Audio Interview with Huw, transcribed by Stephen Davidson and Ariel Cardoso Albuquerque
S: So actually, the first question is just I’d love to know a bit about you. How long have you been improvising for? What do you do? What’s the story?
H: Well, I’ll preface all this by saying I like talking about myself, it helps me figure out my own thoughts. So if you have any interjections, please feel free to interject.
In 2007, I discovered the Improv theatre community in Tokyo for myself and that was amazing. I was practicing it but also reading Keith Johnston’s Impro, I just realized that what he was talking about was the same thing that I felt these Jazz musicians were doing in the great recordings that I love so much, where they were putting themselves on the line. They were putting themselves in danger. They were embracing the moment. So there were two things; first of all, I started doing Improv theatre, but second of all, I started realizing that there was actually a language that already existed to talk about genuine improvisation. It just wasn’t in music yet. Yeah, so it was just a huge thing for me.
I’ve been doing some performance for children in Japan, from about 2004, 2005 maybe, but then Improv theatre came along, and that was a really lovely way to hone my interest in physical performance in general, being more of a character on stage; using my body as an expressive tool rather than instruments. I dived into that world and eventually ended up performing for the professional show at the Tokyo Comedy Store. Then Chris, who I know you know, of course, offered me teaching work because he was dividing the classes up into Foundation and Scenic levels, and that’s been basically the story so far.
It’s really has been a wonderful thing for me. But going back about five years now, five or six years. I started having some serious kind of stomach problems and I wasn’t getting any results back from medical tests, and I realized that I was having stress reactions from performing. I stopped doing Improv after a while. It’s only now, having started dealing with the kind of the gender challenges I faced and some other stuff there, that I’m actually feeling like I’m ready to start performing again. So yeah, it’s been a wonderful journey. It really has.
S: Oh, fantastic, cool. How would you like me to write down and or use your gender? How do you identify?
H: Well, I am male-to-female transgender, but for a while, I’ve been presenting as non-binary, and I have realized that part of my transition is going to involve medical intervention, and I’m not entirely sure how far that’s going to go yet though.
But currently, I don’t feel the need to pass, in the sense of being a convincingly presenting woman, but that may change and at the moment I’m presenting more as non-binary. So generally, when I tell people how I identify, I say transgender and non-binary, so that I don’t have to go into the difference between gender identity and gender presentation with them.
S: It’s a long talk to have again and again isn’t it.
H: Yeah, and actually it’s really nice to talk to someone who I could just say these things to and know that they will just nod and go, “Yep, okay.”
S: Yep, okay *laughs* Cool, got it. We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but how does being trans affect your Improv?
H: Well, for a while before I was able to make it conscious, it was actually a negative thing. I mean, to be honest. Last year was my 40th birthday, and it was really the first year that I actually started dealing with this rather than it dealing me. *laughs*
I literally didn’t realize how much stress it was putting on me to be performing without an awareness of my real gender. It was giving me headaches and mental pain and stressing me out. I mean, way more than I was able to realize, the next day I just wouldn’t be able to do anything, and I thought, “It’s just me needing to relax, being a bit lazy” or whatever, but it was genuine mental stress or tension. I mean, it’s a physical thing.
Yeah, not being able to deal with it consciously has been a real serious problem. And I do suspect that that’s probably what’s behind my digestive problems as well. It’s just putting myself as a performer, someone who likes being up in front of people. I don’t really think of myself as a comedian but yeah, it just wasn’t good for me to be trying to do that without understanding who I am.
But now that I’m doing it more consciously, I do find that at the moment that it’s something that I can use; the Achilles heel thing, where I can feel a lot of strength coming from this as well. Like the fact that I’ve always been more sensitive to, for example, women’s issues or minority issues than it feels like many other people are and I do suspect that this is also because of having this challenging relationship with gender, even when it was unconscious.
I do feel that there’s a certain sensitivity that comes with not having fitted into my culture, on a very fundamental and deep level, that is actually an advantage as an improviser. In fact, I submitted a proposal to speak at the GII and this was my angle on this kind of thing.
It’s like psychedelic philosophical thinking, these guys that came along in the 60s, philosophers and thinkers inspired by psychedelic experience, but also in traditional Shamanism and that kind of thing; The Outsider status is something that is considered not only an advantage but something that one should cultivate if one wants to truly understand the nature of the universe and oneself and all that kind of thing. The basic tagline is “culture is not your friend”. I do feel that there are actually some wonderful advantages to having this kind of Outsider status, that I have been aware of for a long time, but I’m only just starting to be able to take full advantage of.
