No Darkness But Ignorance- Shedding Light on Trans* Twelfth Night: An Interview with Director Phil Vanndoorbeeck and Assistant Director Sarah Maher

“Oh time, thou must untangle this, not I. It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie.” More appropriate Shakespearean words have never been found to suit the current situation of gender fluidity in the 21st century. As the knot of the rigid gender binary breaks apart into an open an accepting existence that genders— much like plays— come in a great many varieties, time proves to be the ultimate salve and knot-worker when it comes to undoing the limited thinking that has been applied to the notion since people began identifying their genders. Cohesion Theatre Company, in a co-production with Iron Crow Theatre proudly presents the second installment in their Trans* Voices Workshop Series, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This show lends itself easily to the notion of existing outside of the gender binary. Directed and Adapted by Philip Vannoorbeeck, the production seeks to talk about Trans* Identities in a positive and progressive fashion. So TheatreBloom has sat down to get the ball rolling on the conversation in a brief three-part interview series featuring the director and cast.

Thank you both for sitting down with us today. If you could give us a quick introduction to who you are and what of your work the readers might recognize, we’ll get started.

Phil Vannoorbeeck, Director of Twelfth Night: A Trans* Voices Workshop Production
Phil Vannoorbeeck, Director of Twelfth Night: A Trans* Voices Workshop Production

Phil Vannoorbeeck: My name is Phil Vannoorbeeck and I am the Director for the adaptation of Twelfth Night for the Trans* Voices Workshop Series here. Previously I’ve worked with Cohesion Theatre Company on Coriolanus and 13 Dead Husbands. I’ve worked with Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and Baltimore Shakespeare Factory as well. That’s mostly what I’ve done here in Baltimore. I’ve worked more as an actor than as a director, this is really my first foray into directing.

Sarah Maher: I’m Sarah Maher and I’m the assistant director for Twelfth Night. I’m mostly actually an improviser. People would know me for the improv troupe that I’m a member of— Remote Possibilities. It’s an independent troupe here in Baltimore.

How did you both end up involved with the project?

Phil: I have seen a lot of Shakespeare. A few years ago I saw a production of Comedy of Errors were both the Dromios and the Antipholuses were played by the same actor. Each set of twins was played by the same actor. It made me think about whether or not we could do something like that with Twelfth Night. This started up a conversation with Alice (Alice Stanley, Co-Founder of Cohesion Theatre Company) who is one of the producers of this workshop series, and we started talking about how well we thought this might fit within the context of the Trans* Voices Workshop Series.

Let me explain. Cesario— well the Cesario/Viola character— is one of the few “trouser-roles” in Shakespeare plays. A trouser role being a woman who dresses up like a man and then runs off somewhere, usually the forest. The other prominent trouser roles are Rosalind from As You Like It, and Juliet from Two Gentlemen of Verona. But with those two characters, they’re dressing up as men and running into the forest to chase after their father or chase after their boyfriend. They’re really doing it as an escape. Whereas Viola, pretty much from scene one, says “I need to survive in this world.” She knows that she’s going to be persecuted and attacked for being a woman in this world, so she knows she needs to go about as a man. It’s very much about disguising herself as a man as a form of self-preservation, which very much aligns with the Trans* experience.

Sarah, how did you get involved with the show?

Sarah Maher, Assistant Director of Twelfth Night: A Trans* Voices Workshop Production
Sarah Maher, Assistant Director of Twelfth Night: A Trans* Voices Workshop Production

Sarah: I was approached by Phil, actually. I think I’d been suggested to you by Alice?

Phil: I think we both first saw Sarah at the Foreplay.

Sarah: It’s a show that Jack Jones and Prescott Gaylord, of Baltimore Improv Group has put together. It’s a show about sex, almost like a chat show? They did a show about Transgender issues. And I told a story there.

