A bitter pill

11 April 2017

The casting in Swallow of a cisgender man in a trans role needs to be challenged, says Callum Kenny

There have been discussions in abundance about the importance of gender-blind and colour-blind casting at NSDF – around cramped bar tables, in full auditoriums and on a variety of stages across the University of Hull campus. Eliminating unconscious bias surrounding casting creates exciting, unforeseen opportunities for actors, theatre-makers and audiences alike, ensuring that diversity is promoted across all areas of the theatre industry.

But having watched Swallow, written by Stef Smith and performed by Piccolo Theatre, I wonder whether gender-blind casting is a legitimate model for trans parts. Swallow focuses on three lonely characters whose lives become increasingly, and messily, interlinked. One such individual is Sam – born biologically female but who identifies as male. In Piccolo Theatre’s production, Sam is played by Matt Dormer, a cisgender male actor.

This is not immediately problematic. After all, if acting is the process of taking on a different identity, and gender-blind casting is to be celebrated, then this decision should also be applauded. Except that there are shockingly few parts available for trans people on the stage. This production is entirely necessary because it communicates an important trans experience; however, for the opportunity to be given to a cisgender person could be seen as an irresponsible decision.

Colour-blind casting has historically been a negative, one-way force – blackface and yellowface were employed from Shakespeare’s day to Olivier’s and beyond. Just as it would be offensive, for example, to cast a white man in a part that directly engages with the black experience, gender-blindness can be a negligent process when it undermines the minority it could be empowering, and merely provides a platform for those who don’t need it.

This is by no means an issue specific to Piccolo Theatre, nor am I criticising their interpretation, which had moments of real beauty. The company is following an established precedent. In 2016, for example, a performance of Swallow in Cambridge cast the cisgender female actor Georgie Henley as Sam. In an interview, director Avigail Tlalim stated: “I think theatre has a duty to put the under-represented on its stage.” Except that she didn’t put the under-represented on her stage. The trans body was then, as now, conspicuous by its absence: parroted, even appropriated, by another. While writing trans parts and producing theatre that features trans characters is of vital importance, it is not enough. We have to cast trans actors in these roles.

Tlalim’s argument was the same as Piccolo Theatre’s – that, despite widely advertising across a variety of platforms, no trans actors stepped up. The student population in Durham, like Cambridge, is not large and is even less diverse. However, perhaps directors need to entertain the idea that, if there is no appropriate actor for the role, it shouldn’t be performed at all.

I hope that one day soon this conversation will be obsolete, made superfluous by the predominance of trans actors playing traditionally cisgender parts. But until that day, we have a responsibility to ensure that we aren’t just writing these roles, but fulfilling the promise of trans casting too. If that sounds dogmatic in the short term, perhaps it will reap rewards before too long.

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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca