Sunday, October 22, 2017

Creating TYA about Trans Youth: An Interview with Playwright Chad Beckim

Chad Beckim, Playwright of LITTLE MAN

The politics of gender identity, and the rights of the transgender community, have dominated the news cycle in recent days, sparking debate and dividing communities across the country. Over the past few seasons, some mainstream theatres have responded by serving up more stories than ever before that reflect the trans experience (see Charm by Philip Dawkins, Southern Comfort by Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins, and Taylor Mac’s Hir to name a few). How is this national conversation impacting young people? Is the Theatre for Young Audiences community participating in this dialogue through the work on our stages?

I recently interviewed playwright Chad Beckim, who is currently developing a new play about the experiences of trans youth and their families called Little Man. The play was recently developed as part of the New Victory Theater’s LabWorks Artist Residency Program.

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: You have written many plays for adult audiences, but I believe this is your first play for young people. What made you want to write for young audiences now?

Chad Beckim: I’d been sitting on this idea for a while, and I distinctly remember that my earliest inclinations were more traditional, geared towards adult audiences. But I hadn’t put pen to paper and wasn’t really sure how the play should function.

And then I happened to see the New Victory Theater’s wonderful Museum of Memories, and something about the simplicity of that piece – in the round, small set, limited props, the proximity to my fellow audience members, the sheer intimacy of it…how I found myself watching people across the stage from me while watching the play, at one point not wanting to look to either side because I was surrounded by a school group that I’d taught and didn’t want them to see me tearing up, and then laughing when we finally realized we were all tearing up, together – it was leaving the theater that afternoon that I realized that the play not only demanded that intimacy, it demanded a younger core audience, and demanded that I shake myself from my comfort zone and try something new.

I think there’s something immediate about this subject matter; right now these kids are having these experiences all around them – at school, with friends, in their homes – and it’s kind of a perfect storm, if that makes sense.

"I realized that the play not only demanded that intimacy, it demanded a younger core audience, and demanded that I shake myself from my comfort zone and try something new."

JSC: What inspired you to write Little Man?

CB: I was working on a play at a regional theater, and the director and I were going to schools to do talk backs with young people and get them interested in the show.  Afterwards the director was driving me home and making small talk.  My wife and I were about to have a little girl, and when the director asked me about names, I fired our first choice off.  She grew quiet and said, “That was ____’s name.”. And I had just met her son that afternoon and did a double-take, and she just smiled at me and nodded, and over the course of our week together we had some really wonderful conversations about children and family and identity.

I came back to New York and as a very primitive idea for Little Man took root, I asked her if her family might be interested in talking to me.  Both she and her wife both agreed – it seemed like they were really excited about sharing their story with me – but cautioned me that their boy probably wouldn’t be interested, which I totally understood.  And a few evenings later he gave me a call and we ended up speaking for nearly two hours.  I remember asking him, “Why are you talking to me?” and he simply replied, “You asked.”  He kept relaying that there was no prominent TV/movies/theater for kids like him that wasn’t sensational, and found the opportunity important.

Those initial conversations made me realize that I couldn’t write this as I normally would, sitting alone at my kitchen table, but that I had to reconsider my approach into something that was far more of a devised theater project.  I sketched out an outline of what I thought this might look like and sent it to the family for their two cents – this was before I’d applied to NVT’s Labworks program – and they all were really overjoyed to be involved in the project. And it took off from there when Labworks gave us the resources to kick things off.

JSC: Do you feel intimidated writing a play about trans youth and their families as a cisgender white male? Did you worry it wasn’t your story to tell? How did you navigate this? 

CB: It’s terrifying.  It’s undeniably one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, but it’s absolutely intimidating. It’s a constant process of navigating and re-navigating the approach.  And truthfully, I’ve thought about stepping away from the project more than once. But when you get into a room with a group of young people who thank you for helping to assemble this community and build this thing, together, the fear dissipates.

The fear of an artistic misstep, or worse, of cultural appropriation, is always at the forefront.  Every time I sit down to work on the piece I’m aware of who I am, of my place in the world, and of the monumental responsibility of this endeavor.  And it definitely seeps into my brain and affects my process as an artist. But at the end of the day, all of these young people are coming to these devising sessions or reaching out through email or Facebook or online and asking to be a part of it because they feel like they have no voice or they’re looking for a community to share their experiences. So I don’t think turning my back on those people or operating from a place of fear is the answer, either.  

Because I am always aware that this is not my story, I think one possible solution – at least the solution that works for this particular project – is the approach that we’re taking.  Of building a community and sharing our stories and experiences and working on this together (I find I’m often functioning more as a dramaturg than a playwright, which I think is spot on in a project like this.)  And moreover, the discussion that the development and presentation of this piece is generating is essential to our shared understanding of one another and our respective places in the world.

 

"Because I am always aware that this is not my story, I think one possible solution – at least the solution that works for this particular project – is the approach that we’re taking.  Of building a community and sharing our stories and experiences and working on this together."

Last point – during the rehearsals for the most recent presentation, the actor playing “Little Man” sensed my anxiety and said something to the extent of, “There are a thousand ways to tell a story, this is just one of those ways.  This version of the story shouldn’t stop other versions from happening, if someone can tell it better, they should.”  And I hope that someone who sees or reads this does find a new and better way to tell their own version of this story.

