It started with an email.
A patron wrote to us saying they’d enjoyed the first show in our 2016 season, Much Ado About Nothing—but a friend who had also attended found real harm in a portrayal that many in the audience took for a laugh.
What followed was an examination of impact, intent, transphobia, cis privilege, gender stereotypes, and the responsibility of the audience, the artist, and the arts institution in responding to and representing identities on the margins.
It started with an email, but continued with a conversation. Stream, download, or read the transcript below to join in.
Note on terms:
- For clarity on gender-related terminology used in the conversation (i.e. “pronoun,” “cisgender,” “transition”), we recommend GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide.
- “Blindness” is used later in the conversation to refer to gaps in knowledge and to nontraditional casting around race and gender. Use of this term these ways is considered ableist by many disability rights advocates.
Would you like to hear similar conversations about audience reactions and artistic choices through our 2017 season? Let us know!
ERIC: Hi everyone.
ERIC: We are here in part because—oh, this is Eric. Let’s go ahead and introduce ourselves. So I’m going to say my name. I’m gonna, so I’ll just, I’ll set it up: name, sort of, preferred personal pronoun, and, I guess, I don’t know, affiliated, what is your, like if you are here—what is your affiliation with Much Ado About Nothing? How about we put it that way?
CORDELIA: That works, cool.
ERIC: So my name is Eric. I am the Artistic Director of California Shakespeare Theatre. We have recently produced Much Ado About Nothing as the opening show of our season.
ERIC: Oh! Preferred personal pronoun: he, him, his.
CORDELIA: My name is Cordelia. I’m a patron of Cal Shakes and saw Much Ado About Nothing. Pronoun: she, her, hers.
LANCE: I’m Lance Gardner. I was an actor in the production of Much Ado About Nothing. He. Him. His.
LISA: I’m Lisa. I’m the Associate Director of Artistic Engagement at California Shakespeare Theater and pronouns are they, them, and theirs.
ERIC: Great. So we’re here as part of, as a pilot of a new idea that we’d like to do here at Cal Shakes, which is an effort to, sort of, continue conversations around issues that arise around plays that we produce at the California Shakespeare Theater. We think of this as an opportunity to kind of create a learning experience for our audiences, especially in situations where we institutionally are also sort of experiencing our own learning processes, as well.
I’m relatively new. I’m just gonna give some background information, then I’m gonna shut up for a while. [GROUP LAUGHS] I’m relatively new to Cal Shakes. And to be quite frank I’m relatively new to this work that we’re surfacing here this morning. It’s something that—it was not something that we encountered a great deal at my old theater, Long Wharf Theatre.
But it’s something that I’ve grown, sort of, have grown to be a great supporter of but I am also very aware that I am personally, as noted just a moment ago, I’m still trying to, just trying to figure out, sort of—I’m learning, I’m still learning. So, one of the things that we’re here to do is in part because this is an issue that was raised.
So the background information, you all know this—or I think to a greater or lesser degree—but the background to this is that we, in our previous production of Much Ado About Nothing, there were some casting choices made in effort to put forward a theme of Much Ado About Nothing, which is specifically that we, we wear many faces in front of people that we don’t know versus the people that we do know. And that part of the thing that I know the director was trying to explore was not just the question of gender fluidity, but also just the question of identity and how do we perform identity, which is a theme I think that we’re encountering as we’re moving through this season.
And so choices were made specifically in the production to change gender, to change, I guess, how else would you put it? The big choices revolved around specific gender choices of actors playing characters and the sort of most immediate and obvious one in the production, was the choice to put, have a male actor play Beatrice and a female actor play Benedick.
And then because of the conceit of the production, which was essentially a small company of caterers retelling the story of Much Ado About Nothing, there was a kind of theatrical convention of actors playing multiple roles. And then what’s, what’s come up in the last, what came up sort of moving into the preview process was a concern centering around one specific portrayal, but I’m hoping that we’ll expand that conversation beyond just that particular role and actually to have a conversation around the play as a whole. I’m hoping.
But questions of intention and impact. Sort of like, what is the intention of the artist and the choice, on some level, and then similarly and equally, what was the impact of that choice on some audiences? And as a result, we felt the need to explore how we could institutionally engage in a discourse around this issue. And I’ve invited you all to come here to the office to have a conversation today about it in the hopes that we can just sort of like be in a room and talk about this thing. Cuz I think you wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case or if that wasn’t the hope. Certainly for me as well. And I wanna see this as an opportunity to just, again to learn and to engage in a true discourse about, sort of, and this is a question that comes up a lot for me, I think, around artistic choices.
It’s something that I, you know, I’ve dealt with to a lesser degree as a producer. And I imagine I will be dealing more with, now that I am an artistic director. [GROUP LAUGHS]
So Lisa had some prompt questions that I thought were fantastic, but I don’t know if we want to start from there, do you feel? Or if we want to just dive into the conversation.
LISA: Yeah, so, kind of, I think for me—kind of where I wanted to start in general was like to actually just name in the room what kind of depictions of gender and gender presentation and gender identity that folks read on stage. Cuz I think, even in conversations that I had with Eric and conversations with a friend who is a transfeminine person, when we went to see the show, and then was debriefing with Eric, he was like, that is literally something I never would have saw in this show. Which was very much from like a queer and trans and non-binary perspective of like, gender things! And so I kind of actually want to just start from there and actually talk about what depictions folks saw on stage. If that makes sense as a prompt.
LANCE: Sure. Yeah. I don’t—I would be interested to hear your perspectives since I did not have an outside perspective. [GROUP LAUGHS]
LISA: Fair, fair!
CORDELIA: Yeah, and I think that, I mean, of the four of us I was the one who has seen it the least. I hope I’m the one who has seen it the least. And a little while back, so I’m just working off of that memory. I thought it was—I liked the premise, I liked the set up for it. I really liked the set up where—and I felt that that worked very well. You know it’s the sort of thing that you see happen with caterers, you know, you get bored at work, you have friends, you do things and you talk, you play, and that’s—that worked very well. And I liked the set up that, particularly that, that people were reluctant about some of their roles, or some of the characters played reluctant. I think Beatrice in particular if I recall played reluctant. Not Beatrice, I’m sorry, Benedick.
CORDELIA: And I felt that that worked really well because once, they, people kind of were assigned the role by the group, they took it. They didn’t—it wasn’t over played. It was played as, you would kind of expect a group of caterers to play this. You know? A little bit of ham but not, but it wasn’t crossing any lines. It was, Beatrice was played as Beatrice. Benedick was played as Benedick. And it kind of rotated around. It worked well. There wasn’t—Beatrice’s character wasn’t a man playing Beatrice. You know, it wasn’t—it wasn’t a man in drag. It wasn’t a man playing the part. It was just Beatrice, and the casting decision was almost incidental. And that’s the way that I saw, that’s the way I read most of the play.
