Judy Virago examines the recent controversy surrounding a cis-male actor being cast in a trans role in the NZ production of Things I Know To Be True, and finds the real issue is cisgender writers using gender transition as a contemporary plot twist.
I quit acting for a while in my mid-20s. Embodying male characters was the kind of work I was no longer interested in and not much else was on offer. More diverse opportunities began to present themselves when I moved overseas. I had a few small parts in short films, music videos, web series and ads until I landed my first role in a feature film – Venus (2017). I was a supporting character – the wise and whimsical best friend. My role was intentionally cast as trans, but the character was never named as such in the film. The lead character was written as a South Asian transgender woman, but a cisgender gay man was cast to play her. The producers cited difficulty finding an actor who was trans, fit the demographic, and was happy to embody the character as male-presenting in the first few scenes.
Sound familiar? Well, it should, if you’ve been paying attention, because these “difficulties” keep repeating around the globe. New Zealand’s Court & Circa Theatres have manifested them this month with their production of Things I Know to be True – a play by straight, cisgender, Australian man Andrew Bovell. The NZ production cited difficulties in finding a trans actor suitable for the role of Mia/Mike, so cast a cis gay man instead. Now, I don’t think we should completely prohibit cis people from playing outside of their gender identity; we’re born naked and the rest is drag (thank Ru). Some women have penises, some men have vaginas, some collect a variety of genitals and keep them all in a drawer. Gender is a fluid social construct and we should be free to play with it, challenge it, and have fun with it. But when it comes to professional acting, the importance of casting trans people in trans roles comes down to equity. In an industry where opportunities for cis men and women to succeed are already few and far between, the pickings are even slimmer for gender minorities. Casting trans people in trans roles is about making inclusive, equitable employment decisions as much as it is about enriching the narrative with a greater truth.
The story is more complicated when a role requires the actor to play across the spectrum of gender, as the role of Mike/Mia does. Which leaves me wondering, why there aren’t more roles where trans folk just get to present one gender? Why does incorporating the trans experience in a production hinge on evincing a reductive “before and after” transition trope? Listen, we all love a reveal but this one is getting tired. I’m sick of stories (told from outside of our experiences) that use gender transition as the hook. For me, the real issue here isn’t that trans roles keep getting miscast, it’s that the trans stories that do get told are too often written by cisgender people.
If the fallout from this controversy is that theatre companies decide trans stories are too hard for them to tell, then fine – just make room for us at the table so we can tell our own stories. Trans-led productions don’t make the same mistakes. But the result I would prefer to see is that theatre makers are more inclined to seek trans people’s perspectives in the early stages of development, that nothing is said about us without us. In creating Venus, the production team asked for my opinions, listened to my experience, took on my feedback and adapted parts of the script. The film was not perfect but turned out to be a successful vehicle for getting the trans conversation into communities around the globe. Art has the power to change hearts, we just need the right minds behind it.