Tag: music theater

Huang Ruo: Creating Four Dimensional Experiences

Huang Ruo

 

Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)

So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.

In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”

There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.

There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.

According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.  One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”

  • Listening to a CD will give you two-dimensional space, instead of four, when you really see a theatrical performance.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • One big lesson I learned during the pandemic is accepting our fate. Accepting where we are, but also learning how to let go of the things we might have to lose.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The only way we can learn not to repeat the same mistake is by really learning what happened in the past.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • A critic who came to review our opera wrote that both David and I created this very bombastically anti-American work. ... It was absolutely not our intention to create division.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Each character has their own dilemma, has their own duty to be bound to. It's not just easily black and white, who is right or who is wrong. To me, opera should tell a story more complex than that to let audiences reflect and to think. To find their own answer.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The true meaning of revolution is not about just being successful, but about keep trying.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I believe everything happens in our life for a reason.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • To me the idea is to use music to bring down the barrier of what the physical wall normally is.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I think we need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that's the joy, the tears, that's the laughter. That's why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 4: The Framework

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy.

By Brin Solomon & Aiden Feltkamp

This is Part 4 of a four-part series. We strongly encourage you to read Parts 1, 2, and 3 before continuing.

Preamble

We’re almost done. Having laid out some trans theory and heard from trans practitioners, we’re about to lay out a framework for responsible trans casting in singing theater.

We intend this to be a minimal framework, in two senses. First, we have kept the number of guidelines to a minimum, balancing thoroughness with flexibility to produce something that is clear and concrete while also being adaptable to a wide variety of on-the-ground circumstances. Second, however, we want to emphasize that this is not a maximum standard to aspire to, but a minimal bar that must be reached. Following this guide cannot guarantee you will make good trans representation, but it will hopefully help you avoid making bad trans representation.

We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible.

We recognize that as culture changes, so do the boundaries between the acceptable and the reprehensible. Swastikas mean something different on contemporary US white-supremacist rally flags than they did in 12th-century Buddhist iconography. We know how things stand where and when we are; we do not know how things are in every single other place, nor can we anticipate how things will change in the future. We offer this guide to those who share our cultural context; writers working outside it will need to adapt it to the specifics of their own surroundings.

Please don’t refer to this as the Feltkamp-Solomon Test or any similar moniker. We may be the two people putting these words in this order, but this guide has grown from innumerable conversations, formal and informal, with other trans people over the course of years of our lives. This document is inseparable from the community it emerges from.

That said, we are under no illusions as to the unity of trans communities. We anticipate that other trans people will disagree with us—indeed, the writers do not even agree with each other on all things trans related. We welcome this disagreement and look forward to engaging with it. We offer this guide as part of an ongoing conversation, an attempt to publicly draw together numerous threads into a document for others to remark upon, critique, and add nuance to.

In particular, we know that not all trans people will agree that cis people have any business writing trans characters at all.[1] While we are sympathetic to this position, and while cis writers’ track record is far from exemplary here, we feel we must disagree. Trans actors need jobs. Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia. The stories you see shape the worlds you can imagine, and we do not wish to encourage cis people to keep imagining worlds in which we do not exist. To forbid cis writers from writing trans characters is, in some ways, to forbid cis writers from imagining trans people as real, complex human beings, which, we feel, casts trans people as an unknowable Other. We find this profoundly dehumanizing.[2]

Cis writers should not be exempt from the work of dismantling transphobia.

This obviously raises the much larger issue of which writers are “allowed” to tell which stories. Discussions of this question frequently lack even a rudimentary understanding of structural power imbalances between marginalized and non-marginalized groups. This lack inevitably dooms them to confusion. To put it bluntly, asking who is “allowed” to write which stories without analyzing the power imbalances at play is rather like doing a harmonic analysis by looking only at the bass drum part—you’re simply missing critical information.

Analyzing the underlying power imbalances reveals facile accusations of having unfair double standards—if cis actors can’t play trans characters, why can trans actors play cis characters?—for the vacuities that they are. These purported equivalencies fall flat because cis people and trans people are not equivalently situated in society: cis people have far more structural power. Trans actors cannot have stable careers if they aren’t cast by cis directors. Trans writers cannot reliably get their work produced without cis producers. Trans artists of all stripes depend on the support of cis-led institutions. The most prominent stories about trans lives, stories that have real consequences for how safely we are able to live those lives, are overwhelmingly created and controlled by cis people. In all cases, the reverse is not true. Until this changes—until we root out transphobia at every level, dismantle these pervasive inequities, and create a society truly founded on Justice—it is absurd to propose there is any double standard to questioning cis writers’ ability to write trans characters without also questioning trans writers’ ability to write cis characters.[3] Build utopia, then we’ll talk.

This brings us to the scare quotes we have been putting around “allowed.” That phrasing crops up often, but it is fundamentally misleading. There is no all-powerful trans cabal whose permission you must secure before undertaking a new work. No one can stop you from writing whatever you want. Indeed, judging by Tootsie’s Tony nominations and American Opera Projects’ continued pride[4] in Three Way, you may even be richly rewarded for it. The success of these shows (and many others like them) should put to rest any fears from cis people that they will not be “allowed” to write about trans people.

If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you.

A better framing of this question is to ask not who is allowed to write what, but who is able to do so without hurting members of a marginalized group. If you do not care whether your art hurts people, we cannot help you. Nor can we help you if you refuse to believe trans people when we tell you what hurts us. But if you do care, and if you are willing to listen, we hope that the guide below will help you tell trans stories responsibly.

The Framework

This framework has two tiers. The first tier is a bar to clear—any production that cannot meet it may be presumed transphobic with no further analysis. The second tier is a series of questions, each of which is a common red flag. The more you answer yes to, the more likely your show will hurt trans people. If you answer no to all of them, you are likely fine. If you answer yes to all of them, you should almost certainly not proceed as planned.

There is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory.

As will be discussed at more length below, it is possible to handle most of these things well, and we certainly don’t mean to imply that any show that does any of these things must, necessarily, be transphobic. But there is a difference between playing with a single match over your kitchen sink and playing with a flamethrower in a propane factory. Handling these things well is difficult, and cis people, not having lived these experiences, are starting at a considerable disadvantage. Attempt them at your peril.

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy

Tier 1: The Bar To Clear

Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor, and, where applicable, that actor’s assumed gender at birth must match the character’s assumed gender at birth.

Any trans character in your show must be played by a trans actor

The reasons why it is unacceptable to cast a cis actor in a trans role have been covered extensively elsewhere, so we will not reiterate that reasoning here. If you still feel that you do not understand why this is important, we ask that you simply believe us when we tell you what we need.

The second clause, however, requires explication. In recent years, there have been several instances where a trans man, for example, has been hired to play the role of a trans woman. We are surprised that cis people need to hear that men and women are, in fact, different, but here we are: Men and women are different, and one cannot simply be subbed in for the other. As Brin has articulated elsewhere, doing so not only confuses cis people about what basic terms like trans man mean (thus undoing countless painstaking educational efforts by trans activists) but also encourages audiences to misgender the actor, the character, or both.

Human beings are complex creatures, however, and we wish to respect that complexity. Insisting that an actor’s gender exactly match their character’s would trample this complexity, potentially forcing, for example, a transmasculine actor to hide his nonbinary identity lest he be precluded from playing a trans man in a new show. Such rigidity would also give rise to interminable, unanswerable disputes about whether, say, a transfeminine agender person is the same gender as a transfeminine neutrois person, disputes that would only grow more intractable when it comes to contemporary actors playing historical figures. While grouping trans people by gender assumed at birth may, understandably, be uncomfortable for some, we believe that this approach strikes a reasonable balance between respecting the differences among different kinds of trans people and allowing for the multifaceted fluidity of specific individuals.