I felt—if I was gonna criticize that side of it, I would say that it came across as slightly contrived. Because the gender roles were so constantly swapped. It came off as very intentional. As opposed to, if there had been a little less swapping, it could have, it would have come off a little bit more within the, within the caterer kind of overarching theme there, with caterers behind the scenes. I deviate slightly into personal artistic—[GROUP LAUGHS]—step on your toes—[GROUP LAUGHS]…
LANCE: I think it’s a good point. I can see how it could be more fluid if there was less deviation, sometimes, seemingly just for the sake of deviation.
CORDELIA: Right, right. And I think that, I think that sort of format, that sort of premise for Shakespeare…I don’t know if you saw Shot—it was—not Shotgun—Impact Players?
CORDELIA: Who was it? I forget which one they did recently. I mean, do you know Impact?
ERIC: I do. Impact is the theater that just recently closed, right?
CORDELIA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, if you don’t know them already—
ERIC: I met the artistic director.
CORDELIA: —you’re not going to. [GROUP LAUGHS]
CORDELIA: But they, they did this very—I mean they’re a tiny, tiny company. Just, I mean, it’s not much more than what we’ve got in the room. And they pulled it off where the character wasn’t the actor, the character was the costume. And so this character was—
CORDELIA: Whoever is wearing this hat is this character, is wearing this scarf is this character.
CORDELIA: And what that did, it worked for them cuz they kinda had this kind of comical setup in the play, but it worked very well because people swapped mid-role. And so if you had two people arguing, and one was on the losing side, they might take their hat off and put on another actor, who then has to bear the brunt of it. And when you have this kind of setup, where if you’re premising with a group of friends, a group of caterers kind of getting into this, it lends itself to that.
And so I don’t think it’s necessary, talking about fluidity, I don’t think it’s necessary that everyone stays in a single role. That each role is played by an actor of the same gender throughout the play, or the same actor.
CORDELIA: It can go back and forth.
CORDELIA: I think that it would have been interesting to see Beatrice and Benedick swap, the actors swap midway through, partway through. Or even just for a little bit. It would have been a really interesting setup.
ERIC: It was an interesting idea that was floated, I mean—[GROUP LAUGHS]
LISA: I remember hearing that as part of the—
LANCE: Yeah, I think it was potentially part of the original conceit. I don’t know where the conversation was that landed it in the form—
ERIC: I suspect you all ran out of time, a little bit.
LANCE: Yeah, we did. There was writing happening in the room in the first, well I guess through all, through the entire process there was writing happening to build around the Shakespeare and that took up a significant amount of time and so I think there was less conversation than everybody would have liked there to have been around, around broader themes.
The conversation in the room I think rarely landed on gender. I think, I think there were casting choices that were made, before the actors got into the room, that may or may not have had a basis in ideas of gender and gender roles. But once we were in the room the conversation was mostly about the conceit of the caterers, about how class influences, influences the way that these people are seen, that the people in Much Ado are seen by the caterers and by the world in general. And the conversations about, about gender may have happened with, with individual artists. I didn’t have any conversations about gender—
LANCE: With the director. And it wasn’t a broader theme being explored as a group.
LANCE: I think. In some ways those choices were almost incidental to the idea, to the idea of class, to the idea of outsiders looking in, and I think that if, if there were gender portrayals that were, that were perceived as, as insensitive, that, that those, that, that could be simply—because there wasn’t a lot of conversation. I don’t think that, that the idea that anything was being portrayed in any specific way really came into the conversation.
CORDELIA: Yeah. I mean I think that, I think that, I like the idea of—but I think that’s unfortunately something that happens a lot. You know, is if, is if you’re not somebody who has something of a forced awareness…you know, and I don’t want to say I have a forced awareness but I’m certainly very aware of gender….that a lot of these things aren’t considered because they’re not an issue to the people involved. You know. And whether, and I don’t mean that in any way that there’s an insensitivity, it’s more just that there’s an unawareness.
LISA: It becomes like, what’s invisible to you that you don’t experience, right?
CORDELIA: Right. Right.
LISA: Like I know for me, I move in the world as like a black femme person, femme non-binary person, and so all of those things are markers, like that I, like that I see, like even without trying to see. Cuz like I saw the show twice at the student matinee which was really freakin’—there were some really cute moments actually. [LAUGH] I was like, I love y’all kids! And then once when I went with my friend. And there was actually a moment with the character of Cordelia, which was actually really beautiful, cuz I forgot what school—
LANCE: The character of Ursula.
LISA: Ursula, gawd dang it y’all. [LAUGH] The first coffee. The first coffee of the day. [GROUP LAUGHS]
ERIC: This is gonna be a rule for these conversations from now on is that they should be very early in the morning. [GROUP LAUGHS]
LISA: But the character of Ursula. And like, I will name that I had very mixed reactions, because I did have something where I was like, especially for young folks I think, like, when folks are still figuring out how to be comfortable in their own skins and folks are figuring out what gender, whether they’re cisgender or transgender or still figuring out what their gender and gender presentation and gender identity means to them, that I have very mixed feelings about—but on the flip side I saw a young black person who was like, male-assigned at birth who had been in one of the groups I was in who’s like, the way that he moved through the activities and the warm-up activities was in a way that was like, like very fluid in terms of like, just the body language, the ways that would not be assumed for a young, like, black male-assigned-at-birth person. And seeing that young person and their friends when they saw Ursula on stage, and their friends are like, yeah! And then they’re like, yeah! There was a moment of seeing themselves on stage that was really beautiful.
And I think I felt very similar about Beatrice and Benedick. When I was with my friend, we were talking about it afterwards and like this moment of like the things you read, right? So, the unintentional gender story in a way is like, somebody who is male-assigned at birth, who is female-identified, and is validated as female by every single person that they interact with. It’s never a question, it’s never—and also like a love story in the middle of that. My friend and I were sitting up in the back, and they were like, this is getting—they were just like, I’m having so many feelings, and they were just like, this is beautiful.
And so I think I agree. I think there’s moments where it’s like, where does intentionality come in? And I think yeah, that gender becomes one of those things that, like, if nobody, like, consciously thinks about it, can, like—there’s ways that I think gender is something that we’re comfortable with which tends to be like, in terms of like a feminine or masculine, like, discussion of presentation. Because my friend also pointed out, like, that Ursula, like of, in comparison with Beatrice was much more high femme, and so like they started talking about, they’re like—transfeminine person of color, so like, the policing of transfeminine folks of color on their presentation, in a way that I hadn’t thought about. So I’m rambling. [GROUP LAUGHS]
LANCE: I can speak specifically because I played Ursula. I can speak to what went through my head.
