home Arts & Literature, GLBTQI, Theater Exploring gender identity at the Trans Theatre Festival

Exploring gender identity at the Trans Theatre Festival

For nearly a decade and a half, The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has been a hub of cutting edgy innovation. (Just check out my interview with Mariah MacCarthy about last year’s inaugural F*ckfest.) And 2016 is no exception. For this summer’s Trans Theatre Festival, running June 7-26, co-curators Maybe Burke (a director/choreographer/writer/performer/trans advocate) and MJ Kaufman (a longtime playwright and recent Yale School of Drama MFA graduate) have put together an incredibly eclectic lineup, everything from plays to docs, to paintings to web series – all conceived by trans artists.

I spoke with the duo a few weeks before the festival’s (free) cabaret preview and opening party on June 7th.

Lauren Wissot: So how did you come up with the idea for this fest? Was this a concept that had been brewing in your minds for some time?

Maybe Burke: I can’t speak to the initial impulse, as the idea of the festival was brought to me. When (Brick Theater co-founder and artistic director) Michael Gardner approached me, however, it was with a very loose idea for a festival that he asked for us to shape as curators. That’s when we decided not to have a “trans-themed” festival, but a festival full of trans artists. I didn’t want to force people to come in and talk about being trans, or allow cis people to project their assumptions onto trans stories. We’ve had enough of that. Instead, I was interested in cultivating a space for trans artists to exist and create in a venue where we could share our talents together.

MJ Kaufman: Yes. Some artists around town had been talking for a bit about having a festival when Michael approached us. We felt that our current political moment was making it seem like trans people were a new hot topic, when in fact we have been a valuable part of theater communities for a long time. A great deal of work on trans subjects is not actually authored by trans-people, and we believe this can lead to harmful stereotypes. So it was important for us to curate a festival of trans artists writing, directing, and performing our own stories.

A still from CHASING BLUE, featuring a person lying in a bathtub.

LW: According to the press notes your lineup includes not only theater pieces, but also dance and film, not to mention visual art and web series (along with some educational programming and a panel discussion on trans issues in the theater scene). How did you find such a wide variety of artists working in these various mediums?

MB: Honestly, word of mouth. We put out a call for trans artists. There are multiple groups on social media focused on queer and trans artists, so I put the information into posts there. Some folks reached out to me and asked, “Would you be interested in something like this?” To which my reply was always, “Submit and we’ll figure it out!” I think we have a lovely sampling of what trans artists in New York have to share.

A still from FABLES, featuring a person writhing on a stage.

LW: Ironically, I was just in North Carolina, to cover the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the RiverRun International Film Festival back-to-back, right as the HB2 boycott began. Thrillingly, though, I made some incredible LGBTQ discoveries, including films that showcased trans stories from marginalized perspectives, both urban (“Kiki,” about NYC’s youth ball culture) and rural (“Deep Run,” about an evangelical trans man in small town NC). Are there any particular shows in the lineup that you feel shine a light on lesser-known aspects of the trans community?

MB: The best thing about this festival, for me, is the range of storytelling we have. We have stories from 1948 masked crime-fighters in Charles Battersby’s “The Astonishing Adventures of All American Girl & The Scarlet Skunk,” to a mouse ruining your life in Taylor Edelhart and Dawn Graves’ “Mouse,” for which gender identity is not the subject.

We have teenagers being stripped of their identities when institutionalized in Jackson Torii Bart’s new musical “These Missing Parts.” Ashley Lauren Rogers speaks to the problems with passing in her “Pass/Fail” – while we learn about the necessity of displacement for some peoples’ identity formation in Ariel Zetina’s “British Honduras Fantasy.” I think every piece has a comment about a topic that isn’t often addressed in the mainstream coverage of trans lives, including the pieces where trans identity barely comes up at all.

MJK: Well said! I am also particularly excited about Maybe’s gorgeously moving “Love Letters to Nobody,” a meditation on identity, trauma and desire.

Maybe Burke in LOVE LETTERS.

LW: Were you concerned with striking a balance between trans-male, trans-female and non-binary identified artists and topics showcased? And perhaps also with lighthearted vs. more serious-minded shows?

MB: Honestly, no. The thought didn’t even cross my mind until now. I think we have a spread of identities that happened organically, but being that I didn’t know all the applicants, I did not want to assume or ask anyone’s identity in order for them to be considered. I just wanted to invite people to tell stories.

As for lighthearted vs. serious, I was thrilled that we had such an array to work with. Including a number of pieces that tackle both throughout.

MJK: I think we lucked out in terms of the range of forms, subjects and individuals who submitted. We talked about how to ask about trans-ness in the application, and settled on a question that was like, “How many members of your team identify as trans?” or something like that.

A still from MOUSE, featuring a person standing on stage holding a fake mouse.

LW: Finally, there have been quite a few lesbian and gay theater festivals over the years, so I’m wondering where you see your Trans Theater Festival fitting in. Is this a response to feeling sidelined within the larger lesbian and gay theater scene – or simply an addition to the rainbow community?

MB: I would say a large reason this festival excited me was because of my history with generally “queer” festivals. Every summer for the last few years, I participate in some sort of festival advertised for the LGBTIPQQA communities. They tend to rise over the summer so they can be linked to Pride events. However, recently I’ve noticed that these festivals say “LGBT” when the lineup really looks like “GGGme.”

There are so many identities and stories to be told, but I’m constantly seeing the queer narrative dominated by white cis gay men. Then they bring in a few lesbians and a token trans person so they’ve covered their bases. I was really excited to participate in something where I wasn’t alone – a festival that was a token among other festivals. Not where I was the token among other artists.

MJK: Yes, I feel exactly the same way. Sadly, often spaces that are LGBT can have few or no trans-people involved. We wanted to center our own voices and stories.

Images courtesy Trans Theatre Festival.