Gender Diversity and Education in Musical Theatre

02/28/2017 10:28 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2017

PART ONE

Sheri Sanders and Christopher Castanho decided to team up and co-write a series of articles surrounding "tricky to discuss, but necessary" social topics through the lens of Student and Teacher in the Musical Theatre community called "Musical Theatre: The Wild Side".

For their second article, Christopher and Sheri met with two groups to discuss gender identity within Musical Theatre. After having an eye-opening and educational experience, they decided to split up this topic in two parts, allowing the many perspectives surrounding gender in Theatre to be discussed in further detail. This is part one: Gender Diversity and Education in Musical Theatre. Part two will be released next week: Gender Diversity in the Professional World.

This ‘round table’ was exactly 2 weeks before the Trump Administration decided to rescind transgender student’s rights in schools. The time is now to elevate the topic so the shifts happen swiftly and for good. In light of the recent events, Sheri has just inducted 33 transgender and genderfluid students into her “Rock The Audition” program for free.

During the first online gathering, Sheri and Christopher met with four brilliant and unique individuals who all are involved in the LGBTQ and gender nonconforming communities. Liz Jackson Hearns and Brian Kremer are voice teachers who are currently co-writing The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices. Oliver Rotunno is a transgender male and Senior at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and Savannah Souza is a genderqueer performer and Junior at University of the Arts.

Sheri: Liz, how did you become a teacher that focuses on trans voices?

Liz: I’ve always been a nerd when it comes to science and music, and most specifically I’m a big voice science nerd. I’m passionate about vocology and voice health, and about supporting queer communities, so combining my skills and passions in this way has been wonderful. My first trans student was a middle-aged trans guy who was a fiddle player and had to quit playing because of problems with his wrist but wanted to keep taking music lessons, so he decided to try singing. Not long after that journey began, I met a death metal vocalist who started lessons with me as John and a few months later came out to me as Jenny. I took the hint from the universe and jumped into research about trans voice and started offering trans voice services in Chicago. Windy City Times did an article about my company, The Voice Lab, and the work we had started doing. Since then I’ve just kept building, and I try to do as much outreach as I can. Through workshops, private lessons, free voice groups, and working with ResonaTe I think I’ve worked with somewhere around 200 trans folks, and I am so grateful to live in Chicago where the community is thriving. I work with a lot of singers and I also do some speaking voice training. Brian [Kremer] and I met through a mutual friend who knew we were both doing work with trans and gender nonconforming singers. Together we are writing The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices.

Sheri Brian, by the way, is a truly outstanding voice teacher at Elon University, and I just had the privilege of having him as my student for my Teacher Training program. So happy you’re here. Let me introduce you to Oliver. I did my “Rock The Audition” class at Roosevelt and Oliver got up and sang a Jackson Browne song, and I said “Oliver, what drew you to this song?” he said “It’s kind of a revolutionary song, and I feel like I’m revolutionary in a sense because I’m trans.” And I HIT THE FLOOR. You normally can’t get SHIT past me, and I had NO IDEA. Oliver you are so in your body.

Oliver: I’ve been on testosterone for about eight years but I kinda lucked out on the physical part because growing up I most often read as this little boy with long hair. I have very open parents, so I grew up as a tom-boy, it wasn’t a big deal. I had a lot of depression and issues as a teenager, my parents noticed that I was ‘letting life pass me by’. When I was 17 I came out to both my parents, who were completely shocked but very supportive throughout the whole thing. Right after I turned 18 I started hormone replacement therapy and I had my first surgery in December of 2014. I always knew I wanted to be an actor since I was eleven, but that took a backseat to growing up when living in a rural town, and also becoming the first transgender person you know. When looking up Musical Theatre schools I was drawn to Roosevelt because of the social justice history, with it being one of the first black colleges and instantly felt like I needed to go there.

Sheri: Did you apply as a trans person or did you apply as a male?

Oliver: I applied as a male, because California (where I’m from) allows you to change your name and your gender marker on your birth certificate. I am also the first trans actor that they know of at that school.

Sheri: Everyone this is Savannah. Sav introduced themselves to me at BroadwayCon because their voice teacher is also trained by me, Jenna Pastuszek!

Savannah: I knew I was gay from a young age. I was super feminine growing up and for a while, tried to embrace that. As I got older I started to realize that just wasn’t me. Until a month ago, I had long, curly hair and I just chopped it off. It was a big sigh of relief because I finally feel like my appearance matches is who I am on the inside- when I looked in the mirror I had this immediate feeling of “ah, there I am”. Over the summer I had this great group of friends and they were all under the trans or queer umbrella and I started learning about gender non-conformity. As I started to hear about this, I realized that there was actually a huge vocabulary to explain how I had felt my whole life. I feel more comfortable identifying as genderqueer as both a person and performer: being able to sing songs traditionally sung by males and play those parts, but also play female roles when appropriate. For me, this is where I feel like I’m supposed to be. "I prefer "they/them" pronouns, which is an everyday challenge. The people who love and care about me try their best to use the correct pronouns, but bringing your pronouns into the classroom is a whole new beast... Occasionally, I come across teachers who claim it's not grammatically correct and who don't like to be corrected, and I can't correct them because they're an authoritative figure. I end up in a never ending circle of being mis-gendered, feeling awful, and then the teacher doesn't know how to approach the situation or feels like they need to stop class to talk about it (which is worse in my opinion). In a place where I'm learning about my artistry and discovering what my gender identity means to me as a performer, it's so important that I, and any other performers not in the binary, feel safe to explore this new frontier of ourselves and gender theatre performance.