LANCE: So in approaching that role, there were, I’ll say there were, well, there were more than three layers but I don’t know how many we’ll get into. [GROUP LAUGHS] So the idea behind the presentation of the play was that there were caterers recounting the events of Much Ado About Nothing. So in one sense, it’s a play within a play, right? So I was playing a cisgendered male caterer. And I portrayed the prince. And I portrayed Ursula. And, in my scene—
ERIC: Don’t forget—
LANCE: —and Conrad. So in my first scene as Ursula, you have a, it’s a play within a play, where there is a cisgendered male playing a woman in this play. But you also have in that scene two women conspiring to trick a third woman. And so there’s a play within a play where you have to show that you are putting on a mask. And then there’s the conspiracy where those two are acting—it’s almost another layer of a play within a play where you’re playing for the other character on stage.
My idea is that that required some camp. You know that it’s a, a play, within a play, within a play and for the other character on stage that the heightened, the heightened reality of it lent itself to the humor of the play as it was written. Lent itself to the honesty of the, of the character having fun with what they were doing. A cisgendered man and being allowed the freedom to put on a dress and step outside the boundaries that have been set for him.
I think when you say that not everybody is forced to consider gender, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that we all consider it in different ways.
CORDELIA: That’s right.
LANCE: So I think, I feel, you know, that there are ideas of masculinity that are being forced on me. Societal ideas of masculinity and frankly as both an actor and a character I felt a freedom. Putting on a dress and a bow and going out there and being, and being campy. It was fun for me as an actor. It was fun in the character. And I think that it was true to—true to the idea of, of the scene where you’re trying to trick a third person on stage and your character is maybe not a great actor and maybe goes overboard.
I think there are probably cultural examples of cisgender women playing a similar maid-type role in a similar campy fashion and that’s what I was attempting to be true to. The idea of, of offending or representing the trans community was never, never entered my mind. And I don’t know, I guess I would be interested to know your take on that aspect.
CORDELIA: I mean I think the, I mean I really, really would love for society to get to a point where camp is seen as camp regardless of who’s camping, you know what I mean?
LANCE: Oh yeah.
CORDELIA: Yeah. It’s not the reality that we’re in, at least not yet and I think that, I think that unfortunately, as freeing as it is, and I understand your motivation with this character but, from the audience perspective there’s none of that background. There’s, none of the audience members know you as Lance. None of the audience members know any of your motivation, know kind of your thought of it. You know. You’re gonna get, you have the kind of a play within a play, you know, shows up pretty obviously as a large theme. But that third layer of play within a play within a play, it’s while watching the action and while watching this and while watching the presentation, the interpretation, and everything else. It muddies a little bit. And so you lose—there’s a little bit of a distance as an audience member.
And I mean I don’t, and going back to something I think I said earlier, I don’t know if we were recording at that time. But it’s not, the issues that a lot of people in the trans community have with kind of cis portrayals, not necessarily of trans people directly, but of these kind of gender swap situations. It’s not a matter of malice—and there is certainly a lot of malice as well, don’t get me wrong—but it’s when there’s good intentions, but they come from a place where they aren’t informed, or they’re not aware of the way it plays.
CORDELIA: And I think, and that was, it kind of plays into how I viewed it. I felt that, while the role called for camp, kind of, your particular casting in it, it muddied that line. It made it muddy whether, you know, is the camp part of the character, or is the camp being played to kind of distract from the casting versus the role? You know, to kind of separate that to go, to play that man in the dress. There’s a big difference between allowing a man to be in a dress or to be—and I don’t wanna say “allowing,” because it should be. You know what I mean? It’s the difference between a man being in a dress and a trans woman in a dress.
CORDLEIA: And playing a man in a dress. And I think that all three of those things are very distinct. You know. A man in a dress is a man in a dress. There’s nothing that’s played beyond that. You know. And playing a man in a dress, this is where, that you start to see a lot of those tropes intersect.
And I think that’s where the root of, kind of my issue with Ursula came in was that while, even though it wasn’t your intention to kind of portray these tropes, to portray Ursula, kind of in the, in the sense that is in any way offensive or commenting on the trans community, it was so close to a lot of stuff that is, that it’s very, very hard to distinguish for people between that.
CORDELIA: And that’s where the good intentions, and—kind of can cause problems. And going back to what Lisa said about, kind of the youth seeing themselves on stage, you know, that’s something that, you know, I struggle with, too. You know, seeing myself in places.
CORDELIA: And because there’s so many popular culture portrayals a trans woman has—the man in the dress, with a lot of stubble, with the giant Adam’s apple—because trans women have been played by cis men far more than trans women have played trans women in popular culture, media, there are very, very—and we’re a very small percentage of the population and very under-represented, there are very, very few portrayals of trans women in positive roles. There are very few portrayals in general. And when, speaking for myself, I guess, before, before I knew I was trans, while I was still kind of in that in-between, figuring a lot of stuff—I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out—you see roles, you see trans people portrayed, and it’s, that’s not me. You know, there, you know, this is a character, this is a person, that’s in a role and I think I might feel some identity towards, the role is something I have some identity towards, but the portrayal is so not me that it can push away.
And it makes, you know I think that, I mean I…you know I think that if society, if it was different, if either you had a positive portrayal… it changes things. It’s like, oh, this is, that could be me. You know, you can see that. And I know I get really excited when I see positive portrayal of trans women in the media.
And so even though you weren’t, or even if Ursula was not meant to be that portrayal, it was so close to so many portrayals that are meant to be that portrayal, that it, that it invoked the same feelings, and I don’t know that a lot of audience, I don’t even think our audience was in on that. You know what I mean? I think that because that’s the stereotypical portrayal of a trans woman at the moment and historically even more so, that, that’s kind of, I feel like that’s where a lot of people’s minds get pushed. Whether it’s explicit or implicit it’s kind of where they, that thought kinda comes in or reinforces and so that was the root of my discomfort with it. You know?
LISA: I think it’s—yeah, I think it’s the larger societal thing, which was actually going to be the next thing I was going to bring up, so that worked out well! But I think it’s that moment specifically with theater, and I think with engaging with performance art in a way that’s very different than things like a book or things that are a little more solitary. It’s in community, you’re in community with the other people in the audience with you. I know for me what felt hard—because I think what I loved, and slightly halfway through the coffee so we’ll see if I can get it more succinct this time—what I appreciated so much about the gender fluidity and the gender swapping of the characters was this moment of just, of seeing specifically with the depiction of Beatrice, seeing somebody who would not, because of cissexism in society, and the assumption of physical body equals gender, like seeing somebody who in many places in this world would not be read as woman, like, being woman.
