Sheri Sanders and Christopher Castanho decided to team up and co-write a series of articles surrounding "tricky to discuss, but necessary" social topics through the lens of Student and Teacher in the Musical Theatre community called "Musical Theatre: The Wild Side".
For their second article, Christopher and Sheri met with two groups to discuss gender identity within Musical Theatre. After having an eye-opening and educational experience, they decided to split up this topic in two parts, allowing the many perspectives surrounding gender in Theatre to be discussed in further detail.
In this second part, Christopher and Sheri discuss the topic of Gender Diversity within the professional world with three artists that have special ties to the industry regarding gender diversity. The pair spoke to Casting Director Kate Lumpkin, Designated Linklater Voice Teacher Christine Adaire, and Shakina Nayfack who is a Trans activist and actress currently on the Hulu series “Difficult People.”
Sheri: What do we need to do to take care of the actor, support the casting/production end, so we can break down this ideology that there’s only “male” and “female” characters, and leave roles open for who is correct for the part?
Christopher: It’s funny because I was on Backstage.com’s casting notices and noticed a new audition filter which I’d never seen before. Within the gender options there is now a “transgender” category, in addition to the token “male” and “female” boxes. It makes me curious if the industry is becoming more aware of this idea when there are more artists coming into the audition room as their genuine self.
Sheri: Clearly people are starting to showing up authentically and there are many colors on the spectrum. As Oliver said in our previous conversation, he identifies as a male- and will audition as a male, not a trans male. If he is asked, he’ll share that info, and if there is an audition for a trans male, he will go in. Sav identifies as gender fluid, and wants to play everything because they can be anything as an actor, being as malleable as clay. These are two different kinds of people who are gender- diverse but don’t intend to identify as Transgender. Shakina you identify as a Trans woman. So for clarity for our readers, Oliver, Sav, and Shakina are all gender-diverse musical theatre actors. None of which identify the same way. Shakina, as your peer in the community, I got to watch you come into yourself. Can you share that process with us in terms of how you live as a musical theatre actress today?
Shakina: Making the transition to my authentic self was strategic, once I was in an environment where I could have the support i needed. I built professional relationships as an Artistic Director and Director, and lead with my artistry first. Then I said “Oh, by the way, this is happening.” And as I made the transition to my authentic self, I also became what I alway wanted to be: An actress. I had never wanted to be an actor.
Sheri: When I first met you, I coached you on repertoire- and my feedback was I want you to play everyone. Gay women, straight women, gay men, straight men, lesbians. Have you spoken to the industry about that, and do you fear you will ONLY be breaking ground as a trans actress playing trans characters, like Lola, your character on Difficult People?
Shakina: I present differently day to day. I am a transgender woman in real life - but my abilities as an performer are not limited to that. I have 30 years of life experience as a male-bodied person, so why not use that in my craft? I want to be able to play female and male, and my agents are very aware of that.
Kate: Yes, because I remember you auditioned for the team at Fox for a pilot. For a female character.
Shakina: Yes, just a woman who was a badass chick!
Kate: Yes, we got a push email from your agent, and I really fought for your audition!
Everyone: Screaming, Cheering, Oh My God! etc.
Kate: At that point I was just a casting assistant and the team didn’t really know who you were so I pitched you hard.
Sheri: What a wonderful moment!
Shakina: Thank you for that.
Kate: Give credit to your agency. They submitted you for a part that said nothing on the breakdown, besides, “female, 30s.”
Sheri : Shakina, as a performer who is actively auditioning - how would you like to see the language to change?
Shakina: You know there’s a trend in breakdowns to say “all ethnicities- looking for diverse casting”. However, they are still gendered... So can they also say “female identified” or “male identified”? Then the swath that casting directors can look at is much wider than ”girl 20s” We need to look more at how people identify, rather than how they are assigned.
Sheri: Shakina do you also feel characters should be “female identified” and “male identified?” Brian Kremer mentioned last week he'd love to have Casting people look at the break down and say, if this character sounds like you, awesome, come on in and i'll see you.”
Shakina: I think the reason writers create gender-specific characters is the same reason they create racially-specific or age-specific characters: There is an experience and a history that the writer is hoping to capture, an experience and a history that is part of the larger story they are telling. That said, if we're talking about smaller roles that don't require specific experiences or histories to contribute to the storytelling, then yeah, why not say “this role is open to anyone who is quick witted and snarky” for example, or “we need someone grounded and wise,” then let the actors do their work to bring those qualities, as opposed to using gender or racial identity as the marker. I think that could work as long as the casting and creative teams are still vocal about their commitment to diversity, otherwise you could end up with a bunch of white, cisgender men saying “I can play anything!”
