In the past few years, Austin’s Ground Floor Theatre has made a name for itself as a home to productions that are bold, daring and dedicated to representing the bodies and voices of often overlooked communities.
The company’s latest production takes a new approach. Instead of a reimagined version of an existing text, “Transom” (which opened Thursday and runs through Aug. 31) is a devised play developed by an ensemble of creators, all of whom identify as transgender or nonbinary. The play tells the story of a "found family" living together in the same house as they share joy, sorrow and conflict.
According to Ground Floor’s founder and co-artistic director (and co-director of this production) Lisa Scheps, this is the next step forward for the company.
“This is a project that I have wanted to do since I first opened Ground Floor Theatre," Scheps says. "We have a mission of producing works by and for underrepresented communities, and I believe the trans and nonbinary community has been invisible for a long time.”
Before the show debuted, we talked about all things "Transom" with Scheps, co-director Jess O’Rear and lead writers Libby Carr and Lane Stanley.
American-Statesman: What was the impetus behind creating this production at this particular time?
Lisa Scheps: As a trans person myself, I wanted to make sure that we sent out a message of hope, joy and fortitude. Trans people are some of the most courageous and resolute people I know, and we want to tell those stories.
Jess O’Rear: Personally, I feel that a theatrical production centering the trans experience with an all-trans creative team has been far overdue for a while. Trans people have been the center of so many conversations regarding federal law and state legislation, media representation, academic discourse; but so often we’re discussed as objects or abstract concepts, and rarely are we given the opportunity to speak as subjects on our own experiences on our own terms.
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How does directing a devised work — in this case, a play that you're inventing, finding and refining as you go along — differ from directing a scripted play?
Scheps: You are more connected to the piece, if such a thing is possible. In directing this devised piece, Jess and I will be taking a very organic and collaborative approach. It is our job to take the vision of the whole and focus it into a production that will be enjoyable, informative and moving to our audience.
O’Rear: We’ve all been carrying and nourishing these characters with parts of ourselves for so long. Getting to watch them develop and change is, I imagine, a bit like what it must feel like to raise a child. We’re communally raising this baby of a play, and it has bits and pieces of each of us in it. It’s fun to see where each of us shines through in each moment.
What kind of challenges do you face synthesizing the voices and visions of all the ensemble members who have contributed to this devised work?
Libby Carr: The play was rooted in character work and grew out of improvisations with the cast, which helped us get everyone’s goals and ideas for the piece working together. Through many meetings with Lisa and Jess and the cast, Lane and I worked to synthesize all of those conversations and improvisations into a more unified script.
Lane Stanley: “Transom” is a very character-based play, and so each person’s voice has contributed directly to the crafting of their character. We were handed beautiful, detailed, well-rounded characters, and it was our task then to put them into a narrative together with conflict, stakes and motion. Lisa and Jess have established clear expectations throughout, which has provided a lot of support and freedom for Libby and me to make the script.
No one play can be "definitive" in representing an entire community, so how do you negotiate that when working on a text like this?
Stanley: We are not trying to be definitive in any way. When there is only one trans character in a story, they often become a mouthpiece for the trans experience, and so that character becomes burdened with representing a huge, diverse community. Because this is a play with seven trans characters, we are able to show many experiences and ways of being trans.
Carr: Much of the content in “Transom” grew out of experiences from the cast and crew’s own lives. Our collective experiences definitely don’t encompass every trans narrative; we focused on creating a piece that spoke to our ensemble’s individual experiences. We hope some of those experiences resonate with people who see the show, but “Transom” is just one example of the varied and diverse experiences of the trans community.
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What audience are you trying to reach?
Carr: “Transom” was written for trans and nonbinary people, to center their experiences rather than try to “teach” audiences. The show will be fun for all kinds of audiences, but it was devised with the trans community in mind. If cis audience members’ assumptions are challenged along the way, all the better. (Note: Cisgender refers to people who are not transgender.)
Stanley: We are interested in crafting a compelling story about community that consists entirely of trans characters who are living full, complex lives. Too often, a trans character’s "transness" is the center of all their stories. We are showing trans people living everyday lives. I think cis people will be able to enjoy and relate to the story as well, and hopefully learn more about the trans experience as a human experience.
What do you hope audiences will take away from "Transom"?
Scheps: Simply that trans and nonbinary people have very much the same lives as anyone else. Everyone has unique joys and challenges in their lives, and we want to show some of the ways the trans community approach the world and how their existence is not all that dissimilar to the cis community.
O’Rear: Our goal has never been to create a play that serves as an educational “Intro to Trans People” crash course. I hope that fellow trans folks who attend the play feel seen and heard, and that they enjoy an evening at the theater where they can relax, have a laugh and feel at home. ... Not all of our joys and tragedies are due to being trans, but being trans informs every moment that we experience, positive or negative, private or public. We have a history and a culture that is active and fruitful, and I hope everyone sees that on our stage.