And I think for me it just was kind of a jarring moment. Not necessarily because of your depiction but because of the reaction of the audience. And on both nights I was there, like, having you come on stage and having everyone laugh, and I come from a youth worker background, and some of the things, like with some of the young trans women I was working with, we watched movies. We watched the most ridiculous, like, Netflix has terrible, terrible, terrible queer movies. [GROUP LAUGHS] But I was like, this is all we have, so we’re gonna find one. We’re gonna talk about it. And like, I had a young person, and it always strikes me now, every time we watched a piece they’d be like, and they saw somebody who was like designated male-assigned-at-birth presenting in a way that was more feminine-of-center regardless of gender identity, and it was a comedic moment, they would always be like are they laughing at them cuz they’re trans?
And so that moment of like not, one, like, I think hearing you talk about it because I also agree with that. There’s an organization whose work I love that’s local, like, Gender Spectrum, their whole slogan is like, “everybody has a gender story and if we can break open gender for everybody, creating more inclusivity for everybody.” But not knowing that and seeing the depiction on stage and really, it was like, being in the audience and having everyone laugh at that and knowing that there were people that were laughing because it was like, it’s a man in a dress, look at how ridiculous that is! That was the moment for me that was like, ooh. And I think just because of the journey of the story I hadn’t felt that way at all and I think that’s what, it was like a jarring moment, and then specifically with the young people I was like ohh, there’s a kid here who’s figuring out their gender, and they’re in group, and they’re in an audience of 300 kids and 150 of them just laughed, very loudly.
And so I just, and that’s the hard part I think is, which I think is the challenge of theater at a certain point, especially with some of these classical works. You only have the text to show what’s on stage. So I think that’s why I very much appreciate this moment and being able to have this conversation and being able to share this as a resource.
Because I think it is that thing of like the subtleties. What are the like, what are the moments that can get missed or, it’s a limitation I think a little bit too of like, where it’s like we have what’s on stage and we can’t know how the audience is gonna interpret it or react, but I think both times I saw the show that was the thing that did stand out, that made it a little bit rough.
CORDELIA: And I think that, there are two very distinct roles of the theater. Theater is such a sanctuary for people, particularly for people who don’t conform to the rest of societal norms, who don’t fit into the mold, theater is such a freeing sanctuary.
But the other side of that is the consumption side of that. The audience side that doesn’t get to participate in that same kind of sanctuary, that same kind of freedom of general expression, whether you’re playing a gender or not. You know, in that stepping outside of who you are in your day to day role. They don’t get to participate in that. And so, you get a very, very different, there’s a very different feel between being in these characters, and playing these characters, and how that affects the person whose playing them, and what’s read by the person who is watching it. You know?
And like you said when you were describing with the, you know there’s a kid here who’s figuring out their identity and then, I was thinking along the same lines. How are they feeling? You know they’re on that, they’re just figuring something out or they’re just questioning something, and they just had a ton of their peers laugh. And regardless of whether or not their peers didn’t pick up on Ursula and the way it was portrayed or had any association with Ursula and trans women or men in a dress or any of that, I guarantee the kid who is questioning himself did. They saw that immediately and whether, regardless of why everyone else is laughing they’re going, it’s going to be interpreted that way.
LANCE: I wanted to ask a question and temper it with a story. So I wonder what the artist’s responsibility is and by the artist I mean the actor, the director, the arts organization. And I want to temper it with this story which is that I understudied a show years ago which had a very honest, sweet, kind, and humorous portrayal of a, of a male homosexual relationship, and I think there was a kiss. And at least one of the men on stage was a gay man, and there was a student matinee of this play. And it was a tender moment. I loved this play. My whole heart was in this play and I was understudying and I was watching.
I was in the audience watching and it came to the moment, this tender moment of self-realization and love and the kiss, and these students exploded into laughter. They started screaming “ew, oh, gross, oh, nasty, nasty.” And I cried because I knew that in this audience, that there were young gay men who were not out, who were not only being laughed at and mocked, but felt unsafe, and it probably kept them in the closet for years because of that, and the moment on stage, and I thought, what, what—maybe art isn’t enough, I thought at that moment. If this moment that I find so wonderful and beautiful and humorous and touching can’t move these kids to see the humanity and the reality of it, then maybe nothing can. Maybe for them it’s too late.
And so I wonder what the arts organization’s role ought to be. Because I don’t see any reason that you should take something like that off stage because of the reaction to it. So, and I’m not saying that my portrayal of Ursula was a moving, heart-warming [GROUP LAUGHS] portrayal. But what I’m saying is that as an artist I was doing something honest that I thought was truthful to the play. I had good intentions and as a person I have, I have no negative feelings toward the trans community, toward the gay community, toward anybody as a community. And so I wonder if those two things, if that play with the gay male relationship, and this play with, you know, me in a dress, I wonder if those two things live in the same world, and, and if we have a responsibility, or if the responsibility is on the audience. And just how you feel about that.
CORDELIA: Well I mean, I feel that there’s, there’s always going to be something of a shared responsibility.
CORDELIA: And your number, it comes, it goes back to that you’re never going to convince 100% of the people 100% of the time. And so you’re, to a certain extend you can’t control what the audience is going to do when it comes to that. I think that as far as responsibility of art and of theater specifically. That’s kind of what needs to be decided on by the company. That’s something that’s the responsibility of the company to decide what they want their responsibility to be.
I mean there’s, and I’m not a, I strongly believe that art is not something that should be, I believe that art is something that should be very open and very free and very broad. And that it’s okay to be offended at things and it’s okay if your work offends, but that you need to know where your intent is.
CORDELIA: And you need to know, and if you’re operating with something that could offend or might offend, that needs to be considered. I mean, cuz if you try and make a play that absolutely nobody is offended by, I mean, nobody will, ‘cuz nobody will come. [GROUP LAUGHS] You know, I mean, you’re left with nothing. It is possible, particularly because you’re gonna get people who are offended by this and people who are offended by that not being there. So, and that’s the choice. That’s the choice and the responsibility of the company and of the artist to decide, here’s a potential issue, or this is something that we’re exploring. This could offend these people, how do we feel about that?
CORDELIA: And that’s also one of the most difficult things in art or a presentation, whether it’s a play or a lecture or a class or any of that kind of thing, book, where, is to understand that, because people don’t make art that offends themselves, you know? And so you’re necessarily dealing with, you’re trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You know, people’s, other people’s perspectives and people who necessarily are not really in that community, whether you’re not viewing things the same way. And that’s a really, really hard thing to do, for anybody. And so I think, I mean I’d be interested to hear what your kind of perspectives are on what the responsibility of the artist is.
