Part 1: Making Space for Gender-Queer Voices (and Making Sure to Pay Them Too)

By: Jan. 27, 2020

Part 1: Making Space for Gender-Queer Voices (and Making Sure to Pay Them Too)

What do young artists (many with intersecting, marginalized identities) think about where Boston theatre will go in the 2020s? "No one's gonna want to work with me after reading this," Geena Forristall laughed when asked. Although a light-hearted comment, it is backed up with an all too unfortunate truth. As a non-binary theatre artist who uses they/ them pronouns, Forristall admits to being limited in where they can work in Boston. "Maybe it's just me being picky, but I just won't work for theatres whose leadership refuses to respect my identity."

They explained their frustrations, "People in power need to listen. And they need to fully believe lived experiences. If I tell you something is transphobic, you need to listen. I'm not asking you to fight me on this. If someone tells you they are experiencing micro-aggressions in a production process, you need to hear them. You don't need to have the answer, but the first step in fixing the problem is really listening. And listening does nothing if you don't believe them."

Though Forristall may snarkily try to downplay how they've been a thorn in the side of many theatres in Boston, as a producer, stage manager, and production assistant, they've garnered an impressive resume. When asked what they hope most to see change in Boston theatre in the next decade, they put it plainly, "Trans people, especially trans women, are going to change the fabric of the theatre world once they are given jobs. People need to hire trans, non-binary, and gender expansive artists." For citation, they lauded Marge Buckley's The Earth Room which premiered last year at Boston's Fresh Ink Theatre, Speakeasy Stage's Men on Boats, the consistent employment practices of Company One, and mentioned the work done by Open Flame Theatre, a trans/ non-binary collective in Minneapolis. They aptly analyzed how too many theatres are engaging with "front-facing" progress in visible and "performative ways", but how, "when (theatres) care about (themselves) and their own reputations more than they care about the safety of the people who work for them, (they) reinforce that not everyone matters."

Forristall went on to talk about how Boston institutions still seem to be okay with shoe-horning a single queer play into their seasons as well as a single black play or single feminist play. A prime example, they noted, was Lyric Stage Company's The Cake Play. The piece does not provide any new insight to a queer experience, but caters to an audience who wants to comfortably engage with their liberal optics without challenging themselves to grow. This bare-minimum effort, they explained, is indicative of the same performative ideologies that fight to appease Boston's politically progressive audiences without genuinely doing the more rigorous work of dismantling oppressive systems. They referenced two productions in the Huntington Theatre's season. The Purists, which features a nuanced instance of transphobia from within the queer community, failed to provide the necessary context for cis audiences to understand the situation and engage appropriately. Earlier, a drag scene in Indecent elicited laughter from those same audiences, because the idea of a man in a dress was innately funny to them. Because of this performance of care that is plaguing Boston theatres while poisoning any roots that could be planted, among other factors, Forristall lamented the flight of several promising trans and non-binary talents to New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis over the past few years.

Gavin Damore is one such artist. He recently left Boston, where he worked variously as a PR consultant, social media manager, and box office associate for multiple theatre groups, and began work as a marketing associate at ta major regional theatre in Chicago.

"In Boston, it felt like you had the option of either working for one of 2 or 3 large theatre companies, or doing gigs with meager stipends while working a full-time job unrelated to the arts. (In Chicago), I feel like even if I didn't have a full-time job with a company, I could make it working two part-time jobs at two different theatres. It's nonprofit arts so you're still not making a ton, but I can live comfortably as long as I'm careful with my money. This has let me be a bit pickier in where I want to work. No company is perfect, but I don't feel like I have to work for a theatre company whose values are totally unaligned with mine just because it's the only theatre around that pays a somewhat decent wage. I can be out as a trans man at my current job and my boss checks in when she feels a microaggression has happened, so that's a nice feeling." Just as with Forristall, Damore uses the word 'picky' to describe how he feels about working with theatres who respect his identity.

He continued, "The biggest problem in Boston is companies not paying most folks a living- or even decent, wage. It makes it extremely difficult for anyone who doesn't come from money to work in the industry - so we end up with a very white, cishet, able-bodied scene. We can't address that issue without addressing how little we're paying folks."

Forristall seemed to echo Damore's qualms with Boston's hiring practices. They explained that, as a producer, their main focuses are equitable pay and diversified representation. Just as Damore noted, they confirm that the two issues are entangled in ways that make them reliant upon each other. But how does one go about increasing salaries for artists across a wide expanse of producing companies? From a marketing standpoint, Damore takes a quick stab at the issue:

"For a large theatre, that may mean padding your season with a cash cow show or two, or being strategic with partnerships. For smaller theatres, it may mean understanding that you're just making art for arts sake and all that matters as far as selling tickets is breaking even and paying your artists - not renting a fancy new space or bringing your show to NYC."

Damore went on to explain his take on Boston's current financial priorities (which often take precedence over equitable payment), saying, "Theatres and ensembles (in Chicago) tend to have a very specific aesthetic or type of work they produce, and they own that. There's also an understanding that you don't have to be the next big, shiny theatre with expensive productions to be successful. I feel like a lot of fringe theatres in Boston are just trying to be the next Huntington or ART - so they're really only 'fringe' because they haven't had their 'big break' yet. It has nothing to do with the kind of work being produced." He explained how companies may invest in excessive promotional materials, galas, and high-end performance venues as priorities over the fair reimbursement of artists.

To start looking at what both these artists have diagnosed productively, there seems to be an over-arching theme that young artists (especially those with marginalized identities) are ready to start seeing a shift in priorities as far as arts leadership is concerned in Boston. Forristall suggests, "If you aren't qualified to recognize that a script is inherently racist or transphobic, you need to hire people to do that work with you. Pay them to help you select your season."

