Can Theater Accurately and Sincerely Represent Trans Lives?

The full cast of the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe production of Trans Scripts.

Colin Hattersley

One summer’s day in 2011, theater producer Paul Lucas sat in a convalescent home talking with an HIV-positive queer friend, a man who was paralyzed from the waist down, about the wonderful work of trans artist Our Lady J. The friend looked at him and, with one disdainful remark about gender identity, set Lucas’ next opus in motion. “I can say I’m a unicorn,” he said. “Doesn’t make me a unicorn.”

Lucas was gobsmacked. There and then he decided that his next project had to explore trans stories. Because if a queer man was describing the trans community as little more than delusional, there was clearly not enough being done to inform cis people about the lives and plights of trans people.

As a result, Lucas began crafting Trans Scripts, a theatrical exploration of the trans experience through verbatim text. He conducted “200 or 300” hours of interviews with trans men and women from Cuba to India. From this trove of material he selected a portion to stage almost word-for-word. In 2015, the show played at the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. But it’s not just the text that proved fascinating: Simply by staging a show that seeks to provide the most sincere, accurate portrayal of lives rarely documented in art, Trans Scripts throws up interesting questions about how best to respect these stories before they even grace the stage. Especially when the writer, director, and several actors in each production have been cisgender.

In the years since Lucas began his research, Trans Scripts has gone through multiple incarnations with a variety of casts. In 2013, there were developmental readings at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Feast Festival of Queer Culture in Adelaide, Australia, which was run by future Edinburgh cast member Catherine Fitzgerald. A second reading took place at Rutgers in April 2014, under the direction of sometime cast member and associate producer Gail Winar, followed by a 10-day residency at the Lyric Theatre in Bridport, England, and the Actor’s Centre in London, under the direction of Adelaide’s Charles Sanders. It was during this last part of the process that the show stopped asking its cast to play multiple roles, cutting back the verbatim monologues until only six characters remained. “In the feedback, someone at one of the London performances said, ‘It was like an orchestra where you’re trying to hear every instrument as a soloist. In an orchestra, everybody can’t be a soloist.’ I think that was beautifully put,” explained Niki McCretton, artistic director of the Lyric and one of the cast members during the U.K. productions.

When the show came to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer it consisted of six narratives with one performer to each role. Those parts were Zakia (Carolyn Michelle Smith), a black American from the South who’s navigating her religion and her identity; Luna (Jay Knowles), the youngest, who delivers a rousing speech about the importance of trans women at Stonewall; Eden (Rebecca Root), a Brit who had botched reassignment surgery; Josephine (Catherine Fitzgerald), a married Australian who turned to bodybuilding before transitioning; the refined Sandra (Calpernia Addams); and the vivacious Tatiana (Bianca Leigh).

Bianca Leigh as Tatiana.

Colin Hattersley

Leigh first met Lucas when she asked him to come see her musical Busted in New York. She had hoped he might help take her show to Edinburgh for the Fringe. “Not a word about taking it to Edinburgh. Not a peep,” she laughed. “Of course, I was terribly insulted, but he is a lovely, lovely man.” Later, Lucas did call, not to offer to produce her show, but asking to interview her for what would later be Trans Scripts. She stayed involved with the project, taking part in an early reading at Rutgers, her alma mater.

Leigh believes that trans performers should always be considered for trans parts, but she also knows why they don’t always get the roles. She played trans woman Mary Ellen in Transamerica opposite Felicity Huffman, and she’s aware that producers sometimes need to choose a cisgender big name over a trans unknown in order to sell tickets. She is also all too aware of how tough the business can be for a trans actress.

Leigh moved to New York after getting her bachelor’s degree in acting from Rutgers, and she began her transition at the same time. “I was trying to do two of the most difficult things you can possibly do: pursue an acting career and change sex. But I was young and stupid,” she told me. People in the business advised her against working in film and television (although she did not offer a specific reason when we spoke, in another interview for the blog The Heroines she mentions that film and TV agents were reticent to sign trans clients), so she did avant-garde “downtown theater” and sang in cabarets or in shows in queer hotspot Fire Island, when she wasn’t tending bar. Many of the times she got acting jobs, she says, her parts were the “butt of a joke, like [for] people of color in 1930s Hollywood.”

Leigh says there may have been an expectation in the business that trans performers “wouldn’t show up or [would] be doing drugs,” but she says the work of Laverne Cox, Sense8’s Jamie Clayton, and others has helped remove any of these ludicrous fears. “They showed up, hit it out of the park, showed the business we’re not going to flake out. We have talent. We show up, and we do the job.”