ERIC: I’m just going to offer, this is, because I think this is a fascinating conversation in part because I hear a great deal of resonance in this conversation and other conversations that I’ve been through in my life. But like that story that you bring up about the young audience’s response to a kiss between two men, right, I mean, to me, that has a lot to do with taboos, with social taboos, right, or the perception of social taboos. Because it wasn’t so long ago that a response would have been similar when it was a black person kissing a white person.
ERIC: Right? And then when we talk about the evolution of our society and the nature of the inclusiveness of it. You know. It’s fascinating because some of the themes that I’m hearing in this conversation are themes that I’ve heard sort of shared in conversations around colorblind casting versus color-conscious casting. There’s a similar situation where the intentions are such that we should as artists be able to compel an audience to see the world in a way where the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter and yet at the heart of that that’s a kind of, I mean I think today we think of it as a quixotic idea. That there’s no way that we ever get away with presenting race on stage where race isn’t visible to an audience. Because the audience as a whole is not blind to that.
There’s something about this conversation for me that is just about sort of the spaces that we have to go still as a culture and as an art form and as human beings, right? Sort of how do we—and I think, I will also offer, right, that I don’t know that we, there’s no, hopefully the institution, the institution is always gonna make, we’re always gonna have blind spots. I think one thing that we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to have a lot of different perspectives on our staff. So that when we are sort of forging work on stage there’s points of view that will bring their specific gazes and their specific experiences to the work to be able to highlight the questions of the work. You know, and then we can as an institution leave it to the artist to make a choice.
Why this for me was so important to have a conversation about—because I feel like as an institution we missed that moment. And some of it is on me, like some of it is on me. So this is, you should know, this is not the first time. You are not the first time that we heard this concern. This concern actually came to me through a staff member, another person on my staff in the preview process. We were in the preview process. This was my first time producing a play here and the tech preview process was a challenging tech preview process for the show and I made the producorial choice in that moment not to bring that question to the creative team.
That may well have been a mistake on my part. I think that’s the sort of thing where it’s sort of like, oh, I really wanna bring this up. I should just let the artist decide. And this is sort of the thing that I’m coming to right now, is that. And then once the artists make the choice, because I think there’s a lot of reasons why choices get made. And I’m like, I’m never, I’m not one in general for absolutism, right? I think absolutism is a dangerous thing.
And so, speaking from my lens which is often a lens of race, right? I mean, I think it’s—like an interesting story that we’ve been telling is that when I first saw Ursula on stage, I was like, in the first iteration of Ursula’s costume I went up to Lance and I was like Lance, do you think, and Ursula was in the dress but instead of the kind of hair piece that Ursula had it was like a head wrap.
LANCE: Yeah, it looked like Aunt Jemima.
ERIC: Yeah, that’s what I said. I was like is that like—because that’s my lens and that’s my gaze. So my gaze is one that comes historically from one of race because that’s the way that I pass through the world, right?
And the moment for me that turned when I said, this is why, this is something that I miss, that I really genuinely regret missing at this moment in time, and regret not dealing with more, in a different way. Cuz again this is not about a critique of artists for me, nor is it—in some way it’s a critique of audience, it’s a social critique that we’re engaging in right now. Because we’re saying why is it that the audience laughs? That’s a question that comes up all the time, right? Like, artists can make choices and we can put tropes on stage with the intention of creating the laughter because we know it’ll make an audience laugh because we know that’s what is funny to an audience. And yet sometimes the more challenging choice is to put something on stage that isn’t gonna get you the biggest laugh in part because, you’re presenting something that doesn’t fall into that trope.
But the moment for me was when I simply projected another question on him which was, what would have happened had you been directed to play a Chinese character coming out on stage and to what extent would that have been okay? And to what degree of authentic, invested, grounded performance would it have had to have been in order for me to be even remotely okay with it and that’s where it becomes this really—
LANCE: But I just want to, to step away from this play for a moment, we were doing the design run of Fences yesterday and we’re standing there, downstage, right? And you’re right there and there’s a line where I invite my father Troy to come see me play jazz, and he says, “I don’t wanna hear that Chinese music.” And I had never heard that line in that way before. I’d always heard it as a dismissive line. But I’m standing next to a Chinese American, and suddenly I go, huh, this is a very insensitive moment from this man and it changed my perspective, not from a character perspective because I don’t think that character would pick up on that, but just from an actor’s perspective. Personally, I heard something that I hadn’t heard before, because I was standing next to a certain person and as an artist, this is a very interesting conversation to me because I had not considered the trans community in my portrayal, simply because I never saw myself as a representative of the trans community. I never intended to be a representative of the trans community, and so it’s enlightened me. In light of that, in retrospect, I don’t think that I would have changed anything about my performance because I felt that I was being truthful to the world of the play and I was, and I was attempting to honor a tradition that did not, that did not represent that community.
But it would have changed, my, the way that I felt about it every night, it would have. When it was brought to my attention that people felt a certain way about it, it changed, it didn’t change my performance but it changed the way that I felt about it. It made me aware that there could be people in the audience who felt offended, who felt unsafe, and, and I don’t know what that did to me but I didn’t see it. It was in my blind spot as well. And in retrospect I don’t think I would have changed it. Moving forward I don’t know how that will change for me.
CORDELIA: Well, and I think this goes back to what I was saying earlier about, it’s the responsibility of the company to decide. Like I say, you can’t make a piece of artwork that’s gonna offend nobody. Can’t make a play that’s gonna offend nobody, particularly with Shakespeare. There are so many issues at play.
CORDELIA: But is it the responsibility of the company to decide to try to make a strong effort to be as aware of as many of those as they can and to decide are they okay with it? You know? Am I okay with this level of intentional offense? Or am I okay with this level of portrayal? And I think that some of that can be mitigated. I think it was very interesting to hear your perspective and your kind of internal motivation for Ursula’s character. And I think that it would be really interesting to see some of that in the notes, in the program, right?
LANCE: Mm-hm. Yeah.
CORDELIA: To say, this is, kind of, as the actor, this is how I approach my roles. This is why I felt like this character and you know, particularly if there’s something you feel like might cross those lines it’s always a good idea to consult the people who are part of a community that you’re not a part of. And if you have these motivations for it, a play within a play within a play within a play, and every level of play you have to kind of up the emotional character, kind of become more campy with every level, cuz how do you know you’re in the first play if you’re not doing that, but the audience isn’t always going to be that savvy or isn’t always going to see that first.
CORDELIA: And I think that seeing an explanation of that somewhere—
CORDELIA: —you know, and it doesn’t need to be a justification, it doesn’t need to be an essay—
CORDELIA: But I think it’s generally interesting for people to see people’s motivation behind these decisions.
LISA: I think it’s something where, I think it’s like what Eric brought up at the beginning, which I think, we’ve had so many internal conversations about this! But the difference, but, like the connection of intention and impact and I think also a very key difference between “offensive” and “harm.”
