Last month, I had the privilege of performing in an original trans play called Real Boy – co-written and directed by my talented friend Finn Evans with Ramonah Gibson – which follows a trans boy fighting for that Disney-Pinocchio dream of ‘becoming a real boy’.
When Finn first told me about the play – and the two performances he would be directing at the UEA Drama Studio in Norwich, Norfolk – I remember how vivid his dedication was to giving that lead role to a fellow transmasc (transmasculine person). He knew how enriching an experience it would be for us – for him, for me, for anyone in our community – to get to be transmasc, be that deeply ourselves, on stage: that public and artistic plane.
I shouldn’t have to make a case for why trans people should get to portray ourselves on stage and on screen, and I definitely shouldn’t have to make any grand argument that writes off cis actors completely before we can even consider trans actors for the roles. Other trans people have spoken on all that brilliantly – if you want to hear it, Disclosure (2020) on Netflix is a good start. Right now, I care about how much good it does trans actors (and trans audiences, too) for us to be in these roles.
In this play, we watch our ‘Real Boy’ as he’s called come into himself, from flashbacks of this little boy in a bile-yellow dress to a fully-fledged teenager who’s found clothes that he feels confident in and a demeanour that makes even his old schoolyard bullies call him one of the ‘guys’.
Even though the story is, really, a tragedy from start to finish – one that teaches a cis audience that refusing to affirm your trans child means refusing them happiness – putting on this show as a transmasculine creative with another transmasculine creative, as actor and director, is a gem of trans joy in this increasingly transphobic landscape.
The vast majority of Real Boy’s scenes are about him seizing for himself pure trans joy. It was an incredibly affirming experience. My favourite part was one of two scenes that act as heights of his gender affirmation. It was a dance, choreographed by Bogi Burin (@bogiburin1) to a refreshingly peaceful tune by Danail Vidinsky (@dafinnvi), that – expertly chosen with Real Boy’s movements relaxing as he becomes more settled in his body and his gender – takes on a contemporary lilt with some hip-hop strength. As he asserts to his therapist: “I like feeling comfortable.”
Movement, feeling confident within and fully throughout your body, can be exceptionally tough for trans folk. With internal forces like dysphoria recoiling us into ourselves, and external ones like transphobia and strict (cisheteronormative, patriarchal) ideas of gender boxing us in.
I was brought up as a ballet girl, took the taut clothes and dance form to my body, started pointe at thirteen. I was tense in my body – until Bogi’s choreography let me bring masculine energy into it, and suddenly dance wasn’t a ‘girl’ thing that I forced my trans body through, but a burst of myself.
Elliot Page said about playing Viktor Hargreeves in Season 3 of The Umbrella Academy (2019-present) – who was incorporated with Elliot’s own coming out and transition – that scenes were “really resonating” with his own experience. I liked ‘feeling comfortable’, and came to myself more through this intense gaze on gender affirmation and euphoria.
The Danish Girl Question
Real Boy being a tragedy does tap into what I call ‘The Danish Girl Question’: Is it more ethical for a cis actor to play a trans character in moments of dysphoria and oppression?
Honestly, I’d been scared to go into this play because of what I would be subjected to, even in the false world that stage and screen provide. Real Boy faces horrible transphobic bullying, sits through therapy sessions that try to reel back his transness and monologues of those meant to be ‘loved ones’ talking about how he’s betrayed them. In the end, he’s forcibly detransitioned into something resembling a girl.
I’ve read Trumpet (1998) by Jackie Kay and Detransition, Baby (2021) by Torrey Peters – I’m well aware of the boundary between a productive portrayal of negative trans experience and a hurtful one. When I was first looking at the script, I feared this play could be too harsh for a trans actor; moreso, me.
At that time, I was constantly being misgendered and misread as a girl, and I had grown so scared of being heckled in the street again – or worse – that I had begun to detransition myself. I was growing my hair out and had taken on more ‘girlish’ mannerisms like a chafing armour. I personally didn’t feel strong enough to go through that portrayal for a greater good, for either our trans community or myself getting to experience all that gender affirmation alongside it.
Jamie Clayton said about playing Nomi Marks in Sense 8 (2015-2018) – about a trans actor playing a trans character written by a trans writer – that it was “so authentic and human” (GLAAD 2015). Finn, as my director, knew firsthand most of the experiences Real Boy has, and the difficulties a fellow transmasc might face when taking on the role. He was so, so careful with me.
He was constantly checking in that I was feeling okay after particularly painful scenes, that a certain direction would be within my comfort level. He corrected cast members on my pronouns, and checked one-on-one how I was feeling after. I felt comfortable enough to raise a moment after one reading over Zoom, where we read that final scene, that I’d seen my reflection in my bedroom mirror warp into a ‘girl’ the way I feared it might for the audience. It had scared me, and he took the time to talk me down.
Honestly, taking on Real Boy under a director that attuned to the experience made me feel more than secure enough to get through it all; it made me brave enough to show it to others.
Jen Richards said in Disclosure: “The public thinks of trans women as men with really good hair and makeup, in costume. And that’s reinforced every time we see a man who’s played a trans woman off-screen.”
I still don’t want to talk about cis actors and cis audiences, because what’s rarely touched upon is the effect the casting choice has on trans audiences. In the second performance of Real Boy I knew there were fellow transmascs watching. I think that’s why, when I walked on stage in that dress and ponytail that final time, I cried. I felt so awful for them, having to see their worst-case scenario play out in front of them.
But once the show was done, I quickly changed back into Real Boy’s proper outfit – the blue shirt and cargo trousers. Not just because that was a breath of fresh air to me, but because I wanted to right the image. I think seeing cis actors revert back to their cis selves after portraying a trans character ‘rights the image’ for a lot of cis people, reminds them that transness and transition go ‘against our bodies’ as Real Boy’s therapist says.
And that’s the other side of the Danish Girl coin: this was such an intense gaze on the trans experience that the dysphoria, and the affirmation, most likely could be felt in me, seen in me, down to the minutest detail.
Talking to those transmascs afterwards, even as they talked about how heartbreaking it was to see Real Boy in that wedding dress, made the tragedy seem smaller. Actually, it made the message within the tragedy seem bigger: that we’ll keep being trans, even when the show’s over.
The question of who should play trans roles so often puts cis people first. But a production like this – with a trans main character – isn’t just trans-inclusive. It’s trans-first.
A review by Norwich Eye (22 October 2022) is also available to read.