Alice wants to come out as a lesbian. Her girlfriend Fiona wants to start living as a man. It’s New Year in Rotterdam, and Alice has finally plucked up the courage to email her parents and tell them she’s gay. But before she can hit send, Fiona reveals that he has always identified as a man and now wants to start living as one named Adrian. Now, as Adrian begins his transition, Alice must face a question she never thought she’d ask… does this mean she’s straight?
But how a non-trans writer and actress approach portraying the trans experience for mainstream audiences? Transsexual writer and performer Sasha de Suinn interviews director Jon Brittain and actress Anna Martine in an informative, ground-breaking discussion.
SASHA: Is Rotterdam primarily aimed at mainstream audiences unacquainted with gender fluidity? If so, is the show’s sub-text entry-level in terms of that subject, or is presuming some awareness of gender questions from an audience?
Jon: I guess the answer to the first question is yes and no. It’s certainly accessible for audiences who are less informed and I made a conscious effort to make sure that was the case. However, at the same time I didn’t want to write something that had nothing in it for people who had first-hand experience of the subject matter. A lot of the writers and artists I admire find a way of unpacking complicated issues in a way that is satisfying for those in the know, but that brings the less knowledgeable along with them, and that was my aim too. I don’t want to be as trite as to say Rotterdam is for everyone, but I certainly hope that it doesn’t alienate anyone by presuming too much prior knowledge or, on the other hand, by presenting something that is too simplistic and familiar. I think we get into some interesting conversations throughout the play about gender, sexuality and the clash between our sense of personal identity and how others perceive us, but I think different people will get different things out of them.
Anna: The response we had when we premiered at Theatre503 was incredible. I had people coming up to me after the show from across the board telling me how moved and connected they were to the play, this included people within the queer community, as well as people who were less acquainted with these worlds. Because although it deals with complex issues about gender and sexuality, its inclusive, there are different access points into the play through the four very different characters and with its humour it reaches out beyond these labels and specific identities and connects with the audience on a human level.
SASHA:What is your artistic background and focus of interests as a writer / director? When did you first become interested in the notion of gender as a performative inquiry? What sparked the initial idea of Rotterdam?
Jon: I actually only wrote Rotterdam, Donnacadh O’Briain directed it (and did a fantastic job, too). I’ve been working as a writer and director now in some capacity for the last seven years and have quite an eclectic body of work. I’ve written plays, sketches and cartoons, and I’ve worked as a director on my own shows and other people’s, as well as with comedians such as Tom Allen and John Kearns. As a result, I can’t really claim to have a focus, although I am always attracted to stories in which characters are their own worst enemies – I like to see people struggle against themselves as much as against other people. In terms of when I first became interested in gender and gender fluidity as a subject to write about, I’ve been interested in it for a while and I tried to write a few things about it when I was younger which were all well-intentioned but also quite bad! I had the idea for Rotterdam about six years ago after a couple of my friends had come out as transgender. I was struck by how few well-rounded (or indeed any) transgender characters there were in drama and comedy. At the same time, I had started to think about sexual identity and how it changes or stays the same over a lifetime. These two ideas sort of merged into one and Alice and Adrian popped into my head. The story of Rotterdam is about these two characters, their relationship and how they reconcile their sense of their own identities with their love for each other.
SASHA:How are the actors involved approaching the notions of gender fluidity, and how does that shape and affect their performing process?
Jon: Over to you Anna!
Anna: I have a deep empathy and connection to my character – I identify as queer and so this play resonates with me on a personal level – the issues are aligned with what I care about personally and so I’m really excited to be exploring gender, identity and sexuality in this way. What’s brilliant is that throughout the development of the play the creative team had an open dialogue with people and organisations within the trans community, so when it came to approaching my character and his journey I felt confident and excited!
There’s such a strong supportive online transgender community, so as well as talking to trans people within my community and researching online, I’ve also been exploring and observing gender expression out in the world: What it’s like to step inside the body and experience of a man compared with a woman and then these glorious, complex and interesting places in between and around these binary ideas of gender.
SASHA:How do you feel about the debate, which is hotly contested in some quarters, that trans characters on stage, screen and television should only be played by genuine trans actors, as they’re hugely still hugely under-represented in terms of media visibility, and non-trans actors have a huge range of acting options available to them by comparison? For example, why, except for box-office reasons – was Eddie Redmayne cast in The Danish Girl? Trans actresses like Adele Anderson would, arguably, have brought a greater emotional weight to the role.
Anna: It is definitely a debate that needs to be had. I feel we should also look towards an industry where gender doesn’t come into play at all, where roles are just as open to trans actors etc. I’m really passionate about gender neutral casting – i.e. removing gender as a divide or indicator of how best to play a character or tell a story – and look to more diverse casting choices across gender, race and class, like Phyllida Lloyds powerful all female production of Julius Caesar or Regent’s Park Open Air Theatres recent production of Henry V with Michelle Terry as the title role and her bride to be played by the male actor Ben Wiggins.