LISA: Cuz I think, being offended because something that you’re like, I am seeing something I don’t like about somebody on stage and that’s resonating with me, that feels different versus the example we’ve been talking about of sitting in an audience and seeing somebody you resonate with being the brunt of a joke.
I think what you’re bringing up, like—and I don’t think the responsibility is entirely on the artist or on the production. I think, exactly, what we’ve been talking about, and I think that’s something we’re talking about moving forward. I think that’s an example of what this is, is to think about, how do we hold discussions that—like, I think for me it’s like, trying to mitigate harm or at least letting people know, we see you. We see you. We see how this might impact you and we want to name it.
LISA: Not only so you feel seen, but so other people can learn something that they might not learn in the production, in engaging with the production. And so I think that kind of comes back to what I was saying earlier, the limitations of just seeing what’s on stage versus being able to have exposure to kind of the deeper dive of what builds into the process I think allows for both opportunities, for the learning and the like holding space for people. Which I think, to Eric’s point, cuz I know I didn’t see previews, I didn’t see dress, and so the first time I had saw it was at the student matinees, which, again, in hindsight, it was like, well damn. [LAUGH] I wish I had been much earlier in the process because there’s things that I would have, I was like, yeah, probably would have named that during dress rehearsal that this was something that I saw. Or during previews. And then thought about what are things we can do to like hold space around it and around an artistic choice?
So yeah, I think what many people have been saying, like, how do we create space within the organization that doesn’t force and doesn’t expect the production and the piece itself to tell the whole story.
CORDELIA: Right. [CROSSTALK]
ERIC: Sorry, go ahead.
CORDELIA: And I think just, we’ve been leapfrogging off of “offensive” versus “harm.” I think that the line, and that’s a tough line to find sometimes, where that is. But I, and part of it is based off of the community and society of the time. Whether and how much misinformation is out there about it.
CORDELIA: If we’re dealing with a community where people are generally very well understood, playing something in an offensive manner that’s like, somewhat along those lines, can be read as funny, can be seen as funny, because there isn’t the question of—there isn’t the misinformation. When you’re dealing with a very marginalized community, or any marginalized community where there is a lot of misinformation, misunderstanding, from society at large or from a large segment of it, playing those, playing to those tropes can reinforce that. It’s not always seen as, as making fun of that situation, it’s seen as representing it.
And so that’s, and it’s like I said, it’s a very difficult, it’s not an easy thing to suss out. And that’s, and it goes back to the responsibility, to the company to decide how much we’re gonna do this. I mean, you could take Much Ado About Nothing, and you could spend the entire year teching and rehearsing and rewriting and altering and playing with character and doing all these things, and still not put it on. You know, and still not have it right, you know. So, we’re all dealing with limited resources, and there are, and you have to decide where to stop, but it’s important to know where you’re stopping and why. To have that reason, and if there’s, I think it’s important that if you feel, if there’s that question, if there’s that kind of, maybe there’s not the awareness you would have or you would like for it, but you’re not as confident as you would like about it, to acknowledge that and to justify, not so much justify but to communicate to your audience why these decisions were made.
I mean, it’s—going to Fences that you were talking about, with your character’s father saying “what are you listening to that Chinese music for,” there’s a difference between a representation of you playing a Chinese person and someone in a character that is racist against Chinese people.
LANCE: Sure, yup.
CORDELIA: You know, and just like there’s a difference between, you know, somebody who’s playing, Beatrice being played by a male and Benedick being played by an assigned-female-at-birth and somebody representing a trans woman that way. And Ursula’s not a trans woman and that mitigates things somewhat cuz there were all these others roles but because Ursula’s character was also played so differently from the others—and I understand the motivation it was a play within a play within a play—and so I don’t honestly know how you represent that camp with [LAUGH] you in that role.
LANCE: I think it’s a good question because, say, I think if I had worn the same costume and walked out reluctantly that would have been more offensive.
CORDELIA: It would be very different, yeah.
LANCE: I would find it, I would find it, I would think it was offensive—I would think it was harmful to say I’m a man and I don’t want to wear this dress.
LANCE: I think if I had worn the same costume and been more, and not played a woman, had just come out and, and made choices that didn’t involve my hips, that didn’t involve my hands and wrists, that the scene, that would have been less humorous. And I think that would have hurt what I was trying to do. I wanted to be humorous, not because I was a man playing a woman. But I would like to think that if I were a woman, a cis woman, assigned woman at birth, and I went out and made those same choices, that it would still be funny. Maybe it would be 15% less funny to the audience because their perception. But I would like to think that my choices were still funny. And that’s kind of how I was looking at it.
And then there’s the third choice of, not choice, but the other idea that the costume alone does something. If you had given me as an actor the name of Ursula, and put me on stage in what I’m wearing now, in jeans and the hooded sweatshirt with a goatee, what would that do?
And so, like I said, I didn’t, I never considered the trans community at, when I was choosing how I was going to portray Ursula, and maybe that was blind or maybe—I mean I suppose it is blind but I’m not sure how much involvement there is, in the trans community, in the mind of others in that portrayal. But no matter what choice you make I think you’re making a specific choice when you’re considering everything and I think that each one is going to have its problems. I’m not sure that today in 2016 with all the conversation that’s happening that you can make any choice without, without running into some sort of snag. And I think, I agree 100% that intention is, is everything in art. You can’t go at anything artistic without an intention. But at the same time, you know, you don’t, even with the best intentions you can still offend—
LANCE: And harm. Right. I think it’s interesting, too, to go beyond the idea, beyond the trans community and just talk about gender for a moment, because I know that Stacy, for example, who played Benedick in the opening scene, she’s a caterer and she made gender-specific choices to try to be more femme in that opening scene in the way that she stood and the way that she used her hands, that I think were really subtle and were mostly for her and not for anyone outside. There was also a moment in rehearsal when Denmo who played Claudio touched my arm. And the direction that she got from Jackson, the director, was to not touch me in such a feminine way. So I think a lot of what we were looking at as artists were gender, were ideas of gender stereotype, and I think that’s a broader conversation, because I think we’re all bound by, by societal gender stereotypes that we each play into to our own degree including, you know. As a trans woman there are gender stereotypes that you, are, uh, maybe you agree with. There are aesthetic choices that you make based on gender stereotypes, I would assume—I’m asking as much as I’m saying—just as there are gender-specific stereotypes and aesthetic choices that I, that I latch on to, at times, as a man. And so I think that the issue of what happens on stage has impact on a community, but it also has impact on a broader conversation about, about aesthetics, about what it means to make gender choices and how that affects perception.
