Thursday, June 20, 2013

Joining the T Party :: Transforming Gender on the Stage

"Three "women" go out to a bar: one crossdresser, one transgendered escort, and one playwright..."
Summary of a scene from The T Party, Natsu Onoda Power


The Show

Meanwhile, as my summer research project continues, I was recently invited by the prodigiously creative Natsu Onoda Power, an Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at Georgetown University, to speak with her cast as they realize what she calls a "Celebration of Gender Transformation in the Nations Capital" (Forum As we ran through the show, it became clear that the form of the performance was designed to match the content.

  • "In the first act, you will be invited to one of our audience-interactive “parties” in small groups: a bridal shower, a prom, a karaoke party, or a superbowl party. You can choose to be a wallflower and nobody will bother you; or you can participate as much or as little as you like!
  • "The second act consists of a series of vignettes, viewed in a more conventional theatrical setting. The scenes include songs, dance numbers, “live action music video” with floor projection, as well as more traditional “scenes” and monologues."

In this second run of the project, Power is continuing to develop the show and its identity. Currently advertised as "the T Party," the performance show-cases an assortment of diverse trans-formations of gender, sexuality, as even animality. While sitting in on rehearsal, I was asked to stand in for a "gay dolphin" during a dance scene (an vivifying but exhausting task which left me panting so hard my blow-hole hurt).

The scenes tell stories Power has collected over the years, from friends, co-workers and various (often unexpected) media. The dolphin scene, for instance, as it stands, puts into song and dance the reading of a biology essay written by one of Power's colleagues at Georgetown. The words came to life as spoken-word poetry while other members of the cast embodied and suggested the behavior of bottle-nose dolphins known to engage in various non-reproductive and homosexual behavior.

Other stories come from more personal sources, Power admitted, combining some stories and changing names (as well as species) to give a wider degree of anonymity and applicability. A gay club full of "otters" and "bears" (a term for hairy gay men if various sizes) becomes populated by literal otters and bears as their community clashes with bodies of other gender and sexual identities. 

In another scene, the actors occupying middle (or "trans") spaces between genders, sexualities, relationships, and kingdoms as they come to put into flesh and motion they translate the story of a cross-dresser intimately communicating with a female confidant online. While I only was able to watch one of the rehearsal scenes, the content and forms of the performance are continually growing and shifting, according to inspiration found from the shows director/writer working with talented crew & performers.


The show goes up July 17 until July 27 
in Silver Spring, Maryland.


The Conversation

"Why haven't we already been working together?" Power asked for both of us as we met for food at a local Lebanese restaurant. As it happened a mutual friend and colleague of ours arranged a meeting digitally, guessing that our mutual interest in transformation, gender & performance would make for interesting conversation and collaboration. 

The e-mail introduction included a reference to Power's play and my research, but once we sat down to talk all the background and personally investment that draws both of us into these projects made it clear that we really were engaging in more than just the same conversation but the same communities. We had been working together, or at least next to each other for a few years now.

Collaborations really do spring from more than just interest, sharing a relation to the diverse and multiple Trans* worlds comes with a feeling of the personal stakes and joys that aren't often presented nor translated to a wider audience, in a field which already lacks a substantial archive for its stories. 

The alienation, disagreement and even competition between different "trans" communities, such as the often mis- or under-representation of transmen, lead to real worries for any attempt to broach the topic publicly. But the ways in which people and things bleed into and feed off each other brought us to the key word "transformation" as a way to relate to a prolific range of embodiments and knowledges.

How something changes or comes-to-be ends up being both a philosophical but also a theatrical question requires some sort of response when holding a forum on "trans" bodies. Time, space, technologies, resources, choices and context all come to bare when staging a transformation from "gay" to "bi," from "cross-dresser" to "woman," from "man" to "otter." How does one embody & express such contingency?

This absolutely stimulating start to an ongoing conversation transitioned us in terms of time and space into the performance area for "the T Party" where Power's actors and crew where already getting things ready.


Some of Power's recent projects include creating and directing Astroboy (based on the anime) and God of Comics


The Cast

One thing I really enjoy about actors is how expressive they are: they know how to listen and show they are listening. They also ask really good questions. I did my best to respond to the things they were wondering about and sorting through as they transformed into these characters. In the end, if nothing else, I felt very affirmed by the experience. They care, and it shows.

Coming into these types of process oriented art forms I wanted, as much as possible, to actively listen to where they saw themselves and where they wanted to go, and meet them along the way. As their guest, I gave a brief over-view of the field of trans studies as I see it and where I am operating within that.

What struck Power, and what got a laugh from the cast & crew, was the comment that I saw myself as "politically trans" (a phrase I adapted from a colleague who described himself as "politically gay"). This hopes to express that I do operate as trans in my daily life but am also willing to talk about it and give some articulation of trans politics to the public. The danger and challenge of this, as with all theater is to be conscious & responsible to your place within a diverse community.

Stories remain a powerful way to propel change. Like Power who is offering up a host of experience she has collected over the years, I continue to build an archive in and outside my academic life of anecdotes of queer lives. Guiding me towards this is the uncanny frequency (around once a week) where a person on the street or in public transit (usually who I don't know) comes up to me with the line "so I've seen you around..." and proceeds to tell me about their life. After years of this, I'm still stewing on what is the most responsible way to honor these people, their stories and their ways of making life livable.

After the conversation, Power and I had a brief side-bar, full of gratitude. I acknowledged how impressed I was with the show and the performers and added that I hope they held onto that sense of uncertainty about what they are doing and who they are trying to be, because as far as I can tell, that is a defining quality of what it means to be a transforming body. Probably old hat for theater, a place all about discovery, but then that too was something I rediscovered during my time with them.

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