Thinking Beyond Social Constructs: Examples of How Playwrights Encourage Genuine Discussion

As a queer playwright—I identify as transgender (gender fluid/gender nonconforming) and sexually fluid—I appreciate how theatre allows playwrights to explore topics, particularly a myriad of social and cultural commentaries, especially where those topics intersect one another.

Theatre is fearless. It welcomes and embraces this exploration of intersectionality. In that vein, I write work that is not “safe” or mainstream. All of my work explores such areas as the intersections between sex work, age, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation and “normalcy”. I write it in a comical manner that maintains respect for the subject of the story while adding to the poignancy of the topic. I write from my perspective as a queer person who wishes to present her work in the most accessible format possible without sounding preachy or angry. That vehicle, that method of delivery is comedy. It doesn’t matter if people agree with me or not. The goal is to open a dialog about these topics and to do so in the least threatening of ways: through humor.

BOUND BY LOVE

For example, Bound by Love addresses several social/cultural matters. The most prominent are the intersections between transgender life, sex work, sexuality, race, age and kink. The show looks at how we are all, essentially, the same whether we wish to admit it or not. It considers how we all have private and public lives and that our private lives aren’t all that different. The characters are a rainbow of races and ages and sexualities and genders to show how none of these matter in the grandest scheme. We are all a little bit kinky; it’s true.

The dialog I hope people will have after seeing Bound by Love is about the realization that with the obvious exception of sex trafficking, sex workers choose to work in the field. They fully understand the business. There’s nothing wrong with sex work. It’s simply another job. And sex is something nearly every human has. It’s beautiful. It’s not something we should be ashamed of. But at the same time, I want the audience to realize we also need to discuss the horror of sex trafficking.

FALLING OUT

Another one of my plays, Falling Out, explores age, gender identity and queerness in various ways. Following an older male bodies gender fluid person. The story, based on my life and experiences, addresses the hardships older professionals face coming out. Most older people—40 and up—grew up in a world without the words to describe themselves. “Transgender” is a reasonably old term, but it doesn’t describe everyone. It hasn’t been until the last five or so years that “gender fluid”, “gender nonconforming”, and similar terminology has come to the rescue, allowing older queer people to find the word or words that beside describe them.

What’s often lost in the discussion about the LGBTQ community is how older queer people have a different set of issues than younger queers do. Whereas the youngest generations have significant freedom to express as they wish throughout their life, older persons face bosses they’ve worked with for decades, spouses, kids…lives they’ve built. In other words, those in their 40s and up have a great deal to lose by coming out.

Falling Out addresses the intersection between age and gender and sexual identity by contrasting the protagonists coming out with the lives of their much younger friends, a transwoman, a lesbian, a gay man and a cishet couple. My desire is to open a discussion about the difficulty of not only being “different” but having to admit to the world you’re not who it thinks you are in terms of gender and sexual identity.

TRANSITIONS

Transitions is a story dedicated to Sydney, a transgender woman who also appears in Falling Out. While they are stand-alone plays, together, they make up a genuine work of art that addresses multiple terms under the transgender umbrella. Transitions finds a transgender webcam girl trying to find her way in the world. She is friends with the characters in Falling Out but has her own rich story.

Transitions isn’t about just Sydney’s physical transition, rather it connects to the audience by showing how we are all the same in our lives, we all transition, we all face problems that force us to re-evaluate our lives and make changes, to transition to new ways of thinking, or acting, or doing. It is this intersection of life, whether transgender, cisgender or however we identify, that we all share. Life changes. The death of a child. An accident. A violent crime. All of these examples force us to re-evaluate life and transition. And for Sydney, a former Army Special Forces officer, life is about to be full of a lot more transitions than she ever thought possible.

 

The topics I write about aren’t safe. But “safe” isn’t a word typically associated with theatre; theatre openly explores controversy and places society and culture under a microscope then analyzes it within the frame of a stage and a couple hours. We see Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kinky Boots, Fences, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, The Color Purple, Rent, Miss Saigon, and every other stage play ever address some social injustice or injustices. Each address topics that overlap, that intersect other social and cultural issues. That is the beauty of theatre.

Becoming a Queer Playwright: Why I Moved to Stage Writing from TV & Film Writing

Becoming a Queer Playwright

My earliest memories of loving film and TV and stage plays and radio dramas—liking melodrama to be more precise—was racing home after elementary school to turn on the radio and trying to get a clear signal for “The Shadow”. The Shadow knows what evil lies in the heart of men. It’s part of the reason I went back to my roots, my primary love, and switched to writing stage plays rather than TV shows and films.

I loved it because I could create the scene in my head. I created a play, a movie, a TV show as I saw it, not as someone else told me it was.

