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AMERICAN THEATRE | Unicorn at the Soup Factory

Dear reader, this article is penned by a unicorn. 

At least, I’ve been identified as such.

You see, I’m not only transgender but I’m also a casting director. The truth is, I’m not the only one. In fact, I can count a total of three other individuals who identify as non-binary, transgender, or gender nonconfirming (TGNC). But I was rare enough that upon arriving in New York from Seattle in 2016 to pursue a career in casting, a fellow casting director would audibly gasp upon meeting me. “You’re a unicorn!” she insisted, projecting her declaration into the freezing December night air as we stood in the middle of the East Village. At long last I had come along! The announcement seemed to echo off the surrounding structures.

My very specific status hadn’t dawned on me yet, as my entrance into casting was decided on a hunch after being asked for the first time in my adult life what I wanted to do with it. Logic pointed me toward a larger city, and New York made the most sense if I wanted to aim for work in a casting office focused on theatre. It was astounding to me to think that in a city of more than 9 million people, I might (allegedly) be the only one like myself.

Of course, I had never worked in an office with another TGNC individual before, so I wasn’t exactly a stranger to this sense of seeming uniqueness. The difference was that there suddenly seemed an ounce of pressure to not only “get it right”—meaning I couldn’t make a single mistake in my career, or I’d risk my employment value—but also that I apparently held the keys to change the entire industry hoping to be more TGNC-inclusive.

From the beginning, I knew something had to give. Inclusivity cannot be ordained by a permission slip, and yet my introduction to what I figured was standard casting procedures and office culture was listening to casting directors asking directors, playwrights, and artistic directors for permission to consider TGNC actors for projects. I spoke up, and apparently out of turn, when asking a director at a casting meeting if they were trying to articulate that the character under discussion might possibly be non-binary. 

Once I was able to enter the workforce as an independent casting professional, it became clear that developing a system of operation, standard communication practice, and philosophy around casting was essential. I knew that my being a trans person would exist in the periphery of my work. Finding comparisons between my approach to work from the casting side of the table and the things actors do in preparation for an audition or rehearsal room came quickly, often surprising me in how similar our career goals and objectives were. Some of the rules required for actors could be interpreted as silly: They are required to drop all emotional baggage at the door, suit up in some Teflon-like emotionless armor, and proceed to chug gallons and gallons of frothy emotional soup in order to find the root of humankind. While the soup-stream constantly flows, they then proceed to convey humanity with a believable freshness and imposed spontaneity to strangers with the same dexterity on repeat, until it all comes to an abrupt end. Everyone then takes off the armor, goes home, checks for bruises, and starts the process all over again.

Ha ha. So funny. And yet even then I could relate. What I wondered, though,  was: How responsible is it to ask for emotional soup consumption, so to speak, from individuals who come from marginalized communities, without creating a space where they are also required to not let it get under their skin? We live in a country where stigmas around mental health are extraordinarily prevalent, and seeking help from mental health professionals also requires insurance or lots of money—two things not always synonymous with work in the professional theatre. 

Actors are already regularly made to feel subhuman by their surrounding society, by the elected government in power on a national level, and in many cases by their own family. Especially if we fold in intersections of race and culture: BIPOC TGNC people are disproportionately affected by the intermingling of transphobia and racism that stains and strains the fabric of our society.

“Find me a TGNC actor!” is something I have heard before, as if that meant anything without an elaborate discussion, as would be the case for any other actor we were searching for.

I had my work cut out for me, in other words. Opportunities began to quickly present themselves, though I had not completely solidified how I would manage myself as a freelancer. My strategy and philosophy were still in an incubator stage, and I knew there might be some challenges in successfully developing as not only a casting director but as an activist for the TGNC community. Put another way, I was not in a place financially to turn jobs down.

After completing multiple contracted projects around the country, I began to contemplate the theatre industry’s longstanding and ongoing problem with follow-through on its purportedly liberal commitments. Even before the monumentally important We See You, White American Theater demands were released over the summer, a nationwide cry for more inclusivity and representation within all aspects of theatre making had reached a fever pitch around the same time as #OscarsSoWhite had taken off in 2015, and the #MeToo movement entered a call-and-response stage on social media in 2017. Theatre institutions began creating missions with carefully decided vocabulary words such as “equity” and “diversity.” Groups were formed in institutions to discuss anti-racism and accountability. Plays written by women and BIPOC playwrights were being programmed more and more.

My work as a casting director and consultant with a great many of these regional companies was to pacify artistic leaders by ensuring them that by hiring a TGNC actor in the role of a TGNC person, they were taking the right first step toward ethical casting. I would be brought to various parts of the country to point out holes that existed in their daily operations and rehearsal room culture that went beyond casting TGNC roles appropriately. I’d ask: What else are you doing to ensure these actors are able to enter the rehearsal room and do their job without distraction or discomfort? We’d discuss any number of topics. The conversation usually included some mention of how to change bathrooms to become gender non-specific. 

