Name as you’d like it to appear: Ellie
Gender as you’d like it to appear: Non-binary
City you live in and/or improvise in most: London
Personal website or another project that you’d like to link to: Give me a follow on Instagram for some quality content from my dogs, my plants, and my drag king alter-ego Huge Rant (debuting soon…) @ellieagratton
I’m only a very recent convert to improv – I started in October 2019 and have done some jams, classes and one (delightfully ridiculous) performance! During lockdown, I’m navigating the depths of online improv with drop-in classes and weekly jams and can’t wait to get back into IRL improv once this is over.
How does being trans*/NB influence your impro(v)?
My second improv class was actually the first time that I openly used my pronouns (they/them FYI) and was the first space where they were acknowledged and respected – and still one of the few places where this is the case. On the one hand, I’ve definitely noticed that I often play characters who are queer – whether that’s in terms of gender or sexuality, or both! I really enjoy playing with and openly addressing generic assumptions in scenes, for instance, something as basic as assuming that a romantic couple is made up of a man and a woman, or assumptions to do with gender roles. I feel that I’m able to bring both my experiences and identity to improv and use them to ensure that we’re not punching down with our humour (like using marginalised people and identities as punchlines to a joke), but instead punching up. With great humour comes great responsibility! Humour doesn’t have to be serious at all, it can be silly and ridiculous, but at the same time it can be insightful, intelligent, warm and kind.
On the other hand, I think improv has played a HUGE part in my own non-binary identity. My experience of improv has been that it’s a really positive, non-judgemental and most importantly safe space, all about imagining possibilities and then going with the flow as a team. Cheesy as it sounds, improv has given me the space to explore different expressions of gender that I wouldn’t have the confidence to explore outside of it. Long story short, I’m definitely queerer (and happier!) after starting improv and I have no plans to stop (doing improv and becoming queerer 😉 ).
Do you play trans*/NB characters often?
I suppose I tend to play with gender quite a bit in improv, mainly by challenging generic storylines which assume a fixed gender identity and/or sexuality. In scenes where I do play around with gender, I tend to hold back a bit with foregrounding that. This is mainly because I’m so new to improv and if a character’s gender identity is at the forefront of a scene, I really want to do justice to their gender identity in a thoughtful, affirming and intelligent way – basically, I need to put some more practice in! On the other hand, I do think that it’s really important to have trans* and non-binary characters just existing on stage, without the focus necessarily being on their gender identity. Media representation of trans* and non-binary folks tends to focus on pathologizing and medicalizing us, which just reduces our lives and experiences. Why not have a scene with two people doing some catastrophic baking and one of them happens to be non-binary and has their gender identity respected and affirmed?! (Yes, this has been a scene I’ve done…) For me, being non-binary is a part of who I am, and while it’s not the be-all and end-all of my life and experiences, it does trickle into every part of my life to varied extents, and I want to reflect this experience (one of many!) of non-binary gender identity on stage!
How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans*/NB characters in impro(v)?
I think if a cisgender actor plays a trans* or non-binary character in improv in an intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic way, then yes! I’m so into that! But (and it’s a big one), a character’s trans*/non-binary gender identity and/or status should never never never be used as an easy punchline. It’s just not funny – it’s super boring and not to mention really damaging.
Besides announcing it, how might you know/show a character is trans*/NB?
This is a really difficult one to pin down! I think there’s something to be said for showing an awareness of particular issues that are important to trans*/non-binary people (but not necessarily to every trans*/NB person!) – like gender-neutral toilets, pronouns, society’s enforcement of an (imaginary) immutable gender binary etc… Saying that, a focus on these things actually essentialises and reduces trans*/NB experiences to being solely about issues that are currently highly political and charged with a lot of transphobic hatred. Moving away from that, I think a great way to show that a character is trans*/NB is to think about how a performer can reveal who a character is: is there a story from this character’s past that they can tell? Maybe the story will include different pronouns to what’s being used in the “present”/on-stage. Is the character going through physical bodily changes, such as pregnancy, a change in voice pitch, growing long hair? A far-out idea (!), but maybe these physical changes don’t have to align with a particular gender identity, or even a gender identity at all. Also, trans*/NB characters don’t have to be defined by tragedy, self-loathing, discrimination and an early death! First of all, it’s improv – using imagination is key! But also, the reality is that it’s hardly stretching the imagination to have a happy, fulfilled and joyful trans*/NB character – we *do* actually exist, and you’re currently reading an interview given by one very happy, fulfilled and joyful non-binary person!
