No Single Story

JAN 19, 2017

Artistic Director Diane Paulus interviews Trans Scripts writer Paul Lucas

Jay Knowles in Trans Scripts

At an A.R.T. Season Preview event in July 2016, Artistic Director Diane Paulus shared a conversation with Paul Lucas, the writer of Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women. In this transcript of that conversation, the two discuss the origins of the play and its relevance today.

Diane Paulus: Could you tell us how this work started?

Paul Lucas: Around five years ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who was a liberal, progressive-minded HIV-positive gay man. And I mentioned a transgender gospel singer friend named Our Lady J, whom I represented as a booking agent at the time (and who has since become a writer on the TV show “Transparent”). And this guy effectively said to me, “You know, I don’t really believe in transgender people.”

Since that time, the visibility of trans people has increased tremendously, but even at that point, I just thought, “Wow. This is a really important issue that is not being addressed, even within my own community.” This “LGBT umbrella” is a concept that we talk about, but when it comes down to it, transgender people have really not been embraced by the gay community on a day-to-day basis.

So I thought, “I want to educate myself. And I’m going to start by just talking to people.” I didn’t know at the time quite what it was going to become. But I began by interviewing two trans friends, and then I used my network of friends and colleagues to meet more trans people around the country and around the world. I’ve done over 75 interviews now in the US, the UK, Australia, India, Cuba, and Germany.

And then, about two years ago, I started turning the interviews into a play, which became Trans Scripts. After a few workshop productions, I brought the show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, where it did incredibly well, winning a Fringe First Award and a High Commendation from Amnesty International. And then, thanks to Eve Ensler, who has been a huge supporter of the project, it came to the attention of the A.R.T.

Did you find that people were eager to share their stories?

Generally, I was really fortunate. There were a couple of people who showed up to the interview asking “Why should I talk to you? Tell me why I should tell this cisgender gay guy about my experience.” And so I told them why I began the project, why I felt it was so important, and what I hoped to achieve. So far, no one has ever said no to an interview after meeting me. I began each session by saying, “Tell me where your story begins, because only you know where it begins.” And then I kind of shut up and let them tell their stories—stories that proved to be very, very different from one another.

That difference between individual stories is a key theme of the show. You’ve spoken about the false notion of a singular “trans narrative.” How do you define that?

As someone who is not an academic per se, when I’ve heard the term “narrative” in the past, I always thought that it was kind of a precious term for “story.” But when it comes to trans people, talking about “owning their personal narrative” is incredibly fitting. Because what existed for so long was a singular story that was repeated, and reinforced, by the medical and psychiatric communities, especially in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. For years, individuals within these medical communities, who are referred to as the “gatekeepers,” were charged with assessing patients who came to them and determining whether or not to grant them access to hormone treatment and any number of surgical treatments. And individuals who told stories that didn’t jive with the “accepted medical narrative” were denied access to treatment and care.

So, if you and I were both born male and both felt that we were in fact female, you might go to a doctor, usually a gender therapist or maybe a medical doctor, and tell your story. And then I would also go to a doctor, and tell my story. And if you were diagnosed with what was termed “gender dysphoria” and given access to hormones and surgery, and I was not, then I would ask you to tell me what you told the doctor. And then I would find a new doctor and tell that doctor your story in order to gain access to treatment.

So people—looking for treatment, for resources—would tell the same stories over and over and over again: “When I was a little boy, I used to think I was a princess, and I would tuck myself between my legs, and I would wear my mommy’s shoes, and I always wanted to marry a prince…” So, in the process of seeking treatment, many people were robbed of their genuine, individual stories.

What has the casting process been like for this production?

Casting is a complicated issue. You’re talking about a community that has not been represented on stage or film very often, or very well. And then, even when they have been represented, they have not been allowed to portray themselves. When you look at The Danish Girl, or Trans America, or Transparent, the central character is not played by a trans actor. So there’s a disenfranchisement issue.

So we would all like to have as many trans people in the show as possible, but it’s also been extremely interesting having an audience walk into early readings knowing that the cast is mixed. If the audience knows ahead of time that the actors are all cisgender (someone whose gender identity is in line with the sex they were assigned at birth), they might think, “Well, I could tell. I could tell none of those people were trans.” Or if we announced that the entire cast was trans, people might say, “I could tell.”

And when I did the show in London and Edinburgh, I had some people who came to the show in both cities, and their reaction was, “Oh you had more trans people in London; that was more authentic.” And I said, “No. No, I didn’t. You just didn’t know.” And I think that can be powerful. I think there’s value in reinforcing the idea that gender presentation can be a performance of sorts, and that our limited notions of what it means to be male or female should be challenged. But one of my goals with this project has always been to create more roles for trans actresses.

When we did a one-night reading of this play at OBERON last year, we felt that there was a necessity to do this work. Tickets sold out within three hours of announcing the reading. As the writer, was there anything in particular that resonated with you at that performance?

There were vastly different levels of familiarity with the topic in the room. Some people in the audience were living these experiences; some people had read about them, and for others, this was completely new. So I took it as a challenge to make sure that this production would really provide new information for some, but provide the basics for others.

When I began the show five years ago, I had characters stop the action to define terms like “cisgender” or “intersex.” But I no longer have to do that. People are also more familiar now than they were five years ago with the challenges facing trans people. People are talking about trans identity at work, talking about the issues facing bathroom use, for instance. HR departments are addressing it. People are talking about it with their kids. So the show has to keep upping its game.

What do you imagine a person who doesn’t identify as transgender might be in a position to learn from this production?

I think that there is—and I can look at myself for this—there is an idea of “otherness” when it comes to this experience. The idea that “This doesn’t have anything to do with me really.” As a gay man, I have to say that, while I had a couple of trans friends five years ago, I didn’t feel as though this experience really related to me that deeply.

And thinking back to the conversation that sparked the project for me, I thought, “Well if I’m criticizing this guy, I’ve got to look right back at myself and say, “why don’t you learn a bit more before you criticize somebody else.” And what I discovered through that process was that the stories that I heard were incredibly universal, and human, and truthful. It is a very, very universal show—a very human show. And it’s also an opportunity to get questions answered, an opportunity most people wouldn’t normally have.

Right now, in this country, we are in the same pattern of representation with the trans community that we’ve seen with other disenfranchised groups: first they’re the butt of a joke, then they’re tragic, and so on. So, even now, there aren’t that many stories about real people living their lives. And people need to understand the full breadth of this experience. As many of my interview subjects said, “I spend about 15 minutes a day being trans. I get up. I take a shower. I drink my coffee. I go to work. I go home. I pay my bills. And yet people still focus on this ridiculous idea that I’m some kind of sexual deviant, or that my goal is trying to trick straight men into bed, or that I’m a predator, or even a pedophile. And that’s just not so.”

So I think the show is an opportunity to learn something. And it’s an opportunity to become an ambassador afterwards, because you will be more enlightened than your friends, and you will be able to talk intelligently on this subject. There’s a lot of information packed into a very short amount of time. And it’s funny. And it’s interesting. And it’s surprising. It’s not the stereotypical “tragic tranny” narrative. The characters are fully rounded, interesting, compassionate, confrontational, unique, and most important, human. And if you don’t see the show, I can guarantee you’ll be sorry that you missed the chance to spend an evening in the company of these extraordinary women.


Interview by Diane Paulus and Paul Lucas. Diane Paulus is the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater. Paul Lucas is the playwright of Trans Scripts.

Image Credit:
Jay Knowles: Edinburgh Pleasance Picture Show.


Related Productions