That said, there are many situations where a character’s assumed gender at birth may be nonexistent or irrelevant. Your show may involve a Biblical angel, the Personification of the Abstract Concept of Forgetfulness, or a singing loaf of bread—all cases where gender assumed at birth does not apply. Or your show may involve a character that must be nonbinary, but whose gender assumed at birth does not matter to the drama at hand.[5] Your show may well read differently depending on whether you cast an AFAB or an AMAB actor in such cases, just as your show may read differently if you cast a bombastic actor to play your villain or a calculating one. Every individual actor will bring a unique energy to the roles they play; that energy will naturally be shaped, in greater and lesser ways, by many different aspects of their being. We cannot anticipate every possible production of every possible show; we trust creative teams to know what they need in their actors for the dramas they are creating to make sense.

Tier 2: The Ten Questions

These ten questions represent the most frequent and pernicious possibilities of bad trans writing.

Tier 1 had more to do with casting than writing. In Tier 2, we’ll reverse that. These questions are not presented in any particular order, and nor do they exhaust the possibilities of bad trans writing. We included ten questions because ten is a round number, and we included these ten because they represent the most frequent and pernicious tropes that the actors and writers interviewed for this series complained about. Here they are:

  • Is it a coming-out story?

Coming-out stories are important, but they’re also massively over-done, and their prevalence makes it seem like transness is something unfamiliar that must always be explained. These stories usually imply that coming out and transitioning are tidy, finite processes, and they also limit our ability to imagine trans people living rich, long lives after telling everyone we’re trans. There’s so much more to us than these initial announcements.

  • Is the trans character deadnamed, misgendered, or otherwise subject to transphobic violence? Are they sexually assaulted?

Obviously, conflict is the heart of drama, and conflict more or less requires characters having bad things happen to them. But there’s a difference between an ordinary plot-related bad thing—a natural disaster, a surprise betrayal, untrammeled arrogance—and a bad thing brought about because of a character’s transness. Basically, we want you to imagine transness not as a source of suffering, and trans people not as tragic figures who inevitably wind up getting raped.

  • Are the trans character’s emotions explained or excused by hormones?

Hormones may alter our emotional landscapes, but testosterone doesn’t make someone an aggressive monster, nor does estrogen make someone a weepy mess. Trans people on and off hormones experience a full range of emotions and can control our reactions to them; trans characters shouldn’t be let off the hook because hormones are making them “emotional,” and nor should their emotions be dismissed as “just a side effect of hormones.”

  • For transfeminine characters: Does the trans character commit sexual assault?

It is a core plank of many transmisogynistic attacks that trans women are inherently sexually predatory. While some real-life trans women do commit sexual assault, just as some real-life cis women do, it is extraordinarily difficult to depict this in fiction without strengthening the idea that all trans women are inherently predatory threats.[6]

  • Do we know more about the trans character’s genitals than the cis characters’ genitals?

Cis people tend to fixate on our genitals, stripping away every other aspect of our personhood to obsess over what’s between our legs. If you’re writing a sex farce, it may be appropriate to mention a trans character’s genitals, but if we don’t know whether the cis men in your show are circumcised, or if the cis women shave their pubic hair, we shouldn’t know anything about the trans character’s junk.

  • Is the realness of a trans character’s gender made contingent on medical interventions?

It’s obviously abhorrent to say that a cis woman isn’t a “real” woman because her body is the wrong shape and she hasn’t gone to a doctor to change it. Similarly, trans people aren’t less “real” if we never step into a hospital or swallow a pill.

  • Does the trans character exist primarily to teach the cis characters a lesson?

The archetypal example here is probably Angel[7] from RENT: A larger-than-life figure whose unshakable authenticity inspires the other characters to be truer to themselves and embrace living in the moment. This frames trans people as primarily existing for the benefit of cis people, and denies us the possibility of having goals we pursue for our own sakes. A very concrete red flag is if the trans character is called “brave” merely for existing.

  • Is “being trans” the character’s only defining feature?

Trans people are just as individual as everyone else, with interests, projects, and goals that have nothing to do with being trans.[8] Flattening out that individuality to write a role whose defining traits begin and end with being trans not only paints trans people as an interchangeable monolith, it’s also just bad writing. Your characters should be characters—rounded creations with depth and nuance, not a collection of half-baked stereotypes thrown together in a rush.

  • Does the trans character die?

Stories where trans characters die re-enforce the idea that trans existence is tragic, doomed to come to an untimely end. Imagine us living, and living well, instead.

  • Is there only one trans character in the show?

If writing one trans character is hard, writing two is easier. When there’s only one trans person on stage, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll be seen as representing All Trans People Ever. Having multiple trans people on stage diffuses this tendency and helps root the characters’ traits in the individuals themselves rather than in their demographic. In fact, you could do a lot worse than filling your entire cast with trans people—we do like to hang out together, after all!

Again, these questions do not exhaust the catalogue of transphobic tropes. Some runners-up that didn’t make the final list:

  • Is the trans character’s violation of Western gender norms tied to moral deviancy?
  • Is your only trans character an antagonist?
  • Does the trans character transition for deceptive purposes?
  • If the trans character is nonbinary, is their assumed gender at birth the topic of speculation from the other characters? Are they treated as a 50/50 mix of masculinity and femininity?
  • Is transness conflated with drag?

Still, the above reflect issues that were repeatedly raised by those interviewed for this series, as well as issues that the authors have encountered frequently and perniciously in our own lives. If you can say no to all of them, you’re off to a solid start.

The Secret Third Tier: Sensitivity Readers

By this point, gentle reader, you have probably realized that this guide is not a cut-and-dried checklist that can be mechanically applied to greenlight your work. Indeed, we do not intend it to be. As has been emphasized throughout this series, responsible trans representation must always be grounded in trans communities. We, the authors, can speak to our own communities, but we cannot speak to all trans communities, potentially including the specific trans community (or communities) your work engages with. You will need to engage with members of those communities directly.

Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants.

Fortunately, there’s a framework for this. Many trans people from all different backgrounds offer their services as sensitivity consultants (also called sensitivity readers). The specific details will vary from situation to situation, but the underlying relationship is the same: You hire[9] them to read your script, and they tell you where you’ve gone wrong in telling the story you’re trying to tell. Ideally, this should be an ongoing relationship that lasts for most of the writing and development process, though they need not be consulted for every single line edit. Some actors may be willing to serve this role in addition to acting in your show, but this is emphatically not part and parcel of an actor’s job; any actor who steps into this role in your production should be compensated and credited appropriately.

It bears repeating that you should be looking to hire someone who is part of the community you are hoping to represent. If you are telling a story about a black trans woman, don’t hire a white sensitivity reader. If you’re writing a transmasculine character, don’t hire a transfeminine person. As has been emphasized again and again in this series, trans people are anything but monolithic; we cannot simply be swapped out for one another like interchangeable assembly-line parts. If you cannot find anyone who’s part of the community you’re hoping to represent, you may not be the person to tell this story. To put it bluntly: If you aren’t connected in any way to the community you’re hoping to write about, you will almost certainly not be able to write about it responsibly. Gently but firmly, we suggest you set your sights on something else. “Kill your darlings” applies to entire projects, too.

We wish it went without saying, but experience shows this needs to be said too: Once you hire this person, you need to actually listen to what they tell you. The point is not to add a team member as a pro-forma publicity stunt and then proceed with your original plan. The point is to change your show—potentially all of your show—in response to their feedback. If you blanch at this, if there are parts of your show that you cannot bear the thought of parting with no matter how insistently and adamantly you are told they are harmful, that is a sign you are not ready to do this work.[10] Please don’t write about us. The show you produce will almost certainly do more harm than good, and more harm from cis people is the last thing that trans people need.

A Brief Aside on Character Flaws

If the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.