Jon: It’s a difficult one for me personally because I was very passionate about trying to cast a trans actor in Rotterdam but although the people we saw were of a very high quality none of them quite fit the character. When Anna walked into the room, she did. I feel confident saying that we made the right decision because I know how fantastic and truthful the performance she gives is, but I can also appreciate how frustrating it must be to be a trans actor who’s seeing yet another trans role going to a non-trans person. I do think there needs to be a proactive campaign throughout theatre and TV to be more inclusive – both in front of and behind the scenes. I’ve met quite a few trans actors through doing Rotterdam and through the Gendered Intelligence trans acting course and I know how talented many of them are, but more opportunities need to be made available to them. As Anna says, an ideal world would be one where gender doesn’t come into it at all, I don’t know how realistic a possibility that is, but there are definitely things we can do in the here and now to make things better.
SASHA: Do you think Rotterdam is artistically advancing theatrical notions of gender-variance on stage or simply trivialising genuinely ground-breaking issues? There’s a world of difference between the transgressive works of Nina Arsenault and Amanda Lepore and the awful, cosy and one-dimensional treatment of trans characters in soap-operas, where they’re often served up as exotic tokenism, or presented as arbitrary life-style choices with little real weight or consequence.
Jon: I certainly hope I’m not trivialising anything. I became very aware, very early on, of the danger of creating something that did a disservice to trans people. I felt a keen sense of duty not to screw it up and to try not to fall into the traps that people who went before me, often with noble intentions, sometimes fell. The notion of the ‘cosy’ character is something I was very keen to avoid. Sometimes trans characters can be portrayed as faultless angels with no personality flaws – but who is like that in real life? Being trans does not mean that someone cannot be flawed, or funny, or difficult, or sarcastic, or inappropriate, or silly. With Adrian, as with all the characters, I strove to create a well-rounded, three-dimensional person whose gender identity is only one aspect of him. He’s not perfect – he sometimes gets things wrong or makes mistakes or pushes people away, but for me, that’s more interesting than seeing someone who has no lessons to learn and whose sole function is to teach other people tolerance. I can’t claim Rotterdam is as subversive or provocative as the work of Nina Arsenault or Amanda Lepore, but I certainly think there’s more than one dimension to it.
SASHA: It’s evident that Rotterdam will be a comic and thought-provoking delight for mainstream audiences for whom it might be an eye-opener, but what do you think the show’s bringing to gay and trans audiences deeply acquainted with gender-fluid theatre? It’s quite sad that arguably the biggest, so-called gender-fluid theatrical show ever is the deeply reactionary Rocky Horror Show, which actually advocates sexual irresponsibility, blanket promiscuity and sexual predation without any sense or consideration of the emotional consequences for those involved.
Anna: As part of the queer community I’m genuinely proud of this play; it’s funny and moving where the queer characters don’t die, go straight or end up crazy. It’s so refreshing to move away from these awful clichés that the queer community are used to seeing on stage and screen. We get used to cringing, not identifying with the narrative or saying “it’s good for a lesbian film’ or “yeah it’s not bad for a gay play” and we keep seeing a similar narrative play out on screen and stage that is often tragic. This play joyfully connects to people because and despite it being a ‘queer play’! It is both enjoyable and welcoming to new-comers but also joyfully familiar and better connected to the LGBTQIA+ community than I’ve experienced on stage before.
Jon: Well, one thing I can say about Rotterdam is that it is very concerned with the emotional consequences of the characters’ actions (and inactions) as that is what drives most of the play. As for what it brings, I hope I’m not giving too banal an answer by saying it brings these characters and this story. There is a huge amount of diversity in the LGBTQIA+ community and the number of plays, performance pieces, comedy shows and one-person shows that could be created is infinite. With this play, I wanted to honestly, humorously and sensitively tell the story of the relationship between Adrian and Alice. As with any piece of theatre, you have a limited amount of time, and there are loads of interesting discussions to be had about gender-fluidity, the sexuality spectrum, and identity that I wasn’t able to get into in this show because they didn’t apply to these characters. But I think it’s good that there is a plurality of work being created, and that each piece can occupy its own space and talk about its own things. Rotterdam is a big hearted comedy-drama about a relationship between two people who are their own worst enemies. It won’t be for everyone, but I do hope that it will be as funny and emotionally involving for people well acquainted with the themes as it is for those new to them!
Rotterdam is a new, gender-fluid comedy directed by Donnacadh O’ Brian running at Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London from Tuesday, 26th July to Saturday, August 27th. Box Office Ticket number: 0844-871-7632.
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