Why Does Seattle’s Regional and Fringe Theater Scene Ignore Trans/Gender Nonconforming People?

By: Nelle Tankus


Representation matters. When a person sees themselves reflected, there is a kind of affirmation in knowing that they exist to a world other than their own. When a person knows they are not alone they can (even in small capacities) understand that their story is needed, that someone else may need to witness that story just as much as they did. Especially for transgender people, who are historically underrepresented on stage, it can be life-changing to see someone like them creating art and thriving. So… why does it happen so little?

“I grew up in a traditional Filipino household, which also meant that my family was what I call, ‘aggressively Catholic’. So, the first play I saw was Passion of the Christ. I did not see myself in this play at all,” says Ebo Barton, poet and co-playwright of Rising Up, which has its world premiere at Gay City Arts on May 11th. “I was about 7 years old. I knew that I was supposed to think this was important, I knew I was supposed to pay attention, but I wasn't really sure where the representation of me was supposed to be (if there was supposed to be one). I think these are ways in which we start to believe this idea that we are unimportant. That there will always be something greater than us that "deserves" to be seen. Isn't this a form of basic discrimination? Making us appear to be so different and so absurd that not only does the "general population" believe it, but we do too? We see this in politics and economics all the time, we are erased from data, public conversation and from decision making. And we see it in mainstream art. The folks that represent us in mainstream art either are played by cis-het folks with a ‘groundbreaking’ performance that is not right because they have not one single clue about the experience.”

In this essay, I will focus on productions or workshops of narrative plays written by transgender and gender nonconforming people (TGNC) in the Seattle regional theater (a professional or semi-professional company that produces it’s own seasons) and fringe theater (the former, but with little/no money) scene. It’s also important to acknowledge that even cisgender heterosexual Black/Indigenous/People of Color (BIPOC) are grossly underrepresented in the theater world, and that I’m definitely not the first person to write about representation in theater. My goal is to speak on what I experience directly, address systemic issues, and provide potential solutions.

From Playbill to The New York Times, the subject of TGNC representation in regional/fringe theater has been discussed into the ground. Much of these conversations revolve around having access to resources such as whiteness and a college education (read: Master’s degree) and/or living in New York City. Theater schools train actors to be a blank canvas (i.e. white, thin, gender-conforming, able-bodied, speaking a “Neutral American dialect”) and though these qualifications may lead (mostly white trans masculine) folks to get acting jobs, who is left out? How can the depth of TGNC experience truly be represented when there are so many gatekeepers, as if there aren’t enough barriers keeping TGNC people locked out of theater spaces?

It’s not surprising that Seattle theatre companies will go great lengths to cast “gender neutral” but refuse to produce anything by a TGNC playwright or cast TGNC actors, and if they do they’re mostly white. Case in point: between the years 2012 and 2016, three written plays produced at regional/fringe theaters in the Seattle area were written by trans and/or gender nonconforming people. Two of them were by me (I’m a white trans woman); Fantastic.Z produced Sidewinders by Basil Kreimendahl (white trans masculine). DangerSwitch has generated three original shows, of which were worked on by two gender nonconforming white people. 2017 (finally) brought Seattle Three Americans, which had an excerpt from South Asian trans masculine Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Draw the Circle, and Rising Up by Ebo Barton (Black/Filipino trans/genderqueer person) and Sarah Rosenblatt (white/Chinese cis woman). We can’t talk about TGNC representation without acknowledging how they intersect with class, race, and ability.

