Audio interview with Jex Arzayus, transcribed by Stephen Davidson and Ariel Cardoso Albuquerque
J: Hi, I’m Jex!
S: Beautiful. I’m Stephen. There was my first question. Name and etcetera, and gender as you’d like me to write it down.
J: Great. My name is Jex Arzayus, and I’m transmasculine non-binary.
S: Cool, beautiful. Thank you. And I guess just to start: can you tell me a bit about your improv experience thus far?
J: I started improv maybe seven years ago at a Brave New Workshop and I did five classes there and then it didn’t really go anywhere. And then two years ago, I got the bug when I saw a Facebook post that HUGE [Improv] Theatre, that’s in Minneapolis, was starting a women, trans and non-binary class, and that really made me want to go back, and so I started the women, trans and non-binary class, the 101, and then we did the 201, and then we just got bigger and bigger. We sort of rallied together and started the advanced 301, 401 class. So just it keeps growing and they’re really doing a really good job at diversifying, bringing a lot of… We have a POC Jam, we have a Queer Jam, we have trans and non-binary Jams, we have the Latinx Jam. Pretty much a Jam for everybody and classes for everybody.
Hannah Wydeven even is the person who started the W, the women trans non-binary class, and Jill Bernard is the director, along with Butch [Roy] over at HUGE Theater. Then we started our own improv troupe, which consists of like 16 of us, that are from that first women trans non-binary class. So we’re still together and we perform now on a professional level. So this is our first year as a troop, but we’re called the Sharpies.
S: How does being trans influence your Improv?
J: Now, I didn’t realize how in a box I was *laughs* in the regular improv scene until I started working with exclusively a group that was so aware of language and terminology and we just all are checking in, boundary checks, and you know, my improv has become more natural, if that makes any sense.
It’s a lot funnier and I tend to play roles that are not significantly male or female, I play a lot of transgender roles, but even just roles I probably wouldn’t normally play, characters I don’t normally play in different ways because I’m not afraid to be gender-bending or just have no gender at all. Yeah, which is really nice to just not make that a primary concern, I’m not playing a female mom, you know, I might be playing a polyamorous couple, part of a couple, but you don’t know if I’m male, female, or non-binary. I really like that aspect of it.
S: You play trans characters often, then?
J: I do, I play a lot of non-binary characters. I play a lot of characters that have very generic, weird names, so you’re like “wait, what?” *laughs* I might combine a male to female name. Yeah, you know like “Jeterica” or you know, something like “Jadam”. *laughs* I’ve been known to make some weird names up.
I play a lot of characters from history like Dracula or even just monsters, made-up sort of sci-fi characters because we were super fans of many things including D&D and weird nerdy things. And so that’s the inspiration. What we always ask for is, “What are you super nerdy fans of?” and we usually go on from that.
S: How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans or non-binary characters?
J: That’s a great question. That’s a big debate here in Minneapolis. Like Hedwig and The Angry Inch, should she be played by cisgender male? It’s disheartening. I think of all the talented trans women out there, that are working hard, not getting into the audition rooms.
I don’t…You know, I think it would be great for them to play a lot of non-binary rules in their skits and to branch out, but I think they need to come play with us for a little bit. You know?
Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about that. Honestly. Personally, I’d like to see more people reaching no genders in their sketches, you know, blurring them and I’m okay with that, if it’s done in a tasteful way with knowledge and experience working with trans actors and improv-ers.
I don’t know. What should what’s your thoughts on that?
S: I haven’t found consensus among everyone I’ve talked to, so that’s just an interesting conversation, right? Yeah, it’s a tough one. In London, I’m absolutely fine with it, because people I play with here are very aware, and I know the audience isn’t going to think that that’s the joke.
J: There’s right and that’s the thing. Yeah. Never a joke. It’s just the setup, because I would play like a mom or dad, you know, as a male or female. Yeah, I don’t have a problem with that. So I think if they want to challenge themselves, I think it’s great to play somebody, you know, and we are like improving and you know learning from each other.