Working with Lucas was far better than Leigh’s previous experiences in plays. She recalled one instance where she questioned a different playwright as to why her trans character did not speak up when being misgendered. “He got tremendously defensive: ‘I did my research! I know what I’m talking about!’ When in reality, half of the trans stuff was verbatim from a PBS documentary—I recognized the lines. But a trans person is telling you this!”

Fellow Edinburgh cast member Rebecca Root also had views on casting trans performers in trans roles. In fact, that was how she and Lucas came to meet. A friend of Root’s had shared an article about cisgender actors playing trans roles on Facebook, and Root commented, saying she thought such casting decisions were on the way out. “The more people who train [to be actors] that are trans, and the more actors that identify as trans, the more those actors will be playing trans roles. I think it’s just inevitable,.” she wrote. Lucas saw her comment and asked if she’d like to be involved in Trans Scripts. Eventually, she joined the cast.

Trans Scripts does not exclusively feature trans performers like Root, Leigh, and fellow cast members Calpernia Addams and Jay Knowles. Some cast members—like McCretton during the Bridport residency—are cisgender women. The casting notice for the Edinburgh version of the show read: “Paul Lucas Productions is seeking Equity and Non-Equity actors of all gender identities and ethnicities for Trans Scripts.” The casting of cisgender actors to play transgender parts has long been controversial, whether it was Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (Rebecca Root appears as a cisgender nurse in that film), or Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. With movies and TV shows, the problem has often been that they need a star in the lead role, but in theater, it seemed odd that there might not be enough trans performers to fill the six roles.

But Lucas says that there was a great benefit in having a mixture of trans and cis performers on stage. “I want the audience to not feel too comfortable about what they know about who’s up there,” he said. “You know there are some trans actors in the show. You figure it out. Or better yet? Why don’t you try not figuring it out and sit back and see the performance.”

For Bianca Leigh, it’s not a hard and fast rule that every trans role should be played by a trans actor, “Because I want to be able to play non-trans roles. As does Laverne [Cox]. As does every other trans actor that I know.”

Catherine Fitzgerald as Josephine.

Colin Hattersley

Cisgender lesbian actor Catherine Fitzgerald was unsure if she should play a trans role at all: “I did ask about 10 times, ‘Don’t you think a transgender person should play this role?’ [But] I think it adds to the textual layers of the play that there’s a mix.” She said she would happily bow out if a trans performer came along who could play Josephine. Carolyn Michelle Smith noted that she spent a lot of time listening to the original interview recordings, something Fitzgerald said she chose not to do. But, Smith admits, there were drawbacks to being a cisgender cast member: Her connection to the material was less immediate than it was for trans cast members.

There is also another issue: Even if you want to cast trans actors in trans roles, what happens when a character requires a specific age, or ethnicity, or set of talents? Bianca Leigh mentioned once being asked to audition for a musical about trans activist Sylvia Rivera. She declined at first, because she is not Latina, and while the creators of the show agreed, they also said they needed a trans actress of the right age who could sing. She eventually did play the role. Paul Lucas had something of the same problem with Trans Scripts. “If I had seen six trans actors who I thought were great for the roles, I would have cast them,” he explained, “I didn’t. There were ones who were great but weren’t the right age or ethnicity for certain roles.”

After the auditions, the show’s Edinburgh cast went on a retreat together to get to know each other, and, at the request of director Linda Key, they each signed contracts agreeing to follow certain rules for the Trans Scripts rehearsal process. “One of the major points was that the trans people need to be brutally honest when and if they are uncomfortable with how any aspect of the trans experience is being portrayed,” Lucas explained. “We want to make certain none of the cisgender team members make assumptions or play to a stereotype that does not ring true.” Rehearsals led to New York shows, where producer Gail Winar rehearsed and played Eden, because visa issues meant Rebecca Root could only observe. A week or so before heading to the U.K., a cast member playing Zakia had to withdraw for personal reasons, and Smith was drafted to fill the role.

Carolyn Michelle Smith as Zakia.

Colin Hattersley

It was not the first time Smith had been offered a transgender role, she told me when we spoke on the phone, and she feared that she risked being pigeonholed not just as an African-American actress but as an African-American actress who plays trans roles. “Then this opportunity came up, and it was telling a story I wanted to share. And I said, you can’t keep running away from [playing trans roles] forever.”

Root told me that as a general rule of thumb, “the trans actors were always kind of given first dibs on comments and feedback, in that our voice was considered uppermost in its necessity in the creative process.” But that isn’t to say that cisgender cast members were dissuaded from adding to the conversation: Fitzgerald often found moments where her Australian nationality—and Root’s Britishness—put them at odds with some American cast-mates. “I don’t stand for the Australian national anthem, and I know there’s one cast member who finds that absolutely appalling.”

