(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton.
Check out further Diversity & Inclusion posts on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion Salon–Trans* Theatre Artists
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
JOSHUA BASTIAN COLE: I always find it tricky to explain what it is I do, but I suppose I’m primarily a theatre historian and a dramaturg. I also perform and write plays, but I get very excited about finding threads and connections in other people’s plays. I’m pretty good at it! The other part of the theatrical world that I have my hands in is academia. I present papers a few times a year, sometimes about trans dramaturgy, sometimes not trans related. I also theorize about (trans-centric) embodied practice and cyborg theatre. For that last bit with the cyborgs, I also talk about puppets and performing objects which is a lot of fun.
JL: How do you identify in terms of gender, race, and culture? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
JBC: I’m a white trans man. I was raised Jewish, which a lot of people don’t know. I gave up Judaism a long time ago, but I think it’s relevant to the rest of me. Certainly, my trans ID has been the driving force of all of the work I do, especially because I focus on trans men and trans masculinities. My scholarly work revolves around upending cisnormative expectations in actor training and casting, and all of my plays have trans men leads, except the ones with women leads. Looking at it now, Judaism was as important an influence as my trans ID because I left the religion right after my Bat Mitzvah. I was a little proto-feminist at 13 because my conservative synagogue had a separate women’s congregation in the basement while the men had the glorious stained glass upstairs. They also didn’t allow women cantors or rabbis… I didn’t like that. I guess I’m still trying to get us all out of the basement.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
JBC: I think I’d be in a much different position if I was trying to be an actual working professional in the field, like an actor. While I’ve been working as a dramaturg and performer for years, I’ve only had my first ever paid dramaturgy gig about a month ago, and I didn’t even think I was getting paid for that at all. My career has never been financially beneficial or even responsible in the least, but I love it. I hope one day this can be what I “do”as in my job that I actually live on. Hah! Someday. When I’m at a table with a playwright, a director, and actors… it feels like home.
As for opportunities, I don’t think doors open widely for me unless people are searching to fill diversity quotas. I’ve definitely been the token trans person just so people could say they had a trans person around. Doors close sometimes in the feminist spaces I want to be in because I pass as a white man. I’m very out, but unless you know me, I often read as a gay cis man (I don’t ID as gay). I’m careful about the space I take up, but my masculinity is sometimes considered not radical enough, and I’m white. I suppose I could have used my passability and white privilege to my advantage, which I’m sure I manage to do anyway, but it’s a pretty gross idea.
I also wanted to mention that as a white person who presents and is read as male, I didn’t want to perpetuate the larger systemic issues of underrepresentation in the American theatre inside my own trans microcosm, but The Killjoys list, as it was when I first posted it, was made up of about 40% cisgender allies with about 20% of the whole people of color, and only about 10% trans women. The original purpose was to match the number of plays from The Kilroys, but the networks I’m connected to are clearly linked to “who” I am.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of the transgender community?
JBC: Well, I think we have to stop saying the trans communities have “issues.” Do women playwrights write about women’s issues? I keep seeing the word “issues.” I never use that word. I say “voice.” Trans voices should be listened to, heard, comprehended… we should be seen, not gawked at. I mean, we’re just people for Pete’s sake, just regular people with really interesting lives, or sometimes totally boring lives! I don’t think we should be particularly featured, I think we should be included. Like anyone else. But then, that’s the problem isn’t it? Not everyone is being included are they? A lot of the system, the white cis men primarily, still don’t understand that their perspective is not a universal one.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in the American Theatre?
JBC: We cannot have conversations about gender without transgender. Period. That’s where The Killjoys comes from. It is not acceptable to ignore us anymore. I’ve said that since day 1 of being out. 15 years later, I still see plays (more often movies really) that incorporate trans culture in some way, but just pretend that trans isn’t a thing. OR they just get it all horribly, offensively wrong. And the conversation about gender inclusion has been going on as if there are only cis men and cis women being affected. I was so glad to see that The Kilroys at least acknowledged the problem of discussing the issue in binary terms. Trans language is not new, the trans communities are for sure not new, so what is taking so long?
Joshua Bastian Cole (whose preferred name is Cole) is an out trans man playwright, dramaturg, theatre historian, and independent scholar. His publications include essays in the anthologies Trans Forming Families, Beyond Masculinity, and Visible: A Femmethology. Cole has been featured in Huffington Post, Bust, Autostraddle, Out Magazine, Original Plumbing, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, London Metro, and Jacob Anderson-Minshall’s syndicated column: Trans Nation. Before recently relocating from New York City to Burlington, Vermont, Cole taught in the Department of Speech, Communication, and Theatre Arts at CUNY, BMCC. He holds an M.A. in Theatre History and Criticism from CUNY, Brooklyn College, a B.A. in Theatre and Dance from James Madison University, and he is a member of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and the Congress on Research in Dance. Learn more about Cole at: joshuabastiancole.weebly.com
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com