Kate: Also, is there a way to create language that feels inclusive in the breakdown? Especially if there is a central trans character, so there’s a consciousness around it?
Shakina : You need to make sure there is someone trans as a consultant to educate the casting and creative team. That would really help. Then I could just be an actor and not do double duty. What they can do is write in the “tweet” that you get for a character description something that qualifies the character depth of the trans role. Making them a three dimensional person is good for the trans actor to make them feel thought of.
Kate: It goes beyond casting though- casting teams are trying so hard to get people in the rooms. I believe, most are doing everything they can. And I believe that casting has grown and changed so much in the last five years. It’s not up to us ultimately. It’s the producers and studio heads --- The people with the money. Right now, we can bring people into the room in hopes others will see beyond what has been established for so long. But I believe this issue is systematic.
Shakina: I’m all for art makers but trans inclusion is actually profitable. We need risky producers. LGBT viewers make up a considerable population, it’s a huge aspect of viewership. There are ways that you can demonstrate profit -with numbers. So we do need to balance the conversation between this holistic side, the political activism side, and the numbers because right now numbers may be all that certain people can see. Not only is it important in social change, but this creates financial growth of your property and you stay at the forefront of what cultural attitudes are demanding.
Christopher: Shakina, What do you think of non-trans people playing trans characters?
Shakina: There are a few schools of thought- it’s very political situation because trans people are systematically disadvantaged in every other platform in this country, so to look at a TV or stage or a movie screen and see an actual trans actor representing trans people is part of what we need to do to normalize our presence. Theres also an argument put forth by Jen Richards, creator of “Her Story”: that seeing cis-male actors playing trans women perpetuates an ideology that trans women are just men pretending to be women which empowers violence against them in the real world. That’s a strong argument. Also Laverne Cox says she wouldn’t want to limit any actors ability to step inside a juicy role. Maybe we need to get to the point politically that it’s not a high stakes decision. Trans people are working so hard for housing, healthcare, education, police violence, so we can’t participate in the erasure of trans people.
Sheri: We have to grab the “trend” use all of our platforms as teachers, CD, Directors, Artistic Directors Producers, allies, and level the playing field. We should all play everyone's everything, yes. But first we need to create equal footing. That’s our responsibility.
Shakina: The more we can normalize our presence by introducing actors in non- trans-specific roles we CAN level the playing field.
Christine: - There’s a really interesting thing happening in Chicago right now - I’m connected to the theatre world.
Sheri: You’ve worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Old Globe, Milwaukee Repertory, Guthrie Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare, Goodman, Steppenwolf, AND dialect coach for the Broadway production of MARY POPPINS as well as the 1st and 2nd National Tours. I mean, hello. No slouching for you!
Christine: Well, there’s a Coalition of transgender and gender non-conforming, gender-diverse, gender-fluid actors organized by an amazing actress in town- Delia Kropp- this woman is a powerhouse. Recently, I was the dialect coach on I Am My Own Wife with Delia as the main character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Delia is the first transgender actor to play this role. Delia has organized MANY transgender and gender non- conforming actors in the city. They approached ALL the major theaters, casting directors, producers, agents -she’s relentless- The Goodman Theatre hosted this meeting in November. EVERYONE was there. Artistic reps from Steppenwolf, the Goodman, and smaller theatres like The House Theatre- it was amazing. They had a panel, and talked about inclusion and created an ongoing discussion. And it was one person who got this going. And so the question is: How can we create inclusion in casting and re-envision theatre and how we’re casting it? There’s an Artistic Director named Will Davis- a trans man- and he’s directing Picnic at the American Theater Company. The casting is not what you would expect. This is an iconic 1950s American play, and the actress playing Millie is played by a trans woman. She’s tall and in her 20s. Hal is being played by a cis gender female, Rosemary by a cis gender male, Madge by a non binary actor. All expectations of how the casting--
Sheri: --Are thrown out the window. That’s because Chicago theatre isn’t afraid. There is no fear. You are collectively working from a need to be artistically expressive and make change in the world with theatre- not from a fear of not making money. This is why Chicago theatre is way cooler than NY Theatre.
Christine: And it’s not easy. But it’s happening in small ways. Another issue came up in this meeting in November. There were several plays done at the Goodman and other prominent theatres that had transgender roles that were cast cis gender. The trans community questioned the casting. There were also questions about some of those trans characters and how they were represented. The larger issue is what are what are the stories we are trying to tell? I’m honored to be an advocate and an ally in this conversation.
Sheri : Christine, how did you become a director and voice teacher that decided to be an advocate and ally? Not everyone is thoughtful in this way.
Christine: It was Oliver. I’ve been a Linklater voice teacher for 30 years. The Linklater voice work is about learning the way to let who you are come out through your voice.