Does your local impro(v) community know/understand your gender? If so, how has that been in terms of acceptance/understanding?
I’ve been pretty open about being non-binary in the improv community I’m part of, and everyone’s been really welcoming and encouraging. I’ve found the safe space that improv provides particularly great and I feel at ease in sharing my experiences with others.
What are some things that teachers/directors/other performers can do to make sure trans*/NB improvisers feel safe and welcome?
I think simple things like getting people to introduce themselves with their names and their pronouns is a great way to normalise not just asking about pronouns, but also to normalise the existence of different gender experiences and statuses.
I’ve seen transphobic characters being played a couple of times in improv. Being me and never being able to keep my mouth shut (a cross I have to bear!), I’ve always said something, usually framing it as a question rather than an accusation (although sometimes an accusation is warranted…). This is to try and start off a conversation about who the performer thinks trans*/non-binary people are and what kind of representation we deserve. I’ve had a few performers treat this as a ‘ask me anything about my genitals/sex life/medical status’ situation, to which I usually respond with a wry eyebrow raise and a hard stare. It’s also been the case that as soon as I say I’m non-binary, some performers tend to treat me as The Authority On Trans* and Non-Binary Issues ™ – just going to say for once and for all, no single person is or can be such an authority; plus, Google exists for a reason, so please use it as a resource, people! The onus should not be on trans*/non-binary people to educate cisgender people as to why our existences, experiences and needs are valid too, which is where our delightful allies can jump in.
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?
Recently, I’ve loved watching These Thems (check it out on YouTube) because of the awesome representation that the show gives to queer people with lots of different gender identities. Work in Progress is another good show and addresses really important issues which are often overlooked, such as transphobia in the lesbian community. Saying that, Theo Germaine’s character did kind of idealise this really flat image of the “perfect” trans* person who was a foil to the messiness of his partner. These “flat” representations of trans*/NB characters are such a huge problem in media representation. There are several generic storylines for these characters which are usually tragic, filled with discrimination and violence, and usually end in premature death. Even in Pose, the glimpses of joy and affirmation in the trans* lives depicted were often overshadowed by the discrimination and violence the characters suffered. It is so important to tell a truthful story when it comes to the stories of those who have historically and are currently among the most marginalised communities, such as trans* women of colour, and it’s imperative not to romanticise the very real and very lethal violence they have been and still are subject to at outrageously disproportionate levels. At the same time, let’s bring more stories to the forefront and not place all of our needs and expectations of trans*/non-binary representation on just one show. Let’s have more representation produced by a diverse range of trans*/non-binary folks and that will show just how there are as many experiences of trans*ness and non-binary-ness as there are people!
Who do you look up to/admire as a trans*/NB person in impro(v) or the world generally?
Hi Stephen Davidson, yep you! Yes, this is slightly soppy, but I’m really in awe of how much amazing stuff Stephen has done in terms of trans*/non-binary representation and inclusion in improv. It’s really inspiring to see the impact he’s making with all his work, as well as being a fab improv teacher and performer. I was super lucky to do a course taught by Stephen, and the care and effort Stephen put into creating a respectful, fun and safe environment for everyone was really affirming and I felt very supported by it to explore and express my own gender identity as a result!
What’s something special that you and/or trans*/NB performers have to offer?
Different life experiences! Different experiences of gender! Different visions of the future! It sounds super cliched, but I think that what makes things work – whether in improv, in an office job, in any kind of team – is recognising, respecting and embracing people’s differences on their terms. And this is the case for trans*/non-binary people as much as it is for any other community and/or identity. Just speaking for myself, I feel I can offer a different view on gender and sexuality that might be more playful, more in-depth, or just plain different to what other performers may have, and that gives a scene or a performance the opportunity to go in an unexpected (and hopefully very respectful and fun!) way.