Tomorrow I premiere my newest one-person show, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. I don’t often share about my process as a playwright, mainly because I assume most people find it boring. Lately though people have asked me about how I create and build a new theater piece. If you are interested in process, read away. If not, surf away to your next blog.
I don’t actually write the play, not with pen and paper or through a word processing program. In fact, I never have a script written until after the 12th performance. I find that when I script lines of dialog, they sound bulky, clumsy, wooden. I want an authentic sound. So once I have all my basic ideas in my head, with some written notes, I create my characters, and then I have fun and play. I speak as these characters and let the words form in my mouth.
Sometimes I leave funny messages on friends’ voice mails, or I walk around the house composing lines. This is the power of the oral tradition. For many of our ancestors, most stories were told and heard, not written and read. Just like the ear can distinguish the difference between the cold digital sound of a CD and the more natural sound of a live performance or even an LP, I believe that we hear lines of dialog differently when it is scripted or when it flows out of natural speech. This may not be true for other playwrights, but it works for me.
But I’ve jumped ahead. In writing Transfigurations, I first had to discover my content and my characters. This always proceeds dialog. For the past two years I have soaked in the stories and lives of dozens of amazing trans people. I never intended to write a play at first. Instead I desired to be a better ally to transgender people. I saw how in the LGB part of the community, the T was most often just tagged onto the name of a group, but no real trans presence or deep knowledge of trans issues existed.
I began by reading blogs written by trans men, women and others who defy gender classification (by their own choosing). From there I learned about several important books written by trans people about trans issues. (see below a list of blogs and books). Then I began to meet more and more trans people face to face. Some of these I met through True Colors or the Quaker group Friends for LGBTQ Concerns. I discovered so much diversity among trans folks and began to see how misinformed I had been.
About the time I met Sarah Jones, a transgender priest in the Church of England, I decided I needed to create a play about the trans characters in the Bible. For one I have not yet discovered any book or work of art that identifies many trans Bible characters, specifically the ones that I began to see materialize on the page. Also, I process information through my art, so in order for me to really grasp it, I need to turn to art. (sorta like many teachers learn the most about their subject when they teach it).
I next began interview trans people. Interviews have played and important role in my creative process from the time I was first asked to write a performance poem for Judy Shepard when she spoke in Memphis back in 2000. In order to do that, I interviewed nearly 100 LGBT people and discovered so much about my people, this group that I had finally allowed myself to embrace and let embrace me.
Over the last year I sat with transsexuals, cross-dressers, genderqueer individuals who agreed to meet with me, and I listened to their stories while I took notes. Often I asked a broad, open-ended question. So tell me about your experience as a trans person? They answered how they wanted. I also asked more specific questions about family and romance and career based on what they already shared, but mostly I stuck with the broader type questions.
Apart from the play, and not at all part of any official research into trans issues, I discovered true friends and at least one soul mate. My life became fuller with each trans person I met. I dated a trans man for a time, and my time with him changed me profoundly and opened me up as a gay man and a person.
I took in the stories I read, saw in film and most importantly heard firsthand. At the same time I read over and over again the Bible narratives of the trans characters I identified in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Then I began to speak and write about the play and some of my ideas. People responded with their own thoughts and gave me vital information about the Bible stories and the original language and meanings of words in Hebrew that I would not have known. (I studied Koine Greek in college, but never Hebrew).
In May I began to share the Transgender Bible Stories publicly, first at the Courage UK London meeting then later in the year at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England and then most recently at the Colorado Regional Gathering of Friends (Quakers).
The audience reaction surprised me. One person wrote on his blog about how the material gave him the “holy creeps,” and about how blasphemous it all seemed to him. But most audience members responded enthusiastically, at least three telling me that as a result they wanted to dive into the Bible themselves after never having anything to do with it or put it down long ago.
These last two weeks I have spoken with trans friends about the play, my ideas for characters, specific parts of the plot and certain technical aspects. For instance, if I were a female to male trans person not taking testosterone, what might I do differently with my voice so that it would pass more as a male voice. How do males and females speak differently in our cultures? How would a female attack a word compared to a male?
Sometimes seemingly unrelated interests suddenly jumps into one of my plays and affixes itself to the work. I recently re-read Elaine Pagels’ book about the Gospel of Thomas. There I found all sorts of fascinating references to gender. That got me thinking about the Apostle Thomas. I knew he went all the way to India to share the Jesus message and ultimately got killed there by the sword. Thomas in Southern India got me thinking about the hijras, the eunuchs of India also referred to as the third sex. This got me talking to filmmaker and scholar Harjant Gill about hijras, their history and their current roles in Indian life. Suddenly the confluence of information gave new direction and depth to my ideas for the play. I won’t reveal how it all turns out, but I tell you all this to share some of the organic nature of the creative process for me.
The audience plays a major role in the creation of my plays. I’m always thinking about who my audience members might be and consider them in my content, characters and in crafting lines. Before I premiere a piece, I present a preview version to close friends who have seen my other work and usually a few people who have never seen any of my plays.
I come with scrapes of ideas I have, and I literally build the piece right before their eyes. They give me feedback about what worked and what didn’t. I consider their feedback, make changes and then a day or two later do another preview performance with another group of people. Get more feedback and make more changes. Even after I premiere a piece, I take in how my audiences respond and ask individuals for feedback. I continue to tinker and tune the play even years after it premieres. This is one of the reasons why I am loathed to record any of my shows. They seem to me living organisms always growing and changing.
This week I have already done two preview performances and have a third this afternoon. The piece is coming along nicely. Each time I do it, it settles into place more and more. So far the audiences have found it to be funny and moving, and for some, enlightening.
Having considered my trans audience members, I wanted to keep some of the revelations subtle, knowing that they will figure it out right away. Having non-trans folks in the audience this week helped me see that I was too subtle for them and need to spell out some things more clearly.
Tomorrow I premiere the piece at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I believe a large crowd will gather including some coming from as far as an hour away. Some dear trusted friends will be there. Ultimately I want Transfigurations to transition into a musical. I can write lyrics and have found at least two different people willing to write music.
So cross your fingers, tell me to break a leg, and hold me in the Light or shoot up a prayer if you do that sort of thing because ready or not, I am about to premiere Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible.
Here are some resources that have influenced me:
Jen Burkes’ Transcending Gender
Elliot’s many blogs including Little Bits and Boi
Alex Resare’s Across and Beyond
Diana’s Little Corner in the Nutmeg State
Jay Sennett’s newly retitled blog On Zen and the Art of Anti Assclownery
Omnigender–A Trans-Religious Approach by Virgina Mollenkott
Queer Theory, Gender Theory by Riki Wilchins
Butch is a Noun by S. Bear Bergman
Orlando by Virginia Wolfe
Beyond Belief–The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels
Elliot, Alex, Ally, Diana, and Oliver Danni for your recent help!