Transcendent Education and Entertainment Through Theatre

by China Young

Transgender. Transexual. Cis. AFAB. It is likely that you have come across these and other terms at some point. They are in the news more and more as our nation tries to legislate bathrooms and genitalia, even to the point that the Supreme Court is still deciding whether the prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, they’re going to rule on whether employers can fire people because they are trans or gay. The conversation is heated and emotional on all sides. As someone who tries to follow the debate, I have observed a severe lack of listening and an even deeper void of understanding. Fortunately there are people willing to do the work to spread the knowledge, and Martie van der Voort (pronouns they/she) is one of those fearless individuals that has taken the helm of the conversation in their full-length, one-person show, TransFormations. Despite van der Voort only being one person, they/she provides this opportunity to meet and engage with multiple trans people in such a proficient way that I was fully engaged and invested throughout. The discussion of gender identity has become more public due to the attempts by conservative lawmakers to legislate identity, and due to the trans community’s bravery in not only fighting discriminatory legislation but demanding more visibility and awareness. If you have any questions about what being transgender means – whether you are looking for a textbook answer or an experiential perspective – you will be handed an impressive array of learning moments within the course of this roughly two-hour production.

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TransFormations is framed as a trans support group.  Whether they know it or not, the audience is full of new group members with varying levels of knowledge on this subject. The education begins instantly as van der Voort’s first character, Graciela (she/hers), gently invites us into the group, helping us assimilate to the conversation by giving us facts, definitions, and introducing us to some of the group members. Graciela is the leader of the support group, and though she is not trans herself, she is the parent of a transman. She tells her story first – how she learned that her AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) child identifies as a man, and therefore is a man. She even discusses the fact that, despite loving her son, she had to mourn the loss of her daughter. Van der Voort continues to introduce us to character after character, all of whom are unique and distinctly channeled through their/her skilled performance. Under the guidance of director Tom Slauson (he/him), van der Voort portrays transmen, transwomen, non-binary, non-transitioning, AND their wives and children – they/she runs the gamut.

We are quickly faced with the question of how one knows they are trans. The response can be simplified to “how do you know if you are right-handed or left-handed? You just know.” We are reminded that the modern world was designed for the right-handed. We are reminded that there was a time when being left-handed was considered “wrong,” and left-handed people were forced to use their right hands to write, eat, play sports, and so on. We are reminded that now, nobody questions the validity of being left-handed. So then, why do they question the validity of being trans? Is that clarity around one’s own identity different from recognizing that you are left-handed in a world where it’s “right to be right,” or at least easier? There are many other questions, just as complex, throughout the show; they are explored with humor, dramatic nuance, and honesty. As someone with trans friends and family, I truly felt like I knew many of these characters in real life. From beat poet and transman Mark, to the angry son of a transwoman, through the revelations made by newly-transitioning Phil (ftm – female to male) and his girlfriend Beth, you will leave knowing a lot more people in and connected to the trans community than you knew when you came in.

In juxtaposition to depth of the material, the technical elements are fairly modest. The set consists of some chairs in a semi-circle, most topped with some sort of clothing or accessory to denote a character’s seat. The lighting, by Emil Lamanda (he/him), is predominantly a simple wash of light, with a couple of strategically-placed instances of isolation. Before the show begins, there is a projector that is used to display images setting the tone of the production. This is valuable because the show is void of sound design, a tool often used to set the mood and help guide the audience through the journey. I did question the need for its use in the middle of the second act, though I appreciated the information it revealed and reinforced. I found the minimalist design to further allow space for van der Voort to fully embody everything about each character, making the show truly about them.

I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one with van der Voort after the performance. I learned that they/she has been working on this play for over a decade.There have been several other performances, but this was the first fully-produced run (and hopefully not the last). When I asked about the spectrum of characters and where they came from, they/she said “they just kept coming out of me,” although they/she acknowledged that many of them were inspired by friends or acquaintances. There is even someone that didn’t make it into this iteration of the show because van der Voort and director Slauson felt the character wasn’t ready for the stage.

TransFormations is a show that does everything I yearn for theatre to do: entertain and educate.

Presented by Something Something Theatre at St. Francis in the Foothills, the run continues through November 17th, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30pm, and Sunday afternoons at 3:00pm. Purchase tickets online at https://www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com/ or by calling 520-468-6111.

 

Parity or Better, but Usually Better

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season. 

Coffee, representation on the stage, and really good plays with Something Something Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Joan O’Dwyer and founding director Whitney Morton Woodcock.

by Leigh Moyer

Something Something LogoSomething Something Theatre brands itself as theatre by women for everyone. Their mission is “Parity or better,” founding Director Whitney Morton Woodcock explained over coffee. “So fifty percent or better, but we usually have more than fifty percent of our season written by female playwrights.”

This mindset started with their first season – not as a fluke, but also not exactly on purpose – driven instead by feminism and the realization that there was a lot of good work that was too often overlooked. It started when three fierce women, Joan O’Dwyer, Whitney Morton Woodcock, and Esther Almazán, saw a gap in the Tucson theatre community that became their niche. “There are just so many plays written by women, and women are really finding their voice right now. And they’re young women and they’re brilliant,” Joan O’Dwyer gushed, “And they’re not just writing about homely things, they’re writing about war and injustices to women and women in different countries and their experiences which nobody has ever heard before and I just love that.”

