Being Trans and Non-Binary in Theatre

Jessie Langenfeld, contributor

The theatre is thought to be an extremely accepting place for LGBTQ+ people. It is thought by many people that it is a place where everyone can be themselves, but that’s not necessarily true when acting. Roles for trans and nonbinary characters are almost nonexistant; this leaves these actors to play a cisgender character, usualy of a gender associated with the actor’s assigned gender at birth. This creates a struggle for trans and non-binary actors as they are asked to change their appearance to look more like what we perceive that gender as; for example, a trans woman who doesn’t “pass” very well might be asked to cut her hair so she can play a male character on stage. These actors are often then misgendered by fellow cast members throughout the rehearsal process. 

Acting can be a very gendered profession, as people work to portray characters on stage. These characters often live in a very gendered world and some playwrights are not willing to have a character’s gender change to match that of the actor. However, what many writers and directors still do not understand is how painful dysphoria can be for trans or non binary actors when playing a different gender. Actors asked to change their appearance for a role can face dysphoria from having to look in a way that does not match up with their gender. I asked Kelton Holsen, a non-binary person assigned male at birth who occasionally acts, about the prospect of having to cut their hair shorter to a “male” hairstyle. “It would be like asking someone who identifies as female to get a buzz cut,” said Kelton. “If I absolutely had to do it, I would probably wear a wig when not onstage because of how distressing it would be.”

Playing a different gender on stage can also make people associate that gender with you off stage. Not all casts are able to really get to know each other offstage as easily. Most of the time in rehearsal is spent as the characters people are portraying, leaving it hard to get to know the other performers as themselves–and leaving many actors to have to live in the gender of their character off the stage too. I spoke to non-binary actor Danny Reinan about this, and they say that they have been very lucky as to play a few non-binary characters on stage, and that they feel a rush that is not there when playing a cisgender character. However, when not playing a non-binary character, they tend to be cast as a women. Danny stated that in order to play a woman, they tend to separate themselves from the role in order to feel comfortable playing it; with that, though, people tend to misgender them more when they are in those shows. “We need more works that tell trans stories and trans people need to not be shut out because a lot of times casting is highly gender particularly in large theatre companies,” said Danny. “Casting directors need to be more open minded about gender roles and how people need to act to portray those roles. There is a wealth of acting talent in the trans community that is constantly overlooked.”

The Howlround Theatre Commons’ survey of plays produced for the first time in the 2019 and 2020 season shows that there are very few trans and non-binary writers and characters. In the 111 plays included in the survey, only 1.3% of the playwrights identified as non binary, with no playwrights identifying themselves as transgender, and only 6.7% of the characters were trans, non-binary or gender nonconforming. This survey only represents plays produced this year, but still, the presence of trans and non-binary vocies as well as representation for those genders are overwelmingly low. Theatre is a place that is said to be accepting and a place where people can feel welcome, but for actors who are not cisgender, it is often lacking in this acceptance. Directers and producers need to be more open to genderqueer characters and to show these voices before queer people decide leave the theatre and find other careers.