By Jay Van Ort
Imagine a world/where people hated caterpillars/for turning people into butterflies? —Kai B., “Butterflies,”
In 2013, “Dallas Buyers Club” opened in theaters. In the film, Jared Leto, a cisgender male actor, portrays a transgender woman. He won an Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor.” A few years later, Eddie Redmayne received a nomination for playing one of the first known recipients of sex-change surgery in “The Danish Girl.”
“I believe that trans stories should be told by trans people,” says Gaby Labotka, director of “[Trans]formation,” the forthcoming collaboration between The Living Canvas and Nothing Without a Company.
“There is officially no longer an excuse not to cast trans actors in trans roles,” adds assistant director Charlie Hano.
With more than thirty submissions from across the United States (and one from England), “[Trans]formation” is the first Chicago play to be written and performed entirely by trans or gender-nonconforming artists. The performance, devised from the deconstruction and synthesis of those submissions, revolves around six characters who have discovered, and are now exploring, their relationship to gender and the conflicts that those explorations can cause.
“We fuck up,” says Chase Nuerge, one of the performers, “[But] we figure out how to let that narrative be real: this person is allowed to fuck up.”
In order to deepen their relationship to the script, performers have been taking home journal prompts. Some of the prompts: How are our bodies political? What’s in a name? What’s your relationship to mirrors? These questions are often about the clash of mainstream culture and personal perception: the TV is telling me I should be this or the label “man” or “woman” means I must be this thing, but my body doesn’t necessarily fit with what the culture tells me.
This is what’s known as body dysmorphia.
“We have these negative views of our bodies for media reasons and because we only ever see our naked selves in these really ugly bathroom lights,” says Ronen Kohn, who performs a piece called “Letter to My Breasts” about the emotional and physical distance between their character and their former body parts. “But if we are in motion and doing beautiful things with our bodies and there are these beautiful images being projected onto us, it just goes to show that anyone can embody that sort of beauty.”
“What we want to show is body acceptance,” says Labotka. By performing in the nude, the actors put focus on stories not by sidelining their bodies but by presenting them openly. “It’s just: here we are,” adds Kohn.
But sometimes, just being there isn’t easy.
Nuerge, who prefers the pronoun “em,” embodies the difficulties of showing up outside the space and in social media. Em isn’t out to their family and this is em’s first play out of college. “It’s about figuring out how boundaries work, putting that face out in the world and what that face is going to be,” em explains.
“Seeing Jared Leto going up to get an award with a full beard after playing a trans woman… people are still seeing that unconscious bias [of a man in a dress] reinforced,” says Alexia Jasmene, who contributed music and poetry to the production. “It directly correlates to violence against us.”
“The real thing that gender-nonconforming people need to address is not just the violence that happens against them in the general sense but that the violence specifically targets people of color,” points out performer Kevin Sparrow.
They’re quite right. So far in 2016, according to the Human Rights Campaign, at least twenty transgender people have been murdered, primarily people of color. T.T. Saffore, a transgender woman, was murdered in Chicago in September.
November 20 is Trans Day of Remembrance. It’s also, fittingly, opening weekend for “[Trans]formation.”
Here in the rehearsal room actors and artists are not quite separate from the world. However, it is safe space and the cast shows a lot of love toward each other.
“I don’t want to miss being with these people,” says stage manager Veronica Bustoz.
And that kind of chemistry and devotion really shows. It translates into vulnerable work sessions where the cast is prepared to catch anybody who might fall, physically and emotionally.
“A lot of people are going to learn a lot from this piece just because of how much love and vulnerability and honesty was put into the development of it,” says Labotka.