Yeah, so, you know Kate Bornstein. She’s been talking for a while about having a new book that she wants to release called Trans, Just for the Fun of It and the description that she gives of this of this book is that it’s an area where postmodern theory overlaps with Zen or you know, like that kind of transcendental, religious-philosophical kind of thing. Plus, Slapstick. *laughs*
Yeah, I really do hope she gets to write this book because it sounds exactly like what I would like to read. I mean, I may do it myself, even if she doesn’t write it. There’s so much overlap between all of these thoughts and it seems to me that it all centres around transcending identity or exploring one’s identity; or just like fucking around with identity and that’s I think something that people like us are forced into, and that’s I think a really important message.
For other people in our society, but also for fellow creative people and fellow improvisers, the main thing you have to do is get over yourself (to put it bluntly) – you know, you’ve got to be able to be comfortable with challenging your sense of identity. Yeah, that to me is basically the heart of improvisation.
S: Yes, absolutely. I teach gender a lot in Improv, and I teach diversity a lot in improv, and so many of the skills that can lend themselves towards playing different genders and/or actively playing in an inclusive way are just good Improv. I feel like that happens to be the soapbox I’m standing on because that’s my experience, but also, I just want people to improvise well.
H: Yeah. So one of the things that I did last night – going back to this workshops – I’ve been thinking to myself, how I still get gendered male, and I can understand why. I haven’t got rid of my stubble entirely yet, I haven’t had tracheal shaving, I’ve got my nice big man hands and there’s all of this stuff which is signaling that I’m male. Even from the perspective of physiological reaction, I understand completely why people simply see me and their brain puts me in that category for them, but I was like, “Well, how do I want to present to these group of improvisers, pretty much all of whom I am comfortable with and I know are friends and allies”, to some extent.
I said to them, “Please don’t assume what gender I’m playing in the scene. I’m happy to be endowed as being male or female but also, someone’s gender doesn’t always come up in a scene. I would rather not have to do the hair flick to show you that I’m female, or – you know what I mean? It would be nice if we could play in this space where it doesn’t have to be nailed down all the time”.
So what I would like to hear from you, do you have any suggestions about ways that I can present to this group that the things that would help make a less gender… gender… What’s the opposite of gender fluid? Gender solid, kind of environment, you know.
S: On a basic sort of pronoun level, we do exercises like having people use “they” rather than “he” or “she” in a conversation about people; or there’s a game called “He said, She said”, where you narrate and then you just get a different pronoun every time you say a sentence and it’s a really nice reminder, particularly if you try all different ones, that the actor isn’t always the same pronoun as the character.
H: Nice, I like that. Yeah, and it’s an extra level of Improv challenge, isn’t it? To remember that?
S: Yeah, exactly. I mean, quite a lot of the things I was going to ask have already just naturally come up. So that’s lovely. How do you feel about cisgender improvisers, playing trans or non-binary characters?
It very much depends on context, and I mean, not having improvised as an openly transgender person much, I can recall feeling uncomfortable when someone is endowed as trans for comedic purposes, or to be silly, or not as a real part of the story.
As a more open trans person, I think I would be much more likely to take that up with people if I saw it on stage. I mean, obviously, appropriately, but having a personal interest or personal investment in seeing that; being openly trans has made me more confident to call out that kind of thing when I see it, but I haven’t had a chance to prove that yet. One would like to think that one stands up for one’s values. You have to be put in that situation, don’t you, to see for yourself? But yeah, one of the things that I’m aware of, and this is I think what one of the hallmarks of trans portrayal in mass media, is the trans person dying some kind of glorious death at the end of the movie, for some ideal or whatever. I’ve even read that in some comic books where they’ve had trans characters, and you know this… Are you into comic books at all?
S: Only sort of marginally like, graphic novels et cetera… but I would love to hear about it.
H: Neil Gaiman’s series, The Sandman, it’s one of these highly praised things, but it’s just another one that falls into the trans character dying at the end, for no reason whatsoever. Other than because it’s a bit disappointing to encounter that in comic books as well… Yeah, it would be a pain in the ass if that’s how things were done in Improv as well.
It would be nice just to have a normal scene where someone being trans just comes up incidentally, for some useful little part in the scene and it’s nothing special in the scene. It’s no different than someone mentioning that they went on holiday somewhere once, or something like that. It usually seems to be something that it’s a big thing if it comes up in a scene, you know, it’s like it becomes what the scene is about.
S: Yeah, absolutely. Are there any examples of trans characters in books, movies, media, anywhere, which you think do a really good job?
H: That’s a really good question. This is actually comics again, Alan Moore wrote a series called Promethea, which as well as being a great superhero comic book series also is something of a textbook for ritual magic. This super heroine, Promethea, in this story is basically the embodiment of imagination, and she’s like a spirit who comes and takes over a host in the material world, to do whatever she needs to do.
