why brooklyn needed a trans theatre festival

As Brooklyn's first Trans Theatre Festival kicks off today, curators MJ Kaufman and Maybe Burke talk to i-D about shining a light on lesser-heard trans stories.

by Hannah Ongley
07 June 2016, 4:00pm

"Many people are calling this moment a 'trans tipping point,'" notes MJ Kaufman, one of the curators of the first Trans Theatre Festival at Brooklyn fringe venue The Brick. "We noticed this was misleading some folks to think that trans people were somehow a new phenomenon." Certainly, before Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Hari Nef, and Andreja Pejic, the word "trans" had barely entered the mainstream American lexicon. And even following the emergence of these brave trailblazers, the trend-hungry media often ignores the lived experiences of trans creatives who don't have a hit show on E! or Amazon Prime. "We wanted to highlight the incredible work that trans people are doing when we write, direct, produce, and act in our own work," says MJ, who along with co-curator Maybe Burke, is handing control of the trans narrative back to those actually living it.

The Trans Theatre Festival will include 11 plays, plus a web series, a documentary, a movement performance, and a panel discussion. As it kicks off today, we speak to MJ and Maybe about the performance of gender and why LGBT theatre often ignores the T.

Why did you want to have a festival dedicated to trans artists instead of simply revolving around trans themes?
MJ: Because most of the work about trans themes that gets traction is not written, directed, or produced, and sometimes not even acted, by trans people. This can lead to cisgender people making assumptions and relying on problematic stereotypes. Stories that cisgender people want to tell about trans people are often very different from the stories that trans people want to tell about ourselves. We also wanted to give more opportunities to trans artists. Trans artists face many obstacles in terms of getting our work out there, everything from interpersonal transphobia, to not having a place to go to the bathroom, to little or no access to training or financial support to pursue the arts. We wanted to give trans artists more opportunities and celebrate the work we are doing.

What does "trans theatre" mean to you? Is it trans writers and performers, or simply a trans-friendly environment? What mediums will be included?
Maybe: Trans theatre, for me, is taking our narrative back. Too often in mainstream theatre, we see trans roles being played by the "opposite gender" and misguided attempts at depicting the perils of a medical transition. In trans theatre, we can see trans people. We can hear genuine and honest stories. We can see plays, a musical, solo work, visual art, a web series, a documentary, dance pieces. It's all there.

Why is theatre a natural outlet for expressing and exploring gender identity?
MJ: We perform our genders every day! Trans people often make exceptional theatre artists because we spend so much time observing how gender is performed and figuring out how to perform gender in different spaces.

Maybe: Well said! I think that theatre helps this exploration, because you have the ability to think outside of your lived experience. We get to examine others, become one another, and build relationships in new and exciting ways. Most people who have found their gender differs from the one they were assigned are familiar with being someone they're not. In theatre, we get to use that for a greater purpose.

LGBT theatre (in a broad sense) has been around for a while. Do you think such festivals and organizations can be exclusionary and hierarchical in the same way that mainstream theatre can?
MJ: It is hard for me to speak to all of LGBT theatre. I do know that often LGBT spaces can be focused a bit more on the LGB than the T. It is less common to see an LGBT space or festival that focuses on trans people. That was why we wanted this festival to be focused on trans artists.

Are there any stories that you are particularly excited for?
MJ: The most exciting thing about our festival is the fantastic range of stories and styles we're presenting. There's everything from Kit Yan's exploration of heartbreak, to Ariel Zetina's meditations on displacement and identity, to Taylor Edelhart's investigations of how a mouse can ruin your life, to Notes on the Past, a puppet-based exploration of trans people's grief and loss, to Maybe's lovely play about identity, trauma, and desire!

Maybe, can you tell me about your own play?
Love Letters to Nobody, or Insignificant Others, is an autobiographical amalgamation of letters to and from people in my past. I was writing a lot of things and tried a few different ideas until I realized I had a good amount of material about sex and love. Romantic love, platonic love, "making love," the lack of love. A large amount of the letters are taken word for word from conversations I've actually had with people. Some are fabricated based on real experiences. There are some literal letters to nobody, some to exes, some to family, some to one night stands, some to people I never got to date, and some to me. Through these letters, I reflect on how love, sex, identity, and trauma all intersect. 

The Trans Theatre Festival runs June 7 - 26, 2016 at The Brick.


Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of Brick Theater

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