People Who Make NY Special

Should Cis Actors Play Trans Roles?

Shakina Nayfack, actress, activist, and founding artistic director of the Musical Theatre Factory, on this question and much more.

Photos courtesy of Mayumi Ando

You might know Shakina Nayfack from her role as “trans truther” Lola on the Hulu comedy Difficult People, but it’s her work behind the scenes at Musical Theatre Factory that’s shaking up the New York stage scene. As the founding artistic director of MTF, Nayfack has helped support the creation of more than 160 new musicals in less than four years (uh, that’s a lot!). “We’re small, but we’re mighty,” she tells me. “At heart, we’re grassroots storytellers. If you’re interested in seeing how the great stories of the future come to be, to quote Hamilton, we’re in the room where it happens.”

shakina nayfack

In addition to being an in-demand producer and actress, Nayfack is also an accomplished writer and activist who is unafraid to mix those two disciplines, as evidenced by the North Carolina tour of her 2016 one-woman show Manifest Pussy. I recently spoke with Nayfack about the mission of Musical Theatre Factory, her in-progress musical, and her views on contemporary trans casting.

What Should We Do?!: What sets Musical Theatre Factory apart from other musical incubators?
Shakina Nayfack: We’ve tried to organize MTF so that it is artist led. All of our programming is tailored by artists for artists. At the founding, I brought a bunch of my friends and colleagues together to ask what they thought was missing in the theater development process and how we could realistically work together to help meet those needs. I like to think that we’re a values-driven company, geared toward revolutionizing both the form and the representational makeup of musical theater. We have writers creating in the vein of traditional book musicals alongside projects that run the gamut from experimental song cycle to an immersive punk-rock or techno odyssey. We’re trying to push the envelope on all fronts.

One of the pieces that came out of our very first writer’s group is a musical called A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson. It’s going to be in Playwrights Horizons’s season next spring. It’s the first major New York production of a show that was developed in the Factory, and we’re very proud.

WSWD: Do you have work of your own currently in development?
Nayfack: Of course! I am in the process of finishing a piece called Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club. It’s an epic, 16-character play, based on my experience in Thailand recovering from gender confirmation surgery and the remarkable people I met there. I’m also developing a television pilot that’s largely autobiographical, with a mentor who is well positioned to get this in front of a larger audience.

WSWD: Do you think that in the immediate future we will see a lead sitcom actor or even an action hero who is trans?
Nayfack: That’s funny that you’re asking because I intend to develop both that sitcom and that action hero! So yes, expect that soon. And if I don’t get there first, it’s going to be somebody’s next step. We’re all definitely ready for it.

WSWD: At this point in your career, regarding casting, do you find being a trans actor is opening more doors than it is closing?
Nayfack: On the one hand, we’re in a moment where trans is really on trend, so a lot of creators are looking for ways to bring in trans representation and trans actors for their projects. Those opportunities aside, it’s still an uphill battle for trans actors to be seen as capable of playing any part other than trans. I think right now my calling card is “trans actress,” not “actress,” if you know what I mean. There are literally thousands of other parts that I’m looked over for because the presumption is that those parts are inherently and exclusively for cis actors.

It is not just offensive but genuinely dangerous to cast trans roles with non-trans actors.

WSWD: Do you get calls to read those kind of roles?
Nayfack: Less regularly than for most of my casting, but yes. Recently I was called to audition for the part of a mother of a teenage kid and, honestly, that was thrilling. It was so cool to get to create that character, then come in and work on it. Those moments are very much the exception, not the rule.

WSWD: When you suggest that you’d like to play cis characters, is turnabout fair play? Do you find it inappropriate or offensive when cis actors play trans roles?
Nayfack: Unfortunately, you can’t extricate that question from the larger political moment that the trans community is facing. As long as laws are passed that prevent trans people from receiving medical care or using public restrooms, and the risk of being murdered for simply being trans is so great, it is not just offensive but genuinely dangerous to cast trans roles with non-trans actors. The message sent with that kind of casting is that trans people are only pretending. A recent example is Matt Bomer playing a trans sex worker in a film I’ll never see. For an audience that has less exposure and awareness of the trans community, it sets the precedent that trans women are just men in dresses. That sort of attitude emboldens and enables violence.