Sheri: Okay beautiful teachers: What is the biggest thing that needs to be clarified in terms of language for people who identify as trans or gender fluid? The language is continually changing, but what would you say as teachers that you’ve learned from your trans students?

Brian: I don’t even know where to begin to answer that. The lack of awareness about what is trans affirming and what is trans harming is staggering. Most of the time it’s not with ill intent, it’s just ignorance. It’s often just a lack of awareness. Identifying this is the first step to welcoming transgender and gender nonconforming students.

Sheri: Is that asking how would you like me to address you? How do you want to be identified?

Liz: At The Voice Lab we ask everyone about their pronouns. And I know for some it feels like the language is always changing, but I think it’s actually just becoming more accurate and specific. One of the ways to start is by listening to your own gendered language around voice; things like “female voice” or “male voice” can be misleading and over-generalizing. We’re all humans and we all have different ways we want to express ourselves as artists, and sometimes that defies gender assignment. It starts with conversations like this, so we can become more comfortable thinking and talking about deconstructing some of that binary language and start seeing individual artists as such.

Christopher: People don’t always associate pronouns with identity because they’ve never had to think about it, suddenly our pronouns can become precious to us when it resembles our true identity, and some people just don’t understand.

Brian: The fact is that we’re training human beings, not individuals who have to fit into certain boxes. Something that we write about in the rough draft of our book, The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices, is the idea of using specific language instead of describing a vocal quality as masculine or feminine. Because as soon as you say “Can you make that sound more masculine?” “More Feminine?” The singer’s vocal quality and timbre become tied to their gender identity/expression. If you, as the teacher, are looking for a sound that’s fuller, deeper, rounder then use adjectives! Describe what you’re looking for instead of taking a shortcut by using gender-assumptive language!

Christopher: Technically speaking, from a voice teacher’s perspective, what are some similarities and differences when teaching a transgender or non binary singer compared to a cisgendered individual’s voice?

Liz: A teacher must begin by deconstructing gender in voice. In order to work with a transgender or gender nonconforming or non binary singer, we as teachers have to start noticing our own gender biases and start to separate the sounds a voice can make with the gender identity of the singer. Research into trans identity, trans issues, gender identity and expression, and the trans/gnc experience is important if not crucial.

Christopher: How does someone’s physical transition affect the voice and your teaching?

Liz: The physiological changes that sometimes accompany medical transition (if a singer decides to go through medical transition) can affect vocal function in ways that a singing teacher needs to know about. Clothing can also impact voice, and although it isn't appropriate to pry into your student's transition, preparation for maneuvering those types of challenges will benefit both teacher and student.

Christopher: What is the most important thing you’d like to advise voice teachers that have non binary or transgender students?

Liz: Creating an environment where singers feel affirmed, welcomed, and respected is the goal for any voice studio. In a gender inclusive space, this could mean making different choices about repertoire for singers, using different language that doesn't force any singer into a gender role (i.e. using "sopranos and altos" instead of "women" in a choral setting), and treating each student with equal respect as they unpack their identity as singers and as people moving through the world. I’d also love to ask Sav and Oliver: How comfortable are you with being a trans activist? By being a trans artist there’s sort of an inherent responsibility to be an advocate and activist too. How do you feel about that?

Sav: Well, I like to say I am an activist and I will use my voice as a performer to encourage philanthropy and social change through theatre, and hopefully along the way, normalize queer characters so they can just exist instead of being plot devices. We're at a place where, finally, LGBTQ+ people are getting voices and representation on stage, but unfortunately, it's often for the purpose of providing conflict in the plot. It's important that we start to embrace the complexity and vastness of the LGBTQ+ community on stage just as we should be trying to in the real world. We should be moving away from the pigeonholes of coming out stories, religion vs. sexuality, the AIDS epidemic (and more) that people associate our community with. As we make inclusive art, we should try to remember what I think is the at the core of theatre making: connecting people from all walks of life via the dramatic display of this ongoing discussion of the human experience, while, as Sanford Meisner taught, "living truthfully under imaginary circumstances".

Oliver: In my experience being out as an actor and being myself as a person at the same time has changed peoples’ perceptions of transgender people. And that I’m not the gold standard- I’m one of many. I came out before the movement started, before Laverne Cox, and I wish there was someone that was a positive role model to say “Hey, by the way- this is okay.” It’s helped gay rights... Someone knows a gay person, and, ”Hey guess what? They’re just a person, they are cool.” All these these great lives now touch other lives. So for me it’s: “Hey, wanna run lines? Oh, by the way I’m trans.”

Christopher: I think it’s important for educators of trans and gender nonconforming students to remember that they should never make assumptions. Communication is vital in the teacher-student relationship. During a time where transgender students’ rights are in jeopardy, educating others is the greatest thing we can do.

Sheri: Thanks for joining us everybody. We so appreciate you.

Sheri and Christopher hope that this is only the beginning of a greater discussion that needs to be had about gender diversity and education on gender within Musical Theatre.

Special thanks to Liz Jackson Hearns, Brian Kremer, Oliver Rotunno, Savannah Souza, Kate Lumpkin, Christine Adaire, and Shakina Nayfack who were open and honest enough to share their perspectives.

Want to talk with Christopher and Sheri about some important topics? Click here to get in touch.

Future Topics will include Mental Illness and the young actor in Musical Theatre, and Diversity in Musical Theatre Education. Be sure to follow their blog: MTWildSide.Wordpress.com for new articles coming soon.

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