Theatre Talks:Taylor Mac's HIR
Highlighting queer representation in theatreDecember 7, 2018
Theatre can be an escape, can be fantasy or can give its audience a glimpse into private worlds only to expose societal attitudes and human reactions for analysis, causing us to examine our reactions and challenge assumptions. Taylor Mac’s, Hir, is one such play. Presented by the Calithumpian Theatre Co. for their 2018/2019 season here in London, Ontario, Hir gives us a glimpse into Mac’s life growing up in Stockton, California and at the same time exposes the reality of growing up in a dysfunctional family. The play makes the audience look closely at what family means and how pressures change family dynamics.
Of special interest is the character of Max, the young transgender family member, whose story is simply one that is interwoven amongst those of the rest of the family. These include hirs interactions with hir brother, recently returned home after being dishonourably discharged from the army because of addiction issues, an abusive father whose life has changed after a stroke, and a mother who is enthusiastically supportive of her child yet at the same time co-opts hir’s experience while revelling in freedom from domestic violence while ensuring the tables are now turned on her hapless husband.
While not the central theme of the play, Max’s experience and some of hir interactions with hir family as ze goes through hir transition, resonates with many of us in the LGBT2Q+ community. From wanting to run away to live on a commune amongst folks who understand and are just like us, to being exhausted from having to educate everyone around us, Max’s words will strike a chord in queer and trans audience members.
We had the chance to sit and chat with Zoe Bernard and Kenjiro Edwards (understudy) who play the character of Max in Hir and their experience being in the play and thoughts on some of the issues raised.
Q & A with Max Connor
What made you want to audition for the role of Max? Did the fact that this was a queer and trans character make it more appealing or was it just the character in general?
Z: I had never gotten the chance to play a queer character before and I want to veer exclusively towards that as a performer. Especially because of Max’s 'beyond gender' experience, I was keen to do that as a non-binary identifying person.
K: I was getting to the point where I thought that maybe I won’t go into acting after all. There was never a lot of roles for my age group especially as I look younger, but then I checked the casting call forum and saw the request for trans/non-binary/AFAB and it pulled me in seeing a call specifically for a character like that and someone similar to me… its not specifically my experience as a trans-masculine person but I was curious as to it was and what the opportunity was. I’ve never really seen a call out for a queer character and it was an opportunity I didn’t know how often I would see.
Z: I have played queer characters since my audition for Hir though. I did a play in Hamilton that was organized by Erika Reesor where I played Danny, a trans male and then there was a local playwright from London who wrote a piece called Max’s monologue… so two queer Max’s this year and it was about a 12 yr old pansexual girl. Max in Hir is my biggest queer role though.
"It’s definitely angsty teenager for a lot of it, but there’s a lot of underlying trauma that’s its bravado for the most part...and I know a lot about bravado because that’s how I function every day. " - Zoe
What do you think about the role of Max in Hir? Do you identify with hir?
Z: It’s definitely angsty teenager for a lot of it, but there’s a lot of underlying trauma that’s its bravado for the most part...and I know a lot about bravado because that’s how I function every day. I pretend to be more okay than I am and Max does that constantly throughout the show. I also think that I identify with the role along with being non-binary and and consistently misgendered and misunderstood by the heterosexual community but mostly the masking of the confidence that is there.
K: Definitely, the same. The putting on the bravado as its it’s cool.. It’s fine. Even when I was first figuring out and experimenting with gender I did go by Ze/Hir pronouns for a bit so it brings me back to that time when I was younger and that angsty teen situation and just remembering. I think Max has definitely figured it out, but remembering that time when I was wondering who I was.
"People say they want mainstream or popular people in roles but we are never going to get a mainstream queer or trans actor if you never open that door" - Kenjiro
What are your thoughts on having cis-gendered actors playing trans characters?
Z: Stay in your lane bro. I think it’s along a similar vein as you shouldn’t white-wash roles.. you shouldn’t straight-wash roles. Hire people to play key aspects of the character who possess those aspects in real life that someone who doesn’t wouldn’t understand.
K: Agreed. I was watching a video talking about this issue in Hollywood talking about whitewashing and this issue...and you understand why originally they did that but we are at a point in time now where they should be making the effort to find queer actors because we exist. They just have to look. I was reading that there was a show that did a call out for a young trans man and they said it wasn’t that hard, they put out the call and lots of people auditioned.. They want to take up the opportunities and you should let them have them and not give them to people who aren’t . People say they want mainstream people but we are never going to get a mainstream queer or trans actor if you never open that door and instead just shove other people in that spot.
Do you have a trans/nonbinary/queer actor that was/is your inspiration?
Z: I don’t know.. I can’t think of any off hand.
K: I never really thought about it.. The first person that comes to mind is the Sense 8 actor, Freema Agyeman She is a trans woman playing a trans character and I remember watching her, the first time on the show and thinking ..What!!
Z: She also plays Martha on Doctor Who!
K: YES!! And yes, a lesbian or not straight trans woman and that presentation of that character and to have it played by a trans person. Yes!! Finally! And the other that comes to mind is Laverne Cox because she’s become a big name.
Back to the play. What do you think about Hir, and the story itself?
Z: It is absurd realism. That’s the genre and I think that’s what makes it interesting. It’s classified as absurdist but its still plausible and happening behind clothes doors in Stockton California. Everything is amplified but in a way that it could just be a houseful of big personalities that just had a lot happen to them. So it is really compelling in that although its exaggerated, you can buy into it very easily.