Whenever members of a marginalized group ask for more sensitivity in how they are portrayed in media, they are invariably charged with censoriously advocating for flat, flawless characters who are bastions of goodness and who never have anything bad happen to them ever. To take that from this piece would be a gross misreading of our position. By all means, write messy, flawed trans characters who get thrown into conflict with themselves, other people, and the world. But if the only flaws you can think to give a trans person are textbook transphobic tropes, and the only conflicts you can imagine us facing stem directly from our transness, we gently suggest that you may need to expand your imagination.

A Longer Aside on Trans Creators

It may happen, gentle reader, that you see a trans creator making art that has several red flags in it per the list of questions above. Indeed, you may even see a trans creator make art that does not even clear the initial hurdle we propose. You may then feel an urge to critique this work for its transphobia.[11]

Please don’t.

For starters, as stated explicitly above, answering yes to any of the questions on our list does not automatically make a work transphobic, it just makes it far more likely that the resulting work will be transphobic. Having lived as its targets, trans creators have an insider’s knowledge of how transphobia works, and thus have an automatic bonus in navigating these issues deftly on stage.

That said, in and of itself, being trans is no guarantee of getting it right. Sometimes trans people, wittingly or not, make deeply transphobic art. Even more likely, we may create art that some trans people find reprehensible and other trans people find responsible. We’re not a monolith, any more than any other demographic is.[12]

Being trans is no guarantee of getting it right.

In cases where there’s no community consensus—and, frankly, even in cases where there is a strong community consensus—against a trans-led project, we urge you to stay on the sidelines. By all means, share trans-written critiques if you find them compelling, and, if you are in a position to, offer trans people a platform to discuss such works, but think twice (or, really, three or four times) before diving into the fray yourself.

Trans people are constantly critiquing other trans people, and also constantly discussing how public to make these critiques, knowing that there are cis people out there who will gleefully leap on any chance to say negative things about trans people, not as a means of pursuing justice, but simply so they can give their transphobia a veneer of social acceptability. There is just too much hurt here for critiques from outsiders to be effective. Your energies will be better spent on building a world where we are not a community perpetually at siege.

A space telescope image of a distant galaxy.

Towards Transphilia: What Are Cis Roles, Anyway?

So far, this series has more or less tacitly ceded the premise that almost all singing theater roles in existence are cis roles, even where we have argued that trans people should be cast in them.

Strictly speaking, this is not true. Certainly, the vast majority of singing theater roles are either men or women,[13] but it’s quite rare that these roles are specifically cis men or women. The text of Don Giovanni may be quite clear that Don Ottavio is a man, but it tells us precisely nothing about his genital anatomy. We may feel quite confident that West Side Story’s Anita is a woman even as we know nothing about what assumptions people made about her gender when she was born. The vast majority of theatrical roles cannot accurately be described as cis because they do not contain the information necessary to apply such a label.[14] The perspective shift called for by trans liberation goes beyond opening “cis” roles to trans performers, it requires dismantling the notion that these roles were ever cis to begin with.

Some may object that, even if these roles aren’t explicitly marked as cis by the text of the show, the creators certainly thought of them as cis, because it would be “unrealistic” for trans people to occupy, say, the status of a minor noble in 1600s Seville, or a core member of a group of Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1950s.

This is silly.

First, we reiterate that historical conceptions of gender were often quite different from those in the present.[15] If you actually do the painstaking work of exploring the historical record instead of making assumptions about it, you will find many instances in which someone who lived a life that resonates with contemporary trans experiences was accepted and embraced by members of their community. Such figures include those with prominent, high-status positions in society—their stories are not confined to the societal margins,[16] though they do exist there as well.[17] If you exclude people who could now be considered trans, your show isn’t historically accurate, even if the original creators didn’t explicitly envision this possibility.[18] Trans people can be dignified nobles, scrappy underdogs, dashing rogues, romantic leads. None of these things are implausible; they are our past and present realities.

Singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song.

And anyway, singing theater is inherently unrealistic. In reality, people do not spontaneously burst into song. They do not perform elaborate choreography to leitmotif-laden dance breaks. They do not hold for applause after particularly bravura turns. The unreality of singing theater is among its chief joys.

We also disregard creators’ intentions all the time. If Così fan tutte can survive being transported to Coney Island and Les Misérables to the present day, casting a male actor to play a male character shouldn’t ruffle any feathers just because of the assumptions people may have made about the meaning of said actor’s body.

Clearing away these stale preconceptions opens the door to imagining a world transformed. There is no inevitability to trans- and cisness.[19] Both are predicated on the act of assuming an infant’s gender based on their genital configuration. Stop making that assumption, respect the nested infinitudes of human variety by treating individuals as individuals, as they are instead of as you think they should be, and these categories will melt into air. To be sure, there will still be people who desire to change their names, their pronouns, their bodies, but there will not be trans or cis people per se. There will just be people, choosing of their own accord how they wish to move through the world.

There will still, probably, be men and women, too, but those two genders will no longer be seen as two complementary halves of a system with no other parts, nor even as two ends that anchor a spectrum, but as two pinpricks in a vast, radiant nebula, popular ones, perhaps, but no more central than any other mote, nor any less fractaline in their variable complexity. We do not know exactly what this world will look like, but on a clear day, you can almost see its outlines dawning on the far horizon.

This calls for both individual and societal change, and our society, in its present form, is deeply invested in binaries of all kinds, gender chief among them. There will be active, sustained resistance to making these changes, resistance that will not be swiftly overcome. This is the work of lifetimes. Imagining the destination is only the start.

Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization.

And yet it is a necessary start. We invite you to join us in this collective endeavor, in imagining this world into existence. Unlearn the lazy shortcuts that use binary genders to bypass genuine characterization. Write characters in your shows, rounded and messy and deeply human. Make room for the unruly wild array that genders and bodies come in, without forcing this exquisite natural chaos into artificial, sterile boxes. Cast trans people in everything, and don’t remark on it, because it shouldn’t be remarkable. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.

We look forward to seeing what you make.

A space telescope image of a portion of the Milky Way Galaxy

Further Reading

There is always more to say. We expect that trenchant critiques of this series will emerge, and regret that we cannot link them here. In the meantime, here are some avenues to explore:

 

Notes


1. As a middle ground, some suggest that cis writers should write stories that include trans characters but that are not about the experience of being trans. This solid guiding principle underlies much of what follows, but the boundary line between these categories is vague, and we believe greater specificity is required.


2. We see no point in pretending this isn’t an unwinnable double bind: Some trans people will be upset with you if you do include trans characters in your work, and some will be upset with you if you don’t. Sometimes, these will even be the same people.


3. For a lengthier discussion of how things that are just can look unfair when analyzed outside of the pertinent context, see part ten of this extended essay on rape culture.


4. In a recent e-mail newsletter, American Opera Projects described Three Way as one of their “favorite operas.”


5. And indeed, it’s a fairly common trans experience to be friends with a nonbinary person whose gender assumed at birth you do not know.


6. There isn’t an exact counterpart here for transmasculine characters. This asymmetry stems from a variety of factors that are too thorny to go into here. Those wishing to explore this in more depth are encouraged to read Julia Serano’s discussion of effemimania in Whipping Girl and Jay Hulme’s breakdown of how transphobes target trans men.


7. Angel’s precise gender is a matter of some dispute. We feel comfortable reading her as a transfeminine person written by a rather clueless cis heterosexual who died before he could revise a messy draft, but we recognize that others may disagree.


8. Brin, for example, is teaching themself 1920s shorthand and enjoys baking bread, while Aiden loves reading historical fiction and doing Zelda cosplay. Both of us also write opera.


9. And note, we do mean hire, with money. In a theatrical context, you should also strongly consider giving them credit in scripts, scores, and programs. If you run an organization that develops new works, we urge you to budget a sensitivity reader for new works as needed.


