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A Conversation on Transgender Representation

I just read a stellar Howlround article speaking on cis artists attempts at creating trans actors.  Many points in the article struck me, but one that stuck out in particular was the idea that having a transgendered character is the latest fad.  It wowed me, because it was so true!  Currently, having a character with a larger plot line than being the strange woman on the street is very in.  I want to argue that this is not a fad, but an honest recognition of untold stories.  Yes, the stories are untold, but this is not evidence of a greater acceptance and understanding of the experience of transitioning.  Right now, television makes it a plot device.

The greatest evidence of this is that the transgendered stories we hear about are only about the transition.  Beautiful as that story is, it does not reveal a recognition of how human and regular a transgendered person is.  The stories are about transitions, but the stories are not Death of a Salesman played by an actor who is transgendered.  Currently, transitioning is a curious plot device.  The life of someone who happens to be transgendered is ignored.  My guess is that the transgender community needs art that shows them as regular people.  Right now we are dealing with regular cases of hate crime and murder in their community.    This happens because ignorant, hateful people are unable to see past the physical.  If we had stories of important, dignified people dealing with problems that is no different than cis individuals, there wouldn’t be such a large gap in sympathy.  Transitioning is an important story to tell, but that was the first step to welcoming a marginalized community into acceptance.  Now, It’s time for step two.  See them as people instead of a transgendered stranger.

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Matt Fraser is a self-proclaimed “freak.” He is also starring in one of the most popular television shows of our modern moment, “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” The fourth installment of this award-winning series showcases a circus filled with dozens of socially unacceptable outcasts searching for a home and a paycheck. Fraser just so happens to identify as a freak both on and off screen.

Phocomelia is a congenital malformation that means “seal-like limbs,” according to Fraser. His mother took a pain medication called Thalidomide to offset morning sickness during her pregnancy and this caused the defect. Fraser began acting in the 90’s and slowly began to embrace his body as part of his craft.

“For me, now, after 15 years of exploring it, freak means a radically different person onstage entertaining with their radical difference. I cannot help but exploit my physique when I’m performing,” he says in his interview for the upcoming season of AHS [watch below].

“I always knew that one day a high budget drama would come along, and they would have the balls to actually cast real freaks in it.”

There are three other actors on the show whose physical differences are also authentic on and off camera: Rose Siggins, who is living without legs, Ben Woolf, who was born with pituitary dwarfism, and Jyoti Amge, who is 23 inches tall. Fraser talks at length about the power of the body onstage in his interview:

“The first weekend I worked at Coney Island in the freak show, I thought of myself as an actor doing artistic, cultural,  research. I stood there and everyone was looking at my arms and I had 110% of the audience’s attention and they had to listen to everything I said and I was like ‘Wow, this is not what I thought it would be.’ And the same way I would say to any actress, ‘Be a stripper for the weekend,’ not saying you’re going to enjoy it, but you will learn so much about the control and power of the body onstage that you cannot but inform your future acting work.”

Whether or not I agree with women exploiting their bodies in order to test their power, I think that the brave work of the actors who have spent their entire lives learning to live in a society where they were othered is admirable and noteworthy. I think that it is even more exciting that there are roles on a mass produced series for them to gain exposure. However, the next step would be for these men and women to play parts where they’re just human beings, not necessarily circus freaks. Isn’t that what art is for? To help us all identify how our humanity intersects?

For now, I’m happy to watch somebody like Fraser, and his fellow cast members, embrace who they are for all of the netflix bingers to see.

“Of course these are different and they’re interesting to look at, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m powerful and awesome and I have these. And I’m a freak and I’m an actor, and I’m a freak actor playing a freak, and it’s awesome.”

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What I Learned From…

As I slowly began my ascent out of tech week for a Femina Shakes production of Henry IV, Part One (shameless plug) an article entitled “What I Learned from Not Rehearsing Shakespeare Plays” began to circulate through my newsfeed on various social media platforms. Of course I had to read it… what kind of SM doesn’t read an article on their playwright? Ladvina Jadhwani, after seeing a barely rehearsed Much Ado decided to experiment with Henry IV, Part One. 

