This piece was curated for BroadwayWorld.com News Desk and is sourced from their website.
“I want out of this idea that I’m just a queer kid with only queer problems that ‘queer-ly’ suck”, sings Taylor, a teenage lesbian filled with angst over the lack of positive representation of queer characters found in the books in her school library. The witty, poetic words and dulcet melodies of Jaime Jarrett’s NORMATIVITY takes us on Taylor’s fight against Charlie, a cisgender, heterosexual author on the brink of success writing his first ‘gay teen novel’. Charlie’s fiancée and book agent, Anne, convinces him that giving his teenage lesbian protagonist, Emily, a tragic end, will not only make the book a best seller, but shoot him to stardom.
NORMATIVITY brings to the stage a new kind of queer narrative, where queer characters are fighting to be seen as more than just their identities; to be seen and live a life as normal as anyone else. Along with it brings a new kind of advocacy for casting in the theatre.
If you're not familiar with my work, I was incredibly blessed to be a part of the cast of Southern Comfort at the Public Theater earlier this year. After a nationwide casting call seeking transgender actors, Donnie Cianciotto and I were cast as Sam and Carly. I was honored to be making my Public Theater debut but more importantly, grateful to be a part of an institution that was making tremendous strides for inclusivity in their company. Though much of my career has been concentrated over the last few years, there was a gap of time in which I left the business to find myself, thinking I could never do what I want to do as the real me. (For reference, I began my transition 8 years ago, when the kind of transgender representation we see now did not exist, nor was accepted.) I was even told by my then-agent, ‘you have a hard time finding work as a gay, South Asian male. How will you ever find work as a transgender, South Asian female?’ Of course, things have changed quite a lot.
On my blog, I’ve written about my experiences of being an actress who happens to be trans. (A distinction from a ‘trans actor’ that is important to me.) I have written of being privileged to be seen as simply a woman walking into auditions, and even getting to play cisgender women roles (Aouda in 80 Days, Village Theatre). However, the one thing I personally have struggled with since my transition is finding my voice in musical theatre. I joke with my vocal coach that I’m always “trans-posing” songs for women, as I trained as a tenor long before I found the real me. Yet, so graciously, he reminds me that ‘voice has no gender’. The process of accepting my instrument as mine without explanation has been a challenging one, especially as I find myself gaining more visibility in an industry I’ve struggled so long in.
Southern Comfort came along and not only was I thrilled to be a part of it for so many history-making reasons, but for my own reconciliation - I was finally getting to do a musical; the first since my transition. Everything about that show and its company, particularly my character, Carly, was and still is very near and dear to my heart. And anyone who knows me knows how much I love Carly. What was even more exciting for me in playing her, was that she was also transgender. In discovering her journey, there was a shared experience, and I lived that joy 8 times a week.
Thanks to the visibility gained from Southern Comfort, I’ve been grateful to have been working since. When the offer for NORMATIVITY came in, I was excited to be a part of another piece involving queer, specifically, transgender characters in musicals. When I delved deeper into the script, I discovered that my character, Anne, and I did not share the same gender identity. There was no mention of her gender identity, leaving one to assume she could be cisgender. (Without giving any spoilers, once we get to know Anne more, it’s pretty clear she’s probably not trans.) For me, another personal achievement had been fulfilled.
As I got to know my cast-mates more, I learned that, like Southern Comfort, NORMATIVITY’s casting is advocacy for casting at work. Varied gender identities, sexual orientations and intersectionalities of those identities make up the 7-person cast. Upon relating experiences with each other similar to mine that ultimately lead to my acting hiatus, we are grateful to be a part of works like NORMATIVITY. We all recognize the importance of the kind of casting advocacy that has begun to happen in this industry. In a way, our own lives are very much reflected in NORMATIVITY’s characters. “We’re all just people trying to get by”, sings a group of queer high school students at the end of act one. Regardless of how we identify, we want to be seen as actors, who are capable of playing any role.
We need more of this. More Southern Comforts, more NORMATIVITYs, more of the numerous other companies and productions out there that have taken these steps to inclusivity. It’s important for actors who happen to be trans, to be seen for all types of roles. It’s important for gender queer actors to be seen at all. It’s important to bring in a diverse array of artists for roles regardless of gender identity. As artists, we should never feel like who we are is working against us. After all, there’s no reason we should ever let ourselves believe we can’t because we don’t have the right voice.
NORMATIVITY runs July 18 and 21-24 as part of the New York Musical Festival (NYMF). For more information and tickets, visit normativitymusical.com and nymf.org.
On December 10, 2014 I wrote about my experiences booking Around the World in 80 Days. For me, it was an amazing feeling to book a role that was not only a pipe dream, but that would gain me more experience in the field I was dedicating my life to. More experience would only lead to more opportunities.