Phil: Sarah was talking about her improv experience in her story. I thought bringing on a trans-woman would benefit the show, especially in the production aspect, to help support it. I also wanted someone to bounce comedic ideas off of and who better than an improv person? A lot of people think “Oh— Trans* show, this is going to be serious, sad, and heavy.” Wrong. This is Twelfth Night, it’s funny. It’s silly and stupid. There’s a lot of crazy comedy in this show. Having Sarah here is great. It’s like having a bounce board to just throw ideas at.

Sarah: It’s definitely been that way.

Phil: It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.

What has been the most interesting, fun, or positive experience that you have had in being involved with this production?

Phil: Actually Tuesday night in rehearsal was probably one of the best positive experiences I’ve yet to have. We cast the show three months ago because we wanted everybody to be off book by day one because we knew we’d only be rehearsing for one week. All the actors had three months to learn their lines and they’ve all been fantastic with it. We’re working together, we’re talking, we’re co-producing with Iron Crow Theatre. Ann Turiano is doing some of the dramaturgical work and leading talkbacks after the show. She came on Tuesday night just to watch the show, you know to sit and observe so that she can get some start-up questions for the talkbacks. We started talking and she started asking questions, very heady, conceptual questions of the actors. It was very enlightening for me to see that we have cast the right people. They jumped on the vision right away. They knew what we were talking about, they knew what we were going for, and what we’re trying to do.

I met with every actor for about an hour individually before rehearsals started to talk to them about the show, why we’re doing it, textual tie-ins, and all of that. Talking with each of them for that hour one-on-one and seeing them align so quickly to our vision, and seeing them bring that up in response to Ann’s questions, that really has been the most positive and exciting thing for me so far. That, and also just seeing it come together so quickly.

Sarah: For me, this has actually all been a little overwhelming being asked to do this. I have very little scripted theatre experience. I definitely saw it as a challenge. And it definitely has been. It’s very different working with words that are already down on paper and everything is already there for you and ready to go. It’s strange. I’ve really learned a lot already and I am looking forward to learning a lot more as the week continues.

How is this particular production resonating with you personally and what is it teaching you about yourself?

Phil: Growing up I had a friend who was Trans*. I think I’ve always felt I’ve always known about it and what it is. I know a lot of people don’t really have a lot of exposure to Trans* People. What’s the numbers? One in ten?

Sarah: Geez, I don’t know. I only know the bad numbers like the suicide rates and things like that.

Phil: I think it’s similar numbers to the gay and lesbian closet-number statistics, where they say “one in five people are gay and you might not know.” Everybody runs in their own circles? And unfortunately the people that “control the power” or are “the majority”— I know, I’m doing a lot of air quotes and finger quotes which is not going to translate well here—

Sarah: Hashtag airquotes.

Phil: Exactly. But those people, they have not run into a lot of people who are Trans* so that diminishes the awareness, just like the “one in five people are gay you just might not know it” statistic. That’s where this whole idea that “this is a new thing” comes from. Basically they’re saying “people weren’t Trans* before 2000, this is a new thing.” Just like that crazy idea that no one was gay before the 80’s but when people started coming out in public suddenly it was a new thing. The lack of awareness is what makes “the masses” or “the majority” see this as a new thing. This is not a new thing. Just like being gay when there were large surges of people coming out.

I think seeing the exposure that people have verses the exposure that people don’t have has opened my mind to the fact that people just aren’t aware. I was talking with Caitlin Carbone, who is playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and she’s actually directing the third show in the Trans* Voices Workshop Series, Aphorisms on Gender. About four months ago, her Alice, and Lana Riggins— who is the Lighting Designer and Technical Director of the show— and myself all started meeting and discussing articles that were related to the Trans* experience. Caitlin did not have a lot of exposure to the Trans* identity. This was really surprising to me because she’s a very forward-thinking person, she’s very progressive, she considers herself to be a feminist. Then we started talking about turfs. Help me out here, Sarah.

