CMU School of Drama

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Hierarchies of Power: Cisgender Playwrights and Trans Characters

HowlRound: When I begin writing a play, I’m usually writing about something I feel complicated about. There’s a heart in the center of the new play that’s torn. I don’t have the desire to write a play about something I know the answer to. So it makes perfect sense that my inclination for an article would also fall to a topic for which I don’t have a definitive answer. When I was asked to write for this series there were several topics that occurred to me, all them engaging and interesting—but the question of cisgendered playwrights writing trans characters kept calling to me. It’s a complicated topic that produces more questions for me than certainties.


Sasha Schwartz said...

I think it’s very important as aspiring theater artists to keep in consideration our limited perspective and understanding of the world due to our race, gender, sexuality, class, etc etc etc. I totally understand what the writer is saying about wanting to write about something outside of themselves while trying to keep into consideration the feelings and experiences of others and not overstep their bounds as someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to live the life they are trying to portray. I think this comes up a lot in terms of transgender struggles, which this article focuses on. The controversial topic that I have more of a personal connection to with a similar issue in terms of who has their own voice vs. who is speaking for other people is in terms of autism. I think it’s very hard to showcase the stories of people with special needs in a meaningful way since oftentimes people are trying to tell the stories of people who don’t have the physical or developmental ability to speak for themselves. I think it’s very different in terms of transgender rights since transgender people often just aren’t given the opportunity to tell their own stories.

Cassidy Pearsall said...

As a cisgendered woman, I have never really had the desire to not be a woman. Maybe in like a political way, like a "Man, I wish I was a man so men would stop yelling stuff at me all the time," but not a deep, genuine "I am not this" feeling. I have tried to be conscious of this and educate myself on the experience of trans people, but I will never be able to empathize with something I have literally never felt, and that is okay! I shouldn't pretend to know what trans people are going through because... I don't know! I would like someone to tell me, but it's not their job to pat my head and give me context before their show.

So this brings me to my next point, and I am nervous someone will see this that shouldn't see it, but here I go regardless. Last year, I worked on a playground piece as the "LD" about the experience of a trans man growing up. The cast and "crew" (both of us) were all cisgendered. The playwright had written the play and had it edited by her trans friend. Not a big deal. But, when the whole cast and crew skyped with her trans friend, he asked "is there really no one in your school who is trans?" And one of the actresses confidently replied, "yes, there is NO ONE." I quietly took the playwright aside after and said "Hey, did you know there are two trans people like, in my class?" And she was surprised. I gave her their names and she never contacted them. The show was fine, and had some influence on it from an actual trans person, but if you are going to do a show about a specific community, you HAVE to reach out to them, because that cisgendered playwright just plain does not know the experience of a trans person. And this is not me trying to shit on the playwright, just this ONE thing that happened. While it's good to write characters who are different from you, do your research.