I was also happy that I was cast in the only play in Village Theatre’s season, still trying to reckon my own fears and anxiety about my body dysmorphia with the way I presented myself as a musical theatre artist. Sure, I have some pretty great pipes that have gotten me some great work, as a man. But how was I going to start to feel comfortable looking at myself in my truest form, as I am now, and hear this classically trained bari-tenor voice come out? Looking at myself in the mirror only caused more anxiety. But I found solace in the compliments of my peers, assuring me that people think I have a great voice and never question ‘it’s gender’. Still, I had resigned myself to never finding a place as a trans actress in musical theatre.
Today, there are no words to describe the feelings I am feeling; to express the immense joy and reconciliation within myself, from booking my latest gig. I am humbled and honored to join the company of Southern Comfort, the Public Theater’s new musical work.
(Look, Ma! I’m in the New York Times!!!)
From the Public Theater website:
Based on Kate Davis’ 2001 Sundance Award-winning documentary, SOUTHERN COMFORT tells the true story of a group of transgender friends living life on their own terms in the back hills of rural Georgia. Winner of the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award, this folk and bluegrass inspired musical is a celebration of redefining family and choosing love over every obstacle. Tony-winning lyricist/composer of Falsettos William Finn calls SOUTHERN COMFORT, “remarkable,” with a score that “mines the country’s heart, and unveils, along its way, surprising pathways to a new world.”
Book and Lyrics by Dan Collins
Music by Julianne Wick Davis
Choreography by Ryan Kasprzak
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Based on the Film by Kate Davis
Conceived for the stage by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso
Featuring Donnie Cianciotto, Lizzie Hagstedt,Jeffrey Kuhn, Elizabeth Ward Land, David M. Lutken, Jeff McCarthy, Morgan Morse,Annette O'Toole, Aneesh Sheth, Robin Skye, and Joel Waggoner
Recently, I was given the opportunity to be a guest writer for Hedgebrook.org. The original piece can also be viewed on their website, here.
If there was anyone in this world who had never known of a transgender person, they did after last week. When Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover went viral, the internet blew up with trans activism. While some people posted their support for Caitlyn, others posted derogatory, hateful, ignorant things. Even within the LGBT community, people were divisive. And suddenly, as with many controversial issues, social media exploded and everyone had an opinion. Everyone became an activist. I have never seen more transphobia in my life than on my Facebook feed last week. I have never seen more people come to the defense of my community than on my Facebook feed last week.
More and more people are standing up and showing the world that #TransIsBeautiful. We exist. We are everywhere, and we are human. Caitlyn's coming out story sparked another viral campaign, #myvanityfaircover, created by Jenn Dolari and Crystal Fraiser, which gave so many trans people a hashtag to showcase that every trans person is beautiful, and deserves recognition for the same courage that Caitlyn has shown. There are millions of stories that don't get a magazine cover, and so #MyVanityFairCover was born to give insight to the millions more and their stories. In the very early days of the campaign, I tweeted at the creators:
As actors, we are in constant struggle with staying true to ourselves all the while trying to put forth what'll get us the job. Particularly while I was in the early stages of training for a professional career in theatre, I was told that I would never be successful if I remained and presented myself the way I felt comfortable. (At that point in my life I was donning women's clothing, jewelry and even high heels, but never went as far as to identify as a woman. It threw people for a loop.) And even though I clearly hadn't figured myself out yet, I knew deep down that I couldn't do what I was so passionate for and NOT be true to myself.
So eventually, I transitioned and left the 'biz'. I became a social worker for a while and believed that no one would ever hire a transgender actress; that I'd never work in the industry again. (This was nearly a decade ago, pre - OITNB and TransParent.) It was a really difficult pill to swallow but much in my life was rapidly changing and I figured this was part of leaving my old self behind. It wasn't until I received an email from a friend who was then on NBC/Universal's Outsourced, informing me that the producers were looking for someone to play a hijra. My heart sank and I felt the excitement I had missed for so many years away from the industry. My mind began the fight of debating whether or not I had made the right decision to leave in the first place. Do people want to hire a transgender actress? I barely made a living wage as a cis-gender male actor; do I really think I can make a sustainable living being a transgender actress?
I ultimately booked the gig, made my debut as the first South Asian transwoman on network tv, and most importantly, returned to the business that I so deeply love.
Last night I opened a big show. For those of you who follow my blog or know me personally, you know how excited I've been for this project. Little did I know how much Opening Night would mean to me. It is only in the aftermath of a fabulous opening night party spent with people equally as passionate about what we do that I fully understand what it means to define my own success while being true to myself. It is an incredible feeling to look back at your career and to say, "I've gotten to be a part of so many great projects, play so many dream roles (from King Tut to Princess Aouda); how could I not think of myself of successful?"
