Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Rachel Sullivan on How Honest Accomplice Devises to Go Where Traditional Theatre Won’t

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by Celeste Montaño

Few people would accuse theatre of excluding gay artists. Broadway alone has set the tone by featuring prominent gay characters in its shows for decades. But how do lesbian, bisexual, and trans artists fare within theatre communities?

Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Rachel Sullivan have something to say about that, but most importantly, they’re highlighting what LGBT artists have to say. It’s why they formed Honest Accomplice, a non-profit with a sole purpose to shed light on the stories of queer women and trans folks: in other words, stories that mainstream theatre tends to ignore. Because as both Maggie and Rachel are quick to inform, theatre might love gay artists and characters, but mostly when they’re white and male; the rest of the LGBT community is still trying to carve out a niche for itself, and Honest Accomplice is right at the forefront.

Keenan-Bolger and Sullivan recently took a break from their intense schedules to talk with Stage Door Dish about the limits of traditional theatre, toppling systems from the top down, and building shows from the ground up.

Can you talk a little about your background in theatre?

RS: I went to undergrad at Northwestern and studied acting and then worked as an actor. I was really interested in how new work gets created and in working on theatre for social change and community-based projects. Luckily, I found an applied theatre program at CUNY, it was just starting, and I signed up. I had no idea what I was getting into. I met Maggie there and really fell in love with devising and creating new work around a particular theme. After grad school, I started working at Urban Stages, doing their community and education programming, so now I say I create and direct theatre for young people. And then we do work with Honest Accomplice around adult women and trans people, and tour our works to colleges, so I’m sort of split in those two realms.

MKB: I grew up doing traditional theatre and went to Oberlin for undergrad, where I majored in theater and gender & women’s studies. Oberlin was pretty flexible about letting us do our own theatre endeavors and so I got to do a show that I wrote with the help of a bunch of other people on campus, and it was a really great environment. Then I moved to New York to do the traditional theatre thing but pretty soon was like, ‘I’m not really interested in doing a lot of the shows that are going on,’ and I didn’t like the competitive nature of auditioning. I found the grad school program that Rachel and I went to, and really fell in love with being able to do theatre for social change. I did a lot of theatre with LGBT youth, especially LGBT homeless youth, which has been great. I also do a lot of sex education work, I toured around with a program called I Love the Female Orgasm and we do awesome sex-positive LGBT-inclusive programs at colleges around the country.

How did you find your way into working into queer youth, specifically?

MKB: I was the only the only out queer kid in my high school, and I definitely knew that I wanted to do something that would make that period of time easier for other queer kids. We were connected with a bunch of folks through our program and then I got to run a pride club for a school in Williamsburg. Then Rachel and I worked with Green Chimneys, which is an organization and residency for LGBT homeless youth, and we did a lot of different projects with them.

RS: I did a lot of work in grad school with high school students, and sexuality is important at any age, but at that age especially, creating groups where people can explore their identities and sexualities is really important. And the opportunity for Green Chimneys came along, and then Maggie and I started working there and really engaged with those young people.

What are some of the specific challenges that queer and trans folks face in the theatre community?

MKB: Representation is a big issue. Cis gay men in theatre are pretty prevalent, they’re playwrights and behind the scenes for quite a lot. But queer women and trans people, as well as gay men of color, are underrepresented in ways that are three-dimensional, or in ways where they’re seen as more than a punch line. I think access is also a really huge issue because LGBT people are more likely to be financially impoverished, especially trans people and queer women, so it’s harder for us to go to see theatre that costs lots and lots of money. And in general, theatre is a pretty male-dominated field, so for women and trans people, it’s hard to find shows and production companies and designers and folks who are interested in being a part of a theatre community that’s more like what Rachel and I do.

RS: We were just doing a workshop with our new cast and talking about trans language, and our cast members who are trans have been very generous in sharing their perspectives and working with us to educate the cast members who didn’t know appropriate language. And I think a lot of theatre companies just don’t think about that, so it might not be intentionally, but they’re creating spaces where people are excluded or certain voices are not welcome.