Sarah: Trans* Exclusionary Radical Feminists

Phil: It’s the same idea of White Feminism. “I’m a pretty white woman and feminism only relates to me as a pretty white woman, I’m excluding other non-white women from my feminism.” Some of this backlash came out with Caitlin Jenner. When Caitlin Jenner first came out and was talking about how empowering it was to finally be a woman, and saying things like “Oh, it’s nice to have long flowing hair, paint my nails, and wear dresses.” And that basically blew up in the Trans* community because that’s not what a woman is. There has been a lot of attacking going on, a great deal from inside the Trans* community, attacking people like that because they think people who make statements like that are trying to play dress-up. It’s this weird idea of “Oh, it’s just a man trying to enter my feminist world by pretending to be a woman.”

Sarah: Some of the more radical ones are even going so far as to say that these people are posing as “spies for the patriarchy.” It’s just ridiculous.

Phil: While there is some validity to the notion that a woman is not based on how pretty she is, what kind of dresses she wears, or how she paints her nails, the attacks that are resulting from trying to express that validity are way radical. All of this has a point. When we started discussing these sorts of articles, it was very obvious that Caitlin— someone I see as a very progressive and forward-thinking person and a feminist— had very limited exposure to the matter. She’s been excluded in a way from the Trans* community. So it is teaching me just how much knowledge is lacking in regards to the Trans* community, even in people who are forward-thinking and progressive. Bringing this experience not only to people who are of the Trans* community or who have friends in or support the Trans* community, but to the masses as a whole is really what has been the most enlightening thing for me.

 Sarah: I like that we’re taking what is already sort of a Trans* story and telling it with even more of a Trans* lens on it. Viola’s life resonates strongly with me because she has to pretend to be someone else in order to be accepted and survive. That was my life for the first 41 years of my life. I’ve only been out for seven months. All that pretending, being macho— I was a marine, and I did all this other stuff that “men” do— trying to hide and not be this feminine person, trying to not be the me that I am— I get that. This definitely resonates with me as a survival tactic.

What is the message that you are hoping to share with those that come to see the show?

Twelfth Night

Phil: My biggest hope is that some 15-year-old kid who comes to see this show— maybe because they have to watch a show for an English class— comes and sees it and finds this discovery of “I don’t need to hide. I can come out and be who I am and it’s okay.” I think a lot of Trans* and gender pieces are more for an “R-rated” crowd. With those shows, it’s all about “Genderfuck” and how it can be turned on its head where gender is really screwed with, and there will be naked men and naked women on stage. While those sorts of shows are great, and there are appropriate places for those types of shows, we need to look how we can appeal to a broader, younger— I don’t know “PC” crowd? We need a show appropriate for all ages where we can put the message out there for all ages to experience. Child-friendly, this show is child-friendly.

The projections, the costumes, they’re all really light and fun. I keep thinking of cotton candy every time I think of this show. It’s just light and airy.

That’s really an appropriate way to think about it, Phil. Kids of all genders— adults too— enjoy cotton candy. Cotton candy has no gender.

Phil: Yeah.

Sarah: It’s like yellow cotton candy.

Phil: As much as it reinforces the binary, a good blue and pink swirl. Purple cotton candy. White cotton candy. Cotton candy colored cotton candy.

Sarah, what is the message you’re hoping people will take away from this?

Sarah: Mostly the same message. I live an open life. I’ll talk to people about being Trans*, I’ll inform people. I’m studying to be a social worker in hopes of promoting Trans* identity and to help people who are Trans* deal with facing the world. I’m hoping some kid sees this show and says “Trans* is okay, I can be who I am.”

If you had to sum up the experience in just one word?

Phil: I’d have to sum it up in the word vibrant. Everything that we’re doing is very bright, and flashy, and colorful.

Sarah: Fun. I’m having a blast. Everybody in the cast is great to work with, Phil is great to work with, it’s been a lot of fun.

Twelfth Night runs as a co-production with Cohesion Theatre Company and Iron Crow Theatre in the Trans* Voices Workshop Series currently playing at Church on the Square in Canton— 1025 S. Potomac Street in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.

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