S: Yeah, theoretically like if I can be a cat in a scene, you can play anything right? You can play anything. But there’s that thing of, if I walk on stage and I’m being super effeminate does the audience start to laugh already? And if so, maybe this isn’t the place to do that. So it’s a yes and no?
J: It’s a yes and no. *laughs*
S: Yeah. I also don’t want to be the one authority on this which is why I’m asking.
J: I don’t either, but I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen across the board, all the different groups and that’s why I do like that HUGE is moving towards teaching teachers to be more inclusive. That’s a really good point. Yeah.
S: So how would you show, or how could one show, that an actor was trans or non-binary without just announcing it? Are there other ways that you make that clear?
,J: Yeah, I think using terms like “they/ them”.
In one instance, I was in this little skit about a barbershop and the person behind me was “backseat barber-shopping”, you know, they were telling the barber what to do, and then I turn around like, “Look, this is my first time here”, but it’s just a way to be like “Oh, maybe my transition needs to go smooth and you’re backseat barber driving”.
It was a weird skit that we had going on and the backseat person goes, “I’m just trying to make sure you get the perfect first haircut”, and it was definitely like the first time I was having a haircut, you know, it was a cool scene that we did. I made it a point not to say I was trans, but just to say, “This is my first shave, I’m nervous and you’re back there, telling the barber what to do”. I don’t know.
Well, maybe situations that really happen in life, you know, getting acne when you’re on testosterone, yeah, fun stuff, without coming out. The kind of situations that we really go through, which that’s what improv is, right? We’ll take our real experiences, sort of hiding them.
S: Absolutely. Oh, we’ve kind of already touched on this, but the next question is how do you feel about playing different genders generally, in terms of naming it and/or expressing it?
Well, sometimes I’ll play it a kid. I don’t always name the gender, but they know I’m a kid, you know, I’m going to play a kid or I definitely am playing somebody’s kid, you know, I’ll have parents- I’m like, “Hey Mom”, or, “Hello, my parental figure”.
I’m okay with playing other genders. Absolutely. I like when people name me first, rather than me my gender. I much rather somebody name me, like, Gus and you know, and then I can choose what I interpret Gus like, you know, because I might interpret Gus as the prom queen that’s just having a bad day.
S: Cool. Oh, we’ve touched on this already a little bit anyway, but does your local improv community know and understand your gender, and if so, how has that been in terms of acceptance and general understanding levels?
J: Yeah. They’ve been really supportive, and they know they need to work on it and I think that’s why they asked us to help with the planning of the training. We did have a situation where they brought a teacher that wasn’t aware of the class because they didn’t have an advanced teacher for us, and that’s sort of where we are, as we got more advanced. They didn’t have an advanced teacher for us, so we became the teachers of the teacher, which sometimes that happens when you’re trying to build a program.
Another thing that HUGE is doing is they just hired me to do the training for other teachers. I’m doing the sort of trans language, non-binary language, diversity training for their teachers. So I talk about how do you become more inclusive, you know, how to use the proper language, how do you make everybody feel welcome, so that we don’t have to have such separate classes. So everybody can be everywhere. Yeah, so I’ll be doing that first training for the teachers on July 14th.
We did a panel. We did a diversity panel on the subject because I think there’s a lot of us now *laughs* And you know, there’s sometimes you get the pronouns wrong, people make a big deal out of them… So we’re just trying to make it safer for everybody, more inclusive. You know, seven years ago when I took classes, I didn’t feel like I fit in, it was mostly white male. Yeah before I think I was the only you know, I was the only queer in the group and I’m latinx. It was definitely a different experience.
But they’ve been so supportive, because every class now, goes around and asks what their pronouns are; what your name, pronoun and any boundaries they have for the day, or boundaries in subject matter, because we have a lot of boundaries in subject matter like “no vomiting” in my groups, especially there is a person that just cannot handle anything that looks like vomit, they would be freaking out, which is understandable- so we just don’t do any vomit scenes. *laughs*
Who wants to see that anyway. I always think: have I ever seen a funny vomit scene? Nothing comes to mind. *laughs* Or like sexual violence or rape, we don’t joke about rape. We’re a very consensual group *laughs*, we always ask “Is this consensual?” in the middle of a serious scene, which is funny to me.