MKB: Plus, I think there can be a lot of tokenism, where it’s like having one person to fill the diversity quotient.

RS: I think a challenge is getting people to realize that creating a welcoming space is more than just having a token trans, queer, or female character in your play, it’s a bigger picture.

Could you explain what devised theatre is, since it’s your specialty?

RS: ‘Devised theatre’ is one of those terms that’s really different for every company and artist, but I can talk about the way that we use it. For us, it means that when we start the process, we don’t have a playwright, don’t have a script, we sometimes don’t even have a cast. We like to send out surveys to find out what people are interested in and we pick a topic, then we build an ensemble of folks who are interested in that topic, and we try to have a diverse ensemble so we can represent a lot of different perspectives. We work with that ensemble and do a lot of improvisational activities. We give them a lot of prompts to generate as much material as we can, as many ideas, 20-second moments, and characters. Then we start shaping those moments into scenes, and then eventually into a script. So Maggie and I serve as director, editors, shapers, and prompters.  We try to create structure so that material can be generated and then create a form for the material. It takes a long time; it’s not a quick process.

So what are the pros/cons of doing devised theatre, versus a traditional scripted show?

MKB: The biggest benefit is that it’s not just Rachel and me writing this show. Rachel and I don’t necessarily know what it’s like to be a trans person, but we have trans people in the cast who absolutely know what that’s like, and they’re the ones who are creating the roles. So it’s not us trying to appropriate their ideas—they’re creating the roles for themselves. It also allows people to break the mold or stereotype of roles they would often get cast in because of body size, hair color, gender, or race; people get to play what they want to play, as opposed to roles that other people think they should be playing. And because of that, it offers a more dimensional look at the human existence, and in our case, of queer women and trans people. It also lends itself to working not just with professional actors, since people who don’t have as much theatre experience can still do really well in the devising process. There are a lot of people who might not know how to do Shakespeare brilliantly but who have a really awesome charisma onstage, or who have really exciting stories to tell. We get to work with lawyers and costume designers and teachers and folks who aren’t onstage for their usual day jobs, and we’re an outlet for them. And because we’re able to create the roles around them, they’re able to provide us with really authentic and honest portrayals and representations.

RS: I think also it can really shift the power of whose voices are onstage and who’s getting to partake in the art-making process. [Traditional theatre] has gatekeepers who tell us who goes onstage and what gets created, and this process allows for more people to be involved so Maggie and I are not the sole gatekeepers. It also allows us to stay really relevant. If we create something in one year, and then a year later it needs to be updated or something’s not accurate anymore, we can totally change that and it can continue to respond to the issues that our community and ensemble are facing in this moment.

What’s been your most gratifying moment you’ve had doing this work?

MKB: The folks we work with dedicate an incredible amount of time to creating the shows that we do, and it’s really quite a leap of faith for so many of them. Especially at the beginning, creating devised theatre is scary and it’s really easy to create bad devised theatre. And we would tell them, ‘we’re not going to let you go onstage looking bad,’ but it’s a big leap of faith for them. But the first night, when we have the performance and the audience starts responding and the actors just get so excited. It’s such a validation, like ‘we’re not the only ones’. And not only that, but we can provide a venue for other people to talk about these issues. And a number of the people who have been with us for a while are now stepping into more complex roles within the company, which has been so much fun to see, to see folks who were taking more of a backseat in the last round of devising being able to step up and show a little more confidence and contributing what they’ve learned.

RS: I don’t if I can do just one moment. I think it’s really gratifying to see that there’s so much wonderful work that’s created during the devising and rehearsal process, it’s just really energizing. It just pushes me forward to keep doing it again and again. It’s a really exciting process because you start out with nothing. You can have a room full of people and you can create something really truthful and moving and important. And the other thing for me is when audience members go up to cast members or Maggie or me and say, ‘wow I’ve never seen myself represented onstage before, I’ve never seen a story that relates to me in that way.’ And that’s really special, that’s why we do this.

