Talking 'Trans Scripts' with Playwright Paul Lucas

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday January 13, 2017

Back in 2011 Paul Lucas was having a conversation with a friend -- a HIV+ man paralyzed from the waist down. Lucas, a producer and performer, mentioned that he was booking a new artist, the trans gospel singer Our Lady J, and was surprised by the response of his friend. "This gay man in his 50s, who is otherwise pretty forward thinking, said to me that he didn't believe in that "whole transgender thing." He said, 'I could say I am a unicorn, but that doesn't make me a unicorn.' That was so jarring that I immediately thought this is the project I need to do."

But after deciding to focus on the subject, Lucas realized he had more in common with his friend than he initially thought. "I could criticize my friend for not being open-minded, but how open-minded was I? Here I am a gay man in my 50s and how many trans friends do I have? I had two trans friends in my inner-circle of friends, but as someone with a lot of friends, that wasn't a lot of people. So I thought that if I was part of this LGBT umbrella, how much am I doing? I recalled that I was old enough that I could have been very active during the AIDS crisis, but I wasn't particularly because I wasn't completely out at that point, so I saw this as an opportunity to help fight for a different part of my community whose story is ready to be told."

His project turns out to be "Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women," a play written by Lucas culled from interviews he's done with 75 individuals who identify as transgender that is having its local premiere at the American Repertory Theater from January 19 to February 5.

Interviewees from around the world

His interviewees came from all over the world, ranging from England, Australia and the United States to Cuba and India. From the 300 hours of interviews, Lucas pared down the material, into a play, which he first brought to the public at a staged reading at Rutgers University in November 2013 as part of International Transgender Day of Remembrance. Later that month and across the world a two-night developmental reading was presented at the Feast Festival of Queer Culture in Adelaide, Australia. Rutgers hosted a second reading the following February, which was followed a 10-day residency for the project in Bridport, England and staged readings in London where "Trans Scripts" took the shape it resembles today.

It was at the London readings that Lucas and his production team decided not to have his cast play multiple characters speaking monologues, rather to focusing on six individuals and their stories. "In the feedback," explained London cast member Niki McCretton to the website Slate, "someone at one of the London performances said, 'It was like an orchestra where you're trying to hear every instrument as a soloist. In an orchestra, everybody can't be a soloist.' I think that was beautifully put."

The play officially premiered at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival with a six-person cast each telling her story. While the production was warmly received and won a number of awards, Lucas wasn't fully satisfied. For the latest iteration, he has added a seventh woman -- the oldest to transition -- and expanded the script to just over an hour-and-a-half."

An invaluable addition

Director Jo Bonney, who most recently staged Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" at the ART and New York's Public Theater, came on board as director. For Lucas, she's proven to be invaluable to realizing his vision.

"Jo has an unbelievable ability for everyone in the room to be heard, listen to and honored," explains Lucas. "As a writer that is incredibly valuable to have. That's a safety in the room. And while Jo isn't a dramaturge on the piece, she will say, 'I am missing this character here. Or I'm missing this part of the story.' and she always says it in a very collaborative way. And she is really good at looking at the balance between the stories. For me one of her greatest gifts is what it feels like in the room. This sense of collaboration that is truly extraordinary."

What may be surprising is what Lucas chose not to talk about: the issue of transgender bathrooms, a hotly contested political football this past election year largely due to the restrictive legislation passed in North Carolina last year that defined public bathroom usage by the gender a person was born. His reason? "I am hoping to show a nice breadth of the trans community. And asked myself, what things are essential that I definitely need to have in the script? There are things that seemed essential a year-and-a-half ago that are less essential now because the general level of sophistication within the community at large. The cisgender community has grown in their knowledge of trans issues. So I don't talk about public bathrooms. Bathrooms were a really interesting topic that people didn't think about a year ago. Now they do, so it's not my show anymore."

