Theatre Made Me Trans: An Out & Proud Playwright

Seth CoppensBlog, Featured

Theatre made me trans. 

No, but seriously, if I hadn’t been introduced to theatre, I would be a different person. And that person would be very unhappy and unable to make sense of who they are. 

Before I learned how to write, five-year-old me used Broadway cast recordings of Les Misérables, Urinetown, and Fiddler on the Roof as a means to express and perform my gender identity before I even knew what gender was. I would sing, dance, and act out all of the traditionally male roles — my favorites being Valjean, Officer Lockstock, and Tevye. My little voice would do its best to mimic the deep, rich sounds of the professionally-trained and fully-grown men. I would stand on a precarious stack of pillows to give the very convincing illusion that I was tall. Sometimes I would give myself facial and chest hair using my mom’s mascara. I felt like I could be anyone, like I was a shapeshifter who laughed at the idea of gender being static — but at the time, I settled with being a “tomboy.” 

At the adventurous age of seven, I wrote hundreds of pages of stories entirely constructed of dialogue, which my mom called plays. My most significant story was about an armadillo named “Army” who was based off of the title character from the movie Rango. When I wrote Army’s dialogue, I imagined what I would say as myself if I existed in the world of Rango, where quirky desert animal townspeople use water as currency and are under constant threat from hawks and gunslinging rattlesnakes. Army is just somebody who wants to help everyone. He’s also a guy, which was very important to me. He became the version of myself that didn’t need to come out as trans. 

Looking back as a seventeen-year-old who’s been out for almost six years, I see how little-me was already a trans playwright.

After I came out, it became my mission to help fill the void of trans representation in mainstream media. I only wrote about trans people, and a few of my teachers, especially my playwriting teacher at school, worried that I was limiting myself. They thought that I wouldn’t be “successful” as a writer, but their ignorance only fueled the importance of my mission. I indulged myself with all-trans casts, research about gender non-conforming people in the early twentieth century, and playwriting workshops on Zoom led by people who became my new mentors. For the first time ever, I had a trans writing teacher. 

He was the artistic director of a trans-owned and operated theatre in Minneapolis called Uprising. I watched recordings of the plays produced by Uprising, all of them centering trans voices, and I was invigorated. This, I thought to myself, is the kind of theatre I want to see everywhere. This is the kind of theatre I want to make! My first pandemic project became a one-act play about uncovering the lost history of trans people, while centering the life of Murray Hall. 

Murray Hall was a real person in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. He lived his entire life as a man for over fifty years, until his female sex was discovered after his death from breast cancer. He was originally from Scotland, but was forced to emigrate after his ex-wife outed him as a “crossdresser” to the police. To escape prosecution, he changed his name and escaped to New York, where he founded an employment agency and dabbled in local politics. All of this is just scraping the surface of his life story, which I’ve continued to research for the past three years. 

Writing a play about him was very emotional for me. I felt like I was learning about a long lost family member, like Murray was my great-great-great-grandfather. I believe that there’s this ineffable connection that all trans people can experience with each other — a connection that can transcend generations, families, and distances and allow us to feel like we really know and understand each other without ever having met before. It’s rooted in our shared experience, certainly, but I believe there is also a spiritual aspect to it as well — like all of our spirits are connected. 

The playwriting workshop I took at Uprising allowed me to establish my identity as a trans playwright. From them, I gained the confidence I needed to continue writing plays about trans people, despite the discouraging feedback I was receiving from school at the time. Unfortunately, Uprising is no longer in operation — they had to permanently close last year. When they closed, I was devastated, but I knew that they weren’t the only theatre out there where trans people are not just included, but celebrated. 

In 2021, Perseverance’s STAR program gave me the opportunity to stage my first ten-minute play. Violins With Alaskan Names is about a recently-out nonbinary kid (Aubrey) who goes camping with their step-dad, who is still learning how to be supportive. The play ends with them playing a violin duet together after they come to an understanding. I played the part of the step-dad, and one of the other STAR students played Aubrey. Rehearsing and performing this play was an intense experience for both of us, both emotionally and mentally. I remember feeling guilty for sharing a play that was so personal, but I was encouraged by my castmate and the mentors at STAR. They felt like this piece was important and that it could help people who are experiencing a similar conflict feel seen. I learned, from that experience, that theatre can help people find validation and closure. I am so grateful for everyone involved in STAR 2021 — without them, I wouldn’t have been able to develop the emotional confidence necessary to produce plays like Violins With Alaskan Names

Fast forward to May 2022, and I was commissioned by the STAR 2022 team to write a one-act play adaptation of a work in the public domain. I had already started to write an adaptation of As You Like It earlier in the Spring with a trans and contemporary spin, but I knew that STAR had recently produced an abridged As You Like It. I also wanted to challenge  myself to choose something that wasn’t Shakespeare. I was drawn to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because it was by Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Mystery,” and because it was one of her lesser known works. 

I fell in love with the character of Hercule Poirot, and I quickly realized that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is probably the most underrated Christie work ever. As I wrote this play, I thought about all of my past pieces, especially the one about Murray Hall. While Murray and Hercule are of different generations and one is fictional and one is not, I interpreted them both as being trans men who live “stealth” (trans people who live as their authentic selves, but don’t openly disclose their transness). With Poirot, I felt that same connection I felt with Murray Hall. I can’t really explain why, but I believe that one of the reasons why Poirot lived such a secretive life was because he didn’t want people tracing him to a different version of himself that he used to be. And like Murray Hall, some of the nosy and ignorant people around him believed that he was “hiding something,” but they couldn’t quite identify where their suspicion came from. Poirot also possesses a deep empathy and sense of awareness that contributes to his genius as a detective, but I wondered where and how he could learn to have such abilities.

I believe that him being of the trans experience explains this perfectly. When one is forced to hide a part of themself for a long time, they are required to develop a heightened awareness of their environment as a means of survival. His empathy could be attributed to the fact that he’s lived as different versions of himself and therefore can directly relate to the experience of people of both of the binary genders. He often talks about the differences in psychology between men and women (now an out-dated concept), and I noticed that his gendered ideas of psychology don’t actually apply to him. For example, he says that women are more observant and have stronger intuition than men, but he too is much more observant and intuitive than most people. He would probably explain this by saying that he is “a genius,” but perhaps he might also say that he has “the best mental qualities of both genders.” 

While I stand by the fact that theatre has enabled me to explore transness, I do not believe that I am “making” theatre trans. Anyone familiar with the origins of theatre would be able to see that theatre has been trans (or at the very least queer) for a long time. And likewise, I’m not “making” Poirot trans, I’m just affirming it as a possibility. Doing so also acknowledges the fact that trans people existed a hundred years ago, they just couldn’t be as open and explicit about it as a trans person like myself can be today. 

Producing trans plays like this adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd pays tribute to both the history of theatre and the history of trans people, and I am so grateful to Perseverance Theatre for housing my tribute as well as my growth as a trans playwright.