Transactivist performer and downtown New York theater star Becca Blackwell discusses They, Themself and Schmerm, a fiercely vulnerable solo piece about tragic-comic transitions in life, family, sex, and gender.
Could you tell me about the show and what inspired it? And what exactly does “schmerm" mean?
“Schmerm” is the sound people make when they don’t know what gender I am. They’ll go “sh-he-rmmmm.”
I kept being asked to write a solo show by a lot of different people over the years, and I’d always say, “That sounds awful.” And my partner Erin Markey thought I should investigate that, because all the good art is in our deepest fears. So I went online and into a rabbit hole trying to decide what I was interested in and what I wanted to say to a bunch of people. I thought I didn’t want to say anything. And then I found this terrible PR film from 1989 called Me, Myself and I, by 1980s teen idol Corey Haim. I think his PR company made him do it when he was struggling with drug addiction. It’s just 36 minutes of him being like, “Look at me! I’m normal!,” and he so obviously is not normal. So I used that as a platform.
They, Themself and Schmerm seems the antithesis of Me, Myself and I. You tell some very honest stories, instead of trying to present a false version of yourself.
Right. The only way that They, Themself and Schmerm worked and I work as a performer was for me to be grounded and really take the audience in—really look at everyone and let them see me. I do it in a stand-up comedy kind of way. If I didn’t, I probably would “perform” it more instead of just talking to people, which is what seems to be the most effective: when I really talk with people. The show is basically the stories of my life, in terms of being resilient and being authentic to who I am. Which I think is really hard for humans.
What has the audience response been like?
I've had trans people say thank you, and I've also had straight men say thank you. So I think it reaches past some restrictions we assume about each other. It's just stories, and they hopefully transcend labels. And when it comes down to it, we are all in a unique meat carcass zooming along on this planet together.
There aren’t many shows that feature performers who challenge the gender binary. Even as we have trans artists who are becoming more visible, why do you think this specific representation is so lacking?
Theater is way behind, and always has been. I’ve been in the business twenty-some years, and I never got work by the traditional ways. I’ve had tons of people say to me, “God, you’re so talented, I don’t know what to do with you!” No one is willing to take risks, except, like, experimental artists in downtown New York. I also think a lot of trans people have pretty deep body dysmorphia, which I think every human does. For example, if you’re born with a vagina, and you’re told your whole life you’re fat when you’re not, the mantra of that affects you.
So there’s a lot of dysmorphia, and when that happens it’s really hard to be present and engaging on a huge spectrum, which is what really great actors do.
Also, sexuality really triggers people. Gender stuff triggers people. We’re really conditioned to believe our position in the world is based on gender and sexuality. Capitalism’s ruled around it; patriarchy’s ruled around it. Because we are all equal, but we figure out ways to make each other unequal by—what? The flesh between our thighs, or the chemical melanin in our skin. I like to play this game: let’s talk to aliens and explain humans:
HUMAN: We judge people by the flesh between their thighs!
HUMAN: ...I don’t know.
Interview by Rebecca Curran, a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.