S: Leading on from that, what are some things that teachers, directors or even other performers can do to make sure that trans or non-binary people feel safe and welcome?
J: I think you know creating a space, creating the jams- and I love their mixed jams, especially because they really make an effort to have mixed gems which are free and open, they are the third Sunday of the month, and they incorporate the Latinx community, the POC Community, the Queer community, and then the WTNB community; and all the jams together- and the boys can come too, cis boys are always welcome.
S: Right, so a few more general things. Can you think of any examples of really good trans, Non-binary characters in any media, improve, TV, movies, plays, comic books, anything like that?
J: Yeah, I love Hedwig, love that play; I love Shameless. Sabrina, they have a trans character now, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Also, Charmed, the new Charmed has a trans character now.
Let’s see what else… Comedy-wise, Hannah Wydeven from the Shrieking Harpies. They’re one of my favourite improv troupes, they’re musical improv, and they’re very diverse, they are more queer oriented.
That’s all I can think of on top of my head.
S: It’s a great start, a nice long list, so that’s heartening. I’m going to go look those people up. Who do you look up to or admire as a trans non-binary person, maybe in improv, but also just in the world, who’s out there that exciting?
J: Well, Marsha P. Johnson, of course, you know, Stonewall, keep it out there to her for creating our freedom today, with the first row of the police; and I have to say RuPaul’s drag show really put us on TV made us visible.
I think for me, honestly, it was trans men bodybuilders on Instagram. When I was looking to transition, they were like my Idols, when they would post their transition. They made a presence on Instagram and I could look at pictures and ask questions. I do CrossFit and it’s like, “Oh man, I’m never going to look like that” *laughs* I can dream.
S: Don’t we all?
J: I’ve only gotten top surgery last summer, and I still have a revision to do, and I’ve only been on testosterone since September, so I’m just starting to really see some changes. It’s like “Whoa, this is so cool”.
I’m more confident. You know, I’m like I just stand up straighter. I feel like it’s affected my improv, my transition. It’s affected how I can just go out there now and I might be on the border of a little cocky- that’s what my friends say. But only when I have a couple beers in me *laughs* Like I can do anything! *laughs*
And I’m a teacher. I’m an art teacher, don’t know if I told you that but that’s my day job, but I’m also an improve-er during my time teaching with kids because I teach middle school, and I teach the GSA, the Gay Straight Alliance, and the kids too are my heroes, because they knew the language before I did. So, like five years ago, they were telling me about grayromantic, graysexual, asexual, non-binary and they were they were getting on Testosterone way before I even considered it. So those kids are the heroes too because they are like, “Screw this, we’re going to be who we are, earlier.” *laughs* “We’re not going to wait for the old people to accept us”.
S: What’s something special that you and/or trans and non-binary performers have to offer?
J: We offer something. I just- I don’t know, our skits are so different. They are so much richer and more interesting, and I like these plot twists that we come up with. You know, we go down the rabbit hole and all of a sudden, it’s like hell itself, and then it comes back up to like rainbow gumdrops, you never know *laughs*
You really don’t know where we’re going to go. I never know where the scenes are going. I’m always surprised when things come out of my mouth. I just think because we’ve had to hide for a lot of our time, we’ve just had to not be our authentic self. But when we’re on stage, we just become anything we want.
We weren’t allowed to really be our genuine self that just comes out in our imaginations. So we don’t have the same gender and roles that were expected of us, because we always fought against those anyway, so our scenes are much richer; our scene could be a son and a daughter, might be playing catch and all of a sudden, instead of being upset because they can see their son can’t catch, the dad decides, “Oh, well, I’m going to take you to knitting class, because obviously you’re better at that”.
I think that’s really different and that’s what I like about our group too, because they’re always taking me on their journey to the unexpected.
S: Oh, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much for being here.
J: Nice to talk to you, too. Have a good day.