Christopher: What’s that like working with a student who identifies as transgender? Someone who is going through a lot to present their authentic self.
Christine: It’s gratifying!!!! It’s about expressing yourself, who you are. Who we are is expressed by how we present physically and the voice is a mirror. I never thought about it. I was never aware of coaching someone who was transgender before. So three years ago I met Oliver. And he opened my heart, I knew he was trans. I assigned my students to write a poem to their voice, and Oliver came out to his class in that assignment. It was amazing, it was emotional. It changed the direction of my teaching and opened my eyes to a whole other community. I’ve learned from him. I want him to play any role he wants. To walk in and identify as male, or trans male, to get that part. I want to help him become more confident. So I’ve been training for the last few years with speech pathologists to learn more about the transgender voice and how it is affected by gender transition.
Kate: So on that subject - someone reached out to audition for a male track for a show I was working on, who at the time identified as trans man but now identifies as genderfluid. This is someone who had auditioned for this team as a woman previously and they are wonderful. So I sent an appointment email which also asked, “What are your preferred pronouns?”- so the language could be healthy and helpful in the room. I was shocked to find that was the first time anyone in the industry had asked them that. Since not everyone has the opportunity to have this conversation prior to an appointment, I would love to see preferred pronouns on a resume. Right on top. Especially for seniors in college who are just moving to the city --- who most Casting Directors have never met. What a simple and effective way to educate a team. It sets everyone up to feel comfortable and creates a safe space for everyone involved. What other tools would be helpful for both people behind the table and walking into the audition room?
Shakina : What the Public Theater did right with Southern Comfort was that they made the sides available in 7 different keys. When they emailed out the sides they sent dropbox files with every vocal range. The role of Carly could be any kind of trans person.
Sheri: Kate, please share with us what an actor can do to make themselves clear to the creative team. What kind of material should they be preparing?
Kate: Whatever you prepare, it must feel like your most authentic voice. It is not enough to say, “This is what is in my book, this is what I’m trained to do and I don’t know what else to do right now.” If there are requirements to meet, you have to show up and meet them. You have to show up as where, who, and what you are today. So your material needs to match that.
Sheri: Your book has to transition.
Shakina- Yes. you’re gonna have to put auditioning aside a few weeks and get rep from Sheri, go to the Lincoln Center Library, get ideas from your friends and ask, “How do you see me now? How do I feel right now?” Leave what we were given at school, and find material that lets the team see what you are identifying as.
Christine: Yes... What are the qualities that you embody?
Kate: I say this to my private coaching clients all the time. Every audition is an opportunity to show the creative team who you are and how you bring your specific worldview to the text you’ve been given. Sometimes what we see or notice isn’t even specifically for the show you are coming in for. We ask,”Who is this human and how do we see them?” So we can bring them in for the next thing that is right for them. Your voice has to match who you feel like, so you show us how best to serve you in the future.
Christine: It takes a lot of courage to show who you are.
Kate: But isn’t that the art form?
Shakina It is, it’s important, and it’s super scary to do.
Kate: That’s what we want to pay $200 to see!
Christine: It’s difficult for everyone. To have the courage and confidence to be who you are and not your parents idea of who you should be.
Sheri: But the courage to stand in front of people who don’t understand you. people have no sense of what they are experiencing and how to process you. Being in that -takes a superhero courage.
Shakina: Well, the conditions could fuck you up. I have a friend, They were on a call for the Rent tour - and there were no gender neutral changing rooms- and they thought, where do I go? The waiting room, rest room also need to be safe spaces, so you get a better presentation in the room. I don’t think actors need to be babied. But whatever the team can do to make it easy for a trans actor to be their whole selves, you will see a better performance because they won’t be psychologically occupied.
Christine: Well, one of the first steps for inclusion is on applications- college for example. Male, female, or OTHER, non- binary. I can’t imagine what it’s like to not have a box to check off. Thats where we start to make the artist feel like they are seen and nurtured.
Sheri: Thank you everyone for contributing to the way things are changing and still need to change in our professional community.
Sheri and Christopher hope that this is only the beginning of a greater discussion that needs to be had about gender diversity and education on gender within Musical Theatre.
Special thanks to Liz Jackson Hearns, Brian Kremer, Oliver Rotunno, Savannah Souza, Kate Lumpkin, Christine Adaire, and Shakina Nayfack who were open and honest enough to share their perspectives.
Want to talk with Christopher and Sheri about some important topics? Click here to get in touch.
Future Topics will include Mental Illness and the young actor in Musical Theatre, and Diversity in Musical Theatre Education. Be sure to follow their blog: MTWildSide.Wordpress.com for new articles coming soon.