The story of how I joined theatre is like if the Disney Channel was dark and gay.
I was an artist trapped in a jock’s story, a closeted trans girl who watched art films on weeknights and played organized sports on weekends. I’d done ten years of soccer, eight years of baseball, six years of martial arts, climbed Mount Whitney, and run three half marathons. Entering high school, my plan was to spend the next four years running cross country and track — the two sports with co-ed teams.
I wasn’t shy about my desire to someday make movies, but the arts were not something I saw as a viable extracurricular. It’s funny to think that prepubescent twink thought she was convincing anyone, but I played by my own misguided rules as I attempted male normativity.
Then I got injured.
I listened to my coach instead of the body I barely thought of as my own. I ran too hard, and my legs crumbled. The first six months of high school, I used a wheelchair, and my nerd jock friends — not to be confused with the less obnoxious jock jock clique — bullied me incessantly in a painful expression of ableism, homophobia, and their own insecurities.
During this fraught period of time, I attended one of my high school plays for English class extra credit. It was a production of Much Ado About Nothing, and the students delivered Shakespeare’s words like dogs eating peanut butter. But I didn’t know any better. I was enthralled. With my running career permanently on hold, my friendships lacking, and my suicidal ideation increasing, I decided to join theatre.
The first show I did was the big spring musical — The Wizard of Oz — and it was a nice enough time at a time in my life where nothing was nice. But it was the next show, the last show of the year, that changed everything.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is a classic of both American theatre and high school theatre. It’s one of those classics that’s easy to dismiss and easier to adore. I was cast as Wally Webb, and I had a crush I acknowledged on the actress who played my sister and crushes I didn’t acknowledge on the two male leads. These weren’t sexual crushes per say. Instead, I was enraptured with their teenage talent, their adolescent bravado. I watched them in rehearsal while other kids socialized, during the performances I stayed in the wings just to see them work. They became my friends, and I felt anointed by celebrities.
Wally Webb is dead through the last act and sits in a makeshift graveyard. With the same dedication that caused my legs to crumble, I sat there on stage not blinking. I wanted to impress my new friends. When the characters referenced my death, I wanted them to see my empty stare and work off that emotion. I wanted us to act together.
As I played dead, I realized this was the first time in months I felt alive.
Around the time I was falling in love with theatre, I experienced my first heartbreak. No, it wasn’t a romantic heartbreak. It wasn’t even a friend heartbreak. It was the kind of heartbreak that can occur in ninth grade Earth Science — I learned that people knew about climate change in the 1970s.
I was raised in my liberal bubble to believe every decade brought progress. After all, Barack Obama had just been elected president and, while I didn’t know a lot about politics yet, I knew that was good. I had this perception that Al Gore had uncovered climate change when he made An Inconvenient Truth. We’d learned about this man-made problem two years prior, and now the country’s brightest minds were at work to solve it.
When I found out people were discussing climate change for the past four decades, I returned home to my parents full of accusations. I asked my dad why he hadn’t done anything about it. He replied, fairly, “What could I have done?”
I thought about this exchange a decade later sitting in a Broadway theatre watching the buzzy revival of Angels in America. Closeted Mormon Joe Pitt tells his wife Harper that under Reagan, the world is healing. Harper brings up the hole in the ozone layer, and Joe is dismissive. The same conversation in a 1985-set play from 1991 could’ve been happening then about Reagan’s gaudier successor and increasing climate disaster.
Over the past decade, I’d had enough heartbreaks to doubt the world as a whole was inevitably getting better, but my world certainly had. I was no longer in the wings watching a high school play but sitting in a Broadway theatre in New York City, where I’d lived for six years. I was no longer a confused straight boy but a queer woman a year into her transition. And on top of all that, I’d gotten into this show for free.
Before my boobs grew in, old gays gave me theatre tickets like I was their pretentious sugar baby. Okay, it only happened twice, but still. This time, I’d shown up to the theatre hoping to buy a rush ticket to no avail. A gray-haired queen asked if I wanted his extra ticket. He only had one for the first part, Millennium Approaches, but I eagerly said yes. Once in the theatre, good fortune smiled upon me again — we were in the midst of a snow storm, so out of towners must’ve not shown up. An usher asked me if I’d like to move closer and handed me a new ticket to this show and a ticket in the same seat for the evening’s performance of part two, Perestroika. I happily ditched my new boyfriend and spent the whole day watching theatre.