One of the people she inhabited was a of gay man, who would become a woman when they were joined, and dated an FBI agent who eventually found out that there was this gender-bending going on but the spirit of this person is man. This particular story doesn’t end well, but this version of Promethea continues to live on, and he’s giving advice to the current incarnation of Promethea.
Discovering in my 30s that I’m transgender has just been a real trip. If you’d asked me in my 20s, my late 20s, early 30s, “Are you transgender?”, it wouldn’t even have occurred to me really, it would have been difficult to take it seriously, so it’s really been an incredible mind-bending thing and I read this story kind of captures some of that mind-bending-ness of it.
It’s actually difficult for me to think of characters. I know that there are these TV shows, that there’s Transparent, which is an American show you’ve maybe seen, which I haven’t. Is it Laverne Cox who is in Orange is the New Black? Yeah. That I felt was really well played.
But I don’t know, what are some of your favourites? Because I would like to actually experience some more of this.
S: Yeah, that’s a funny one as well for me. That’s one of the reasons why I’m asking everyone because I feel like not that many hit it on the nose for me.
H: A couple more popped into my head while you were talking, and this is from the world of cartoons, which is another one that I like, comics and cartoons. I’ve still got my inner 5-to-8-year-old quite healthy! There’s a TV series called Gravity Falls, and in there there’s a character who is female, but very masculine presenting, and the portrayal of her is just wonderful.
There’s no “isn’t this strange?”, she’s just a character there who has this masculine presentation and you know, it’s very compassionately included and portrayed.
The other one is Steven Universe, which is a truly great cartoon. I mean, it’s got so much feminist thinking in there. The alien race in this cartoon aren’t technically male or female. Their presentation is more female, but it’s a very subtle thing where they don’t have gender, basically.
Some of them are more masculine presenting and some of them more feminine presenting but it’s one of those things where it’s artfully done. There are even things in there, subtle mental models for things like polyamory or same-sex relationships. It’s very subtly and compassionately done.
So the fact that these are both kids programs that I mentioned, or at least can be appreciated by kids as well as adults *laughs*, this is real education. This is real social change, you know, where these things that are for kids who are going to grow up with these ideas in their heads where when they encounter the idea of polyamory, they’ve got, essentially, these mental models waiting for them. Like, the Gems fusing, in Steven Universe – it’s great. Those I think to me are the most positive kind of anti-binary or binary-relaxing things that I’ve encountered.
If any more come to me, I’ll drop you a mail, because it’s easy to come down on stuff and to gripe about it, but it is actually nicer to be able to offer up positive examples, isn’t it?
S: Yeah, you’re not the first person who’s mentioned Steven Universe. I need to watch it! Fantastic. This is sort of broadly all of the things I was hoping the interview would encompass. Do you have any questions, or are there other things that I didn’t bring up that you think are important?
H: One thing that’s really interesting to me is, in Improv, we become sensitive to things that we think would be interesting to the audience. For example, you know, you would begin a scene just playing a normal, boring, obvious interaction, and keeping an eye out for interesting things that come out by accident. You could build a really interesting deep, emotional, revealing scene about the nature of the human condition, ideally.
In that process you’re simply allowing things that you notice to come to the surface and for you to express them and for them to become a part of the scene, right? So you’re not planning, you’re simply observing and emphasizing, reincorporating. Does that resonate, does that make sense?
S: It does make sense. Yeah, absolutely.
H: When, for example, trans things, or sexuality things, or racial things, when they come up in Improv scenes, these, to most people – especially cisgender white heterosexual people – these are things worth emphasizing because they’re special. Do you see what I mean?
And it’s this real double-edged sword of, “It’s nice that they think they’re special”, and often the intention that’s there is good, something that is special, and worth emphasizing, and worth making a social comment on and so forth. But it’s also the enemy of these things being just things, rather than special things. Do you know what I mean? It’s a little bit like the fetishization of qualities. Did you know what I’m saying?
S: Yeah. Absolutely. I feel like a big part of that is just timing and awareness and taking the time to get used to all of these new ideas, which I mean the representation of trans people in the media has just kind of exploded in the last five years and I think community awareness is just changing so rapidly, it’s easy to see why it’s the new shiny thing for some people, especially if they’ve not met a trans performer before. Suddenly, “Oh, there you are. It’s so exciting.”
Well, I’m so glad I got to chat to you. Thank you so much for finding the time, I appreciate you getting up early.
H: No problem at all, and I’ll probably go back to bed now. *laughs*
S: *laughs* Thank you. Yeah, take care and we’ll speak soon.