One local artist who has engaged with such challenges in the past, having worked as an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) consultant for several Boston groups, is Michael Rosegrant. Right away, she explains, "while identifying under the umbrella of non-binary, I am a cis-passing individual using any pronouns said with respect who thus does not face the same barriers to spaces that fellow gender-divergent artists face- artists who cis people would consider 'more divergent' than me, to use their perspective." He lauded the conversations that StageSource's Gender Explosion Initiative has already ignited within the theatre community. However, she maintains that Boston overall has not made itself a viable city in which trans people can safely flourish.

She pinpoints two areas in which she feels Boston can begin to more actively engage with our gender expansive artists. "One: we need more plays written and/or directed by gender-divergent artists --preferably local-- produced by mid-to-large-size regional theatres." This is something important to think about. This season, I am only aware of one upcoming work being produced in Boston by an openly trans writer: Nosferatu, The Vampyr by M Sloth Levine at Sparkhaven Theatre. If we are not willing to hear these perspectives more frequently on our stages, what message does that send to the trans artists in our community?

They go on, "Two: I have been an advocate for an intersectional reckoning with American gender norms that centers Native and Indigenous voices in the dissolution of the binary. As a Filipino-American who only came to know their relationship to their gender through researching the buried history of precolonial gender in my mother land, I am all too aware that the imposition of both the gender binary and homophobia is in many places a consequence of colonization, imperialism, and the conquests of Christianity. Only by approaching the gender binary and its oppressions through this understanding do I believe long-lasting and inclusive change can be made."

From his unique perspective, Rosegrant looks at the ways the predominantly cis gaze in Boston audiences informs the work of gender-expansive artists on stage as well as how predominantly white audience gazes can inform the works of artists of color such as Claudia Rankine, Diana Oh, Lauren Yee, Aleshea Harris, and Davóne Tines. She wagers, "in my somewhat biased and young opinion, I think Boston is catching up in some ways with other regional theatre hubs. From what I have seen and can see, more revolutionary art and ways of making art are happening in cities like D.C. and Chicago. And it's happening with greater financial support. The Boston work that parallels the theatre I'm talking about is either underfunded/unattended, or it is being perceived rather than received."

He explains what he means further, "Boston audiences are smart. Perhaps too smart to personally engage with the material presented to them. In the fabric of America, I would like to see Boston grow as an incubator-- one of its current strengths from my perspective-- and expand into a more eager listener. I want radical art and artists to feel supported and safe here in ways I know they are currently not."

Damore shared similar thoughts on our city's overall need to realign our artistic priorities. Though currently content in Chicago, he mused, "If I were to be drawn back to Boston, it would be because I'm seeing new, interesting, and exciting work popping up from local artists, and I'm seeing the artists working on them being respected in terms of the expertise and experiences they bring, and the compensation they receive."

As Zora Neale Hurston writes in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, "there is no such thing as justice in the absolute world. We are too human to conceive of it. We all want the breaks, and what seems just to us is something that favors our wishes. If we did not feel that way, there would be no monuments to conquerers in our high places." While this sentiment deeply resonates through the history of the theatre, I am proud to note the track record of the three artists quoted in this article. Time and again, they have proven that, when given power, they will advocate for those still struggling to find their space in this industry.

For instance, Rosegrant shed some light on how, as the co-founder of a social collective, Asian American Theatre Artists of Boston, they have examined how their works will not only be 'perceived' by white or Asian audiences, but also by Black and brown audience members, as well as how black/ brown/ Indigenous Asians are presented on stages.

"There is a greater arts-interested community of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Americans who I see going out and supporting each other across artistic disciplines. Our organizations, with support from the region's established companies, are creating spaces for our community and allies to meet and witness and celebrate together. However, I'd say-and this extends outside of Boston as well, to the national American theatre scene-that we are still missing brown Asian, black Asian, and Indigenous Asian stories.

"Alongside these gaps in representation, what we are struggling with now is audience. Our stories are being told, but if they aren't being produced at a big theatre company like A.R.T., theatre-goers aren't going to them. (One powerful exception to this was Susan Lieu's solo show 140LBS, which we helped tour into Pao from Seattle for four sold-out performances, but this was not a local artist/production.) I've also noticed that houses for our shows skew very white and Asian, which brings up questions for us as producers: how are we not engaging brown and black communities with our work? How can we better dissect the colorism and anti-blackness of our communities and stories through committed anti-racism work to create spaces and stories that black and brown folx actually want to enter? How are our stories (consciously or not) excluding black and brown peoples from our narratives? In what ways are we centering whiteness as we try to find our identities and potential solidarity as a diaspora of over 50 unique ethnic groups clustered under what was originally a political identity: 'Asian American'? Boston's Asian American storytellers are far from solely responsible for answering these, but I think if we start to, we can begin addressing the intersectional failures that lead our work to only be seen by each other and white theatre patrons."

Both Forristall and Rosegrant flirt with the idea of how highly specialized ensembles (for instance, an all trans troupe or exclusively Asian company) might interact with Boston's theatre scene. Neither feels that Boston has the infrastructure or support to sustain such groups right now, though they exist in other American cities. They seem to agree that there are larger problems within Boston theatre which can be addressed under currently-existing institutions, rather than spreading resources even thinner by introducing new companies. In my opinion, what we need in the coming decade is for more young artists like the three mentioned in this article to be given the attention and authority they deserve within theatrical institutions.

Interested in how to engage more actively with trans and non-binary artists? Stagesource has an incredible expanse of resources available here that have been compiled and created by queer artists living and working in Boston. Read, watch, listen, believe.