The Court Theatre (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Theatre faces criticism over casting of trans role

An upcoming theatre production has been called out for casting a cisgender actor in the role of a trans woman. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

The local production of Australian play Things I Know to be True – written in 2016 and set to be adapted into an Amazon series with Nicole Kidman – will premiere tomorrow night at Christchurch’s Court Theatre.

But opening night has been overshadowed by calls for the production to recast one of its leading roles.

The play, which will also run at Wellington’s Circa Theatre from late April, follows the lives and struggles of the Price family. That includes Mia – a trans woman who comes out during the production only to face prejudice from her own family. While internationally that role has been played by actors across the gender spectrum (including cis men, trans women and non-binary actors), in Christchurch and Wellington it’s set to be filled by Simon Leary, who is a cisgender male. 

This casting decision has prompted an open letter, written and posted to Instagram by queer activist Rosemary Mitford-Taylor, calling out the casting for perpetuating harm in the trans community and asking for Leary to be dropped from the role of Mia.

“Casting a cis actor in this role enables real life violence towards the trans community as it perpetuates the dangerous, too often fatal misconception that trans women are cis men in costume – this is untrue,” Mitford-Taylor’s letter said. “Trans women ARE women and it is non-negotiable that trans characters should be played by trans actors.”

Mitford-Taylor called the casting “transphobic” and “an act of violence towards the trans community”.

“It is never appropriate to cast cis actors in trans roles but particularly in the role of Mia in this play,” the letter said. “Mia’s journey is unique to the trans experience as she comes out during the play and faces overt transphobia from her parents. A cis actor could never understand what this would be like. You do not get clout for transgender representation if you are misrepresenting transgender people – what you get is systemic transphobia.”

In recent years, decisions to cast cisgender actors in trans roles have prompted apologies from Hollywood stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry. After pulling out of a role portraying a transgender man, Berry said, “The transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories.”

Mitford-Taylor said they were prompted to write their open letter, which has been “liked” by more than 300 people, after being made aware of the play by a friend: non-binary actor Maxwell Apse, who originally auditioned for the role of Mia.

Speaking to The Spinoff, Apse said while nobody involved with the production deserved to have any hate directed at them, the issue of Leary’s casting in the play prompted an important conversation. “It’s an act of transphobia because that contributes to a greater narrative that a lot of people believe: that trans women aren’t truly women,” they said. Many people, Apse said, believe trans women are “men in dress-up and it’s something they take off at the end of the day”.

Apse said this production could contribute to unconscious bias against those in the trans community. “For a lot of people, they don’t necessarily know a trans person – so what they learn about trans people is what they see in the media, such as a local production of a play. When you cast a cisgender actor in a transgender role, you’re actually robbing the opportunity for a trans actor to tell a trans story.”

Max Tweedie, director of Auckland’s Pride Festival, had seen the letter on Instagram. He agreed the role going to a cisgender man could be damaging. “It’s a really poor decision by the theatre and they should rectify the decision as soon as possible,” he told The Spinoff. “The challenges that the trans community face are quite broad, but one of the key pieces is that a lot of their representation is men dressed as women. That’s the harmful stereotype that keeps being perpetuated and used against [them].”

In addition, casting a cis male contributed to the lack of trans actors currently able to find work, Tweedie said. “When you’re doing theatre that tells trans stories, the very least you can do is use it as an opportunity to uplift trans people in the acting industry,” he said. Some of the responsibility should also be placed on cisgender actors who are auditioning for these roles, he said.

In a statement responding to the trans community, and subsequently provided to The Spinoff, the Court Theatre’s artistic director Dan Pengelly said the production reached out to and consulted with an experienced transgender artist ahead of casting the play. “Our casting decisions for every role in this play were complex, taking time to ensure our decisions were informed, workable and appropriate,” Pengelly said. “Part of our casting conversations included reaching out to agents, casting directors and known transgender actors and allies, including holding two rounds of auditions across three cities.”

Pengelly said the theatre considered bringing a self-identifying trans Australian national to fill the role of Mia/Mark Price, “but this option was not available to us with the current border restrictions in place, as Immigration NZ does not consider theatre as an essential service in the same way that film currently is”.

While there is no indication from Pengelly’s statement that any changes will be made for the upcoming production, in the statement he said he hoped this play encouraged audiences to accept others as they truly are. “The next step for us is how do we make space here at The Court Theatre for more stories made by and for our diverse communities,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for Circa Theatre, where the play will be staged after its run at The Court, said: “This is a complex issue that requires further conversation and balance. We are in discussions with the company and we will respond to you and the wider community at our earliest opportunity.”

Update – March 26: Both the Court and Circa have apologised and confirmed the role of Mia will be recast as soon as possible. An apology to the Trans community is available on the Circa website.




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