CORDELIA: I’d like to jump and just go back to one thing real quick about making aesthetic choices based on some stereotypes. I mean I certainly do, and there’s definitely stereotypes within society, society’s understanding of gender, of women, of men, but they’re not always as a matter of identity. They’re—sometimes they’re also a matter of safety, you know? It’s not, you know sometimes it’s a matter of, behaving this way, dressing this way, doing make-up this way, speaking in a way and a kind of body language in a way, codes this “woman” in a way that would draw less attention from people who have issue particularly with trans people. And so, so it’s not always by choice, so to speak.
CORDELIA: I certainly have my aesthetic, but one of the things that was very much on my mind when I was studying this meet-up with Eric, and in conversations, was the timing.
CORDELIA: And is this going to be on video? Is it going to be on audio? Because it makes a difference, you know?
LANCE: I hope that didn’t come off as a judgment
CORDELIA: No no no, no no no, no no. It just, I’m not taking it as a judgment.
CORDELIA: But it’s, it’s one of those things that you’re not aware of unless you’re in it, you know what I mean?
CORDELIA: And so—because some of the considerations that I had, you know. I’m aware that I’m acting as a representative of the trans community, whether or not I’m in an ideal space for it, you know, personally. You know, as I said earlier I’m still very early in my transition. You know, only about a year in, and it’s a very difficult time. There’s a lot of learning that happens all the time and I’m certain that my perspectives, some of my perspectives may change, or will change.
And so it’s this very, it’s a difficult thing to explain to people who don’t experience it. I was told at one point that trans people are really obsessed with gender. And it took me a little bit of thinking, but I came to realize that no, trans people are not obsessed with gender. The majority of trans people that I know, that I talk to, would really like to ignore it, and really like it if it just was not a thing at all. But I think, speaking personally, I’m very aware of gender.
LANCE: I think that’s where I was coming from, that idea that the preference that it were just ignored, and the societal imposition that kind of forces us to make choices based on that in order to be perceived in a certain way, or in order to avoid a certain sort of treatment or perception.
CORDELIA: Yeah, and I mean, and—it’s remarkable how gendered society is, you know? You can go—and it’s really impossible to escape. It’s a really, it feels so free and so relaxing to be in a space where it’s not considered, where it’s not talked about, where it’s not in my face. Because you can’t go to the supermarket, you know? You have men’s shaving cream, women’s shaving cream, you have, you know, I think I’ve seen, yeah, “man soap.” You know, you have, and you have all these things that get very segmented and regulated and gendered.
And the people—I think for a lot of people who are not as aware of gender and who are not as aware of gender, or not super aware of gender, the idea of what is gender gets kinda parred down. You know, a lot of cisgendered people, their view of what is gender stops at genitals. This is what gender is, and so if you’re not getting a surgery, how can you be—if you’re not getting a surgery, how can you be a woman? I don’t understand how that works, because that’s where the understanding stops. A lot of cisgendered people also have a much, have a deeper understanding—and depending on which community you are in that varies very, very widely—but even people, even my sister and her friends who are extremely supportive, who are part of the queer community, don’t understand a lot of those subtleties. And I say “subtleties”—they don’t feel like subtleties from my end, but I understand that from somebody else’s perspective they can be seen as very subtle, because society is so inundated with gender. Because society is so kind of filled to the brim with it, that how can you…? It’s easy to become blind to it. And it’s easy to walk down the aisle and not see everything that’s been gendered. You know what I mean?
LANCE: Yeah, I have a three-year old and we went to the Nike store the other day and he walked down the aisle and he goes, “those are boys’ shoes, those are girls’ shoes, those are men’s shoes, those are women’s shoes.” And I go, oh my gawd, and I said, “why?” “Well, those ones are pink, and those ones are purple.” And then he identified a food truck as a female food truck because it was black. I said, “why is, why is black a girl color?” He goes, “I don’t know, it just is.” And I don’t know where these have come from. I have a pink sparkle drum set. I have pink Converse. I don’t, I’ve never told him that anything is anything specific, and I—he goes to daycare and I assume that’s where he got it—but, but yes. And this was not even in a section where things were divided by gender. But from such a young age he’s already making divisions that are not based on body, that are not based on voice, on pronoun, he’s making, he’s made decisions, that he’s gotten from somewhere in society based on color, and those, I know that those apply—I know that he has formed other ideas based on, hair, based on eyes, based on shape and form, and at his age not yet genitals, but, because I don’t think children his age understand—like when you tell a boy—no, he said, he saw a girl, “where’s her penis?” And I said, “she doesn’t have a penis, she has a vagina.” “But where’s her penis?” Like, he doesn’t get—
LISA: That’s not a marker of gender for him yet.
LANCE: No, it’s not. Not at all. Things like pink and purple and, in his mind, black and gray are. So yeah, I see that as well and I struggle not to, not to fight it because I don’t want it to become a point of contention, but to, but, with my children I try to share my perspective—
LANCE: —hoping that, hoping that they will develop their own independent perspectives. I would like them to be close to mine, but I think if you, with them, if you try to force the issue, children are often so contrary that they, they’ll just go against whatever you say for awhile.
LISA: On the flip side, I’ve also seen little kids that are just like, “oh, okay. Like, that’s fine.”
LISA: Yeah, which is like—
LANCE: That’s my other son. Yeah.
LISA: —which I think, when you’re talking about young ages, though, I think, on a macro level then, bringing that back out to like, what is the world: I was having a conversation, we were at the Theater Communications Group Conference last week, and me and two friends did a conversation on, on like transgender, non-conforming, and non-binary inclusion. And the three of us and the facilitators were having a conversation afterwards, and we were just talking about, there’s this thing that you’re taught from a really young age that the worst thing you can—which is ironic, right?—cuz you’re taught from a very young age that the worst thing you can do is misgender a cis person as not cis.
LISA: Which is, like the more I think about it, the more I’m like, that’s so weird! That like from like very young ages like, you’ll see adults correct like, “no, no, no, no, that’s this.” And you’re like, “you didn’t ask that person, you made”—
CORDELIA: It’s, you know and it’s, you say it’s the worst thing, being told it’s the worst thing you can do to a cis person—but it’s the worst thing you can do to a trans person, too.
LISA: But I, it’s—
CORDELIA: In that, in that realm. I should say, it’s not any better.
LISA: Yeah. But it’s just interesting the disconnect for that, cuz I’m just like, it feels like this shouldn’t be that weird for people, because—I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about that more and more lately, like, like how much gendered markers are taught and so as we get older people don’t unlearn that. Like.
CORDELIA: I mean, and you can speak cuz I don’t have any children, but, when your child is very young and people who you’re meeting or introducing your child to, I mean, how often do they ask, “is it a boy or a girl?” And it’s something that gets asked so—even before the child is born—
ERIC: Of the child.