I could feel myself getting defensive- how dare they do my show?!

The further I got into this article, the more I was filled with unreasonable emotions. For starters, I had 8 weeks of rehearsal; how could they possibly do it in two? They cut their script down to an hour and a half–at this point I had fully inhabited the green eyed monster. I told myself, “Lindy, this isn’t your show. The man whose show it actually is, is dead. Very dead.” Remarkably, I listened to this strange voice of logic. And with that, I began again with the goal of understanding. I chose to disregard the fact that they were mildly rehearsed and focused on what was actually learned… the point of the article. (Surprise: this choice served me well.)

The key points of the article are:

  • Say “yes” early and often
  • Say “I don’t know” whenever appropriate
  • Attended to entrances and exits
  • Let the language do the work for you

I’ll have to admit that I was in favor of the these principles. I’m a big-budget, commercial entertainment theatre kind of theatre-maker, and sometimes that can be a very hard thing to say to people who want their art to make a change. I’m not discounting it, nor am I saying that theatre can’t create change, I’m just saying that it’s not what I want to do. My show, with 23 light cues, is absolutely remarkable. It brings out the actors’ talents far more than any set or soundscape could possibly do, and it’s because we – as an ensemble – chose to honor these key principles, even without knowing we were.

Theatre doesn’t need to be about the entertainment value. It doesn’t need to be Equity to sell. Theatre is an art built off of the principles of collaboration. It’s about trying everything and seeing what works. It’s about honoring the differences between people and their processes. It is not about taking control of a room. Theatre is about benefitting the whole. We don’t make enough money for theatre to have a set formula. We are ever changing. We shift from show to show, cast to cast, location to location. We are in an industry that is rapidly changing and dwindling. There is no way for any one person to possibly take the reigns on this phenomena.

What did I learn from reading an article on not rehearsing a shakespeare play while working on a rehearsed shakespeare play? Nothing about how Shakespeare should or shouldn’t be done. I learned about collaborative theatre making. I learned that a stage manager isn’t a weird entity that gives actors their call times. I don’t just sit there and take down blocking and create paperwork. I’m a facilitator, and that’s actually important.

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‘Klinghoffer’-The Times and Audience responses

Throughout this evening, I have been keeping a watchful eye on the NY Times Arts twitter feed. They are live, covering one of the most controversial arts debates in the country right now;

The Opening Night of the Metropolitan Opera’s The Death of Klinghoffer.

Using their well-known journalism prowess, since the sun has gone down, NYT has been tweeting pictures and re-tweeting from an “inside man” who is in the theatre. We are getting shots of the program notes, views from who is speaking at the protests, and hyper specific reports about how the audience members are taking the show.

Not a whole lot about the show itself.

Quick Recap: The Death of Klinghoffer is an opera written by John Adams (Nixon in China) with a libretto by Alice Goodman It is an operatic adaptation about the hijacking of a Cruise Line in the Mediterranean by Palestinian terrorists who execute an older Jewish passenger named Leon Klinghoffer, who is thrown overboard. Since its premiere over 20 years ago, the piece has been a source for controversy for being both Anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist. However, the composing team has stated on multiple occasions that they had no intention of doing so, and that they were merely attempting to incorporate different views in juxtaposition of each other.

There is much conversation to be had on this matter, and throughout all of this, It occurred to me that I know nothing about The Death of Klinghoffer directly. I have not seen a production, I have not listened to a note of the show, haven’t heard a single word of the libretto. Haven’t seen a production photo, nor could I tell you a single person other than the composer/or lyricist who has been involved with the production. Everything I know about the show is spun out of someone else’s opinion, based on one single question; is the piece offensive? Some say it is extremely Anti-Semitic, the composer says he tried to incorporate multiple political viewpoints.

