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Identity

The Acting Course Preparing Trans Stars for Their Close Up

TransActing is a first-of-its-kind acting course, providing trans performers an opportunity to hone their craft in an inclusive environment.

by David Levesley
Sep 28 2016, 9:10pm

TransActing students perform a theater exercise during the first of the program's acting workshops last April.

What's become clear over the past few years of increased trans visibility in film and television is that almost everyone—from Jeffrey Tambor himself to those who expressed outrage over the casting of Matt Bomer in the upcoming move Anything—is fed up with "transface" casting, or the casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles. And though the problem is thorny, having been blamed on everything from the lack of trans talent with major star power to the need for roles that reflect the lived experience of trans people, and not just the transition process, a larger question remains: How do we cultivate more talent in the first place, to keep trans faces onscreen?

TransActing, a series of workshops for trans performers at one of London's leading drama schools, is seeking to provide one answer. Through short, skills-based workshops, the program is providing a way for trans performers to cultivate their skills and connect with a network of other performers, and to the knowledge of Dr. Catherine McNamara, one of the program's founders, it is the first of its kind.

McNamara belongs to a nonprofit called Gendered Intelligence, which focuses on using the arts as a way of exploring gender identity. Previous projects have involved autobiographical storytelling, life drawing, and filmmaking, but after talking with Fox Fisher, who co-founded an ongoing film project named My Genderation that explores gender variance, McNamara came to realize there was appetite for acting classes in London's trans community.

The first TransActing course was held last August, as a five-day workshop at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where Catherine McNamara is pro-dean and director of learning, teaching, and student experience. The course was a collaboration between Gendered Intelligence, My Genderation, and the school. Since then, a masterclass-style workshop has been held every other month. Classes are usually limited to 20 students, who are charged on a means-based sliding scale. They share facilities and teaching staff with the school's other courses, including its intensive three-year BA in acting.

"Being trans has always been a bit of a barrier for getting into acting," said one student in a video recorded at that first five-day workshop by Fisher. "In fact, before I started doing this course, I'd always kind of crossed it off my list—because I love drama and pretty much everything I do is drama-related, but very early on, I was just like, well, there's just no way you can be trans and act." They went on to note that they were now thinking about performing and auditioning again, thanks to the workshop.

Royal Central, which has more than a thousand students across its many courses, has an "unsurprisingly proportionate" number of trans students (around ten), according to McNamara. She says it might be due to the school's research into queer performance and also explained that the school offers "audition vouchers" to TransActing attendees who decide to audition for the school's bigger programs for a waived fee. Of the nine other British acting schools contacted for this story, none were able to give examples of course offerings or other resources for trans applicants, or did not reply by press time.

On occasion, UK filmmakers and TV scouts will use the TransActing community as a way to circulate casting calls, which has resulted in work for participants on mainstream TV shows like the BBC One's Casualty. In the most recent workshop, TV casting agents came in pro bono, due to an interest in meeting more trans talent.

McNamara recounted how the meeting led to a conversation about what casting agents are looking for from trans actors: Are you looking for people who present as male or female to play trans characters? Would they be considered for cisgender parts? Or is the aim to scout trans talent who—as one student put it—"looks very trans?" What room is there for a non-binary trans performer?

What McNamara has discovered through the program is that a great diversity of opinions exist among trans performers about who and what they are willing to play. "There were people in the room that day who would like to play trans characters and bring authenticity to a trans role that a cisgender actor cannot," explained McNamara, "and that's totally logical. And there were others who weren't interested in playing a trans part: They're an actor first."

Some trans students in the workshop, for example, said they would have jumped at the chance to take on Eddie Redmayne's performance as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, and would have drawn on their experience transitioning for the role, in which the character transitions from male to female. Others had no desire to play a role pre-transition.

McNamara thinks the audition process itself might be inadequate to serve the variety of possibilities offered by trans roles and has proposed that acting resumes include the spectrum of genders one is able and willing to perform as alongside the ages they can realistically play. "You offer that up to casting, so you're being proactive about it," she explained.

James Le Lacheur is a non-binary cast member of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play currently selling out London's Palace Theatre. They generally play male roles, both in this play and others—but said the show is "a beautiful opportunity to present however I want, because I get to wear a wig and get to be completely transformed onstage." But their training at Oxford School Of Drama often left them feeling pigeonholed. Even as someone presenting as male at the time, Lacheur said, "I was actively dissuaded from doing certain speeches, even in classes where men play women all the time."

As someone who is non-binary, Le Lacheur wants the freedom to be considered for both trans and cisgender roles. They thought the idea of including a "casting gender" on a résumé would be excellent and also thinks including classes in formal acting education that teach skills like presenting as a different gender would be great—but should be available to students of all gender identities. "Not to endorse transface casting, but for roles like [Matilda's] Trunchbull or [Hairspray's] Edna Turnblad, I think it's a useful thing," they said. "Just for those classes to exist would be a tremendous validation to people's identity."

As well as some success in landing TV roles, TransActing students have found opportunities with the National Theatre of Scotland and London's Royal Court theatre. But as McNamara points out, professional triumphs aren't the only gauge of the program's success. Some participants have used confidence gained from the workshop in exam presentations, or have gone into amateur dramatics buoyed by their experience in a safe space for trans performers. Students are "coming into a space full of trans and non-binary people and working together, not being judged as [they] are in every other aspect of life," McNamara said. "You are valued, respected, and in a way, your gender identity is irrelevant. And it's a beautiful, brilliant thing."

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