To write Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women, producer and playwright Paul Lucas held 70 interviews over hundreds of hours around the world, from Cuba to Australia. He talked to people who had gone through transition from the age of 16 all the way up to 68, including everyone from sex workers to a gynecologist.
And if you’re expecting the next statement to be about the similarities he found between the stories he heard, think again.
The accounts couldn’t have been more diverse, and that’s exactly the point of the work. The verbatim play will be performed here for the first time by members of Vancouver’s own transgender community in a Frank Theatre and Zee Zee Theatre coproduction.
“Trans people have had to tell their story in a concise elevator pitch for the past 40 years,” the affable conversationalist Lucas tells the Straight over the phone from his home base in New York City. “That’s because so many people are confused by your journey. But it’s also because there were these gatekeepers [to transitioning] in the medical system, so people would learn what story would get them through the front door and use that—the same narrative elements got told over and over again.”
Lucas went into the massive project not knowing entirely what he might find. The project was prompted by a conversation he’d had with a gay friend who was ailing in the hospital with HIV. On one of Lucas’s visits to his bedside, the subject of transgender pianist and writer-producer Our Lady J (of Pose fame) came up, and his friend commented, “I don’t believe in this whole transgender thing. I could say I’m a unicorn but that doesn’t make me a unicorn.”
“And here is somebody saying that who had to be fairly sensitive to people’s prejudice,” Lucas says.
The comment became a vivid reminder of how marginalized the trans community is. Lucas started looking into his own vast network of contacts and realized he didn’t have many transgender friends amid the thousands in his Rolodex. And so began a project of tracking down individual stories that would take him most of the next few years.
The true tales he drew from are given voice here by seven people—in this case, Carolynn Dimmer, Quanah Style, Morgane Oger, Amy Fox, Sabrina Symington, Josie Boyce, and Julie Vu.
Frank Theatre director Fay Nass says they all bring personal experience to the stories, but in a vivid illustration of how marginalized the community still is, none of them bring stage experience.
“It shouldn’t be that hard to find a trans person with theatre training in Vancouver,” Nass, who codirects with Cameron Mackenzie, observes in a separate phone call. “As truly trans-gender-identified, we don’t have that much representation—even in cinema.”
The artist, who straddles the worlds of community and professional theatre in her work, adds the extra benefit of the Trans Scripts project is the skills it’s building in the women taking part. “They have learned things about working in theatre, with mentorship and things like approaching a script, and hopefully they can cultivate that,” she says. “The generosity of the cast has been extremely wonderful.”
Both Nass and Lucas stress the reach of the play to audiences outside the trans community—those whose knowledge of the subject might perhaps be limited to RuPaul’s Drag Race or Caitlyn Jenner tabloid stories. And Lucas expresses hope that the stories he worked so hard to find will open their minds to a narrative beyond the stereotypes of the trans experience—just like it has opened his own mind.
“I am not a fan of ‘I was born this way,’” he asserts. “Why does it matter? What if I just woke up and said, ‘This is what it is’? Why does it make it better? And the idea of being trapped in your own body—like someone had no choice in the matter—to me was something negative and victim-y.”
Along the way, Lucas has found himself in awe of the courage, sharp humour, and insights of the dozens of people he connected with for the play. “They are some of the most self-reflective people I’ve met,” he says.
Trans Scripts, Part 1: The Women is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Thursday (March 12) to March 21.