And after all the debate, controversy and protesting going on from both sides, I cannot tell you anything about the show itself. I do not know if this singular production on the Metropolitan Stage is enjoyable, or offensive, or what. But I can tell you how many people left at intermission. Or what this signs said of the protestors outside.

This is the first time I have seen where the media is covering not the production directly, but how the people are responding to it, not the typical norm of the audience reacting to how the press responded to the show. I am interested to see if somewhere there is someone talking not about the controversy involved, but about the show itself. Until then, I will just observe, until I can form some of my opinions on this show based on first hand knowledge.

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Tragically Flawed

There was an article on HowlRound this week called:

Against the Dramaturgy of Punishment: From the Greeks to The Normal Heart

In it, author MJ Kaufman argues for the kinds of dramas he writes; those in which abhorrent and rigid people aren’t undone by their racism/sexism/what-have-you. He argues punishing that these “tragic flaws” is not what classical tragedies consist of, but rather that they arise from the opposition of two irreconcilable forces: love vs. honor, state vs. religion, society vs. sex, etc. The tragic flaw, he argues, is not what makes tragedy.

And I think he’s right.

When the bad guys are destroyed and the good guys win, that’s not tragedy, that’s melodrama. What Kaufman so objects to is the pat, easy endings that come from comeuppances duly comeupped! Life is not like that, life does not break down into the moral and the immoral, and for a drama to reflect this unreality is to stray from tragedy into the melodramatic.

Life, in fact, is confusing and contradictory. Life often asks which of our values is more important (love or honor?), and the answers are not easy. Tragedy reflects this hardness and ambiguity. Kaufman argues that Greek plays are “never really over,” because these epic battles are still being fought in our minds today. Antigone is still fighting Creon, because there is no right choice between logic and morality. Oedipus is still hunting his famine, because fate and free will remain entangled today.

So what, then, of the tragic flaw?

Some would say that phrase is an unfortunate mistranslation of Aristotle’s term “hamartia,” that it carries within it a more nuanced meaning. In fact, “hamartia” could just as easily be translated as “tragic mistake,” “error,” or “sin.”


The point is that in Greek tragedy, the term referred to a character’s tragic choice, not their tragic trait.

This is how these characters embody an entire worldview; they make choices in defense of their unshakeable values, and these choices lead to conflict. It is the unshakeableness of their values that is tragic (for if they could have been moved, their destruction might have been avoided)!

We now see this pattern acted out in melodrama as well: a character who is willing to grow and change (Dorothy) always wins out over those who will not bend (Emperor Palpatine). It is simply that in melodramas a protagonist begins flawed, and changes towards perfection. In tragedy, no one is wrong to begin with! That’s why it’s so tragic!

I think there is value in both melodrama and tragedy — they serve different purposes — but Kaufman is right to call out his detractors. The dramaturgy of punishment, as he calls it, is the siren song of melodrama smoothing the brutal corners of life.

There’s a place for that. But not in a tragedy.

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Transgender Series

This week on Howlround there is going to be a transgender series which will include discussion and pieces from multiple trans artists. This was kicked off by an article by MJ Kaufman, a trans-identified genderqueer playwright who was brought on as a playwriting fellow at the Huntington Theatre in 2010. His article points out the difficulties of the rising presence of trans characters in plays and film. While they appreciated the fact that trans-characters were beginning to have more of a presence, but it comes with some downfalls. Primarily, that most mediums still only know how to use stereotypes of transgender people.

of course they do

So  instead of having transgender characters that have story lines beyond their gender identity. This can manifest in the form of the big “reveal” that they are the opposite gender that they appear to be or by having the plot line based on the person feeling trapped in the gender they were born as. This is only a small portion of the trans-community and does not touch on people that do not live in the binary of male female gender. It also does not touch on the fact that, like nearly any person, someone who is transgender’s whole life does not revolve around the fact that they are transgender.