New Years is all about resolutions. We make them just so we can eventually break them, right? The few I made at the beginning of 2014 were simple: see more theater and go to every audition I can. So I worked my butt off and made my own success. And even though this year was filled with not so fun, not so good things as well, I still, somehow, managed to follow all my resolutions till the last day of 2014. (Pat yourself on the back, Aneesh; you go, girl.) I made it to 31 auditions and saw 24 productions. Meh, I can so do much better this year.
So, in the upcoming year, I plan to maintain my previous goals and add to that: physical exercise (I mean who doesn't make a resolution to be in better shape every New Years Eve?), make more time to see friends and family (none of this 'haven't seen you in weeks/months/years' bullsh*t anymore), and expand on my career exponentially. This year I plan to produce again and I also hope to add another directing credit to my name. Lastly, as something really close to my heart, I hope to get my webseries produced. (The time for #girlslikeus is now. Plus feedback from readings has been really good, so why not! Curious?...)
It's amazing to see how many mutuals friends I have with people that Facebook suggest I add. I have had the immense pleasure of meeting so many new people this past year; 96 new faces to be exact. (Whether that's a testament to my naturally sweet and friendly demeanor [really?] or proof that the Seattle Freeze may be a myth, who knows.) But I can now say I have friends! Yay! (Unless y'all are being secretly paid.... wait...is that what's been really happening?...)
In conclusion, I am taking a new friend's challenge and listing every show I've seen in 2014. If I learned anything from compiling this list, it's that I simply MUST see more theatre in 2015. [Shows I was a part of have an asterisk (*). Shows I've seen multiple times are indicated by a number.]
When I was little, I was obsessed with this mini-series on TV starring Pierce Brosnan as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days based on one of my favorite books by Jules Verne. In part 2 Phileas meets, who I thought was the most beautiful Indian princess, Aouda (played by Julia Nickson). I was in awe. She was so beautiful, so graceful (and was always draped in a silk sari); when watching her I would only dream of being her. It was just a pipe dream.
It's been 25 years since I first saw Aouda and I've watched her countless times since. Somehow even after my transition, I never thought the chance to be her would ever come to fruition. She was graceful and stunning, and I am clumsy and frazzled on my best days. Plus, I'm not getting any younger. I had heard about a popular play by Mark Brown based on Verne's novels that was making its rounds in theatre companies across the country, so naturally I was thrilled to hear that Village Theatre, a professional theatre company in the Seattle area, was planning on producing it for the 14-15 season. I knew I had to get an audition somehow.
A few weeks ago I had an audition for a musical. It was a pretty big audition, at least for me. The last musical I did was in 2006 and I was nervous about auditioning for another one. I trained my entire life as a singer before I even got into acting, and I've always been really confident in my vocal abilities. The positive feedback I receive from people inside and out of the industry further reaffirms my decision to pursue what I love. But when I have a vocal audition coming up, I begin to freak out. Particularly when it's a big audition for a company that will pay me a living wage. Isn't that every actor's dream, to book such a gig? No pressure.
Except I was feeling the pressure. And tons of it. When I toured with Bombay Dreams in 2006 I finally understood what it meant to sing 8 shows a week - and I had one of the less strenuous tracks in the show. Having to sing on a regular basis meant keeping your voice in tip-top shape. One little sneeze, tickle or scratch and your chords decide to say "Fuck it - I do what I want!" Then you stress. Will I be better by half hour? Should my understudy go on? The day goes on and you think the stress is making it worse, but you're a goddamn professional so you show up and do your job.
I'm going to try and keep this short and sweet. (We're all busy; we all have ADD.) I recently moved to the Pacific Northwest after getting married and never imagined my career taking off in the way that it has. And to think I was going to give up what I loved just because I thought no one would hire me if I were to be my true self. "Just Be" from Kinky Boots, the Musical plays on loop in my brain. Particularly when it comes to auditioning for things like musicals! And plays. And films and tv. Basically being in show business. It is a daily struggle to 'just be' the true you while trying to give everyone else what they want, all the while fighting nerves enough to get the call-back. Add on top of that knowing that some of these people you're singing for knew you when you weren't the real you. On any given day that vital piece of information about myself could be my greatest asset or my worst liability.
I have much admiration for so many of the women (#girlslikeus) that have made a name for themselves in their respective industries. Candis Cayne has a career I can only dream of having. Janet Mock is a best-selling author. Laverne Cox is an Emmy-nominated actress. Aneesh Sheth is a Tony-nominated actress...
Well, it's nice to dream.
This blog will serve as a reflection of my experiences navigating my failures and triumphs in this wonderfully thrilling, scary, and exciting industry we all love/hate, while validating my own gender identity and finding success in show business.