I have to say, I agree with her. But that doesn’t make doing theatre by women easy. While it was a woman who was the most-produced playwright in the United States in the 2017-2018 season and second most-produced in 2018-2019, this is a distinctly modern phenomenon. (That playwright is Lauren Gunderson, playwright of Something Something’s first production of the season, The Revolutionists.) Historical restrictions limited women’s opportunities to write and kept women’s work from the stage for a long time, which means staging women’s plays now is often a choice to focus on contemporary work rather than well-known classics. It doesn’t faze the women of Something Something, but producing a significant amount of new or unknown writers is a risk. Women may be finding their voice now and using it to tell amazing stories, but we have ground to make up.

But boy, are we. O’Dwyer and Morton Woodcock are faced with the best kind of problem when selecting plays: there are almost too many great plays by women. Selecting the next (and next, and next) season is a process of narrowing down the choices, and then amending that list as new plays are written and produced. And if they do a play by someone of the male persuasion? “Well,” Joan quipped, “if the play is written by a man, it has to be a really good play. They have to work five times as hard if they want to get in– for half as much pay!”

Oh, how the tables have turned. And while it is important to the Something Something artistic team to have representation, like all theatres, the point isn’t that the play was written by a woman, but rather that the play is meaningful, inspiring, challenging, or simply entertaining. (The point, I would add, is that women playwrights are writing great theatre prolifically, not in isolated cases of genius.)

Morton Woodcock explains, “It is more about the story and how we think the audience will feel. What it comes down to is that it is a good story and there are good roles. And liking the characters. Like in The Aliens, those guys are so… they’re so incompetent sometimes, but they’re also so funny. They are likable.”

“They’re sexist,” O’Dwyer interrupted.

This didn’t slow Morton Woodcock down for a beat, “But likable.” And so goes theatre. So goes storytelling. You don’t always want to be friends with the characters in a good show. She continued, “We pick plays about humans, humans who should be represented on the stage, but also humans who are flawed. We choose scripts that address those flaws, call out the bad behavior, but sometimes you just have to let the characters be the characters. I wouldn’t do a play that portrayed someone who was really horrible in a positive light and of course we aren’t going to do plays that endorse problematic people.”

“You have to feel empathy for these people,” O’Dwyer added. “But it is going to have to be handled delicately.” That is, after all, what good theatre is: showing people new perspectives and challenging them to reflect and take new perspectives out of the theater and into the real world. A lot of characters are morally gray.

While some plays this season present characters that force the audience to consider a new view point, others take on issues that are often overlooked or downplayed in a male dominated culture, like the decision to become a mother, go back to work, breastfeed in public, or seek help for postpartum depression. Cry It Out focuses on women connected by the experience of new motherhood and the challenges that come with it, something that struck close to home for Morton Woodcock as a new mother. She is also the director of Cry It Out and can relate to the women. “It isn’t sexy or fun to discuss,” she admitted, “Like, maternity leave, ohhh. But it has to be discussed. They talk in the play about how people judge the choices you make, about deciding to have a baby at all. Everyone, other moms included, has an opinion and everyone feels like they are right and if you do it differently, you are a monster. I cried when I read the script.”

I asked both if they had a show they were most excited about. Without hesitation O’Dwyer answered, “I’m really excited about Cry It Out. It has something we don’t often see on stage: new mothers and they are all different.” Cry It Out goes beyond the stereotypes of never getting enough sleep or complaining about changing diapers.

Woodcock Morton also has a favorite: “The one I think is important for people to see it Martie’s play Transformations. This topic, the concept of transgender and gender fluidity, is something that has been growing in the public eye in terms of celebrities and media and people talking about it more but a lot of people still don’t understand. Martie is not giving a lecture or sharing what can be googled; she is sharing people. She is funny and it is well written and she gives each character she plays their own persona that you can relate to. I’m not sure that people realize that representation matters. The types of stories you see, the types of characters you see, impacts your world view. We consume stories to explain our lives, or who we are, but it also normalizes new or different perspectives.”

The 2019-2020 season, Something Something’s fifth, brings five plays, all written by women, to the stage. And Joan has a point, they aren’t just writing about homely things, they are writing about revolution, being human, pride and pain, motherhood, and even boys being boys.

This season is a lot about people you think you know, but are presented in a different way that makes you question yourself and those notions. Confront what you think you know at Something Something Theatre. The season is listed online and below. You can become a season ticket holder now and catch all five performances for $75.00 or purchase single tickets for $25.00 each by calling their box office at (520) 468-6111.

Something Something 2019-2020

Something Something Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
September 12 – 29, 2019
Set during the height of the French Revolution, four women – a playwright, an assassin, a spy and an empress – bond to tell the story of their turbulent times for future generations. It’s a comedy. Guillotines may be involved. 

TransFormations by Martie van der Voort
October 31 – November 17, 2019
Local actor and playwright van der Voort performs all twelve transgender characters, their close relatives and significant others at a group therapy session. TransFormations’ has been performed to acclaim in Tucson and in cities around the nation, but this will be its first full run!

Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett
November 27 – December 15, 2019
We are with a woman baking a small pie in a kitchen not her own. The room is bare, institutional. There are no chairs, and a knife is attached to the work table with a wire.  This is the story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain.

Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler
February 13 – March 1, 2020
Metzler’s sympathetic yet brutally honest play brings characters to the stage not normally seen. Three women, diverse in all ways… except hat they have all recently given birth and are coping with everything that comes with being the main caretaker. Funny and uniquely insightful, written by a young mother.

The Aliens by Annie Baker
March 26 – April 12, 2020
Something Something Theatre produced Body Awareness, another of Baker’s ‘Shirley, Vermont plays’ in our second season. Dramatists Play Service describes The Aliens so darn well that we’re simply forced to run their synopsis here: “Two angry young men sit behind a Vermont coffee shop and discuss music and Bukowski. When a lonely high-school student arrives on the scene, they decide to teach him everything they know. A play with music.” – Dramatists Play Service