10. Depending on the circumstances, it may be worth it to give the sensitivity reader contractual veto power lest their advice be utterly disregarded.


11. These remarks apply exclusively to instances where a cis person, as a cis person, critiques a trans person, as a trans person, for transphobia. It is of course permissible for, say, a black cis person to critique a white trans person for racism.


12. See, for an easy example, all the cis women fighting against abortion access.


13. Or, better: The vast majority of characters are referred to with either he/him/his or she/her/hers pronouns (or the equivalent in the language of the work) — many characters are never directly described as “a man” or “a woman” by themselves or any other character.


14. The most obvious case in which we might have this kind of information are women who get (or fear getting) pregnant. Yet even this may not be conclusive, depending on the setting of the production—uterus transplants are not unheard of, after all.


15. Indeed, we should be as cautious about calling historical figures cis as we are about calling them trans. This contemporary language has been developed in a contemporary context; applying it outside that context is almost invariably reductive and misleading.


16. And it’s not like there’s no history of Puerto Rican trans people working on the streets of New York City.


17. Unsurprisingly, the reception histories of these figures are complex. They are often written about in sensationalized, exploitative ways, and their own words and actions are often erased in favor of equating their “real” gender with their genitals.


18. If, instead of historical accuracy per se, you’re going to insist on being accurate to the creators’ intentions, no matter how historically inaccurate those intentions were, you’re in for several worlds of trouble. In many cases, those intentions cannot be determined with certainty, but even when they can, we cannot necessarily adhere to them. After all, the creators of Don Giovanni intended it to be performed by 18th-century European singers in an 18th-century European theater for an 18th-century European audience, none of which you’re going to be able to find today. If you’re flexible enough to allow a soprano born and raised in Boise in the 21st century to play Zerlina, you’re going to need a convoluted argument indeed to argue that that same soprano should suddenly be disbarred from the role just because some people mistakenly thought she was a boy for a while.


19. We wish to reiterate here that these concepts were developed in a specifically Western cultural context, and everything we are saying here is limited to that context, too. The relationship between Western projects of trans liberation and projects like decolonization that seek the broader undoing of Western hegemony are complex, to say the least.

Towards a Framework for Responsible Trans Casting Part 3: The Writers

A woman in a black shirt posing in front of a purple background

This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Part 1 introduces many of the terms and concepts used in this piece, and Part 2 offers the perspectives of performers. This article will make more sense if you read those first.

Introduction

Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence.

Before an actor can bring a character to life, someone has to write that character into existence. Who are the trans writers bringing trans stories into the world, and how do they handle trans issues in their work? This article starts to provide an answer.

Barriers to Entry

Let’s start with the undeniable: the interviewees for this article are, as a group, much whiter and more NYC-centric than those in the previous installment.[1] I have no doubt that there are many brilliant, diverse trans writers that I simply have not been able to find in my research, but I also believe that these skewed demographics reflect deeper systemic issues.

I suspect these disparities are especially marked on the composition side because vastly fewer people are taught to write music than are taught to write words. The classical composition world is well known for being hostile to those facing some form of marginalization, and similar dynamics play out in other musical genres as well. So it’s hardly a coincidence that the trans people most likely to have compositional training are those, like me, who have the protective insulation of whiteness working in our favor.

But of course, just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage. There are quite a few trans composers out there, but very few of them have written singing theater pieces, just as, statistically speaking, very few cis composers have. All of which makes the pool to draw from on the compositional side much shallower and more homogenous than I would like. Accordingly, this article is much less balanced than last week’s; it disproportionately reflects the experiences of white trans people in New York City.[2]

Just as most people who write words never write for the theater, most composers never write for the stage.

Those working in this field have no illusions about these obstacles. “What are the barriers to being a trans music theater writer?” said Sandy Gooen, a transmasculine composer, lyricist, and playwright, “Stigma, time, money, race, education . . . should I keep going? It’s a lot of things, there’s a lot working against you.” AriDy Nox, a femme lyricist and playwright, highlighted the barriers trans people face before even getting to the starting line: “A lot of the barriers are the barriers of being able to live, with your stomach full, with water, with housing — you can’t even get to the art-funding barriers because you have to meet the basic-survival barriers.”

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Sandy Gooen (Michael Kushner Photography)

Aspiring trans artists often must navigate this landscape on their own. “[Early on,] I didn’t have access to any kind of trans community, or any sort of apprenticeship with trans artists,” says Éamon Boylan, a transfeminine composer, playwright, and director.

Lacking specifically trans mentors, many turn to academic training programs. These can be a mixed bag. Even when the teachers at such programs are generous and well meaning, their curricula are often not trans-inclusive—class materials will call all baritones and tenors men, and will presume that all characters will be either male or female, for example—and they may stumble repeatedly over pronouns. Individually, these are small things, but cumulatively, they add up. “It gets tedious when you have to explain [these things] for the 100th time,” says Grey Grant, a nonbinary transfeminine composer currently based in Michigan.

Of course, sometimes the pushback is more explicit. Gooen told a story of one professor who insisted he remove a trans character from one of his shows. “I tried to push back, but when it’s about the grade, sometimes you have to be like ‘OK.’” Sarah Schlesinger, the chair of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, was one of my thesis advisors there. Throughout the thesis process, she deliberately misgendered me and all three nonbinary characters in my thesis project, at one point telling me she was doing so because she thought our pronouns “just don’t make sense.” With training grounds such as these, it’s a wonder there are as many trans writers out there as there are.

The world outside of school is rough enough for writers to begin with. “It’s hard to make a musical already,” says black nonbinary queer trans woman Ianne Fields Stewart. Mika Kauffman, a nonbinary, transmasculine composer, lyricist, director, and producer, agrees: “Being a writer, across the board, is hard. You do a lot of self-producing.” “We’re really into purposeful DIY aesthetics,” Grant says, of their own self-producing work, “But it still costs a lot of money.” And that’s where structural oppression makes things more difficult.

“I know so many trans people who are living in poverty,” Kauffman says. The statistics bear them out. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 38% of trans people live in households making less than $25,000 a year, compared to 17% in the US population as a whole.[3] That’s not a lot in a city like New York, where the median income ranged from $44,850 to $70,295 (depending on the borough) at that time, and it becomes even less when you factor in the costs of being trans. Simply changing your legal name can cost upwards of $650, and building a new wardrobe from the ground up as your gender presentation (and, potentially, body shape) changes isn’t cheap either.

Neither are medical procedures. “Most of my trans friends are in some kind of medical debt,” says Natalie Elder, a nonbinary lyricist and songwriter. “These absolutely medically and psychologically necessary treatments are not cheap, and they’re not covered by insurance.”[4] Faced with these costs, many trans people turn to crowdfunding, but success is far from guaranteed. In 2018, Kauffman organized a campaign to benefit the much-beloved Drama Bookshop, raising nearly $10,700 in around two months. The campaign they organized for their own medical expenses went much less smoothly.

Natalie Elder

Natalie Elder (Photo by Luke Anthony)

“My surgery was projected to cost $1 more than the amount I raised for the Drama Bookshop,” Kauffman recalled. “It was so easy to raise money for the Bookshop — people came in droves. And then when I did my own fundraiser . . . crickets.”[5]

Despite the uncertain odds of success, these crowdfunding campaigns are so commonplace they’ve become something of a bitter inside joke in the trans community, new ones frequently launching more with a sense of beleaguered inevitability than excitement. As in so many cases, one of the best ways to ally yourself with marginalized communities is to just give us money with no strings attached.[6]

Trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations.

Hearing a performer audition, and even casting them in a limited run, is a relatively small commitment for an arts organization to make. Commissioning a writer to create a new work, or even mounting the world premiere of one that already exists, requires considerably more investment (of both time and money), and organizations are, unsurprisingly, hesitant to risk that investment on people without a proven track record. So trans creators’ lack of funds to self-produce their way into a hefty résumé makes them less likely than their cis counterparts to be picked up by commissioning and presenting organizations, which in turn makes their résumés look even scanter in comparison, in a grinding feedback loop that can gradually force people out of the industry.