CORDELIA: Yeah. Do you know if the child is—are you having a boy or a girl? I don’t know. Wait until they’re 12 or 13. We’ll ask. [GROUP LAUGHS]
CORDELIA: But, you know, and it’s, you know, it starts immediately, you know. And you see, you know, you see, here’re the cards for a boy, here’re the cards for a girl, here’s the—oh, are you having a girl? Let me get you a bunch of pink baby stuff. And so it happens just from the get-go. And the more, kind of, aware of all of this I become, the more places I see it. You know? And I’m talking pretty overt displays. We’re not talking about, this sign is masculine because of x, y, z. There’s not a lot of interpretation. It’s just, this is what they’re doing.
CORDELIA: They introduced loofahs marketed to men.
LISA: That’s what I was gonna talk about! [LAUGH]
CORDELIA: They introduced them more than once.
CORDELIA: And the first time they did I think they changed the color and that was it.
CORDELIA: And maybe they got somebody who’s called a Latherizer, but, and it disappeared. It never went anywhere. And if you look at what they’ve got as loofahs for men that they market to men now, it’s like the Scrubifier 9000.
LISA: It looks like a tire around the edge of it.
CORDELIA: It’s kind of like the idea of, we’re going to take something that a lot of people view as feminine and we’re going to remove as much as we can. We’re going to make you as comfortable, make this feel as much of a man thing as possible. And I think that that, a lot of discomfort starts at such an early age for people because it’s, this is man, this is what man does, this is women, this is what women do. And for the vast majority of people who are viewed consistently and from the get-go and their entire lives as the gender that they feel, you know, it’s clearly a jarring thing for them, too. Because you give a lot of men a pink, fluffy, rose-scented loofah and a lot of people, a lot of men have trouble with that. And I don’t know whether that’s a homophobia thing, a transphobia thing, or whether that’s feeling like this is, this is a woman thing, this isn’t me. I’m not a woman. This is a woman thing.
LANCE: And I think in that there’s, those people who would say that have an idea that, that “woman” is a bad thing. That, there’s this perception that, that oh, don’t do that cuz women do that and when you say that the implication is that, somehow, 50% of the world is bad and something that you don’t want to be.
CORDLEIA: Yeah, well.
LANCE: Which I think is a fundamental problem.
CORDELIA: And I think it’s interesting that you see a lot more—I’ve noticed a lot more products being masculinized—
CORDELIA: —than I see being feminized. And it’s not to say you don’t see a lot of products being feminized, and I often see them being derided after, you know, what the hell is this girl’s tool kit? This is a useless piece of crap. And I don’t know—and that maybe, I think that you might have hit on a good point there.
ERIC: I think we’re bringing this down to a close now. [GROUP LAUGHS] Yes, here we go. So.
LANCE: Steer the ship.
ERIC: Yeah, I know. Let me make a directorial decision right now. You know, I think, that—this has been amazing. This is exactly what—maybe not exactly, because I don’t know what I was expecting—but, this is great, this is fantastic. This is gonna, this has been our very first Continuing Conversation of what we hope will be many, many, many more. And I just wanna say that, you know, I think partly, I’m just inspired by all of you. I’m inspired by your willingness to participate in this conversation, and I’m inspired by your willingness to interrogate the kind of, the world that we live in and to really sort of put out there and be unafraid in putting out there that there are choices that we make that can be harmful and can be complicated, and that even in those choices, like—we can make choices that are harmful or complicated but that we should be responsible for those choices that we make. So Cordelia, Lance, Lisa, thank you so very, very much. Do you have anything you want to add?
CORDELIA: There was one thing, going back aways—we kind of got into a few side conversations and tangents and spirals and etcetera. It’s when you were talking about race and you brought up, there’s kind of the idea of race blindness. And, there was some conversation early on before that, too, about gender blindness, about making the audience kind of, getting to the point where the audience doesn’t see gender, and, I mean, there’s—that can be very erasing, too. Speaking personally, as a trans woman, there’s a lot of history there. Personally, historically, community-wise, societally, there’s a lot of history there. And I’m always a little bit hesitant when people say, you know…To completely ignore that gender is also to ignore that history.
CORDELIA: And to ignore the part of me and the person—the identity and the part of me that is that history and is everything that’s been built upon and everything that has been experienced, and it’s, I don’t, I’m not always comfortable with the idea of trying to completely erase. I think that it’s—it’s a very different thing I think to kind of provoke thought on the topic, or provoke, you know, why is this gender this way? Why do we think of this as a masculine thing and that as a feminine thing? Why is it that when we talk about a surgeon, people assume male and when we talk about a nurse, people assume female? And all of that. But to compl—to erase it, is—it’s got to deny that identity too.
ERIC: I mean, I think—I mean, I think—I mean that’s, you’re right. I mean, I think—I rebel against all erasure and I rebel against blindness. I mean, I think blindness is, I mean I think it’s important to acknowledge the blindness that we have, individually and independently, because we all have our own personal, like, we’re blind in our own ways.
ERIC: Not intentionally but because of how we’re raised, because of what, where our sensitivities lie, because of what our gaze is, right? Because our gaze is—but I am also, but I also believe fervently that this idea of large containers is past. That we’re not in a space anymore where like the male gaze is enough of a container to actually explain the world, that there are many small containers within that container, and many small containers without that container, and how do we, as an organization, as an institution, as an art form, and as, you know, a civic organization, right, acknowledge that?
I mean “breaking the binary” is the phrase that we’ve been using around here, but I’ve always been… in love with the… kind of diaspora of the world. That there is sort of—I am so many different pieces of an identity, and I come from so many different places, and I’ve never felt like an insider anywhere, in part because even the things that are overtly who I am place me on the outside of many, many communities.
And so to the extent that this action here even is an effort to do the very opposite of what you’re talking about, which is—this is our response to erasure, this is our response to blindness. A small effort even like this, do you know? But hopefully it’s an impulse that—hopefully it’s an impulse that will be reflected in all of our work. You know, even and perhaps most importantly when we come upon those really, really challenging choices that lie ahead. They’re easy choices that we can make, there are many of them, but I think as a classical theater, as a classical theater, as you said, right, that like our work at least the work we are currently doing, right, you know, has lots of problematic images and lots of problematic sort of manifestations in his work that feel dated, that feel old, that feel from a different time, that feel blunt, that feel coarse, that feel ignorant. We don’t as an institution, and I suspect we don’t as artists—I know few artists that work with malice of intention. I think there are artists who provoke and I think provocation is important. Like I think provocation is part of how our craft has had impact historically, do you know, that the craft of theater has been unafraid to make dangerous choices to force an audience to see something in themselves. To really force an audience to ask the question, why are we laughing at this moment?