When it comes to selling tickets for the one-man show To T, or not To T?, Jon Imparato has no trouble. In fact, the show starring transgender actor-writer-comic D’Lo at the Center’s Renberg Theatre has been extended four times due to high demand.
But, getting any critics to review the show? Imparato, who serves as the Center’s Director of Cultural Arts, said he has had a mighty hard time.
“It’s a trans masculine performer and that scares them,” Imparato said during the candid panel discussion Big Queer Convo: Queer Theatre Then and Now held November 11 at the Center. “It’s not a story about a man who became a really pretty woman. There’s gender politics in the play, and that’s not a story they want to cover. They don’t want to see it, they don’t want to review it, they don’t want to know about it.”
In addition to Imparato as moderator, the panel was comprised of To T, or not To T? director Adelina Anthony; Alison De La Cruz, vice president of programs at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center; Leo Garcia, artistic and executive director of Highways Performance Space; and Michael A. Shepperd, director of Celebration Theatre.
The panel was one in a series of Big Queer Convos devoted to documenting the impact of LGBT people in the entertainment and news media over the last half-century.
The panelists did not hold back as they passionately touched on a whirlwind of topics: mainstream theaters producing queer material; cisgender actors portraying transgender roles; government funding and marketing challenges; and LGBT audiences not always being supportive of LGBT performers’ work.
“The Ls don’t always come for the Gs, and the Gs don’t always come for the Ts, and people don’t always come for Ts or Bs,” observed De La Cruz, who used the acronyms for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and who identifies with they pronouns. “Queer theater needs more support in marketing. How do we message and market to ourselves about ourselves in a way…without having to put a little block on there that says this is an LGBTQ play?”
Several panelists expressed concerns about the inequity and distribution of government funding regarding LGBT material.
“In an effort to diversify, historically white and historically straight spaces (are given) more money to do diversity and inclusion work rather than paying those of us who have been in the work,” De La Cruz said.
The bigger, mainstream theaters then often approach people like the panelists for advice and expertise—and usually expect it for free.
“Our embodied knowledge, our professionalism is exploited,” Anthony said. “We are in precarious times, and it doesn’t make sense for these [bigger]venues to get the grants and the accolades when these little theaters, with much smaller budgets, have been doing the work because it saves lives—and it matters.”
Anthony added she wants to see queer-themed work produced in the bigger venues feature LGBTQ performers in LGBTQ roles.
“I would love for them to hire people who have been doing the work—the actors who have been struggling—who have been out,” she said. “It’s not as though cisgender, heterosexual folks can’t play queer roles. But we’re not even at the point where we’ve experienced true, social equity in the world of theater. Until trans people can play trans people and win awards and Oscars, cisgender folks have no business touching those roles.”
Despite some frustrations, the panelists agreed that the outlook for LGBT theater is very bright.
“We are going to have so many more stories from our youth because of the fact that they’re coming out in elementary school,” predicted Anthony. “I want to hear them in 15 years and talk about what that was like for them. I think that it’s so critical for us to continue to create lineage amongst queer theater artists and to really push and give space for training and excellence. If we want the future to go to the next level, always provide a safe space where they can learn, perform, write, and direct.”
Added Shepperd: “There’s this crop of young queer writers who are writing things that any of us who are over 38 are kind of afraid of. Can I say those things? Can I do those things? We just need to go ahead and do those things now and give these people a voice in the queer theater community.”