WSWD: So, in your mind, reversing the situation is not about fairness; it’s more about survival?
Nayfack: Absolutely. It’s not a question of ability; at the end of the day, actors are actors because they have the ability to transform and inhabit characters that are unlike them. I’m sure the experience of playing a trans role for a cis person would be a really profound exploration artistically. But as long as we’re so heavily oppressed in our day-to-day lives, trans people need to be the ones who are front and center, crafting our own narratives and telling our own stories in front of the camera and behind the scenes. I look forward to the day when this won’t need to be such a militant issue, but we’re not there yet.

WSWD: There’s been an acknowledged gap between the immediate need for trans voices, the availability of the current stage canon to provide roles, and the academic training necessary to bring new work to fruition.
Nayfack: Those are all issues that Musical Theatre Factory is built to address. We are currently developing with and for trans writers. On a larger level, the systemic issue is ultimately about lack of resources and an industry whose training institutions still suffer from a great deal of transphobia, both latent and overt. In addition to the sort of hardships that any trans person is going to encounter when they look to pursue a career in the arts, training programs simply aren’t yet equipped to address the specificities of being a transgender actor. I’m sure that now, as more young folks are coming out as trans, we will see an adaptive response as theater departments have to open their minds for casting and play selection. The play I’m currently working on, Chonburi International Hotel, is largely inspired by George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Stage Door from the 1930s. That’s a play that high schools do all the time. Maybe eventually, after this show has its Broadway run and its national tour, we’ll be in a world where there’s enough young trans actors to tell this story on the collegiate level. That’s the hope.

WSWD: Do you ever get concerned that your work gets pigeonholed as “too political” because of its subject matter?
Nayfack: You can’t be a trans actor without getting political; our existence is resistance. The one thing I want to say is that, speaking from trans experience, we have to remember that no one social injustice happens in a vacuum. We’re all interconnected and interdependent, not just on a spiritual level, but through a political system that serves to either oppress or uplift us. It’s so crucial in this moment to not only advocate for our own rights in whatever struggle we’re engaged in, but to also protect one another as best we can. I have a long history of working and studying in Mexico, and when I look at the photos from these detention centers right now, it’s horrifying. There are trans undocumented immigrants fighting to come to America because they’re being threatened with violence or death if they stay where they are. Now they’re dying on the border.

You can’t be a trans actor without getting political;
our existence is resistance.

WSWD: How would you suggest people best advocate for change?
Nayfack: There’s such a disconnect between the way we live our lives and the seemingly impossible work that needs to be done. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think it’s really important to remember there are jobs for all of us in the revolution. There are people whose skill set and disposition serve them best to be direct action organizers on the street and there are people who are better suited for the phone banking, the letter writing. There are people who are better suited for creating political art or working on educating the public. We need everybody to use whatever skills and whatever passions they have to push forward the call for justice for all people.

WSWD: Switching gears fairly dramatically, is Difficult People really dead?
Nayfack: It seems like it. When the cancellation happened, I saw some social media buzz about it becoming a film franchise. How perfect would that be? Like a Police Academy series, every two years we get back together and make a movie. Really, everyone in that cast is so talented and already moving on to new projects. I think there’s always going to be a fondness between us, and I would love to be able to reunite with that crew. For now, though, yes, it’s really dead.

WSWD: As a relative newcomer to New York, what do you like best about the city?
Nayfack: The sense of community in my industry. Walking through midtown Manhattan is like being on campus in college. Literally any night of the week you can go to Joe’s Pub or 54 Below or Don’t Tell Mama and see a friend doing a show. Everything is so accelerated out here. I’ve been in New York about seven years, which is not a long time at all, and I have already created this company that’s making a real impact on work produced in the city. At almost any Broadway show, I know people on those stages personally. My whole life growing up, I was filled with admiration for anyone who made it that far, and now they’re my friends. I have no doubt that one day that will be me up there. That’s not just a dream come true, it’s a dream that I didn’t even dare to dream that came back of its own volition to make itself true.

WSWD: What would be a perfect New York day for you?
Nayfack: I would buy out Spa Castle for the day and take all my friends for a day of luxury relaxation, followed by dinner at Tavern on the Green and the premiere of a Broadway show. I’d wrap up the night with drinks upstairs at Sardi’s.

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