Some actors wore fake mustaches, while others didn't. "Me and the other trans girl in the cast [Ada Westfall] weren't given mustaches. And I like was like, oh, that's interesting," says Riley. They later found out that Westfall had expressly requested not to wear a mustache. "It seemed like they took what she said and just defaulted it to me," says Riley. "And I said, 'No, I want a mustache!'"
It's an emotional burden for trans and nonbinary folks to take on the responsibility of educating cis people about how to engage with them, how to relate to them, how to talk about their bodies and their voices, and how to support them in the workplace, especially the rehearsal room. "As a Black genderqueer person, my entire existence in this space becomes a teaching lesson that's often nonconsensual and unpaid," says Rucker, who encourages producers to hire gender consultants to shift the burden away from gender-nonconforming actors and other employees. Because open-minded discussions are the way to move the industry forward. "I think we're all building the ship and flying it at the same time," says Smith. "I have learned to be gracious in terms of handling conversations about gender in big rooms with different groups of people."
While the theatre industry is still figuring out how to lift up trans and nonbinary performers, each small victory creates a foothold for the next genderqueer actor to step into. And as producers and directors expand their understanding, the artform will be all the better for it. "Trans and nonbinary people are incredible," says Riley. "You just have to find them. We are everywhere."
Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. They are also the Senior Product & Reviews Editor at The Good Housekeeping Institute. Follow them on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Kolton Krouse, center, in Dancin' at The Old Globe. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
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