Ally Phoenix Brett

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Ally Phoenix Brett

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Impro(v) Bio:

I have been doing improv for a very long time but not to perform it. I use improv in my work when I make theatre. As a manly solo theatre artist, I do a lot of work on my own and the best way I have found to do that is with improvisation. Whether it’s improving a character, a conversation, or a monologue, I find it a great tool for getting right to the heart of the matter and see what comes naturally.

I have only been performing improv for just over a year now and it has been a wonderful experience. I used to be scared of freezing up, while at the same time I would watch Whose Line is it Anyway and think ‘I think I could do that’. So I knew it was something I wanted to do but didn’t know if I actually could. But now that I have got into it and found it to not be a scary place but a friendly supportive one, I think I will be doing a lot more of it in the future.

How does being trans*/NB influence your impro(v)?

I know this is definitely not true for many transgender or Non-binary people, but I love to play different genders on stage. Switching it up to play different people on stage is a lot of fun, and I am secure enough in my gender that I, personally, don’t have a problem in doing it. Saying this I do like to play my own gender. It means that I can give a voice to a group of people that don’t get enough representation on stage. I like to improv topics such as identity, and acceptance, and portray different kinds of relationships between people. Being able to have these kinds of discussions on stage is really wonderful and it needs to happen more often.

Do you play trans*/NB characters often?

That is a complicated question. As I have said I do play around with my gender representation on stage when I improv and I have had a few roles on stage and screen, where I have played a transgender character. But most of my work is of a personal nature. For my plays that I create and perform, I am either playing myself on stage or a version of myself from the past. So it depends on your understanding of what the word character means for those.

How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans*/NB characters in impro(v)?

It’s such a complicated issue. Of cause I want transgender and non-binary people to be able to play themselves on stage. Not enough is being done to let them do that, so that needs to change. But I would also question how comfortable a transgender person is playing a transgender role on stage. I myself would not have been comfortable doing that a few years ago. So as much as it would be great to see more transgender people playing transgender roles, the main rule is that they feel comfortable doing it. And until there is a safe space for people to do this, cisgender people are going to play those roles. And yes sometimes it’s going to be a bad depiction and many things could be wrong with it, but at least the subject will be seen on stage and a discussion can start, and that’s what theatre is. A place to unpack a subject and to look at it and talk about it.

Besides announcing it, how might you know/show a character is trans*/NB?

Because there is no ‘right’ way to be transgender and non-binary and there is no ‘right’ way to depict them. But as a general rule, it is less about the actions of a character but their reactions that show who they are. Pronouns can do this quite well as it doesn’t have to halt the performance. Just an “It’s they actually” or maybe it’s a simple as bad reaction to a wrong pronoun.

How do you feel about playing different genders generally, in terms of naming gender and of expressing it?

In most cases, I find that I don’t feel the need to naming the gender unless my character is being questioned about it or something affects them enough to name it. When I really want to project a particular gender I most often use my voice as an identifier. I find it to be a short cut to showing the people I’m playing with on stage, that I am playing a particular gender. But even this can be misunderstood so I tend to just go with it unless I really want my gender to be specific in the scene.

Does your local impro(v) community know/understand your gender? If so, how has that been in terms of acceptance/understanding?

My local improv group is very understanding of mine and everyone else’s genders in the group. Before we start we go around the circle and do names and pronouns. Which is great because I’m very bad with remembering names. But seriously, just doing this puts everyone’s genders on the table so no one makes a mistake because of a lack of knowledge. Being a queer improv group, we are all very aware of discrimination from the outside world so we function as almost are own little community, where we care for and look after each other.

What are some things that teachers/directors/other performers can do to make sure trans*/NB improvisers feel safe and welcome?

The names and pronouns circle at the beginning of a session is a must. Access to non-gendered toilets is also a must. An understanding and an acceptance of all gender expression is a must. Making the improv space, a safe space for us to perform in is a must. Also, a few biscuits to tempt us in a wise move.

Thinking about examples of trans*/NB characters across all media (Impro(v), TV, Movies, Plays etc), what are the best trans*/NB characters or stories you’ve seen depicted? The worst?

Laverne Cox’s portrayal of Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black was really great to see. We got to see their ups and downs in the prison and how being transgender had effected them for better and for worse. It was also great that they lived and where not killed off like many transgender or genderqueer people in the past, like Angel from Rent.

The worst being characters such as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and Norman Bates from Psycho.

Who do you look up to/admire as a trans*/NB person in impro(v) or the world generally?

The Wachowskis are two people who I admire the most. They are some amazing creators of some truly fantastical work and they have shown me that you can be successful even if you are transgender. In improv no one specificity, but I generally admire people who can do musical improv. I have tried it and I just can’t think that fast. The groups such as Notflix and Showstopper and A Hero’s Journey are truly amazing.

What’s something special that you and/or trans*/NB performers have to offer?

Acceptance. Transgender and non-binary people know about acceptance. We have felt the discrimination from the outside world and we are all, for the most part, very accepting people. You can feel free to tell us who you are, and to us, that is the law. I and others are open to questions about our past if you are looking for advice. But please check we ok with answering questions first and we may not be able to or want to answer them.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about being trans*/NB or impro(v) in general?

If you’re thinking that you want to try doing improv, then do it. There are quite a few clubs to join or courses you can do. It is, I have found, a very friendly space and you can do as much or as little as you are comfortable with. I would highly recommend Hoopla if you are looking for improve courses and the Q.I. group run by the wonderful Stephen Davidson, though I am a little biased with both of those. Hope to improvise with you soon.