Intersections

Unsurprisingly, these barriers compound when other forms of marginalization enter the mix.

“Musical theater in particular is one of the last bastions of white supremacy,” Stewart asserts.[7] Echoing sentiments expressed by performers in last week’s article, Nox said that they’ve held back from applying to trans-specific grant opportunities: “There are not a lot of opportunities in general, and the opportunities that there are demand that you be trans and that’s it. Even when they say they want people of color to apply, they still want you to be mostly trans and not a person of color, which is really limiting.”

AriDy Nox

AriDy Nox (Photo by Kyla Sylvers)

Gooen described a similar dynamic when talking about navigating his gender, sexuality, Judaism, and neurodivergence: “It’s tricky to put all the pieces together, and it’s been hard to find people to mentor me who don’t try to limit the amount of things I am.” Stewart concurred: “There are black people who won’t see me because of my transness, and there are trans people who won’t see me because of my blackness.”

These attempts to limit people to one facet of their personhood fly in the face of the inextricable interconnections that many feel between parts of themselves. “The parts of my identity don’t feel separate,” Nox says. “One of the reasons I identify as a femme is that black womanhood is less binary than white womanhood, especially for black women who are descendants of chattel slaves — this femininity wasn’t meant for us anyway, so why take on the more toxic constraining features of it?”

Accounting for these intersecting identities requires careful, nuanced analysis, and many diversity initiatives miss the mark. Transmasculine people, in particular, are often erased by simplistic gender analyses.

“When I was seen as a woman,” Kauffman says, “I was working more. And then suddenly, when I started going through my transition, I was working less.” They described one show where, once they started transitioning, other members of the creative team began praising their pre-transition self. “They were idealizing this person in a way that I was never actually treated. I wasn’t treated fairly pre-transition, and I’m still not treated fairly now.”

“I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas.”

Some gender parity initiatives have started describing themselves as promoting equity for “women+” in an attempt to deepen their analysis, but this is far from sufficient. “I do not feel comfortable in [women+] arenas,” Gooen says. “But I’ve also been in rehearsal spaces where I’m the only person who’s not a cis man, and I’m at a big disadvantage.”

Navigating Whiteness

Given the stark racial disparities between different groups of trans people, how do white creators navigate race in their own artistic practice?

“I have a Stay-In-My-Lane approach,” Grant says. “I mean, I’m not the one getting murdered around here.[8] I’m here to support my non-white trans siblings, friends, and colleagues, but I’m not trying to speak for them.” Elder was similarly circumspect, but raised the issue of financial constraints: “To be perfectly honest, the shows I’ve cast so far would have been way more [racially] diverse if I had more of a budget. The people who can afford to do theater for little to no money are predominantly white.” Elder and Kauffman both said they leave most roles they write racially unspecified, but Kauffman tied their approach to their own experiences of oppression: “I cannot do to another person what cis writers have done to us.”

Grey Grant

Grey Grant (Photo by Grey Grant)

Boylan takes a more self-critical approach. “You always have to be accountable for what you produce. If I’m in a room, whiteness is present, so I will never work on a project that doesn’t include whiteness in some way. That is simply how whiteness operates — it is an insidious, deadly thing. It doesn’t stop there, but acknowledging that is an important initial step before doing any work.”

Making Trans Theater

“I feel like there’s a lot of anger in what I’ve been talking about,” Kauffman said towards the end of their interview, “I want to talk about how grateful I am to know who I am. It’s a wonderful journey, and the more I discover who I am, the more honest I am in my work. And as a writer, honesty is my best friend.”

That feeling of honesty rooted in a deep sense of self was a recurring theme among these writers. “Transness, to me, is a lens through which I see the world,” says Boylan, explaining how their work as a writer grew out of their work as a director at the same time as they began to grow into their trans identity. “So for me, writing has always been about what a trans voice is, as a young trans person coming into myself.”

Éamon Boylan

Éamon Boylan (BLUE Photography)

These writers are unapologetic in their political vision, visions that challenge basic conventions in the field and broaden beyond the confines of trans stories as they usually exist today. “I am really uninterested in education,” Stewart says. “I’m much more interested in liberation. I think of everything I do as being in service to that.” “I don’t know what it means to say ‘This is a man’ anymore,” Boylan explains. “Weirdly, saying ‘This character uses he/him/his’ is much more specific and grounded, because now I know how people refer to this character.” “I can’t wait to write an opera that’s not about transness,” Grant says, “But that still requires characters to be trans” — in other words, a story about the fullness of our lives beyond the bare facts of our genders.

These lives shape the work that trans artists produce. “[Trans characters in my shows] just happen,” Elder says, “Because [trans people] happen in my life.” “My work is all about celebrating and centering black trans women,” Stewart says, “And, most importantly, making sure they survive and thrive.” Grant, meanwhile, ties their work to their home in the Midwest: “A lot of people think the Midwest is very monochromatic, but it’s really not. My Midwest is queer, and radical, and very trans-centric.[9] And so with [Michigan Trees],[10] I’m trying to codify this world I would like to see.”

Grant drew heavily on mythology to write Michigan Trees, just as other writers have used other genres to explore trans themes. “I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” Grant said, “But I’m obsessed with supernatural moments of transformation in works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and trans people are kind of magical super-beings anyway, so the mythological approach works well here.” Kauffman, conversely, uses genre to process trauma: “It can be horrifying to exist as trans in a world where transness is taboo. As a horror writer, the genre is so much about confronting your trauma and finding catharsis.” Some of my own work treads similar ground: my musical about murdering conversion therapists is built around the idea of thwarting transphobic power structures by embracing the monstrosity that transphobia ascribes to our bodies — if you’re going to say that we’re monsters no matter what, we might as well draw power from that and destroy you.

Working in various singing theater forms, of course, means that vocal quality is a rich avenue for characterization. How do these artists navigate issues of gender and vocal range?

Vocal Range and Characterization

“I react to voices as embodying a certain way of being,” says Nox, “I think that’s a benefit of being a jazz kid, and hearing all these men using really high voices as a show of power. It’s the Prince Effect: look at how I can control my voice! And that ties in with ideas of authority and seduction that feel more masculine. And then conversely, with singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, they have these deeper voices, but they’re not devoid of femininity! These associations really depend on cultural context. Ultimately, I think of vocal types as reflecting how characters navigate power: soft vocals feel like negotiated power, whereas belted vocals feel like authoritative power.”

“It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine.”

Elder used a different example: “It’s weird that everything low is considered masculine and everything high is considered feminine. I mean look at Hadestown! You have a romantic lead who’s practically a countertenor.” They’ve played on these associations in their work for dramatic effect; in one of their shows, Dragarella,[11] a trans character drops to the lowest point in her vocal range as she’s preparing to fully present as herself. “That’s her last moment of doubt, her last remnant of ‘Am I sure I’m not a man?’”

All stressed the need for flexibility. “As someone who has now dealt with two puberties,” Gooen said, “I’ve had to go through a million different keys.” Gooen now regularly creates versions of songs in three different keys, but Boylan will tailor things even further: “Every single case is individual; every performer deserves dignity and respect. I change my music very significantly based on who’s singing it, because they find the story that they need to tell. But just because I changed something for a performer doesn’t mean I change the way I sing it. There are multiple versions of my songs in perpetuity.” They see this practice as normal in the musical theater world, citing the myriad versions of old (and new) standards that all coexist without issue.