Fitzgerald also said the verbatim script was often tricky to learn. “Normally, it all clicks together like a Rubik’s Cube. But it’s also lovely to find the character traits within their repetitive language and lack of grammar. There’s one sentence that doesn’t make sense, and I said, ‘Paul, no one speaks like that.’ He said, ‘Well somebody obviously did!’ ”

Trans Scripts’ Edinburgh run took place at the Pleasance Courtyard, a vast complex of rooms and halls snaking off from a main quad. The room where Lucas’ play was performed once a day was long and shallow, with seating on three sides and an over-loud air conditioning system.

None of this, not even the Scottish rain we were all drenched in, mattered when the show began. It was an electric, vicious, hilarious 90 minutes: At one point, we were all applauding the trans heroes behind the Stonewall riots, the next we were screaming for joy at a well-placed reference to A Chorus Line. During one section of her monologue, talking about sex and dicks, Leigh—not her character, Tatiana—started to laugh uncontrollably. Many members of the cast and audience joined her. The next speech involved Root’s surly character, Eden, standing and berating Tatiana. “How can you get your gender recognition certificates, you still have a cock, you haven’t had surgery,” was Root’s précis of her speech when we spoke, “[Eden] had botched surgery, [Eden] lost everything.” Somehow the unplanned mirth of Tatiana’s corpsing fed into our sense of awkwardness at how angry Eden was. When Tatiana parried Eden’s rage by noting that not everyone can afford reassignment surgery, you could hear teary sniffles in the silence that followed. It was hard to remember that Eden and Tatiana never actually met—these conversations had been recorded on different continents.

The afternoon I saw Trans Scripts, Guardian theater critic Lyn Gardner was also in the audience. Her4-star review closed with the words: “Listen up. This is a consciousness-raising show. For all of us.” Other critics were equally complimentary: “Moving, funny, and from a human rights perspective, important,” said the Times. “Moving and satisfying,” proclaimed the Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan. A week before the end of the festival, Paul Lucas emailed me to say Trans Scripts had received the highly sought after Fringe First award for new writing.

“[The interest in Trans Scripts] is nothing I’ve ever imagined,” Carolyn Michelle Smith told me after the Edinburgh run had ended, “As a performer, it’s what we deeply desire. A ready, willing, receptive audience.” Catherine Fitzgerald mentioned that what really made the show for her were the lessons she learned from being with the cast and team, whether that was intense conversations at the breakfast table or watching “the shit” trans cast members had to go through in everyday situations. “Just to see a simple thing like going through an airport become a major fucking obstacle, it’s …” Fitzgerald searches for words. “It made me feel more compassionate and happy I’m doing this project.”

Rebecca Root as Eden.

Colin Hattersley

Rebecca Root also had an amazing time working on the play. During our interview, several people approached to tell Root how much they had loved the show and how they burst into tears at the end. The show got a lot of standing ovations, and, as Root says, “A standing ovation in [Britain] is much harder won.”

Root is now a full-fledged star—she’d already wrapped The Danish Girl and her lead role in the BBC’s trans-centric sitcom Boy Meets Girl before the Fringe—and I asked if she thought theater was the most efficient medium for getting people to hear the diversity of trans narratives. She admitted that the audience for a theater production might be smaller than that for a movie or a TV series, but the impact was not. “Especially when it’s a hot room, sharing breath, sharing heat,” she says with a wide smile, “the physical act of sharing molecules in a room.”

Since the 2015 Fringe, Trans Scripts has been produced across America. The story is moving beyond big-city venues and into places that might not seem like natural fits for a play of this nature. But, as Bridport’s Niki McCretton told me, sometimes touring outside cosmopolitan venues is the most important stage in a play’s life. “Audiences say: ‘Thank you so much for bringing this. I would not have been able to access this, and probably if I was travelling to London or Edinburgh, I might not have gone, because I might not have known what it was.’ ” The show will have a run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January and February 2017 under director Jo Bonney. Lucas couldn’t be happier.

When the show received its Fringe First award, Lucas spoke from a crib sheet, praising all those involved and explaining a little about the project. Bianca Leigh spoke second, resplendent in a dark navy maxi dress, recounting the first time she went to the Fringe, 21 years earlier, as an “exotic animal” trans performer. Now, she said, nobody cares. “To look out and see people of all walks of life, all ages, it is just a pleasure. To be respected as an artist, and not something strange, is just wonderful.”