Building Trans Presence Onstage and Off At Bay Area Theatres
Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Kari Barclay
This year has proved again the vitality of trans and gender-nonconforming artists in the Bay Area. Peacock Rebellion in Oakland produced comedy and music centering queer and trans people of color. In celebration of the Tenderloin being declared the world’s first transgender cultural district, Counterpulse and the SF Cinematheque presented a series of trans experimental films and programming. In Berkeley, TheatreFIRST staged WAAFRIKA 123, Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s play about trans identity in rural Kenya. As queer and trans artists keep making exciting work in small-scale venues and as part of arts festivals, larger theater companies and performance venues are considering how to build more equitable policies for artists and patrons alike.
Inspired by the closing plenary session from last year’s Theatre Bay Area conference—which explored concrete steps for creating fully inclusive theatre environments—actor, lawyer, and Stanford lecturer Kathleen Antonia Tarr wrote a report entitled Achieving a Safe and Inclusive Bay Area Theatre-Making Environment, outlining goals for Bay Area theatre companies around equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) along both one-year and five-year timelines. Proposed steps include EDI trainings, non-insular hiring practices, and resource sharing between arts organizations.
The report shines a spotlight on the inequity that can occur at the structural level of an organization—through customary practices that go unexamined. Improving the accessibility of our arts ecosystem, it maintains, will require rethinking how organizations operate.
Sean Dorsey. Photo by Lydia Daniller
“There are certain policies for arts organizations to embrace and adopt in order to reduce some of the many barriers that keep transgender and gender-nonconforming people out of theaters and dance performances,” says Sean Dorsey, artistic director of Fresh Meat Productions, which, in its 17 years, has foregrounded the work of trans and gender-nonconforming dancers, especially those of color and of other marginalized identities. One of the most prominent trans choreographers in North America, Dorsey has received four Isadora Duncan Dance Awards and been named one of American Theater Magazine’s 25 Artists to Watch.
Dorsey emphasizes Fresh Meat’s intersectional approach to serving trans and gender-nonconforming (GNC) artists and audiences; one that refuses to consider gender inclusivity without also considering such factors as race, sexuality, migration status, and wealth.
“When we think about anyone engaged with our organization, we think about their experience of people from the moment they hear about our event,” says Dorsey.
He suggests that providing all-gender restrooms, removing cumbersome ID policies, working deeply in community, and hiring trans and GNC folks all help ensure an organization’s projects are accessible from end-to-end.
Kathleen Antonia Tarr. Photo courtesy Women's Media Summit.
The push for gender-expansive restroom policies has been one of the more prominent organizational moves toward accessibility. The passage in 2016 of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which required people to only use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates, highlighted the need for bathroom policies that are supportive of the trans and GNC communities. Arts organizations around the country have made efforts to follow the advice of community advocates and offer fully ADA-compliant, all-gender restrooms and dressing rooms.
According to Dale Albright, deputy director of Theatre Bay Area, TBA has provided an all-gender restroom at its annual conference for the past couple of years and plans to do so in 2019. “It is something we do as a standard practice,” he says.
Dorsey points out a less obvious but similarly important issue—the need for box office policies that don’t require legal IDs. The standard theatre practice of asking for government-issued IDs to pick up tickets at will call, often meant to prevent the unauthorized resale of tickets, can have the unintended result of discouraging potential audience members.
“Many people who are gender-nonconforming as well as people who are undocumented as well as people with disabilities are afraid to get legal identification that matches their whole selves,” says Dorsey.
ID policies affect each of these communities and those at their intersections. For trans folks whose legal IDs bear birth names or genders not aligned with their gender identities, providing ID can be a frustrating and hassle-filled experience. Undocumented folks who lack US- or California-issued IDs (the provisional California driver’s license available to undocumented folks can’t legally serve as an ID) might not be able to meet box office ID requirements. For some folks with disabilities and the elderly, obtaining or renewing an ID is a transportation challenge, and they are almost twice as likely as the general population to lack government-issued IDs. As with voter ID laws that keep people from the ballot box, rigid ID rules can drive people away from the box office.
Beyond these steps for patrons, Dorsey urges organizations to "look at the composition of your board, your staff, your ushers, the vendors you hire, and the consultants you contract with and really face the music if all of those people are cisgender [i.e., non-transgender].”
If there are trans people in leadership and at the table, it can shift the discussion beyond "inclusion." There need not always be a cisgender “us” including a trans “them.” Conversations about identity can ask not only who is included but also who does the including.
Publicizing inclusive policies to potential audiences and collaborators is just as important as implementing them, advocates say.
“It’s really important to signal in advance that that space is possible for us to access,” says Dorsey. He suggests a simple notice on a website about bathroom and ID policies or evidence of past trans performances to help potential partners know that they won’t encounter the usual obstacles when interfacing with an organization.
Last year’s report cited a lack of funding, staff, and time to implement institutional change as the biggest barrier to equity, diversity, and inclusion at arts organizations—a genuine concern at a time when organizations’ resources are stretched thin. However, Tarr writes, collaborations between organizations can help make it easier to work for accessibility. Given the strength of trans and gender-nonconforming artists and audiences in the Bay, they’re not to be overlooked.
The 2019 TBA annual conference will occur on April 1st. The one-day event brings together theater-makers leaders in the interest of building a vibrant, safe, and inclusive theater ecology.
Fresh Meat’s 2019 Festival of transgender and queer performance will occur in June of 2019. Their website has information about upcoming events and programming.
Kari Barclay is a queer director, writer, and educator completing his PhD at Stanford University. kari-barclay.com