Dear New York Theater Industry,
I’m not sure if you know about this, because I haven’t seen you all talking about it. This isn’t an accusation. I get it. The amount of hate and hysteria in the news right now is overwhelming, and it’s hard to keep up. I hope this letter can act not only as a plea, but also as a resource.
This past week, I watched as hordes of anti-queer laws were proposed across the country, immediately after the passage of Tennessee Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3. Senate Bill 1 bans Gender Affirming Care for trans minors, and Senate Bill 3 bans drag performances, loosely defined, that could arbitrarily be deemed too “obscene” for the public. These laws have a drastic and immediate impact on my communities, yet most media outlets have been relatively silent. Since Florida’s 2022 “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” countless proposals poured out of legislative offices, with very few of them receiving national attention until it was too late.
Six days after these passed, Vox’s Today Explained was the first time I noticed a mainstream media company providing in-depth coverage. Guest Bella DuBalle, a Memphis-based, non-binary drag queen and performer, shared her story with power and poise. DuBalle mentioned that she started drag after playing the Nurse in a production of Romeo and Juliete. To me, this was a stark reminder that many drag performers came to drag through what they discovered about themselves while making theater. Unfortunately, folks who then embrace any sense of visible queerness or gender-nonconformity, are often limited in opportunity. This is so common that Ana Nogueira’s hit play Which Way to the Stage explores the very topic with nuance and honesty. This industry was built by queer people, who now have had their seat at the proverbial table revoked in the name of capital gain. Theater is “the place for seeing.” I dream of an industry where anyone and everyone is able to see themselves in the work.
I often find myself wondering where this industry would be without queer and trans creatives. From cross-dressing, to expressing same-gender desire in queer-coded writing, to acting as safe haven from the 1920s to the 1980s - the performing arts have always been a space to be ourselves both behind closed doors and through characters on stage and screen. Since the genesis of the art form, queerness has been woven into its DNA. So much so, that my peers in elementary school called me gay before even I knew I was, simply because I did theater. However, with the mass commercialization of our art, queer lives have been pushed to the margins in favor of “more palatable” content for conservative audiences that may hold prejudice.
As a gender consultant, I’ve become apt at identifying the many ugly faces of transphobia - both subtle and overt. I’ve already had to facilitate conversations about “what trans folks have to do with anti-drag laws.” I think that many well-intentioned liberal folks are in the “I don’t see your transness” phase of allyship. Thankfully, many of these people understand the difference between drag personalities and trans identities. Where people get less clear on is where they intersect. At large, the general population of America does not understand these distinctions. When they see a trans woman and a drag queen, they probably don’t know the difference. This comes from either an innocent lack of education, or a willful and hate-fueled ignorance. Theater has been reliant on the “man in a dress trope” for quite some time. This overused gag has real life consequences that endanger lives. This is what is under these anti-drag bills. Not only does this affect any kind of live performance that subverts gender, it also makes it legal to discriminate against trans folks simply existing in day to day life.
Any theater lover in NYC is likely only two or three degrees of separation from a drag performer. Our communities are intertwined. Go to any Hell's Kitchen drag bar, the neighbor to Broadway, and you’ll be guaranteed to hear musical theater classics. Just now, Chicago had the highest grossing week since its opening with drag superstar Jinkx Monsoon at its helm. This is why I am so confused as to why I haven’t seen more theater producers supporting those affected by these laws. The drag community jumped into action immediately. They’ve been holding protests, continuing to do (unnecessarily) controversial story hours, and even sold out an entire venue for a benefit. This event, with over 20 performers, organizers and contributors, is donating proceeds to the ACLU of Tennessee. Only two theatrical producers have sponsored or supported these kinds of evenings: the National Queer theater and Daryl Roth Productions. I can only imagine the kind of impact we could have, if the industry as a whole came to support this movement.
