How to make your theatre production trans inclusive

the voice and vision of a new generation

How to make your theatre production trans inclusive

November 15, 2018

Transgender representation is a major topic in the media, as organizations and individual advocates alike call for more authentic trans stories and transgender inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. While some big media companies are starting to cast trans actors and hire trans storytellers, smaller groups like regional theatres are often at a loss as they try to keep up with the changing demographics of their audiences and people who are auditioning.

With help from GLAAD and local advocacy groups, I was able to take my experiences as a trans actor/director and create a simple guide to starting the process of opening your theatre—whether it be community, college, or professional—to transgender artists. Below are four easy ways to become more inclusive, adapted from a presentation given for the Cornish College of the Arts theatre faculty.

1. Gender in the Casting Room

The key to including trans performers in your production or company is to make sure that they are acknowledged and respected from the very beginning. Including a note in casting notices that “People of all genders {and races, abilities, etc…}” are encouraged to audition is a great way to start.

Once you have a more diverse group arriving at your auditions, you need to be prepared. Standard audition forms should ask for name, vocal range, etc. Consider adding a space that asks "What pronouns do you use?", as well as asking what gender of role the auditioner is comfortable being cast in. This opens up a lot of possibilities for both you and the actor. Consider putting a sign on at least one restroom that says "All gender restroom." Seeing that you are already prepared to honor someone’s identity in your casting will put any trans people in the room at ease.

2. Gender in the Creative Process

Of course, becoming more inclusive occasionally means not only rethinking how you run auditions, but also how you tell the stories themselves. This can be a bit more complex than simply asking for an actor’s pronouns. Some important questions to consider:

Does this role have to be male? Identify roles in which gender has little to no bearing, and consider making the character non-binary or female if the right actor comes along. There are more opportunities to have a solid cast if you’re willing to cast women and non-binary people in roles not specifically written for them. Ensemble and supporting roles especially are often male by default, but gender changes have no real effect on the story in many situations.

Is this role more powerful as female or non-binary? Whose story are you telling? Often a radical cisgender man from centuries ago makes more sense as a woman, non-binary person, or transgender man today.

3. Gender in Rehearsal Spaces

It’s important to make sure that rehearsal spaces are safe, inclusive, focused spaces. Every moment to work on a production is precious—so it’s best to start off strong by making sure everyone is on the same page and won’t be distracted because they feel unsafe or unwelcome. Have everyone state their name and pronouns when introducing themselves, and make sure that everyone involved understands what that means. If someone slips and misgenders a cast member, they should “correct and move on,” and not spend too much time apologizing or talking about it. If someone repeatedly misgenders someone on the production, that is harassment, and the person in charge should take action to make sure that it stops.

4. (un)Gendered Language

Language can be a powerful thing. Try referring to any cast with gender-neutral language (“Folks” vs. “Ladies and Gentleman”). That way anyone who doesn’t fit into a binary category won’t be excluded accidentally. For dancers, the terms would be “leads and follows” or “As and Bs,” as opposed to gendered terms. Character groups can be changed from things like “Little Girls” to “Annie’s Friends,” etc.

For music specifically, being inclusive with language can be a difficult habit to form. Many music directors will request women on one side of the piano and men on the other, for example. Get into the habit of referencing specific voice parts instead—and even asking who would prefer to sing which part. Sometimes someone who looks like your idea of a soprano may actually sing tenor more comfortably.

Changing elements of your creative process can seem like a daunting task. But ultimately, it only takes a shift in perspective and language, and a willingness to listen to each other, to make our theatre community an inclusive one. I hope that you’ll join me in working toward a future where the stage truly reflects its audiences and the world, as it was always intended to do.

James Washburn is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior at Cornish College of the Arts studying musical theatre direction and playwriting. He has acted as a queer health educator and coordinator in the Bellevue School District and recently began work as a diversity advocate with transgender inclusion training at his college.

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