Irish theatre featuring trans protagonists may be sadly lacking and mostly created by cis gender writers, but the time is now to take up the gauntlet, says Robyn McQuaid-O’Dwyer
2015 in Irish theatre will surely go down as the year that we had our transgender tipping-point. Shows with trans protagonists – up from zero in 2014 – included two plays, Luck Just Kissed You Hello by Amy Conroy and Stacey Gregg’s, Scorch, one concert/live music video in I’m Your Man by Mark Palmer and Philip McMahon with THISISPOPBABY, and a performance from American ‘trans-genre artist’ Mx. Justin Vivian Bond at the Tiger Dublin Fringe.
If this visibility sounds positive, it’s because to a large extent, it is. But just as it took a very long time for gay representation in art to become ‘good’ gay representation in art, it’s important to remain critical.
Portrayed By Cisgender People
With the exception of Una McKevitt’s 2011 documentary piece, The Big Deal, the first two Irish plays about trans people ever put on in Ireland seem to be Luck Just Kissed You Hello and Scorch.
The problem this presents is that while both authors may want to use transness as a lens to look at the topics that really interest them, like misogyny or family, they are at the same time creating most people’s first exposure to a trans person on stage, and maybe ever.
They are speaking on our behalf, whether they want to or not. And what the audience see is not how trans people have chosen to be represented, but how we’ve been written, directed and performed by cis people.
Coded As A Joke
I came away from Luck connecting transness with child abuse. Scorch was inspired by a court case where a ‘woman’ was prosecuted for ‘pretending to be a man’ to have sex with another woman. These aren’t the shows I want introducing transness to Irish theatre audiences, and yet, unavoidably, that’s what they are.
Meanwhile on a smaller scale on both stages in Trinity College, 2015 I saw three shows in a row in which a masculine-looking man dressing and acting feminine was coded as a joke.
This trope is used for edginess and humour, confident in the mistaken belief that as long as you use people’s preferred pronouns outside the theatre, you can never be accused of transphobia inside it.
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I’m Your Man
But there is hope. Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s show introduced the nonbinary [read: my] honorific, Mx. to Dublin in the title of a headline show that apparently wowed my friends and the press.
The Irish media didn’t seem to recognise the gender-nonconformity of the protagonist and author of I’m Your Man, despite the fact that the centrepoint of the show involves them (figuratively) ripping their penis off.
But for all the trans people I know who saw it, it was an amazing experience of seeing gender dysphoria represented the only way it could be, barely comprehensible, non-linear, non- narrative, depressing, and exciting. It showed, as I think no show by a cis person could, how being trans feels.
Trans Representing Trans
We need more trans people on stage, writing and representing themselves. This can be seen already in performance art with performers like Day Magee, who just did a piece at this year’s Dublin Live Art Festival, myself, and others, and we will see it more as the trans theatre students I know now start to graduate.
A co-production from the Abbey and BeLonGTo this year, We Know What’s Best, where queer and trans young people were brought to shows in the Dublin Theatre Festival, talked with directors, and then were led through workshops by director Jenny Macdonald to make their own show was an amazing example of what can be achieved when you give people skills to tell their own stories.
But sometimes this is hard. The aforementioned The Big Deal wasn’t performed by the trans women it was about, because for transfeminine people like me the stage, the domain of the drag queen and the panto dame, is a scary place to try to be seen as who you are.
The Guardian reviewed Amy Conroy’s portrayal of masculinity positively, but I don’t think I want to hear their review of my feminity (“bit off, voice unconvincing, shame about the shoulders”).
Trans people are more and more getting the opportunity to represent and advocate for ourselves, but this is harder when the narratives from already-established cis artists get more attention.
Cis artists and programmers concerned about trans representation, before bringing their vision of our lives to the stage, should think about why they haven’t seen more of ours and help us change that.
In October, as part of the Adam World Choir, the National Theatre of Scotland will host performances from me and other trans people from all over the world in an international festival, some with no prior experience.
This is an unbelievable opportunity for trans performers. Let’s make it a little more believable in future.
© 2016 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.
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