This was even more special because I’d never seen Angels before. I held off reading or watching adaptations of oft-revived plays in hopes of seeing them for the first time on stage. And with this one, my patience had paid off.
Like Our Town, Angels in America is a classic that deserves its praise. Any play that labels itself “a gay fantasia on national themes” is either going to be insufferable or a once-in-a-generation masterpiece, and here we get the latter. Its intersecting characters — both real and fictitious — in the peak of the AIDS crisis exist in a world of tragedy and fantasy and thematic density.
I was so taken with the first part of the play that during the break I went to the old Drama Bookshop and bought the recently released oral history of the show. For me, this experience was one of intellectual stimulation. I wanted to know about the show’s history and meaning more than I felt moved.
Prior Walter is the heart of the play, and in this production he was played by cishet-identified movie star Andrew Garfield. He swished around the stage with a performative femininity and a forced faggotry. I admired Garfield’s capital A acting the same way I admired director Marianne Elliot’s flashy staging — with a cold remove.
But, hey, that’s Broadway for you.
During the first year of my transition, a friend from college asked if I’d be interested in directing a play he wrote. After years of working for Sleep No More, he’d taken it upon himself to write his own immersive play, and he wanted to use it to launch an immersive company. He’d hoped to find a director with more professional experience — I’d only done one self-produced professional show — but he didn’t have a lot of money. So I ended up with the gig.
At a time when I was still wearing long cotton dresses paired with a receding hairline, I took on the gargantuan task of staging what amounted to six concurrent plays at the Wyckoff House in Brooklyn. Looking back now, I’m astounded by the confidence I had to leave my house let alone leave my house and walk into a rehearsal room.
But just like theatre had saved my life during my first puberty, it was here to provide comfort for my second. Or, at least, a distraction. The play I was working on had nothing to do with transness and no explicit queerness beyond the camp and sexual tension the actors and I infused into it. It was a genre piece about faith and family in the 17th century, and it was a relief to remove myself from my world and enter this semi-fictional one of priests and farming.
By this point, my career goals had started to shift. Years of seeing professional theatre had changed me and remaining in that space had become a greater priority. I still wanted to make movies and television someday, but I wanted to start with theatre like a transsexual Elia Kazan — minus the whole ratting on communists thing.
While I was grateful for the work on my immersive show, I did wonder about my place in the theatre world at large. I had a meeting with a cis woman producer who wanted some free consulting, and she cried when I explained the harm that can be caused by cis actors playing trans parts. She was in the process of mounting a show on Broadway and wanted a trans blessing more than trans advice. According to Facebook, she quit theatre and works in finance now.
When I wasn’t getting into free shows off my good looks and youth, I was getting into free shows off my Juilliard grad girlfriend and her generous alumni perks.
Transgenders were in — or so I was told — and now we were getting our very own play at a respected Off-Broadway theatre. It was written by a white cis gay man, but the cast was full of trans people. My girlfriend and I eagerly accepted our comps and I was sorely disappointed. The cast was phenomenal, but the show didn’t connect with me. And I wasn’t confident enough in my transness yet not to spiral.
For some reason, I ignored the play’s author and decided that if I couldn’t connect with the hot new trans play then I would never connect with other trans people. Maybe I wasn’t even trans and was fooling everyone. I didn’t yet understand that our art was rarely really ours.
A week later, still in that headspace, I went with my girlfriend to a reading of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out. It was part of an arts festival her former classmate had organized in a small high school auditorium.
It was just a reading, but it was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. The text itself is brilliant, and the cast was wonderful. Even though the play takes place in ballroom and I am white and not in ballroom, the play’s discussions of gender and sexuality resonated deep within me. The experience I’d hoped to have at the buzzy Off-Broadway show was achieved at this self-produced reading.
I have had powerful artistic experiences with every scope of theatre, but watching these actors without costumes and props, folded scripts on stands, embody these characters, I was reminded why theatre felt like my home.
It doesn’t require the resources often kept from us — it just requires community.
Soon enough, all theatre was readings.
After a year in LA, working in television and disconnected from the stage, the pandemic brought theatre to me. It no longer mattered if you lived in New York, LA, or the middle of nowhere — if you had an internet connection, the access was the same.
