30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS
Day 18: Miriam Suzanne
The Colorado theatre community has come a long way in terms of flipping audience expectations regarding race and gender. The DCPA Theatre Company’s A Christmas Carol features a bi-racial Cratchit family. The Arvada Center had both a husband and wife share the role of a dominating matriarch in its recent farce Tartuffe. The Edge Theatre’s Casa Valentina told the true story of 1960s heterosexual men who gathered in the mountains to explore their femaleness. The year ended with a raucous Denver visit from Hedwig (and her Angry Inch) preaching the rock gospel that while we are all different – we’re also exactly the same.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has been gender-swapping for years – Karen Slack, for example, played a particularly feral Cassius in Julius Caesar. The company more fully embraced the concept last summer with a topsy-turvy staging of The Comedy of Errors that had the two leading couples trading genders. Women played the warriors Ulysses, Agamemnon and Aeneas in Troilus and Cressida. And there will be more gender surprises to come next summer, Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr promises.
(Pictured at right: Carolyn Holding as Antiphola, usually Antipholus; with Christopher Joel Onken as Luciano, usually Luciana, in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s ‘The Comedy of Errors.’ Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.)
Gender-swapping and color-irrelevant casting have become in some ways a measure of any theatre company’s present commitment to diversity and inclusion. But gender-swapping alone does not even begin to address the far more complex and far less-explored issue of gender fluidity in the American theatre. There have been virtually no stories about people whose gender identities either vary over time, or come to include a combination of identities.
Buntport Theater, ever on the vanguard of the humane exploration of what is possible in the theatre, broke all kinds of new ground in 2016 by giving wholly original voice to a closeted trans woman in its latest original production, 10 Myths on the Proper Application of Beauty Products. It’s an adaptation of Miriam Suzanne’s Riding SideSaddle, an unconventional novel written on 250 randomly shuffled notecards.
Suzanne was assigned male at birth – but part of her transitioning process has been coming to understand that she always was a woman. So she does not talk in terms of a “before” and an “after” in her journey. Instead, she speaks of completion – of confirming who she always was. “I did not want to tell the story of transition, or what it is to be trans, or how medical transition works,” Suzanne said of her memoir. “There is no transition in this story – only magic.”
And Buntport could not have chosen a better time to bring her story to the stage than in 2016, when the fight for LGBTQ rights escalated into what Time Magazine declared “The National Battle of the Bathroom.”
“Trans people are in the middle of a strange cultural moment in America — suddenly the center of attention for better and worse, yet rarely able to tell their own stories,” Suzanne said. “When a new movie or show comes out with trans themes, we are often more terrified than excited. Being in the spotlight is not the same as being seen.”
Either by coincidence or prescience, Buntport’s story also takes place in a bathroom. Friends come and go about their daily hygienic routines while staring into an unseen mirror exploring sexuality, identity and the role that appearance plays in society. All while Suzanne’s three-person band, Teacup Gorilla, provides live music — from the bathtub.
The ensemble story features a narrator, a neatnik and a lesbian couple, but at the metaphorical heart of it all is Sam (Diana Dresser) and Herman (Erik Edborg). They represent the Greek myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, in which the two sexes – and indeed these two characters – gradually merge into one. Now that’s gender fluidity.
“The play is about the type of love that often gets put on the back-burner in our society because we are constantly told that we are only looking for this one true love,” said 10 Myths cast member Erin Rollman. “The point we’re trying to make with the blending of characters is that you can’t necessarily get all your intimacies from one person.”
That does not mean the point of the play is about sexuality. Suzanne wanted to tell a story that assumed queerness from start to finish, while giving the characters free reign over their identities. “I wanted queerness to go deeper than gender and orientation — into the way we think about bodies and relationships — without ever becoming the focus of debate or the defining feature of a character’s life,” she said.
Juliet Wittman of Westword wrote: “10 Myths makes us think about the dizzying variety of possible physical variations to human genitalia and their spiritual and psychological consequences. The usual categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ are just too simplistic.”
Despite the groundbreaking nature of Buntport’s production, Rollman is the first to admit that telling one trans person’s story is just a start. The next includes getting more trans actors on-stage and fully participating in the storytelling.
But the umbrella is getting larger. At the end of 2015, Local Theatre Company cast a trans actor to play a boy in Faith. Next month, local journalist and former Broadway performer Eden Lane will return to the stage in a play for the American Repertory Theatre called Trans Scripts, drawn from dozens of interviews with trans women. It runs Jan. 19 through Feb. 5 on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass.
Miriam Suzanne/At a glance
- College: Goshen (Ind.) College
- The LIDA Project: Former Technical Director
- Teacup Gorilla: Multi-Instrumentalist in the band
- Author: Riding SideSaddle
- Web site: miriamsuzanne.com
Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan and Erik Edborg in Buntport’s ’10 Myths on the Proper Application of Beauty Products.’
ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
The True West Awards, now in their 16th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2016 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org
THE 2016 TRUE WEST AWARDS
Day 1: Jada Suzanne Dixon
Day 2: Robert Michael Sanders
Day 3: After Orlando
Day 4: Michael Morgan
Day 5: Beth Beyer
Day 6: Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski
Day 7: donnie l. betts
Day 8: Night of the Living Dead
Day 9: The Killer Kids of Miscast
Day 10: Jason Sherwood
Day 11: Leslie O’Carroll and Steve Wilson
Day 12: Jonathan Scott-McKean
Day 13: Jake Mendes
Day 14: Charles R. MacLeod
Day 15: Patty Yaconis
Day 16: Daniel Langhoff
Day 17: Colorado Shakespeare Festival costumers
Day 18: Miriam Suzanne
Day 19: Yolanda Ortega
Day 20: Diana Ben-Kiki
Day 21: Jeff Neuman
Day 22: Gabriella Cavallero
Day 23: Matthew Campbell
Day 24: Sharon Kay White
Day 25: John Hauser
Day 26: Lon Winston
Day 27: Jason Ducat
Day 28: Sam Gregory
Day 29: Warren Sherrill
Day 30: The Women Who Run Theatre in Boulder
Theatre Person of the Year Billie McBride