That’s the greatest issue I have with TV and movies. Things aren’t that well presented as pieces of creative thought. That is, characters aren’t always correct, portrayed properly. They get the wrong actor or actress, the wrong something, they change key aspects of a story. Like casting ScarJo as a transman…as if that’s believable in any way.

In other words, they fiddle with everything and have so many hands in the work that things get mucked up. Consistency is lost.

I know a film writer who got called to work five days on a movie. She wrote three jokes. All but one was then cut from the film because the star didn’t like them after the director put them in. The director had another character deliver them instead and still two got cut and the one left in didn’t make sense because the wrong character was delivering it. Five days to write three jokes to be delivered by the wrong character and two being cut. Seems like a waste of time and effort, doesn’t it?

New Sight

But in a play. In a play, it was what I saw and see in my mind. It’s as though the playwright always knows what’s in my head. When I see Belle or The Phantom or any number of other characters in plays, I’m not surprised and left scratching my head as to why the hell the Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t a hunchback at all. Or why Miss Saigon isn’t set in the right place or why a sniper keeps missing an easy shot on the bad guy (because the show/film needs to keep the bad guy alive for the time being usually). I don’t have to worry about watching the story fall apart as it goes on because of some editing snafu or some writer decided not to read the backstory of a character and had them say or do something out of character.

In a stage play (and on radio), every character, every location, every word is perfect. Nothing is out of place because nothing can be out of place.

It’s perfection. Sure, some stories are more engaging than others, but there’s never a loss of continuity in plays.

An Unfair Comparison?

Some readers will say, “That’s an unfair comparison. Plays aren’t serialized.” To those I say, “Neither are movies, and yet…” movies are made that jump all over with no rhyme nor reason or have an ending that just doesn’t seem to fit. Netflix made “This Is The End”…problem is, there was no end. We’ve no idea if the world ended or not and how it did and so on.

Plays suck you into them. They are personal. And that’s why they are so popular. It’s really the spectacle of it all.

While movies…let me stick with that comparison since movies are in a similar vein as stage plays than are radio and TV…While movies are going for the big money—millions of dollars can be had with the right one—plays aren’t primarily concerned with the money. That’s certainly a top goal, as is making the play run for as long as possible (30 years maybe!) but it’s not the primarily reason. The main reason is to entertain, then to teach. They are all social commentary in some way. From Thoroughly Modern Millie to Cats to Hamilton to Wicked and Phantom, there are no plays that don’t shine a light on some aspect of our culture. They are intelligent in how they lambaste cultural conceptions. You don’t get that brilliance with movies.

Plays have to engage. They’ve no choice. People can wait until a bad movie gets to Netflix or Amazon or hulu. The movie, regardless of how horrible it is, will get played. But a play is do or die. If it’s not good, it’s dead. It’s gone.

There are no edits to make it look better than it really is either. A play stands on its own. The actors, playwright, director, crew and anyone else connected to the production must be at their best at all times. There’s no cut, no editing, no splicing. It’s the group of actors on that stage night in and day out, not for a series of filming days where errors can be easily edited out.

A forgotten line on stage spells disaster. A forgotten line in filming is a re-do until it’s done correctly.

Becoming a Playwright: Agency, Inclusion, Diversity & Queerness

While I enjoy writing TV shows and gradually fiddling with movie script writing, my heart is in stage plays.

Why? That’s not where the money is.

Life’s not about money. It sure as hell helps, but my work is too niche for TV. But it’s perfect for Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. On these stages, queerness is explored freely. It’s not hindered. It’s not glossed over. It’s not a punchline. A queer character is always integral to any play with one in it. The character is given agency unto itself.

In movies, we see all the stereotypes play out. On stage, we see it every now and again, but as a general rule, queers are viewed as just another person, another character. They serve a purpose to advance the narrative, push forward the plot.

Hollywood fights inclusion a great deal. Broadway thrives on inclusion, on diversity. Sure, Broadway isn’t as diverse as one might hope, but it’s always been more diverse than it’s Hollywood sibling for decades; just look at the diversity numbers for each: Broadway diversity versus Hollywood diversity.

Broadway demolishes Hollywood in the diversity of topics too. Minority, queer, gender…all of these are openly addressed in stage plays.

When you hear the protests about trans actors, about LGBTQ representation, about minority representation in films, well, that’s Hollywood. Not Broadway. I’ve seen many, many, many calls for auditions for plays that specifically call for queer actors to fill a queer character. I’ve been told many times about how a minority had been cast simply because they were the best for the job. Does it really matter if Rum Tum Tugger is played by a white woman or a black man? Not at all. Can the Phantom be an African American? Absolutely! In fact, he has been on stage a few times!

This dedication to diversity on stage is what draws me the most. It’s where I feel most comfortable.

After all, the play is the thing.