What do you do as a lone independent contractor when these same theatre companies proceed to cast cis actors as trans characters a year later? Or don’t change their restroom facilities? Or don’t hire a perfectly capable TGNC stage manager or artistic associate when the opportunity arises? These haven’t been cases where theatre companies could say they didn’t know better. I wonder where I went wrong. Time and time again, I have found that how the changes might affect (potential) revenue took precedence over the pleas of marginalized communities, even when they have looked people with power over programming in the eye and asked them, in some cases even been paid to ask them: Do better.

What is equally heartbreaking in many of these cases is that there are exceptionally talented TGNC actors out there who are fully capable of sinking their teeth into these characters, finding the root of these character’s humanity, and selling it beautifully, with conviction, and maybe even something unique—flair by way of authenticity, let’s call it. There are clever and resourceful TGNC playwrights, composers, and lyricists who have already created wonderfully engaging and provocative plays and musicals, and have the capacity and ideas for more. When accepting the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries for The Act, Patricia Arquette openly mourned the loss of her sister Alexis Arquette, and took the opportunity to ask the thousands of powerful television executives in the room to give TGNC people jobs. She also, in turn, asked for millions of viewers around the world to acknowledge that TGNC people had not been given a fair shake.

The theatre industry is long overdue for doing justice to marginalized communities. It’s time that we fully capture the existence of underrepresented people by humanizing their existence onstage. This includes their joys, their achievements, and their own experiences of monotony. The theatre has forever existed as a mirror of society, and a form of commentary. If we are not properly reflecting our landscape, we are doing a disservice not only to ourselves, but to the very people we are marketing ourselves to. TGNC people exist everywhere, whether you know it or not. We shop at your grocery stores. We work out at your gyms. We check out books at your libraries. And we’re at the point now where we’re done calling it yours. It’s ours, too, friend-o. Scootch over.

Baltimore Center Stage and the Playwrights Realm’s 2020 production of Noah Diaz’s “Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally,” directed by Taylor Reynolds. Pictured: Jay Cobián and Vanessa Kai. (Photo by Jess McGowan)

In October 2018, the Off-Broadway company the Playwrights Realm created a contracted position for an in-house casting administrator for the first time ever. The responsibilities were limited to hiring actors to appear in their readings, workshops, and other developmental processes that required talent. As they only produced one or two mainstage productions a year, the majority of the casting work for the organization would be entrusted to this individual. They reached out and asked if I would be interested in taking on the role. It was an almost immediate no-brainer, as casting positions at theatre institutions are not as frequently available as other administrative positions. At the top of the Realm’s list of values is a pledge to represent the full spectrum of New York’s humanity in their staffing choices, and hiring a trans woman as their first casting associate is an example of the seriousness of their intent.

But they didn’t just create the opportunity. They also devised a system of communication and developed a series of expectations that were manageable, thoughtful, and built on trust. It seemed specific to my needs, and to what I projected would help ensure my best possible work. This in turn would ideally lead to a better experience for the casts I’d have the honor of helping to assemble. Upon renewing my contract the following season, the invitation to fold me into the casting process for their mainstage productions was extended, and I could kick it up a notch as to how I could be of service to underrepresented communities in the acting profession, especially actors who are TGNC, by adding them to the audition process.

This platform allowed me an opportunity to safely continue to develop and solidify my principles and philosophy around acting. It provided me the space to listen to and actively engage with TGNC actors and discover their needs and wants. They are as varied, earnest, thoughtful, and often simple as any other performer. In the casting world, the term “type” is used far too frequently for my comfort. In referring to someone as a “type,” the goal is to help the person on the receiving end of the conversation reflect on the purported example type, and apply these generalities onto the person in question. Have you ever heard someone say, “They’re an Audra McDonald type”? Probably. Have you ever stopped and wondered: Wait, what does that mean exactly?  That the person is an incredibly skilled singer? Clever with modern and classical text? Able to successfully dial it up or down depending on whether the project is for the theatre, or film, or television (or Zoom, for that matter)? Or all of the above? We are just expected to read minds—“Oh yes, the Audra McDonald type”—and go from there.

This is potentially irresponsible and lazy. TGNC actors are not monolithic, nor are they a type, and yet they have found themselves to be seen and spoken about as such. “Find me a TGNC actor!” is something I have heard before, as if that meant anything without an elaborate discussion, as would be the case for any other actor we were searching for. They, like all of us, would like you to consider them as individuals. They would like for people to ask them thoughtful, helpful questions. They look forward to the day when nobody makes assumptions about them.