Allies Weigh In

Since this series is so tied up with discussions of effective allyship, I wanted to include a few cis writers here as well. In deciding who to interview, I took my cues from trans performers: I heard repeatedly that the teams for Opera Kardashian and Good Country were doing the work of responsible allyship, making their works and rehearsal rooms genuinely welcoming to trans people. I asked one member of each team to share their experiences.

Opera Kardashian composer Dana Kaufman never set out to write a trans opera. Long before Caitlyn Jenner came out, Kaufman saw an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians on her roommate’s TV, and instantly gleaned its operatic potential. She had already started working with her librettist, Tom Swift, when Jenner came out. She recalls, “Suddenly there was this issue: Is this even a story I should tell?” She spoke with a variety of trans advocates and performers—social media helped make these connections—who urged her not to abandon the project, albeit with the caveat that Kaufman and Swift take pains to note Jenner’s persona non grata status among large swaths of the trans community.

Dana Kaufman

Dana Kaufman (Photo by Ken Ge)

Charley Parkhurst, the historical figure that inspired the chamber opera Good Country, died in 1879, so there was no breaking news to disrupt the writing process, but there were still complexities to address. Librettist Cecelia Raker had been familiar with Parkhurst since childhood, but the stories of his life uniformly described him as a woman who dressed like a man. She decided to reject that framing. “The way we make history is by telling stories, and the loudest, most consistent narrative is what wins. Right now, there’s one very loud and consistent narrative about this person, and I want to trouble that. The trans version of this story should be part of the mix.”

But she also had doubts about whether she and her composer, Keith Allegretti, were the right people to tell this story. Like Kaufman, she reached out on social media to find trans advocates to talk to. She made sure to seek out multiple perspectives: “It’s really important not to tokenize your feedback. You have to be accountable to a community, not just one person.”

Both Kaufman and Raker described steep learning curves in the early stages. “I would like to say I knew about trans issues and identities,” Kaufman says, “But I really didn’t. I still feel like I’m uninformed, but I do feel much more informed thanks to the infinite patience of my interviewees.” “For me,” Raker explained, “The litmus test is: ‘Do I feel a little anxious and outside my comfort zone?’ If at any point I feel like I got this and I don’t need to run it by anybody else, that’s probably a sign I’m about to fuck up.”

That said, being too anxious can be a problem, too. Early in the development process, Raker was worried about a line in the show she felt might imply that Parkhurst was really a woman. She asked Holden Madagame, who had been cast to play Parkhurst, as well as one of the other trans artists on the project, and they reassured her that the line was fine. But it kept nagging at her, and she kept asking them about it until “we hit a point where they were like ‘Stop asking us this question! We told you our answer!’ Which, in hindsight, is really about trust.”

Cecelia Raker

Cecelia Raker (Photo by Cecelia Raker)

Stewart, who has worked extensively as a consultant, underscores this need to actually accept the things trans people tell you. “So many people dismiss what I say with ‘That’s not the way we do things,’” she said. “Of course it isn’t—that’s why I’m here! The way you do things is not good.”

Advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories: a willingness to abandon bad ideas.

When asked for advice to cis writers thinking of writing trans stories, Kaufman and Raker stressed the need for legwork and a willingness to abandon bad ideas. “Make sure you do extraordinarily thorough research,” Kaufman said, “And prioritize the act of listening over the act of composing.” “Be ready to hear that your favorite part won’t work,” Raker advised. “Be light on your feet, and trust in yourself as an artist. You will have more than one idea.”

A Familiar Skepticism

As with the performers profiled last week, trans writers are ambivalent about the role of cis allies here.

Some see potential in collaboration. “Both of my current collaborators have been in the musical theater game professionally for much longer than I have,” Stewart said, “So they have more expertise in this industry. But when it comes to telling trans stories, I am the expert, and my collaborators must be dedicated to prioritizing my word when it comes to how we are telling the stories of trans people.” When collaboration works, Nox explained, it can be phenomenal: “All collaboration is tricky, but the beauty of it is you can make something that couldn’t have come from just you.” Listening and collaborating deeply with trans voices is no guarantee of success, Boylan suggested, “But if you fail after listening to and following the voices of trans people in the room, you’ll be failing in solidarity.”

Others were more skeptical. “Cis writers could, theoretically, someday—with help, obviously!—write trans characters,” Gooen said, “I just think they need to be in time out for a bit based on the recent things they’ve done.” “My immediate reaction,” said Kauffman, “Is, ‘So you, a cis person, want to write a trans character. Why?’”

Mika Kauffman

Mika Kauffman (Photo by Mika Kauffman)

As Gooen indicated, these reactions stem from the stories cis people tell about us. “We’re dying,” Stewart says, talking specifically about black trans women, “And that’s all people want to talk about. People want to see the trauma, but they don’t want to see us as full human beings.” Nox was particularly critical here: “It feels like gatekeepers are saying ‘Please show off your trauma so we can decide if you’re human or not.’ And trauma stories can be useful! But no one’s life is pure trauma—even at my most suicidal, I still had moments of joy. Even at the worst moments, there is some light. When you’re looking at people surviving things you’ve never had to survive, from a privileged perspective, it can be hard to imagine they’re finding joy. And I think that imagining a group of people as incapable of joy is one of the most deeply dehumanizing things you can do.”

The real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators.

The overall consensus was that, while cis writers may have a role to play, the real revolution in trans storytelling will come from trans creators. Or, as Boylan joked: “Trans people will destroy you. Everything you’ve heard is true. We’re tearing down the moral fabric of society, and it feels so good.”

Onwards

This article has been heavy on trauma. I’m deeply ambivalent about this, because it does feel, in some ways, like trotting out suffering to prove our humanity—no one should ever have to do that. But at the same time, it feels dishonest to skirt this pain, to pretend it isn’t there. These are the stakes you carry if you write about us.

Given the premise of this entire series, it’s probably not surprising that I come down, albeit somewhat tentatively, on the side of encouraging cis people to write trans characters. I still believe, ultimately, that saying cis writers are inherently incapable of writing trans characters implies trans people are insurmountably alien, an Other that exists across an unbridgeable gulf. I happen to think it’s phenomenally difficult to bridge the gulf between any two people, but insofar as such a gulf can be bridged at all, it can be bridged between cis and trans people. My cis friends know who I am. They know my voice, my goals, my reactions to various situations. And those are the things you need to know to make a character real on stage.

Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with.

I also believe that, in the spirit of generosity, it behooves me to offer concrete advice to allies of good will, so that y’all can stop failing so spectacularly at the most basic things. Just because it’s possible to bridge a gulf doesn’t mean the gulf isn’t there to begin with. Next week’s article will take up this task.[12]

Further Reading

This article opens up many avenues for further exploration. Here are some potential next steps down a few of them:

Notes


1. Full disclaimer: As with last week’s article, many of those featured here are my friends and collaborators.


2. That said, I of course accept the final responsibility for my decision to write this piece with this specific set of interviewees.


3.  The full survey report includes specific breakdowns for various racial demographics, as well as a wealth of other statistical information. The other statistics related to trans existence quoted in this section come from this survey as well.


4. As always with US health insurance, whether or not gender-affirming medical care is covered varies wildly by health insurance plan and local anti-discrimination regulations.


5. In times of financial hardship, cis writers from well-off families may be able to turn to their parents for support, this isn’t always an option for trans people — 26% of trans people lose some or all of their immediate family ties on coming out, though mercifully that number seems to be shrinking over time.


6. Certainly, hearts starve as well as bodies, and L-rd knows I believe in the importance of live theater, but it is galling, to say the least, to be part of a community roiled by such desperation and then to receive an invitation in the mail to a fundraising gala where individual tickets cost more than my monthly rent. Personally, I have no doubt that if the rich divested themselves of their repugnant wealth—which it is patently morally disgusting for them to keep—we could secure both the basic material needs of all and a vibrant ecosystem of flourishing artistic institutions, but if I am mistaken there, I know where my priorities lie: let the Metropolitan Opera cease performances tomorrow and Broadway go dark forevermore if it means people shall not starve or perish in the streets. Lives matter more than art.