When the track record for representation in Seattle is so dismal, it’s no wonder there aren’t TGNC people showing up to auditions. Even if they do, it’s for plays written by non-trans people like one I saw at the Seattle Rep Writer’s Group showcase last year, in which a trans character was a side role whose purpose was to be a sounding board for their cisgender partner’s transphobic anguish over them no longer being a cis lesbian. Of course this happens, but when it becomes about the cisgender character’s feelings, it sucks. Why would I pay too much money to see a play if I’m just going to be tokenized or made to speak for a larger TGNC community that I can’t represent? On top of that, networking is universally miserable, made even worse when someone constantly misgenders/deadnames me, or when I have to listen to another white cis het woman telling me how brave I am, or how I look “sparkly”, or how a cis woman is wearing pants which makes her so cool, or when I’m the only transgender woman in the room, or when I have to decide between paying a bill or seeing a Strawberry Theatre Workshop play. I’m frequently exhausted navigating theater spaces, and my white privilege protects me from the racism/anti-Black violence that non-white TGNC experience in the same spaces. Because of the cissexism, white supremacy, classism, and ableism rampant in regional/fringe theater spaces, TGNC people have created their own institutions that center their work, or abandon traditional theater altogether. Perhaps that’s why other writing/performance mediums such as slam poetry and experimental theater have a more diverse representation of TGNC voices: there’s typically more agency in how a story is told.

But for some TGNC folks, solely creating their own institutions doesn’t address the whole problem. “ [...] There are a few folks who don't care about this idea or system and that is great. But with folks like myself, who have lived so many lives believing I had to live in this box of shame and invisibility, seeing Trans people create stages, build worlds in which other Trans folks can be represented, seen and portrayed in true and positive light, gave me permission to do the same,” says Barton.

So, If Seattle regional/fringe theater wants to actually do better in terms of representing TGNC playwrights and leadership, there need to be actions taken towards equity. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got a few ideas.

First off, invest in TGNC people, centering the work and leadership of BIPOC TGNC people. I’ve been fortunate enough to primarily work with fringe theaters like Annex Theatre and Copious Love Productions and playwright’s groups like Parley who don’t have so many requirements before a person can produce a play, but I know that’s not the case with larger theaters that can actually pay a living wage. What would the theater world would look like if theaters invested in TGNC people’s lives and all kinds of stories instead of just what they think is worthy? What if Seattle Repertory Theatre and ACT took the time to look for plays written by TGNC playwrights and produced them on the main stage? Better yet, what if theaters shifted power to Black/Indigenous/POC TGNC leadership? What if regional and fringe theaters actually took the time to look for TGNC playwrights and produce a whole season of BIPOC TGNC people? If you’re not going to do that, then at the very least you should give money to Seattle organizations like Gay City Arts, who are already doing the work.

Secondly, try for “radical hospitality” tickets. Theatre, like most art forms, is funded by a base of subscribers and donors, of which theaters attempt to appease in order to stay afloat. “The system has been built to generate money [...] so it’s been really ingrained in us, there’s no in-between [...]” says Eva Estrada-Campos, an actress in her Sophomore year at Cornish College of the Arts. Radical Hospitality ticketing seeks to remove the financial barriers that keep lower-income communities out of artistic spaces. Mixed Blood theatre in Minneapolis is widely known for this free first-come first-serve ticketing system, and theatres such as Gay City Arts have adapted it to their needs to remove as many financial barriers to the arts as possible. If it’s not clear already, I love Gay City Arts. Regional and fringe theaters in Seattle need to follow them if they aren’t already because they can all learn a thing or two.

Gay City Arts has a season chosen by a curating council made up of queer and trans folks, majority QTPOC (Queer/Trans People of Color). Gay City Arts has a much larger umbrella of what can be constituted as “theater”, employing burlesque, slam poetry, film, plays and even non-theater things like clothing swaps for TGNC folks. They have affordable ticket prices (including “radical hospitality” tickets), and a diverse season that centers art by queer and trans artists of color. One of the events I’m most excited about is Rising Up, written by Ebo Barton and Sarah Rosenblatt. Rising Up Is about Ocean, a Black trans woman leaving a long term relationship and re-entering queer community through living at a co-op house in the Central District. What I loved about this play was that it showed queer and trans people as complicated, wrong sometimes, doing the absolute best they can to be humans, centering a Black trans woman at the center of the story. It’s a story of navigating complicated relationships, what “community” even is, displacement, queer ancestry, trying to figure out how to love each other, how the gentrification of the Central District affects queer/trans communities of color, and so many other things. I’m going to see it opening night. Are you?