This isn’t only a problem for the safety of trans and queer folks. This affects the pockets of mainstream production as well. Conversations have already begun around shows that feature drag (or anything that looks like it) not being able to perform in states that have passed anti-drag bills. This could impact popular national tours like Chicago, Hairspray, or Rent. This affects new work as well. A large factor of commercial producing in New York is the ability to recoup investments with national-tours or licensing. Regional theaters and touring venues will not be willing to risk their funding by programming shows that highlight gender-nonconformity. If you’re a theater-maker in California, New York, Michigan, Louisiana, Vermont, Alabama, Delaware, and Illinois, then congrats - you live in one of the eight states that, according to the ACLU, hasn’t had anti-queer legislation introduced within the last three months. What happens when new properties like Some Like It Hot, Transparent: The Musical, or & Juliet try to hit the road and are rendered unproducible because their very characters would be considered “obscene” in dozens of states? In a landscape where 80% of Broadway shows already fail to recoup, this is a problem. This then (a) means a major financial loss for those existing shows and (b) even fewer shows can be written by or feature trans and gender non-conforming artists because of the economic impact. What we are able to platform at the mainstream level is what we, as a society, value. If we are complicitly unable to produce material that doesn’t even center, but simply features trans/gnc/2s+ voices, that means that we do not value those people.
This large, national wave of transphobia has gone generally unaddressed by our entertainment community. The New York Times has loudly and boldly aligned itself with transphobia, yet every theater company continues to uplift them as the most valuable publication for review. Last year we just had our first trans Tony nominee, the singular L Morgan Lee. This year, a non-binary performer, the stunning Justin David Sullivan, was forced to forego Tony eligibility because they didn’t select which binary gender category they wanted to be considered for. Trans stories have largely yet to be produced in meaningful ways by most major producing organizations. Critic Christian Lewis has been thanklessly railing about this across their reviews and essays. In the past, when our stories have been programmed, they’ve typically been told by cis, if not cis/het, artists or sanitized in a way such that they lose meaning. Due to the normalization of adversity, we have only seen action from identity-based organizations like NQT and BTBF. How are we supposed to expect a LORT-D theater in Nebraska to support these at-risk populations when the leading producing companies in major liberal cities have yet to do so? As a young trans theater artist, I am begging you to step up and use your platforms to facilitate change.
In the heat of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, We See You White American Theater called out the white-supremacist culture that plagues almost every major producing organization. This resulted in most companies publishing a land acknowledgement, claims of an “intent to diversify staff,” and a shiny, yet strategically open ended mission statement - many to the effect of “we aim to center the stories of the marginalized or most vulnerable peoples.”
I plead with any theater company, agent, casting director, and manager who have that on their websites to ask some of these following questions. When was the last time you had a meeting with a trans person? When was the last time you paid a trans person of color? Do you have us on your staff? If so, have you checked in with those of us recently? Do you have policies that protect us beyond “there’s no place for hate here <3” or “love is love is love?” Is it on us to advocate for ourselves when something is unsafe or when we’re misgendered? Are you inviting us to your plays? Talk about your work? Learn about our dreams? If it were part of your practice to include us, you might notice that our country is trying to “eradicate us from existence.” If you were uncomfortable with the truth of some of your answers, that’s okay! It’s not too late. There are tangible solutions to some of these potential shortcomings. If you don’t know how to find us, reach out to the community leaders that do. Host networking events to meet us. Program our work. Train your staff to treat us with dignity. Ensure your space is welcoming and accessible. Engage with the difficult conversations about your work. Refuse donations from organizations/individuals that also donate to groups that are actively trying to remove us from society. Trust that if our work is good enough, which it is, the money will follow.
I pursued this field because I was able to find myself within this beautiful art form. I’m still early in my career, but I’ve spent much of it grappling with how as young theater makers we’re fed this notion that this industry is inclusive and safe. We all once believed that the performing arts have the power to change people’s hearts, otherwise I’m not sure why we would do it. I fear we lose that as we begin to navigate the business. Now as an emerging artist, administrator, and teacher, I struggle with how I’m meant to navigate mentoring my students (and myself) through the truths of this industry while still giving them the passion to believe that they can make change. Seeing them discover what theater can be has reminded me what theater should be. I implore you. You have the power to help this cause. Make theater a space where anyone is free to discover themselves, not only for those who are welcomed and safe to.
Humbly and urgently,
Dom Martello (they/them)
Actor, Writer, Gender Consultant & Dramaturg
Dom Martello (they/them) is a trans playwright, actor, dramaturg, and artistic consultant based in NYC. They completed their undergraduate studies at Syracuse University. Since graduating they have worked as a performer, an administrator/producer, and as a gender consultant & dramaturg off-broadway. Their writing centers on trans and queer experiences, exploring the complexity of inter-community dynamics through genre and structure. They wish to help build a world where theater isn’t viewed as a luxury but rather as a civic utility that has the power to bring about a better future.