Pressed that the misinformation around the topic should be enough to include it, Lucas stood by his decision. "I agree there is ignorance around this issue. But there is ignorance around so many issues. I pick my battles... there is so much to be covered in this play that I sort-of picked my battles. I figure if the audience knows about certain things, I am not going to include them."

Changing lexicon

What Lucas has noted in the six years he's been working on the project is how the language surrounding trans issues has changed, leading him to wonder what he should include or not include in the script. "The language has evolved so much throughout this process. There are people in this play who use somewhat out-dated terminology, but those are the words the actual women spoke to me, so I keep them in there. It isn't as if I am using those words. We have people who describe their community or themselves using certain words that nowadays are not considered PC. And you have words like 'sexual reassignment surgery,' which is still okay to say, but now the more accepted term is 'gender confirmation surgery.'"

In showing the breadth of the trans-community, Lucas chose women who run from the age of 28 to 75 who come from varied backgrounds and countries. They, he feels, "represent a specific generation of trans women. Not the young trans activists of 2017. They are the women who sort-of exist between Christine Jorgensen and Caitlyn Jenner Jenner, the generation of the real warriors who fought this battle throughout the late part of the last century and the first part of this century."

One of them -- a successful Australian gynecologist who didn't transition until she was 68 -- nearly didn't make it in his current script. "Initially I had six or seven characters, then brought it down to six for economic reasons. And I didn't know whether one character who transitioned at 68 was really that relevant. Someone who had lived with male privilege for 68 years. So that the other characters are suffering and really agonizing, this person was living his life as a very successful gynecologist, Dr. Violet. And so I was able to let that character go, but then decided her story was representative of an important narrative, I brought the character back in again. She is also a very, very funny, irreverent character who is extremely confident."

Lucas and Bonney wanted to cast trans actors in play's roles and set a wide net to do so. "We auditioned as many trans actors as possible. To do so we reached out into the community through trans service organizations, using word of mouth and Facebook pages dedicated to trans actors. We search, searched, searched very hard. The current cast has five trans identified actors, one cisgender man, and one that I don't necessarily know how this other actor identifies."

Difficult casting

It was the casting of Dr. Violet that proved to be most difficult. "In the case of someone with a late transition -- someone who transitions at 68 years old -- they sound very different than the 68 trans woman who transitions at 20. So this one character, Dr. Violet, I couldn't pretend to speak as deeply as she does. She's a bass-baritone, and then she smoked on top of that. She lived with male privilege for 68 years and then transitioned, and is confident and comfortable in the knowledge that she is a woman. She doesn't need to kowtow to anyone. She is one of the most successful gynecologists in South Australia. And she just presents herself as female -- she wears what I think is a wig and a dress; but there is no nod to feminine tropes in our culture in her presentation. She just has some lipstick, a string of pearls and off she goes. She has this deep resonant voice and a confidence that allows her to laugh at her own jokes. That is who she is. So I didn't come across any trans actors who honored that element of the character." (The role is played by Jack Wetherall.)

Asked how he keeps his script from becoming too didactic, Lucas responded that he does so by "making the stories very personal and truthful. And letting information seep into the play through the telling of individual stories rather than talking about, 'this is what trans women do.' You learn a tremendous amount about the trans experience in an hour and a half. Diane Paulus asked me to explain to the ART subscribers why they should come see this show. And I said, you have an hour and a half to educate yourself about the trans experience while being entertained. And walking away knowing a lot about talking about trans identity without really being preached to."

And does the use of the term "Part One" in the title suggest there are more plays to come in the series?

"Ideally there will be a Trans male piece, then a younger, gender queer/non-binary/gender non-conforming piece. It is very much like 'The Vagina Monologues,' That was shocking and revelatory to any number of people; then when it was brought to Saudi Arabia and Africa and communities out in farm country where the communities banned the show and it had to be done in a field. That is what I would love happen with this piece -- something that would be done all around the country all around the world every year on a certain date."

"Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women" runs January 19 to February 5 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].