7. Needless to say, opera is hardly any better on this front.


8. There have been 19 reported murders of trans people so far in the US in 2019. The only one who was not a trans woman of color was killed in a mass shooting by his own brother.


9. It’s probably worth noting here that more trans people live in the Midwest than live in the Northeast, and more trans people live in the South than in both regions combined.


10. A chamber opera about a trans woman who turns into a tree.


11. Co-written with composer John Brooks.


12. In the spirit of these past two articles, which have brought together various different perspectives, the final article will be a collaborative endeavor: I will be joined by my dear friend and colleague Aiden K Feltkamp. We look forward to sharing our thoughts.

Undisciplined Music

Last month Jenna Lyle and I performed our collaboratively devised piece for moving vocalists, Grafter, at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. During the audience Q&A that followed, we were asked why we make work that involves so much physical movement for ourselves as musicians, rather than composing for dancers? A week earlier, Chicago ensemble Mocrep performed works by Carolyn Chen, Jessie Marino, Natasha Diels, and Bethany Younge at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. They were asked a similar question by a patron during their post-concert discussion. Diels and Marino responded by rhythmically swaying, bending, gesticulating in canon and finishing each other’s sentences: performing a spontaneous, real-time answer to why musicians are well suited to interpreting this material practice of being and listening together to one another’s bodies. The audience seemed simultaneously enchanted and confused. Hiero Posch, a reviewer for Cacophony magazine, wrote in response, “I was puzzled with the Q&A session afterwards. How can one hope to ask a genuine question when it is clear that the participants of the session do not treat the occasion seriously?”

Practitioners of serious music have often neglected to take their physical selves seriously.

In new music today, a focus on the body as performing subject is gaining momentum. Explorations of a performer’s physical life or subjectivity over say, traditional instrumentality or vocality, has a deep history manifest in a range of artistic streams that flow through 20th-century experimental traditions (Dada, Situationism, Fluxus, Cage, Cunningham, et al.), performance and installation art (Acconci, Moorman, Westerkamp, Cardiff, et al.), European and American art-music (Kagel, Berberian, Globokar, et al.), and opera (Stockhausen, Ashley, Lucier, et al.). Performers from theater, performance art, dance, and visual arts backgrounds have long embraced these influences. Concert music has been somewhat reluctant to get on board. Practitioners of serious music have often neglected to take their physical selves seriously as the material through which meaning is conveyed—beyond what might be required to produce the desired sounds and images for their notations, interpretations, or publicity photographs.

Most of us in the new music community would acknowledge that this situation is changing. Groups such as Ensemble Vortex, Mocrep, Defunensemble, On Structure, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Speak Percussion, Object Collection, and Ensemble Interface have developed disciplined practices that foreground the body and/or extra-musical stimuli, exploding conventional rubrics for what constitutes ensemble performance. At the most recent meeting of Darmstadt’s Summer Courses, a workshop was held called “Just beyond our instruments is the world.”

Even in the most hallowed halls of hard dots, musicians are putting aside the instruments through which we first bound ourselves to music, to see what our musically trained minds and bodies can do. This undertaking demands that performers and listeners prioritize the body, body language, and visual communication, alongside the musical values we’ve been schooled in. The methodologies and performative outcomes associated with this way of thinking used to be the purview of theater or performance art. Some might wonder why musicians should be worried about this stuff at all. Steven Takasugi posed a good question with the title of his article “Why Theatre?” (Takasugi, MusikTexte, 2016). And from under this question, more trickle out.

For those of us making forays into music that requires so much beyond what we were trained to do, shouldn’t we be getting more serious about how to get good at it (whatever that might mean)? Shouldn’t this discussion be at least as urgent as debates around the nuances of our interpretations of conventional music (which we’re presumably reasonably good at already)? As more music-identified practitioners take up residence in the interdisciplinary space between theater, dance, and sonic arts, and as the inclusion of embodied and theatrical elements become more normalized in new music, musicians must develop new criteria for evaluating our methodologies and performances. Can we faithfully execute this music using only our musical training/thinking? Should we seek to integrate learning or methods from outside of music? Do we even have the words to accurately communicate what we’re doing here?

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

What shall we call this way of working? Last year composer/performer Jennifer Walshe wrote a text for the Borealis Festival in which she outlined a manifesto for her “way of working, both in terms of composing and preparing pieces for performance.” Walshe named this practice “The New Discipline,” and listed Object Collection, James Saunders, Matthew Shlomowitz, Neele Hülcker, François Sarhan, Jessie Marino, Steven Takasugi, and Natacha Diels as examples of other composers/performers to whose work this term might be applied. “The New Discipline” as defined by Walshe is “a way for me to connect compositions which have a wide range of disparate interests but all share the common concern of being rooted in the physical, theatrical and visual, as well as musical; pieces which often invoke the extra-musical, which activate the non-cochlear [and]… in which we understand that there are people on the stage, and that these people are/have bodies.” (Walshe, 2016)

Since the publication of Walshe’s “The New Discipline: a compositional manifesto,” articles and discussions unpacking it have sprung up in academic journals (Musiktexte), on radio (BBC radio 3), at festivals (Darmstadt), on podcasts (Talking Musicology), and in the blogosphere (Danika Paskvan). Using the word “new” was bound to create some controversy. Some might say that naming the zeitgeist as it moves through the birth canal could be counterproductive—yet it does often feel necessary to have words to name things. As Matthew Shlomowitz notes, “Labels are tricky, but I think The New Discipline is a good one.” (Schlomowitz, 2016) For a great set of interviews that unpack this further, check out this blog post from Darmstadt.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

One of the strengths of this way of working is its flexibility. This is a music that can create situations for performers and audiences that utilize both immediate experience and signification in ways absolute music cannot. Through it we can explore new corners of the interior experience of music making, community kinetics, directionality, interpersonal relationships, sexual hierarchies, the specifics of site, or references to any cultural artifact you can tie down. A recent work of Walshe’s, Training is the opposite, incorporates women’s boxing. In Carolyn Chen’s Supermarket Music, performers intone the names of products on the shelves, conducting cart-pushers through changes in speed and volume. Jenna Lyle directs four performers to ride a precarious pile of wooden boards, choreographically affecting the musical results in Plank Rodeo, and Jessie Marino’s Endless Shrimp features vocalizing, percussion-playing musicians in front of a screen showing factory production lines, pink-slime, and—of course—endless shrimp. In a music that is open to the world, virtually any topic is up for grabs. Every feeling, meaning, action, or sign becomes a potential focal point. As Walshe puts it, “While Kagel and others are clear ancestors, too much has happened since the 1970s for that term [music theatre] to work here. MTV, the Internet, Beyoncé ripping off Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Stewart Lee, Girls, style blogs and yoga classes at Darmstadt…” Whether or not the title “New Discipline” feels useful to you, as this trend/thread/practice moves towards the new music mainline, I think there’s a good argument that we’ve reached some significant evolutionary stage.

Most professional musicians have spent decades learning to compose, play, or sing. If we’re to communicate effectively in this body-forward, not exclusively cochlear art form, we have some work to do. As we retool and experiment, we unpack our entrained assumptions about our performing selves and what they can or should be able to do. Composer/performer Jessie Marino has a long checklist of questions, references, and self-assessments she applies as she develops performances of her own work that are not necessarily the typical criteria for success most musicians employ. She asks, “Where do you focus your eyes? What is the physical demeanor of the body? Does it contrast from the face? Does it contrast from the thing you are saying? Can I display gravity/anti-gravity? What is the reality I am performing in? On stage? In a tank? Outer space? Next to an Elephant? With chickens on my arms? Should I use an accent? Probably not!” This is a process of exploring and intuiting what’s important, then taking those threads in hand to make convincing choices as we prepare for, perform, and evaluate our work.