K: One of the things that I like was that Max being trans is an aspect of the show but its not a huge … like “HE'S TRANS!!!!” *shocked voice* there’s the one moment when the brother figures it out and it’s addressed here and there but it’s not the focal point. It’s not like other shows I see that are usually written by someone cis-gendered and heterosexual where it becomes the focal point and a defining personality trait. I get that for some people when they first realize they are trans or gay or queer or anything it can be a big “Yeah that‘s me!” and it’s cool but there’s also a huge group of us who aren’t like that and it comes up when it comes up. And that’s how the play portrays it… It comes up as it comes up.
Z: I’m an aggressively queer person. But that’s not the only aspect of me and not the defining thing in my life that I center everything around.
K: It’s a trait of who you are but it’s not WHO you are entirely... and owning it is different from "that’s all I am'.
"Spoiler Alert: Max doesn’t die"
What would you like to see more in theatre in terms of queer/non-binary/trans representation?
K: I would agree with that.
Z: I am biased but I love a good not porny lesbian romance. A real one.
K: They’re starting with non sexualised gay guys but they haven’t really touched on lesbians as yet.
Z: It’s because lesbian is still a "sexy" term. But it’s like f*** you. It’s not.
K: Up until a year or two ago I realized that I avoided saying the word, lesbian, because it was ingrained that its a very sexual word. But it’s not. It just describes women who love women.
Z: There just isn’t enough realistic portrayal especially in theatre. There are local plays that people do but in terms of oh this is on Broadway, this is travelling, this is in the West End all the time. There are never queer relationships and when they are its tropey and cheesy and not realistic at all.
K: They are super campy and stereotypical, which some people are! But its one thing when that's all there is and its one thing when its done by a gay person but when it’s not… Or everything is just terrible or the gay dies trope
Z: Max doesn’t die. Spoiler alert.
K: Thats one of my least favourite ones. Especially when it happens in a show where everything is just getting better and then they die. It’s like come on! Can’t they just be happy?
Z: There is this cute conversation in the play about Max’s sexuality. Because gender is addressed but then there’s a moment where Isaac assumes Max learnt to play the banjo because ‘chicks dig it’ and Max responds saying 'i like dudes!' But its a cute moment where not everything is as it seems. Don’t assume that one means the other.
K: Isaac starts saying the “I thought .. “ like the I thought that because you were transitioned, you were into girls.
Do you think a lot of people get confused with gender and sexuality?
K: I heard my mom on the phone with my nana who’s 80-stg years old and English isn’t her first language and I could hear her trying to explain in Japanese the difference between trans and being homosexual. You'd hear Japanese then in the middle, the word 'Trans' and then more Japanese and then the word 'Gay'.
I think it’s a thing that very much ingrained that because you are trans, you are straight.
What would you tell someone coming to seeing the show and is new to or may not fully accept trans or the queer community?
Z: I can just see flashing capital letters in my head saying “not every trans person is going to be like this” I think blanket statements across the board are very common for the queer community to be heaped under so I feel like people need to know that not every trans person comes from a broken home
Don’t assume things based on what you see in the play or in the media in general about queer people.
K. I think there might be a lot of people who come to the show who just come because it's theatre and this may be their only representation of a trans character or non binary individual and there is the worry that they see this and think that this what all of them are like but no! We’re so many different types of people.
"Trans people have always been around. The queer community has been around as long as humanity. It's just that the most common things got defined first." - Zoe
What would you say to Queer and Trans folks coming to see a show?
Z: Come talk to me. I want to know if they ever relate to Max. Like "Hey! I had a moment like that."
K: There are a few moments that I think folks would relate to more than other members of the audience like the moment when Issac says to Max "You’re trans because mom put you up to it." I remember when I first heard that line I had such a reaction it.
Z: like how dare you!
K: Yes! and the next line is “f*** off" and when that comes up... that’s real anger behind it when I say it.
Speaking of that...there are folks who do think its a fad, that it's the latest trend and more people are coming out as trans or queer because it's popular. What would you say to them?
Z: We’ve always been around. There just weren't words for it. I never heard of non-binary until two years ago and I had a literal light bulb moment of that's it!. It explains what I was feeling. Trans people have always been around. The queer community has been around as long as humanity. It's just that the most common things got defined first.
K: Yes! The thing too, is letting people who may turn out to be cis-gender in the end explore that, isn’t a bad thing. If someone one day says I think I might be non binary or trans and then they realize a few months later you know what okay maybe I am not. I think I’m just effeminate or whatever. The problem with society is that we’re very... if you think are something you HAVE to be that thing especially if it’s very outside the box. I’ve read people who say stop pushing trans identities on kids especially if the kid is gender non-conforming. But honestly usually the people who push those are cis not trans and they don’t understand to just let your kids be a kid. And if they do feel like they are female or male or neither or both, just listen to them and let them explore.
Z: Take them at their word. If they say they are trans then they are. If they say they figured out that they weren’t then that's okay too
K: Even sexuality too. At first I thought I was pansexual, then ace and then I started testosterone and now I’m gay , I’m homosexual. Sometimes you just don’t have the words at the time and you might think you are one thing when you really are another.
What is the one thing you would like the audience to take away from the play?
Z: The family you are born in, is not the one you have to stay in.
K: You can choose your family.
Z: You can absolutely choose your family especially if the one you are born in is toxic or abusive. Queer people as a whole are more willing to accept because they know what its like to not have family and its easy to form bonds with people who have been through the same things as you.
Join Zoe, Kenjiro and the rest of the amazing cast and crew from Calithumpian Theatre Co. and their production of Taylor Mac's Hir on stage now at The Grand Theatre's McManus Stage from Dec 6th to 15th. Find out more about this production.