Like in high school and during my early transition, I relied on theatre to cope with an impossibly changing world. I greedily watched all two and a half hours of the Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration and all three and a half hours of the Rosie O’Donnell Actors Fund Fundraiser. Theatre icons in casual dress performed in their living rooms, desperate for the attention they rarely lacked and generous with their talents I was happy to enjoy. I watched Zoom readings of friends’ plays and participated in Zoom readings of famous scripts. While theatre was struggling to survive, I was reminded why it would never die.
Autostraddle’s own Ari Monts started a play reading group and, unlike other forms of virtual theatre, these meetings had no audience. It was just a group of stage-loving queers getting together to read and discuss theatre. The first play we read was Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. It was a fitting choice since the last play I’d seen pre-pandemic was Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day.
The play was good, if not great, but the experience was a balm for the moment. Even more than the star-studded Zoom events and personal performances, this low-key gathering was what I looked forward to most.
We finished the play a couple months into the pandemic, but toward the end of 2020, Ari suggested we do another Kushner play — his Pulitzer-winning masterpiece. The Foundation for AIDS Research had just done their own virtual “Scenes from Angels in America” benefit, and watching it had reminded Ari of the play’s relevance.
Since our first round of reading, Zoom fatigue had set in. With the first play, we had actors for every part. But for Angels, there were only four of us who showed up consistently. It didn’t matter. We just recast every scene to fill in the gaps. Except I always played Prior.
When Andrew Garfield as Prior delivered the play’s final monologue to me in 2018, I had to fight a reply.
“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”
Us. We. We. We. I had to resist the urge to shout, “You are not us. You are not we.”
Maybe that’s why I wanted to play Prior, a character written for out gay actor Stephen Spinella but since portrayed on-screen and in the buzziest revival by straight men. As a trans woman, a casual all-trans reading was probably the only chance I’d have to play him. And as we read, I realized why I felt so protective of this fictional prophet.
Angels wasn’t relevant to our moment because of some over-simplified comparison between the AIDS crisis and Covid. It was relevant because the play is about choosing to live when surrounded by death. It’s about being abandoned by God and deciding to have faith in one another instead.
During the play’s final act, the Angel warns Prior against his desire to live. “Life is a habit with you,” she says. “You have not seen what is to come: We have: What will the grim Unfolding of these Latter Days bring That you or any Being should wish to endure them?” She goes on and on in her angel speak.
Prior replies, “But still. Still.” He discusses the addiction to being alive, the desire to live past hope. He talks about how he’s lived through terrible times and others have lived through worse. But still. Still. “If I can find hope anywhere,” he says. “That’s it, that’s the best I can do.”
And in this moment, that’s what we were doing. A small group of trans people choosing to stay alive when the world wants us dead discriminately and indiscriminately. I thought Angels in America was just an intellectual achievement — I was wrong. It took this intimate setting, so far removed from my theatrical ambitions, to feel the play’s emotions.
Over the span of three months, four people in a Zoom room wildly miscast for our parts brought this work to life. We brought it back to its urgent roots and revealed new layers within.
If that’s not theatre, I’m not sure what is.
My official return to theatre occurred with Sondheim’s Assassins, another play about the futility of America.
Living in Los Angeles, I missed the Off-Broadway revival starring Steven Pasquale and Tavi Gevinson that occurred earlier this year. Instead, I bought a last minute ticket to see it at the David Henry Hwang Theater downtown. Los Angeles may have a reputation for being devoid of theatre but East West Players was founded in 1965 and has premiered more than 228 plays and musicals. You just have to know where to look. This all-Asian production of Assassins may not have been how the show was intended, but I’m so glad it was how I first experienced it.
Assassins posits that any kid cannot grow up to be President — but any kid can grow up to shoot the President. This production emphasized the fallacy in that suggestion. Maybe any kid can, but most types of kids haven’t. Whether justified or unjustified, successful or unsuccessful, most of the real-life assassins looked quite the same.
There are inequities in this country — whether we’re discussing politicians, assassins, or the theatre. Artists of all backgrounds deserve resources and celebration. But the pandemic reminded me why I fell in love with theatre in the first place. It wasn’t in a Broadway audience. It was in a school play as a depressed kid desperate for community.
I spent my first year in LA, complaining about how I missed theatre instead of discovering East West Players and the other companies creating interesting work in my city. No matter where you are, theatre is available to you. Whether it’s professional theatre, community theatre, high school theatre, or a Zoom room.
The final line of Angels in America is The Great Work Begins. It’s the work of activism, the work of community, the work of survival. It’s the work of theatre.
Slow Takes is a series of “belated” reviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.