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When Samy Hayder first began auditioning for roles in D.C. three years ago, he noticed a trend: Most character descriptions were for straight, white people. Even when the occasional character deviated from this model, LGBTQ roles were usually targeted toward white, gay men.
It didn’t bode well for Hayder, a 28-year old actor who is Lebanese, Hispanic, and transgender.
Though he sometimes auditions for “male” roles, Hayder says he’s often turned down when he discloses his gender identity, especially when the play involves nudity. And when the play does include a trans character, Hayder says he feels forced to audition.
“What tends to happen whenever they need sort of a gender-non-binary performer, they always talk to me… they’re always like, ‘oh you can do it, right?’” he says, “whether or not I’m actually a good fit for the role.”
Hayder’s experience is all too familiar for many members of the local theater community, who can struggle to find a platform to share their voice. The DC Queer Theatre Festival aims to change that.
When Play Time, the festival’s fourth installment, kicks off at the Anacostia Arts Center this Friday, six playwrights will each have 24 hours to write and prepare an original ten-minute play to be shown the following night. Each playwright will be teamed up randomly with a director and five actors, and will be assigned a prop and theme related to LGBTQ history to work into their story.
The festival will be “a ton of queer people and allies in one room for 24 hours,” as co-founder Matt Ripa describes it.
The idea for the festival began as a three-night show performed inside the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s small U Street NW office. “Along the side of the audience were fax machines and telephones and computers,” Ripa says, laughing. “At any moment in the middle of the show, the phones could ring.”
Ripa and co-founders Alan Balch and Rebecca Gingrich-Jones, who met while attending Catholic University, had always talked about filling the void of local LGBTQ-focused theater. But it was David Mariner, the D.C. Center’s executive director, who came to the trio in 2012 with the idea to host the festival as part of the center’s programming.
Mariner felt that D.C.’s diversity wasn’t being translated onstage, a problem not only for LGBTQ members of the theater industry who weren’t being given the opportunity for roles, but also for audiences who may not identify with the straight characters on stage.
“LGBT folks want to see their lives and their stories represented in the arts,” he says. “The stories that you might see on the big screen or the stories that you might see in the mainstream arts don’t necessarily represent the diversity that is in our community.”
Ripa saw a lack of LGBTQ representation in the local art scene, too: While a few local groups promote minorities in theater, like Serenity Players and Brave Soul Collective, at the time there was no local queer theater company that focused on brand-new plays. (D.C.’s Rainbow Theatre Project, an LGBTQ-focused company, held its first season in 2013.)
Balch says prejudice in theater stems mostly from the history of the medium, which has traditionally catered to white, upper-class audiences. Minorities, he says, have since found other forms of expression in the arts that are more accessible, leaving a gap in LGBTQ representation onstage.
“As the definition of theater expands, I think it becomes more accessible to other people,” he says.
The inaugural festival at the D.C. Center’s old office sold out on one night, and was packed the other two nights. So in its next year, the festival expanded its reach even further, putting out a call for submissions from across the globe. Ripa and his co-founders received 114 submissions that year, some from as far away as Australia.
“As they started coming in, the three of us had a moment of, ‘we need some help because I’m going to go crazy reading all these plays,’” Ripa says. “It was really exciting.”
Ripa says the festival promotes work that showcases all voices and perspectives—especially plays that “no one else is going to produce.” Over the years, this has included everything from a play about intersex snails to another about a transgender resident in a retirement home.
To keep up with the diversity of the material, Ripa changes the format of the festival year-by-year. While the 2013 show included six ten-minute plays, last year’s event was a one-night reading of a full-length play: Bob Bartlett’s Kuchu Uganda, about the 2009 bill that made homosexuality punishable by death in the East African country.
Still, advocates say the festival is just the beginning of better LGBTQ representation in D.C. theater.
Scrolling through the casting calls around D.C. he receives from online theater forums, Ripa says it’s rare to see a character description for anything but “male” or “female” roles. He adds that many directors aren’t open to casting people with non-conforming gender identities for “straight” characters.
“You don’t see many plays that say, ‘Jane Doe, transgendered female, ages 15-20,’” Ripa says. “It’s exciting when directors contact me and say, ‘I’m looking for a transgendered actress, do you know anybody?’ That’s like the greatest email I could ever receive.”
During the festival’s first year, Ripa produced a play that called for a “butch lesbian,” and insisted on finding a woman who was an actual butch lesbian to play the role. “I was like, there has to be a butch actress in D.C.,” he says. “I don’t know if she’s working that much because I don’t know how many roles [there] are for that character type. It could be very limiting.”
Another actor in this year’s festival, Reginald Richard, says that even when local playwrights include LGBTQ characters in scripts, the “go-to” is the gay white male: “sassy, high-pitched voice, very bright and colorful.” (Think Cameron Tucker in Modern Family or Kurt Hummel in Glee.) “There’s more to us than just that.”
Richard, who is openly gay, has considered becoming a playwright as a way to help rid the theater scene of that stereotype. “I think that’s the only true way to bring more of a focus to the LGBT community,” he says.
Hayder, who met other transgender actors in the area for the first time this year, says inclusion of all gender identities needs to happen “both on and off the stage.” While it’s possible for straight playwrights to write plays with LGBTQ characters, he says it’s a missed opportunity when those characters aren’t written by people who understand the experience.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of opportunity for queer voices yet,” he says. “I think people still have a tendency to speak for us.”
When Madeline Burrows, a queer playwright and actor in this year’s festival, went on a national tour for her play MOM BABY GOD—which tackles themes like teenage female sexuality, sexual repression, and the anti-abortion-rights movement—she felt pushback from theaters who feared that queer themes would drive away audiences.
Despite opposition from some theaters, Burrows says the play always had a packed audience. “I’m always amazed that there’s such a concern about diversity onstage as if it’s going to turn people away,” she says. “I think it’s actually going to do the opposite.”
John Bavoso, a playwright in this year’s festival and self-described “newbie” to the theater community, builds his plays around the “gray areas” of sexuality—those individuals who are still exploring their gender identity.
His first play, Olizza, which he self-produced for Fringe Festival last year, tells the story of two straight female friends who discover feelings for one another while traveling together. The more he exchanges ideas with others, the more common this in-between sexuality seems. “If you do see gay characters [in theater]… there’s not a lot of questioning in that,” Bavoso says. “So I find the sort of gray areas to be really interesting.”
To represent the many experiences of the LGBTQ community, Ripa used the word “queer” in the festival title—a decision he’s “gotten flack” for. The idea was to reclaim the word as one of power instead of one of hate, and use it as an umbrella term for all gender identities. “Any identity could kind of fall under that flag,” Ripa says.
But the decision also had a practical side: “It became like, the D.C. LGBTQIIA Theatre Festival, and I was like, I can’t do that,” he says, laughing. “You start to talk about this, you get a lot of acronyms.”
In the coming years, Ripa wants to expand the festival over multiple weekends and feature different events, like stand-up comedy and panel discussions. Currently, the D.C. Center sponsors the festival and pays the upfront costs of the event. The money earned from ticket sales helps repay the cost of holding the festival, and any profit is used to help fund the center’s future programs.
Ripa hopes the festival will also reach another member of the theater community: the audience. At the heart of the festival is the idea that theater should reflect life—and without including the LGBTQ community, Ripa says, that simply can’t happen.
“I like to go see plays where I see myself, and I see my community, and I see people who look like me and sound like me and feel like me and love like me,” he says. “That’s important.”
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan