Name as you’d like it to appear:
Gender as you’d like it to appear:
City you live in and/or improvise in most:
Cumulatively, I’ve lived and performed the most in Nottingham. I’ve taught improv most often in Leeds. I live in Leeds during term time, and in Nottingham otherwise.
Personal website or another project that you’d like to link to:
My website www.sophieowenblog.wordpress.com I recently came out and am not that bothered about changing the name of it it at the minute. There are some links to other stuff I’ve done there.
The British Comedy Reserve, a comedy analysis I do with my fellow improviser and best friend Richard Minkley: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/richard-minkley/the-british-comedy-reserve
Dice and Cosy: a bi-weekly livestream starting at the end of the month where improvisers play simple D&D style games, but all different genres! Join us 7pm on Saturday 26th September at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWO1xC8dtcg
When I was 18, I dropped out of my Computer Science course at The University of Birmingham. I’d been there only six weeks This meant my life plan I’d had since I was 14 just disappeared. The reason?
I hate computer science. I should have been doing theatre. I am studying theatre now.
When I returned to Nottingham in November 2016, I was gradually crawling out of the lowest point I’ve ever been in. But then, I went to an improv workshop in the function room of a beautiful pub in Nottingham, built out of the oldest surviving music hall in the country. The Malt Cross. That room was the first place where I felt like I was truly treated as an adult, and it’s where I found the craft that now influences everything I do. I make theatre in a totally different way to my peers, and I’m not just driven by ‘principles’ of improv, I’m also driven by the constantly evolving discourse around improv, that moves in a totally different direction, in a totally different vehicle, to the way theatre academia moves. Nottingham is also where I joined my first troupe, The Vox Pops, and got the opportunity to see many groups at Smash Night, and Nottingham Playhouse, including the first longform show I ever saw, Austentatious, which blew my mind.
I’m currently learning to teach improv, by way of teaching my colleagues at Leeds University Union Comedy Society. I’ve actually been teaching for three years, on and off, and I regularly write up my thoughts into a guide that I might pass on to someone who needs it, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. Teaching improv is such a great privilege to me because I take the Spolin/Johnstone approach where 90% of the focus is helping the student understand and overcome fear. It’s one of the most powerful skills you can teach to anybody, and I think teachers who just try and teach people to be ‘funny’, are really missing a trick.
How does being trans*/NB influence your impro(v)?
For context, I came out very recently. I believe I have only improvised scenes while ‘out’ just once. Looking back, improv has always been a place of solace when it came to gender. I told myself for a long time that I was genderfluid, and maybe I was for a bit, identity shifts and coalesces in many ways over time. I do think that claiming to be fluid allowed me to avoid being openly trans. Nobody had to know about it, it was just a thing in my head, that I didn’t talk about unless specifically asked, and I made sure that I wasn’t. However, in my own experience with improv, I am fortunate enough to have always felt non-gendered while on stage (this is obviously not the case for everyone in our community).
In an improv show, I am not expected to be any gender, either from myself or from the audience, as I am expected to morph into anything. Both on the sidelines, or in the middle of a scene, I can go an entire show and never be gendered, not even have a name. That held great comfort to me. I wonder what else it will hold when I go back on stage properly?
Do you play trans*/NB characters often?
I have no idea. I don’t think I’ve ever gone on stage intending to be trans or nonbinary. I’m also aware that some of the casual references I could make to being trans might not be picked up by the rest of the cast or audience. That situation then risks the partner having to ask lots of questions to clarify what something like ‘getting a t-shot’ means, which then turns into making the whole scene about the transness or trans aspects of the trans character. You can educate your fellow cast, but it’s not so simple for educating a random sample of audience members.
How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans*/NB characters in impro(v)?
Just thinking about it intuitively, I would be thrilled if I saw a show where an improviser made a casual but informed reference to being transmasculine, regardless of their ‘real’ identity. Perhaps I’m naïve, perhaps it’s because of the lack of trans male representation in visual media. Or maybe I’m valid? Who’s to say?
The issue of cis people playing trans/nb characters in improv is a tricky one, and has some similarities with the same debate in film and theatre. To me, the difference with improv is that all people have a potential to be queer in some way, even if they have no idea about it or never think about it. Queer identity is constantly in flux throughout our lives, and improv is a shifting, materialising and dematerialising landscape of bodies and concepts. So, for me, a cis actor playing a trans/nb character is not offensive.
I do believe, however, that if a cis actor were to play a trans character in a show, that they should avoid making it the focus of the character, so that they don’t put themselves in a position where they have to answer questions they really shouldn’t answer. They should also only think about playing a trans character if they have several trans people in their friendship network. They should discuss the idea with their friends on how it might, if at all, be achieved in a sensitive, affirming way for trans audience members. I’m also assuming that this hypothetical cis person isn’t a just a massive bellend, which is another requirement.
Besides announcing it, how might you know/show a character is trans*/NB?
I’m less familiar with the transfeminine experience, but to make me feel affirmed, I would appreciate casual comments relating to the transmasculine experience that aren’t so bizarre for cis folks that they derail the scene. I realise a lot of my perspective is anchored in not confusing or alienating cis audiences, which not everyone will agree with, but I question what there is to be achieved doing any scene that can’t be understood by the majority of the audience? Also, it’s very irritating, but I think making references that affirm trans people doesn’t help to demystify or destigmatise the trans experience. Like it or not, I feel we have to bring cis people along with us for this to work. Perhaps characters making comments in the vein of the following could work:
- “Can’t wait ‘til my scars heal. I’m looking forward to being in the sun again.”
- “Suits just make me feel so great, honestly. Nice to finally have one that doesn’t make my hips stick out.”
- “If you’re going out, could you pick up my T from the chemists?”
- “Mum called me my old name by accident, can you believe? She was so embarrassed. After 4 years! I can’t help but love her, though.”
- “Hey, can you see a beard hair yet? I think this is one?”
In writing that list, it’s hard to think of things that don’t draw attention to the medical aspects of transness which is also not always a good idea. Medical intervention is not a requirement for a valid trans identity. I also drew all those examples from my observations of other trans men’s conversations, as my own experience is very limited at the minute (I’ve just started my social transition, that is, I have not obtained medical intervention, I am simply making changes in my social life that affirm my trans identity).
How do you feel about playing different genders generally, in terms of naming gender and of expressing it?
I never go on stage trying to be a certain gender, unless I’m deliberately tangenting off a gendered character someone else has established, like their mother or father. It’s just not something that usually holds a lot of information or context for me. This is probably short sighted of me, but to me, in most situations, a person of any gender can do anything. Especially in a comedy show.
Does your local impro(v) community know/understand your gender? If so, how has that been in terms of acceptance/understanding?
My fellow improvisers were the first communities I came out to. First, the Leeds community, as I knew a few trans people there anyway, and then the Nottingham community because they’re like family to me.
The Leeds Uni lot, although not all improvisers, gave me space to trial different names and pronouns, and were instrumental in helping me make my first steps, and validating my confusion and uncertainty with love and acceptance and patience. Then, the wholeheartedness with which the Nottingham improv community accepted me was so valuable. I attended a meetup with Missimp (a large Nottingham group) around the beginning of August, and that was the first time I interacted with a group of people as Laurie, and with he/him pronouns, outside of my house. Nobody asked invasive questions, nobody even asked me at length about what was going on, they just referred to me how I had asked to be referred to, and that was exactly what I needed.
What are some things that teachers/directors/other performers can do to make sure trans*/NB improvisers feel safe and welcome?
This is something I have been thinking about for a very long time, long before I accepted I was trans myself. I’ll answer this as a facilitator. There is the eternal problem of “how do we ask for pronouns while maintaining a casual atmosphere, at the beginning of a drop-in workshop jam with a group of nervous strangers?”. By asking everyone’s pronouns at the start of the session, trans people may be forced to choose between staying hidden and misgendered, or correctly gendered but visible to a group of strangers. There is also the problem of getting cis people to state pronouns, especially cis people who are just very socially awkward and unfamiliar with the process, and so their anxiety tells them ‘you’re transphobic for feeling weird about this’ and so they’re in their head for the rest of the session.
Really, the emotions surrounding disclosure or non-disclosure of pronouns is always going to be a partly personal problem with any individual, and never something that will be completely solved in an improv workshop. The only solution I can think of is giving everyone the opportunity to have pronoun badges and explaining what they are.
“These are pronoun badges, they just let people know what you’d like to be referred to, like ‘he/him’ ‘they/them’, etc. Even if you don’t ‘need’ one, consider that by wearing one, you help trans and nonbinary people feel welcome. You are, however, not required to take one, and will not be judged if you don’t.”
That way, the whole process is far less confrontational and the control over disclosure is put into the court of the individuals at the workshop. Everyone is made aware that this is a room that takes trans people into consideration, yet does not force anyone to disclose. A person who does not take a badge may still feel the discomfort of misgendering, but efforts have been made to show they are welcome, even if they do not choose to be visible. Their discomfort may be an issue of trust that can be gained over time with the workshop group.
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?
I very often resonate with cis male characters so I won’t list all of them, but I’ve never found any transmasculine characters that really truly resonate with me. I’ve just struggled to find any transmasculine characters at all. I refuse to watch films where the trans man dies at the end. Fuck that shit. I’ve found close imitations of trans men, usually in the form of ‘girl pretends to be boy, then grows out of it because of cis boy or plot’. So here are some characters, of various genders, that ‘get me’, in a specifically gendered way.
- Viola (from Twelfth Night)
- Rosalind (from As You Like It)
- Polly and Maladict (from Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett)
- Grace (from Cleansed by Sarah Kane)
- Merlin (From BBC’s Merlin by Various)
- Blanca (From Netflix’s Pose by Various)
- Nomi (From Netflix’s Sens8 by The Wachowski Sisters and J. Michael Straczynski)
In terms of the best trans narratives I’ve seen, those accolades must go to Pose and Sens8. Both of those shows portray brilliant trans narratives, brought to life excellently by trans writers and trans actresses.
Who do you look up to/admire as a trans*/NB person in impro(v) or the world generally?
You, of course, Stephen. I met you for the first time, at an inclusivity workshop that you ran in Nottingham. At that time, I was avoiding all thoughts of being trans. You casually mentioned to our group that you were trans, and it was like a bolt of electricity went through me. I immediately thought in an ecstatic rush: “I can be like you? I could look like my own version of what you look like? That’s incredible. I want to do that. How do I do that?” And THEN you did an amazing workshop and made the whole thing ten times more inspiring.
And while I didn’t act on those thoughts I had, for another year or more, meeting you allowed me to see a trans man with a really good life, just being a man, making the world better, and doing improv. It had a really, really profound effect on me.
What’s something special that you and/or trans*/NB performers have to offer?
The same as anybody who comes to improv. A perspective, that should be listened to, and elevated. Also, in some cases, an embodied understanding of the differences between being perceived by society as men, women or nonbinary, which is very different from a factual or intellectual understanding.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about being trans*/NB or impro(v) in general?
No, I think I’ve said a lot.