This is a process of exploring and intuiting what’s important, then taking those threads in hand to make convincing choices.

The “discipline” part of this practice is pretty important. We need to get creative and rigorous with how we organize priorities, documentation, and evaluate rehearsals and performances. Journaling, peer-feedback, video-documented rehearsal, and the honest assessment of those materials is key. Not only to improve the work but to ensure that some sincere, in-the-moment focus gets practiced into the work. Taping rehearsal lets the self-devisors amongst us leave the heavy analytical lifting to later. As Marino puts it, “Tapes don’t lie, so be honest with yourself and your collaborators.”

Like any developing field, there are practitioners who work with greater and lesser degrees of experience, sophistication, and care. After we’ve accepted that the frame around our instruments is dissolved and we’re putting in the time to experiment, we’re faced with all the problems posed by the absence of shared vocabulary, tested methodologies, and rigorous training. It isn’t at all simple. Personally, I’m in the unusual position of being a new music-focused performer whose early education was designed for a career in opera. For my peers and I, time was devoted to stagecraft, body-centric learning methods, and acting classes all with the goal that our intentions in the performative moment would have a fighting chance of being understood by the audience. As an opera singer, you spend time in the theater working adjacent to lighting designers, set designers, dramaturges, make-up artists, and directors. Being close to their expertise gives you a feel for the complex work of appointing and framing the extra-musical.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

Every artist in this field has their own narrative of influences and trainings, which often reflect diverse experiences outside of conservatory-model performance and composition. The new music community is DIYing their extra-musical training to fit the purpose of their musical ends. To my mind this is neither a problem nor a virtue—but I have sometimes sat through performances wishing those involved had found ways to utilize existing non-musical knowledge bases or worked with expert collaborators (from dance, theater, or opera, etc). Making experimental music doesn’t require the perpetual re-invention of the wheel, only that we accept that we don’t know where it’s going.

Making experimental music doesn’t require the perpetual re-invention of the wheel, only that we accept that we don’t know where it’s going.

It will not go unnoticed that within this field there are an unusually high number of A) female-identified composers, B) composer-performers, and C) vocalists or movers. Vocal and theatrical performance spaces have traditionally been more welcoming to women than composition departments have been. For many, this music is a place to work through ideas of gender and body politics that conventionally notated music, with its historical and patriarchal baggage, may not be well-suited to accommodate. Collaborative composition and unconventional creative hierarchies flourish here. Performers can use their own bodies to try out ideas without requiring specific institutional support, and composers who want to try out what something feels like, but don’t have ready access to a company of players to experiment upon, have found this practice a boon for building experimental work sustainably.

grafter at omaha photo Alex Karjaka

Grafter at Omaha
Photo by Alex Karjaka

This discipline emphasizes “doing” or experiencing, over the kind of “reading” that is possible when following the translatable instructions of conventional Western scores. The embodied activity of performers is no longer to be glossed over, like an obligatory technology employed as a means for producing sound. This music treats the presence of embodied subjects as a considered part of the making, the thinking, the meaning, and the performative moment. As described by composer/vocalist/movement-artist Jenna Lyle, “There’s the execution of the raw material (making the sounds, doing the movements, etc.), but for me that’s meaningless if there isn’t a palpable energy of discovery and reflection, and maybe even a shared, albeit intangible bodily experience between all involved in the performance situation.” There is commitment to bringing “something off of the page to this music.

The embodied activity of performers is no longer to be glossed over, like an obligatory technology employed as a means for producing sound.

The attempt to learn completely new skills, allowing ourselves to be amateurs again, requires more than a little patience and a willingness to take joy in discovery. After so many years of training, it can be easier to convince yourself that some aspect of a piece is unimportant rather than admit it would take a long time to get right. Lyle has said that the best performers of her music have a quality of openness. “Above all,” she cautions, “don’t fear your vulnerability or your inability to accomplish something immediately. Listen and discover first. Be patient. Then analyze.”

That final step—analysis—might the hardest part of getting good at this kind of music. Musicians are trained to critique and evaluate “music” but our criteria for judging the effective communication of the bodies, lights, spaces, images, movement, and taction required for this *music* is far less well developed. As we go about solving our musical-theatrical problems, musicians should accept the challenge of ensuring the extra-musical work we do is as nuanced, connected, and effective as the stuff we’ve all been trained for. Our audience seems to want to know why musicians are performing this music. If they’re asking the question as we come off stage, perhaps we need to be more convincing while we’re on stage. Though maybe, it’s just a matter of time.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine


Thanks to Jenna Lyle, Jessie Marino and Jennifer Walshe whose interviews and correspondence contributed significantly to this article.


Jessica Aszodi

Australian vocalist Jessica Aszodi is a performer of notated and improvised music, a researcher, teacher, curator and producer of music that challenges the status quo. In her genre bounding career Jessica has premiered dozens of new pieces of notated music, performed works that have lain dormant for centuries, sung roles from the standard operatic repertoire and collaborated with a constellation of artists from the far reaches of the musical palate.

Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

There is a captivating mix of singer-songwriter intimacy, fourth wall-crushing theatricality, and curious experimental exploration in the work of composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Gelsey Bell.

Performances of her 2011 song cycle SCALING, for example, have her crawling over and around the piano to play from positions that would likely make Tori Amos’s head spin. For “Cradle,” an intimate meditation for voice and metallophone from her 2013 cycle Our Defensive Measurements, she spends some time coaxing the audience to within arm’s reach before she begins to sing.

Bell's Casio keyboard

Bell’s Casio keyboard (down a few keys) has seen her through the creation of a lot of music.

With a background that spans music theater, woman-at-the-piano club shows, and the presentation of experimental work—both of her own design and of composers such as Robert Ashley—the cross-pollination of influences is perhaps to be expected. But the breakdown of walls—both between genres and between performer and audience—remains a tightrope to walk.

It’s also a place of risk and vulnerability that Bell welcomes. “I love an aesthetic of mistakes. I want things to get a little messy. I’m not interested in the sounds of perfection.”

“And I guess getting the audience involved is a great way to do that!” she concedes, laughing.

Music and risk

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Even when she isn’t inviting the audience into, say, the bathroom with her for a little acoustic exploration, her preferred ways of working leave her open to the artistic ideas of collaborators both in creation and interpretation, especially through her regular work with collectives such as thingNY and Varispeed. Experimental music has allowed her to take “very seriously the idea of making work with your friends”—collaborations she finds to be fun and efficient because everyone brings a deeper level of appreciation and understanding to the table.

Further explaining her interest in such work and the opportunities it brings, Bell says, “I have full control over my performance and my body, and I’m not interested in having full control over any other performer’s body. I work with a lot of people who are composers in their own right and they have their own musical intelligences, and so I’m much more interested in creating a musical situation where we can all embody that.”

Bell's score for rolodex

Bell’s score designed for delivery via Rolodex currently in development.

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This openness to exploring ideas is one of the things Bell finds attractive about both the experimental music scene and academic environments—two places where she finds she can be playful and curious in different yet complimentary ways.

She earned her Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in January 2015 and is currently at work on a host of new pieces for upcoming performances this spring. On reflection, Bell says she feels somewhat like she’s at the cusp of more fully blending her various pots of experience—pockets that she previously kept somewhat isolated from one another.

I feel like I’m at this place of total exploration and I’m just having faith that I’m going to come out with something. I feel like I’m really in that mode where you’re just like, okay, I’m an artist. I have to let myself fail. I have to try a million things. I have to hate stuff, I have to love stuff, and I have to trust that if I put something on that’s really horrible it won’t be that no one wants to see anything that I do ever again. And just have faith that this kind of dream of some sort of sound that I have in my head that doesn’t have these intense boundaries can happen.