NORMATIVITY's Aneesh Sheth on Advocacy of Diverse Casting
On the Advocacy of Diverse Casting- by Aneesh Sheth
"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 fiancé 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.