Until Beth Malone started giving interviews during the original Broadway run of Fun Home, to outsiders, it might have appeared as though the only queer people in musical theatre were cis men. Royer Bockus is ready for that stigma to die. A self-proclaimed “musical theatre lesbian,” she, alongside Andrea Prestinario and Holly Marie Dunn have founded Ring of Keys, a “National network of queer women + trans and GNC artists working on and offstage in musical theatre.” The goals of the network are manifold: to create community, serve as a hiring resource, and to diversify the leadership in the musical theatre world.
Bockus, a 2015 A-Camp alumnae of A-Camp (“the year of food poisoning,” according to her), and her friends started this network because they felt alone in the musical theatre universe. She was introduced to Andrea by a mutual friend, and they instantly connected. “I had felt so isolated as a queer woman in the musical theatre industry and… to get to talk to one other person about that experience has meant so much to me… I want more people who feel isolated in this industry to not feel isolated.” This desire turned into an opportunity for national and global networking that didn’t only aim to make queer folks feel less alone but hoped to show the musical theatre industry that queer women, non-binary people, and trans people existed and wanted to be recognized.
“The cis gay male quadrant of musical theatre seemed to figure out how to find one another a little better. They seem to be visible in a way that queer women and gender non conforming people are not and so our mission sort of expanded beyond just a social network to creating a visible network—meaning visible to the industry and to the public…because we are here.”
The network’s name comes one of the most memorable songs in Fun Home, “Ring of Keys”, about the first time Alison Bechdel saw a butch woman as a child while in a diner. “When she [Little Alison] can finally see somebody that she identifies with, it helps her inform her own identity and standing in her identity,” Bockus said. “We wanted to be the ring of keys for a lot of other young, queer theatre-makers to go ‘if I can see it, I can be it. If I have an example then I can populate this world too; I don’t have to be someone else to exist here.'”
The network has goals that encompass changing the entire landscape of musical theatre. We talked about how writers, producers, and even the canon force AFAB folks (regardless of gender) into a particular feminine heterosexual aesthetic to succeed in musical theatre. The white cis men who are writing and producing musicals reinforce these aesthetics because “their idea of femininity…the way that women seem to be presented is pretty narrow,” says Bockus.
In addition to being a networking and hiring resource, the founders hope that community building will help queer actors to feel less afraid in auditions or rehearsals to advocate for directors to honor their own gender identities and expressions. “There’s no reason why the way I express my gender couldn’t be the way the character expresses her gender…” Bockus is especially interested in the ways the canon can provide opportunities for this to happen and cited an example from her residency at Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer where a woman is playing Mercutio, not as a person in drag, but through the lens of her own gender identity. Bockus thinks that theatres are hungry for more diverse characters and actors regarding gender and sexuality, but the isolation queer women and trans folks experience, makes it hard for us to feel as though we can advocate that others honor our expressions.
Most exciting to me about the project is the network’s clarity about their commitment to creating a queer space that’s inclusive of trans people. In an interview with Stage and Candor, Bockus and co-creator Andrea Prestinario were clear that there is no room in Ring of Keys for trans exclusionary radical feminists (also known as TERFs). At a time when folks are claiming TERF as hate speech instead of a way to identify harmful members of the LGBTQ community, Ring of Keys’ radical inclusivity is refreshing. Bockus’ own understanding of the importance of including trans people in queer spaces came from her time at A-Camp. “I never want to be a part of any feminism that excludes women or people that don’t conform to any gender at all…” she said, concluding with the adorable metaphor that “a queer space without trans people is…a cake without cake!” Amen, sister.
Membership is open for Ring of Keys to queer women and trans people who have worked professionally in musical theatre. Joining gives you access to a membership directory, job opportunities, a secret Facebook group, and hopefully, local outings with other queer folks in the industry. Ring of Keys hopes to have chapters all over America where meetups, collaborations, and relationships can grow. Through community building and networking, Ring of Keys hopes that no other queer woman or trans person in musical theatre ever feels like they’re the only one out there.