Kaufman continues to talk about how most of these plots are being written and directed by cisgender folk. This is not to say that it is bad that they are writing these stories, but it is bad when they are mis-informed or continue stereotypes. I know, as a cisgendered man, that there are stories I still cannot be writing, but need to be learning about. I want to be able to write stories about many lives, and create roles for a more diverse casting pool, but know I currently am not educated well enough to write all voices.

This is why Kaufman’s approach excites me, because it is not about writing for your own voice, but getting people involved with groups and collaborators so they can become more educated. He believes that through research, relationships and critical dialogue about power we might be able to write outside of our experience.


So why should this Transgender Series be knocking your socks off? A better question is why shouldn’t it be? This is an amazing opportunity to be hearing the voices of artists that are not getting the attention they deserve. This is a chance for us to get educated. This is a chance to hear about some bomb stories. So get excited and get educated!

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“Self Employed Professional”

A director’s appeal was recently accepted to a case where a group of actors asked for a minimum wage payment for a profit-share production. The controversy arose when two other actors were fired from the production. The director Gavin McAlinden and his company Charm Offensive Limited produced Pentecost by David Edgar in London in March 2012. A year later a “Landmark ruling” confirmed that the actors involved in the production should be paid the national minimum wage despite their initial agreement to participate in the collaboration with no guarantee of payment– only in sharing the profits that arose from it once produced.

Four out of 26 of the actors who took this case to court argued that the production was “not a collaborative artistic piece of work” and that they were contracted to work for McAlinden. There were certain times and days in which they were required to attend rehearsals and there was a sense of control over them by the director. One of the actors said, “We were told what to do, where to work – it was just like a normal job. There was no collaboration as such because we didn’t have any input into the finances. We didn’t know what was going on, there was no open book [revealing the finances to the company]. What made us take action was that he started firing people – in other words he [McAlinden] was the employer, he was the person with the power.” They were also even more upset when they discovered that some of the crew members were being paid.

The judge ultimately ruled that even though the actors knew they were signing up for a profit share production and that they probably wouldn’t make a lot of profit to share, the actors still should have been paid the national minimum wage because they were treated like and qualified as “workers” under the National Minimum Wage Act of 1998.

Flash forward another year and a half, the director’s appeal to this case verdict is passed. The main way into this appeal was that the actors were defined as self-employed professionals as opposed to simply “workers”. Director Gavin McAlinden’s statement included, “Acting is a very tough industry and I believe actors should have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to profit share productions. Most profit share producers are completely devoted to the artistic process, work very hard and invest – and often lose – their own money. I was completely open with the cast – everyone knew and accepted that they were unlikely to make money. Nevertheless, we produced a critically acclaimed play, and it is a piece of work that I am proud of.”

From reading these two articles of the first verdict and then the appeal I can fully understand the Arts Journal heading of, “Apparently, Actors Aren’t ‘Workers’ And Thus Don’t Deserve Minimum Wage”. This particular case is a but more complicated than this strong statement. The controversy that arose from the original situation is where the real conflict is. The actor’s did sign up for this unpaid art project and a lot of arts collaborators often make projects without getting paid because it’s a personal passion. However, it did seem like the artistic atmosphere was not what the actors had signed up for and wanted to be reimbursed for their negative experience. Additionally, only four out of 26 of the actors were actually involved in lawsuit (some of the other actors were on the director’s side). In the end, the judge made his verdict and it complies with the laws of the government. This terms and arguments of the appeal are what really strike me and apparently also strike the writers of the titles of the Arts Journal article links.

With with having artists, specifically actors, labeled as simply “self-employed professionals” can be dangerous because of the large amount of actors who by the nature of their work would find it impossible to be counted as “workers”. Setting the precedent with this case is what organizations like Equity are established to work against. The case is said to be reheard in a month so hopefully there will be a clearer resolution.


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