I would personally add that TGNC performers deserve equal consideration—to be paid their fair share when they’re hired, and offered roles as ingenues and romantic heroes as well as other kinds of parts. If a music director has not done the work to ensure a TGNC singer is actually singing in a comfortable key, they have not done their job properly. A sad story: An actor was once asked to “mouth the words” in chorus numbers during a musical workshop, because the music director could not be persuaded to find a place for them vocally that did not completely leave them face to face with their dysphoria.

Needless to say, if you are going to invite TGNC people in—and you should invite TGNC people in—make sure your walls are clean, as the call is now coming from inside the house. We are, after all, a clever species as art makers. Why not lean into that a bit more as it pertains to how we prepare our work spaces?

Have you ever seen three TGNC actors on the same stage together performing a 400-plus-year-old play by William Shakespeare? This happened when The Taming of the Shrew, translated by Amy Freed, was read as part of Play on! Shakespeare’s translation project and subsequent festival in the spring of 2019. The festival was produced in collaboration with Classic Stage Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I had the privilege of singlehandedly casting Shakespeare’s entire canon for them. The event employed more than 150 actors. While I had been a part of the process of casting the for this reading, it had not dawned on me how moving it would be to see them in action until the afternoon of the reading itself. Should it be this infrequent, I wondered? The play, after all, was written between 1590 and 1592.

At a party, I was pulled aside by an actor who is trans. “Having you in the room made all the difference,” they told me. I sighed. More than the possible notch to my ego, or even an answer to my existential pondering over whether I was doing my casting work right, it pained me to know this actor had to wait to enter a room with me in it to feel they could really let their hair down, and do that whole baggage/armor/emotional soup work for us.

But I knew exactly what they were talking about. I know how infrequent it is to see any TGNC performers wrestling with Shakespeare’s text, let alone more than one. 

Suddenly something snapped internally. The weight of advocating for my community in my profession as I also struggled to advocate for myself in other parts of my life suddenly felt very heavy. I had figured I would manage fine, having been no stranger to path creation up to that point. But my transness was also tied up with years of assuring myself I was fortunate to be anywhere that allowed me a semblance of dignity, despite the progressive politics of the places I’ve lived. In learning how to best advocate for the TGNC acting community, I had to bury years and years of my own internalized self-consciousness about being transgender myself. Indeed the first decade of my transitioning was spent not understanding or fighting my own internalized transphobia. By December of 2019, despite my best efforts up to that point, it seemed I had suddenly failed. My armor was made of linen, and was full of holes. I had drowned in the emotional soup.

My mind began romanticizing old haunts, and directed me down paths once etched out by old shoes I’d long worn through and discarded. Quietly, I began to devise a plan to return to the West Coast and prioritize self-care for the first time in my adult life. Then suddenly work ground to a complete halt virtually overnight when the reality of the COVID-19 outbreak hit home, and the theatre industry as we knew it ceased to operate with only four hours notice on a slightly muggy late-winter March afternoon in New York. I stood in a rehearsal room with my colleagues at the Playwrights Realm and toasted a glass of champagne to the camaraderie. I hadn’t realized that when I left the reading that afternoon and returned home to Brooklyn, I’d never return to Manhattan again. Less than a month later after barricading myself in my apartment, I would fly back to my home state of Washington and enter quarantine for several weeks.

Poof. The responsibility to do anything but take care of myself was suddenly gone. The soup factory had dried up. 

The following months allowed for a period of intense reflection and rebuilding. They granted an organic opportunity to begin creating a balance of self-care and self-preservation practices, both personally and professionally. The timing could not have been more on point. As I write this, the air outside my house is some of the worst in the entire world, as only a few hundred miles away, entire communities and ecosystems are on fire. A billionaire author is waging war on TGNC identities, creating fictional fear-based rhetoric that has the potential to pollute the minds of free thinkers.

And yet, a silver lining has formed for me personally. In the silence of meditation, I sat one afternoon and found myself suddenly missing the many many trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming artists I had the privilege of working alongside, watching from the audience, and advocating for back in New York.

Out of the blue, an email arrived. The Playwrights Realm invited me to renew my contract and work with them remotely from Seattle for the upcoming season. My senses lit up. There is still so much to accomplish. So many people to meet and find work for. Without hesitation, I committed myself to another year.

Dear reader, in the end, I truly believe in the American theatre. And I believe in the trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming community. I need and love both. So, what’s next for us all? What’s next for the unicorns? Let’s find out.

Ada Karamanyan (she/her) is a Seattle-based casting director, writer, and activist. She is half Armenian, an Aries (Gemini moon, Aquarius rising), a member of the TGNC community, and the proud daughter of Janet and Ararad Karamanyan of Langley, Wash. She encourages you to vote this November.

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