What artists do you look up to, whether they do devised work or more traditional theatre?

MKB: The first one that comes to mind for me is Lisa Kron, who’s done a really interesting job of participating in both mainstream theatre and making a place for herself in more fringe theatre. She was in a troop that did very political, salient work where it was even more radical to do so, and the fact that she’s transitioned so seamlessly into Fun Home and that kind of work is pretty incredible. And she’s also a wonderful human being, so she’s the first one that comes to mind for me.

RS: I would say I really look up to some of our cast members because they’re daring to be vulnerable and go for it. It’s much easier for me to sit there and be like, ‘oh, can you create something around this?’ But they’re really giving it their all.

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What steps does mainstream theatre need take to be more inclusive of queer women and trans people?

MKB: What it all comes down to is money, where the money is and where the money goes. And right now, folks who have the money to produce traditional theatre are generally producing things that are relevant to them, and I think it’s important to have people behind the table in the production team—people who are directing, who are casting—who are LGBT-identified or who are trans people themselves. The best way of making theatre a welcoming space is doing it from the top-down, which isn’t easy, but it is important.

Also, as audiences, we have a responsibility to go and see theatre that is outside of what we might usually see. Sometimes we need to challenge ourselves because you’re supporting a different kind of theatre and different kinds of artists, and putting those funds where they can be used to create more material for more artists.

RS: I agree with what Maggie said. I think if there were more education opportunities or scholarships to get people into arts administration, production, direction, and playwriting roles. I think it’s more than just actors.

MKB: On the side of the performers, the more that we can make a super effort and go the extra mile to cast trans people playing trans people and queer people playing queer people and people of color playing people of color. Things that shouldn’t still be issues but that definitely happen frequently in more traditional theatre. And I think making sure that our colleges and theatre universities are doing extra outreach to get people into their programs so they can get the same training as everyone else.

RS: There’s some organizations out there that are providing resources for emerging artists and new companies, and I think the more that we can do that and support people to grow their own work is just huge. You have to really fight for opportunities to get work out there and I think the more we can help people figure it out, [the better].

What do you think about recent depictions of queer and trans people on Broadway?

MKB: I really liked Fun Home, and I think that has to do with there being people behind the table who really identified strongly with the story itself. And you have Beth Malone playing a queer character, she’s a queer actress, and it’s the depiction of a character that hasn’t been shown on Broadway in any way, where it’s a more masculine-presenting woman who identifies as a lesbian. You get to see her as a child, as a college-age student, and as an adult. It seems like that shouldn’t be revolutionary but I think it absolutely is in terms of queer women being represented in theatre. I’d love it if we could get more trans people in the mix. With Southern Comfort coming out, it seems that it’s starting to move in the right direction, and the more representation we have, the more chance we have of having good representation.

So what are you currently working on?

RS: We’re working on a show called ReconFIGUREd, we’re only a month in. We did a survey and found out that the body was a topic the majority of people were interested in. In Honest Accomplice, we look at things from the perspective of women and trans people. Just like The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged, we thought it would be nice for women and trans people to actually talk about and portray the issues surrounding the body and put out what we really believe, rather than what other people are telling us. We’re looking at the body, which is really cool because it can do all these great things, but also what body policing means, how the government impacts our bodies, how we self-police, body image. Hair is a really big one, hair on your head, body hair.

MKB: We’re also doing a trans literacy project over the summer where we’re going to produce a number of videos to make accessible the questions that trans people often get asked, and the responses and basic info that I think a lot of people today want to know but don’t know how to get access to. We’re really excited to bring together a group of trans performers who are going to figure out what they want to say and what they want to have represented, and then they’ll get to write the narrative the way they would like to see it written.

RS: We’re also touring our previous show The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged through colleges, so if any readers are interested, we love to connect with students. Even if it’s not to bring the performance or workshops [to their schools], we just love meeting people. So if people are interested in devising or the work that we’re doing, they should let us know.

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