Shannon T.L. Kearns
Shannon T.L. Kearns
The Audience, The Critics, And The Gatekeepers…. And You
Shannon T.L. Kearns > The Audience, The Critics, And The Gatekeepers…. And You
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It’s been a string of rejections; one right after another. On the one hand I expected it. I’m new to applying for things, I’m still learning, I don’t have the credentials or the connections other people have. On the other hand it’s been demoralizing because this play that I’ve been sending out is the one that I am the most proud of. I think it’s my best work yet. And still, rejected, rejected, rejected.

And then there’s the feedback; they don’t like the title, they don’t like one of the technical devices I used, their not sure about the structure. Now, I know it’s not a perfect piece. I still have a ton to learn. I am open to feedback. But still all of these comments sting a little.

So I’m cleaning out my office, doing some organizing. Since the founding of the theatre company I have saved every little scrap of paper but without really organizing it. I’m trying to organize it. Scanning what I can, tossing a bunch, whittling down to just the stuff we actually need.

After our shows we hand out a blank notecard and ask people to write something about what they’ve just experienced. As I’m cleaning I find the stack of notecards for this show that I’ve been sending out. And the comments: “I’m more than a little at a loss for words. Amazing performance.” “As a trans person it was like parts were the exact things I’ve thought and felt about my body.” “Exciting, raw, exactly how theatre should be.” And on and on. People writing direct quotes from the script of a show they had seen only once.

I sat on the floor of my office and re-read all of these cards and I remembered why I wrote the script in the first place. It’s a story about transgender people and our bodies. It’s a story about why we are worthy and good and deserving of love. It’s the story of plus sized people and their bodies. It’s a story about why they are worthy and good and deserving of love. It’s a story about finding connection and love in a world that is hostile to bodies like ours. It’s a story for people like me and Ashley and everyone else who feels alienated in their own skin. It’s a story about skin as resistance.

And reading these cards, clearly it landed with people. So where’s the disconnect? Why did an audience feel so strongly about a piece that is clearly not resonating in the same way as the folks who are reading these various applications?

I think a couple of things are happening. The most simple is that the translation from page to stage is a hard one. Sometimes what happens in a performance with real actors on stage and real bodies in the audience is just something that doesn’t translate on a page. (And I am somewhat at fault on this. I tend to have very sparse/non-existent stage directions because I want the actors to have the freedom to embody the roles. But for a reader that means that some things just get lost).

And maybe the reader who got my play was having a bad day. Or just didn’t like it. Or mine was the last in a pile. Or maybe they were looking for something different. Whatever. I get all of that and that’s fine. 

But I think there are other things in play here as well.

Maybe if you are a straight, cisgender person you read a play about a couple struggling to decide whether or not to have sex and you think “What’s the big deal? Do it or don’t! But why are we spending an hour and a half on it??” Or you’re queer but you’ve seen people like you in movies or on stage. Or you’re not plus size and everywhere you look someone of your body type is portrayed. So you look at this script, about a transgender man and a plus size woman trying to figure out how to navigate desire and intimacy in the face of a world that hates them and you…shrug. Because it’s not your story. Because it seems too simple. Because there’s not enough tension.

But if you are transgender, particularly if you are a transgender man, who has never seen someone that looks like you on stage…anywhere. Who hasn’t seen anyone like you in the movies. Who, really, the only story told about your life is still “Boys Don’t Cry”, to see a story like this is a revelation. Or if you are a plus sized person who is used to being the butt of every joke (and usually portrayed by a skinny person in a “fat suit”), who is used to being the comedic relief but never the romantic lead, who is used to being invisible maybe for these couple of hours you finally feel like the hero. Like the hot one. Like there is a place for you.

So what do we do? Because if only cisgender people are reading the applications, if the only shows being seen are the ones being reviewed, if only men, if only skinny people, if only “theatre people”, if only the critics and the gatekeepers…How many stories are getting rejected? How many stories are being pushed aside because they’ve been “done before” or “aren’t that exciting” or “aren’t edgy enough”? How many stories that would resonate with people are getting left out? Not produced? Not published? In our quest for the newest and rawest and edgiest and most genre-defying how many quiet stories from communities that have never seen themselves on stage are being lost?

What are we missing out on? Who are we silencing?

Because not everyone can figure out how to self-produce or self-publish. Not everyone can afford to get an MFA. Not everyone can figure out how to get connected to the people who can help their work get seen (or even who can help them personally improve).

There is a clear disconnect, too, between what gets reviewed (and how) and what resonates with people in the seats.

So maybe you’re reading this and wondering: What do I do? I’m not a critic, I don’t have the power to decide what gets produced and what doesn’t.

How can I make sure that these voices are being heard?

  • Take a look at the voices and art that you are consuming. Is it coming from diverse places?
  •  If you think a story has been “done before” take a hard look at what that really means. Does it really mean that it’s been done before or does it just mean that you’ve seen a love story or happy ending with someone who looks like you in it? If it’s the latter think about what it might mean for someone to have never seen their own story on stage.
  • Be really aware of who is telling the stories and how. Sure that play might feature a transgender character but who wrote it? And who directed it? And who produced it? And who is acting in it? Trying looking for pieces with several layers of trans folks. And if there aren’t trans folks at every level realize that the piece you are seeing might not be fully representative (or might be downright offensive).
  • Ask the theatres in your area to produce more work by transgender people. Tell them you’ll buy season tickets. Hell, buy the season tickets and use the fact that you are a season ticket holder to influence them.
  • Ask your local theatre critics to cover a wider range of theatre. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve invited folks to come, even offered a press showing or free tickets, and still been turned down. I know that schedules are tight and many reviewers (especially bloggers) are un or under paid, but I also know that those same reviewers will review the 25th year of a theatre company producing the *same show*. So maybe if the public put some pressure on them to get out and see some other new, smaller companies, they would. Let them know that you value work created by marginalized voices and you need their help to find it.
  • You might have to go digging to find art that is self-produced or published. Look at the small and independent theatres in your town, check out Patreon, look for self-published authors online and then buy their work, go see their plays, support them.
  • Support marginalized creators directly. Don’t just support the companies (led by cisgender folks) doing work about transgender people, support the trans arts directly. Give to their patreons, buy tickets to their events, send them money through paypal.

Don’t let the gatekeepers control the narrative. Make sure that the voices being seen and heard are representative of all people.

Did you know you can support my work on Patreon?

Photo Credit: The Manic Macrographer Flickr via Compfight cc