I saw a play with Daniel Radcliffe, and his character is canonically bisexual, unequivocally. no experiments, no drunken mistakes. just bi. and afterwards, he was so kind to the audience. he took his time signing autographs, taking photos, and offering to take selfies. when I finally got to the front of the line, I said to him that it was a huge deal to me to see a character who was openly bisexual, and he said something to the effect of, “I imagine it would be a big deal to see it where it’s not a big fucking deal”, and he promised to pass it on to the writer of the play. but it meant so much, that there was a bisexual character who wasn’t ashamed. didn’t try to hide their sexuality. who wasn’t confused. and I just broke down for a second and started crying. I think he was a little taken aback, but he hugged me, and let me cry into his shoulder. and it just meant. so. fucking. much. thank you Daniel. thank you, from a bisexual woman.
Hi! I’m Taylor, a genderqueer theatremaker based in New York City. I’m writing in regards to your recent complete casting announcement for Southern Comfort, the new musical you’re producing which will open in March 2016. As you know, the musical is inspired by a documentary of the same name, which follows a transgender couple in rural Georgia as they battle disease, stigma, and poverty.
A few months ago, you put out a casting call for Southern Comfort, specifically seeking transgender actors. When I saw this casting call, I was thrilled! It gave me such joy to see that The Public was not only investing in a story about the experiences of trans folk, but was doing the legwork to make sure this story was cast accurately, with transgender performers. Even when I discovered that you were only seeking trans performers for two roles in the piece, I felt confident that The Public was casting the piece so that both trans stories AND trans actors would be at its center.
However, the complete casting announcement that you released this past Thursday, December 17, proves that I was mistaken. Yes, you did cast two transgender performers in those two roles. I am thrilled that you did this, and want to publicly congratulate Donnie Cianciotto and Aneesh Sheth. I’m so excited to see the beautiful work they are sure to do in this piece.
But the protagonists of the story, the trans couple that form the emotional crux of Southern Comfort, have both been cast with cisgender, i.e. not transgender, actors. So has every other performance role in the piece, from the band to the acting ensemble. The writers and director are also cisgender. In fact, based on this announcement, the only two transgender people involved with this production, a musical that is entirely focused on trans experiences, are the two performers I mentioned earlier.
This announcement caused me to ask several questions which I’d like to put to you now.
Why did The Public choose to cast and staff a musical that overwhelmingly focused on trans narratives with an almost entirely cisgender cast and creative team? I have a hard time imagining it was due to a lack of appropriate or skilled trans talent for any of the roles or positions in the piece - there are now entireagencies dedicated to trans performance talent. And any trans theatre artist in this city - and indeed, many cisgender ones - can give you a list of talented, professional, transgender peformers, choreographers, directors, and musicians.
Did The Public seek out any trans theatre artists for advice of this kind? If not, why not? Certainly The Public knows of the city’s vibrant trans and queer performance art community, and knew that members of that community would be interested in the development of this piece. Why not consult them, then? Why not include trans folk in the process for a piece about trans experiences?
Is this production meant to serve NYC’s trans communities? How can it, when those in charge of it only felt the need to cast two roles in it with trans actors? The past couple of years have been incredibly difficult for American trans communities on many levels. On a cultural level, more and more trans narratives are being highlighted in plays, movies, and television shows every year, but only a small fraction of the roles in those narratives are being given to trans performers. A quick Google search or, again, a conversation with almost any trans person or artist will give you an idea of how deeply insulting and disheartening this practice is. Every day, trans people the world over are told that their identities are not real, are invalid, are just a show. But our identities are not negotiable, and our collective ability to tell stories based in trans experiences and history shouldn’t be either. Why would The Public further fuel this damaging notion that trans people aren’t competent enough to tell their own community’s stories?
Is The Public doing anything to support the potential trans audience base for Southern Comfort? Is it providing discounted or cheaper tickets to local trans organizations? Is it making sure that trans patrons will feel safe and well taken care of in the theatre space? Then again, how many trans people will want to devote time and energy to yet another story where trans narratives are put on display, but actual trans people are pushed to the side?
Perhaps contracts or arrangements were already in place that would make it impossible for The Public to produce Southern Comfort without casting such a large number of cis performers. Why, then, did The Public choose to produce it in the first place? If The Public’s aim was to create a theatrical experience that celebrated trans folks, why not commission a new piece about trans experiences and then cast and staff it with local trans artists? We already know that the Public is capable of conducting a nationwide search for trans actors. If it’s capable of doing such big and important casting work, why artificially limit it to two roles? Why not create a piece in which every cast and team member can be trans? Then again, was The Public’s aim to create a trans musical for the benefit of trans people? Or was it to create a trans musical for the benefit of everyone but trans people? Is The Public really trying to do right by trans folk, or is it just jumping on the trans story bandwagon, producing Southern Comfort in an effort to stay relevant, and not in an effort to empower or centralize trans experiences?
If you’re going to produce a story at the expense of the community whose history its meant to focus on, why produce it at all?
Lastly, I question why The Public didn’t follow the leads of other artistic production teams who have already, successfully, cast all the trans roles available to them with trans performers. The casting process for Taylor Mac’s HIR, which is now in its third extension at Playwrights Horzions, recently created some wonderful protocols for finding and casting trans performers, all within the last year. That casting process was almost certainly more difficult than most, but it clearly wasn’t impossible. Why would The Public not follow Playwrights’ lead? Was it not willing to take on that added difficulty in casting? Why was it easy enough to seek out and cast two trans actors, but not five or six? Who made that call? Who drew that line between “enough effort put into equitable casting” and “too much effort put into equitable casting”, a line that, as far as I can tell, is inherently arbitrary and unjust? Why cut corners when it comes to representative storytelling in Southern Comfort?
These are not rhetorical questions. In fact, I would love for this letter to serve as the starting point for a conversation between The Public and the NYC trans artist community, and the trans community at large, one in which The Public can answer all of these questions and more. I’d love to hear how The Public plans on collaborating and interacting with these trans communities. And nothing would make me happier than to hear how The Public plans on being an ally to these communities, both inside and outside of the theatre.
I love The Public. It’s been crucial to my growth as an artist and person for many years now, and I can’t wait for the next Under the Radar Festival to kick off.
But when someone asks me if The Public is an ally to trans people, I want to be able to answer with a resounding ‘Yes!’
And right now, I can only answer that question with a cautious “Yes. Occasionally. Only if it’s easy enough.”