JSC: What has the process of working on the play been like so far?

CB: It has been one of the most beautiful, rewarding experiences ever – absolutely one of the highlights of my career. Over the course of the sessions we had in the NVT spaces, I worked with probably two dozen different young people. What started as a small core group spiraled into something much larger – these young people showed up and brought their friends, and their friends’ friends, and if they couldn’t attend in person would email or call or Skype with me.  I had parents of trans kids reaching out asking if they could share their stories with me.

At one point, days after ‘he who shall not be named’ won the election, I had a number of kids bail on me the day I was to begin working in the spaces. I thought it was a harbinger of things to come, but the Labworks powers that be suggested I use the studio as a writing space.  I reached out to my young advisor who quickly wrangled a group of his friends on Skype, and we spent the afternoon talking about the play and kicking around the outline, which ultimately lead to them sharing experiences (and calling BS on much of what I thought I knew!), which culminated in us writing the very first group scene of the play together.  After I gave those first pages a polish, I sent it to the group, and they said, “We don’t want to hurt your feelings but this sounds a little ‘iCarly’, do you mind if we tinker with it?” and then sent me back a version that was covered in more red ink than any piece of writing I’ve had since high school.  (It’s kind of funny that some of this was devised online, as a good portion of the play takes place in Little Man’s online community).

That’s generally been the way the scenes with the young people have developed. I’ve written most of the adult scenes with the help of the number of parents who have come forward eager to share their own experiences, but the scenes involving the young people are generally co-written by young people, meaning we’ll sit around a table and spitball ideas and see what does or does not work and assemble scenes from there. And then I send it back out into the ether, let it get red penned, and plug it into the play.

I’ve also found myself constantly offering disclaimers on the process; I kick off every conversation announcing a) these conversations are fueling the creation of this piece and b) unless specifically stated, anything someone shares might make it into the pages.  (And of course, I share each draft with the family who helped to inspire the piece – for the February workshop my director friend and her son came to NYC and spent the week in the space with us.)

JSC: How has the current political landscape affected your process in working on the play?

CB:The never-ending barrage of headlines is frighteningly timely.  I find myself far more aware of current events, particularly as it responds to the trans-headlines and LGBTQ communities than I might have ever otherwise been. I now find myself engaging both in in person and online debates with people and trying to tamp down some of the ignorance that surrounds these issues. I wouldn’t traditionally consider myself a very political person, but when I keep reading these headlines – whether it’s about the horrors of our current administration and their awful, backwards policies, or about these young people who are hurting themselves or taking their lives, I can’t not be affected. This experience has shifted my artistic foundation in that it’s made headlines human, if that makes sense? There are names and faces and people that I love and care about who are directly affected by this, and it simultaneously enrages me and breaks my heart.

This experience has shifted my artistic foundation in that it’s made headlines human, if that makes sense? There are names and faces and people that I love and care about who are directly affected by this, and it simultaneously enrages me and breaks my heart.

At a talkback for one of the Labworks readings, an 11-year-old stood up and said something to the extent of, “I don’t know much about this subject, but I think it’s important to see pieces like this because it’s happening all around us, and like it or not, it’s part of our world, and we need to try to understand that.”  Which I think sums it up pretty nicely.

JSC: Why do you think Little Man is an important piece for young people to experience?

CB: One of the key ideas of the play is that the main character’s family experiences discrimination alongside the main character, ideally reinforcing the notion that everyone knows what it’s like not to fit in.  Who better to share this with than our school aged theater aficionados?

Also, our young people are not currently shaping exclusionary public policy or implementing absurd public restroom rules or denying people basic human rights.  Meaning there’s an opportunity here to get some of these conversations started – ideally with their parents (while it’s targeted towards young people, it’s also meant to be a piece that families experience together) and their communities around them. I also like to think that younger minds are more open and malleable, which (I hope!) also lends itself to discussion.

JSC: What are the next steps in the development process? What do you hope will be the future of Little Man?

CB: The play isn’t done yet – it’s maybe 75% of the way there?  The feedback has been really great so far and has helped us figure out where we have to focus the next round of work.  I think what we do have there is in great shape – we’ve done so much reworking and discussion and devising that much of it feels really, really solid.

As for the future of the piece…ideally, once we have it stage ready it will find its way to the stages of some of the country’s more daring theaters inspire another round of conversation.  And if not?  The experience alone has been an absolute dream.

 

More About Little ManFor Little Man, it’s nothing but blue skies ahead. He’s moved to a new town and going to make new friends, leaving his crappy old school behind. He’s got pretty cool parents, and even his Sis ain’t that bad. He’s a video game assassin, devourer of pizza, and the king of his online community. It looks like he has it all. Except for a name. And those breasts that won’t go away. And that ever-so-dreaded, time of the month.

Chad Beckim is a New York City based playwright whose work has been produced or developed by the National New Play Network, London’s Old Vic Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, New Victory Theater’s Labworks, Naked Angels, Partial Comfort Productions, Azuka Theatre, Stageworks Theatre, and Labyrinth Theater Company, among others. He is a founding co-Artistic Director of Partial Comfort Productions, and holds an MFA in Playwrighting from Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College Program.

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