Audio interview with Mara Joy Craig, transcribed by Stephen Davidson and Ariel Cardoso Albuquerque
Stephen: So just to get all of the boring things out of the way. What is your name?
Mara: Mara Joy.
S: Gorgeous. How would you like me to write down your gender?
M: Women, female, god… human.
S: And tell me a bit about your Improv experience so far.
M: I started doing Improv in 2008, as part of a university troupe in Sterling. Did that for a while, self-taught, which was probably a mistake.
Then I moved and started doing stuff in Edinburgh, travelling through to get training here at TBC Improv- which I’m now a member of and a teacher with. I’ve been with them since 2013, and also a member of a group called The Spontaneous Players.
We do a show called Spontaneous Potter and Spontaneous Sherlock. One of those is significantly more successful than the other one; It’s the one with Wizards.
That’s what we mainly do. I do one of those 2 shows every week and I teach on a regular basis with TBC, and I do a lot of other improv whenever I can and wherever I can, including a show called “Me plus 1” which is a show I do where I get a different guest on every time and we just make something up, as you know, because you’ve done it.
S: Yeah, it was really fun. I like that show.
M: So that’s basically that. I’ve been trained by a million people, and a million places. *chuckles*
S: Cool. Do you have a particular project or personal site that you’d like me to link to?
M: Not really, you can find me on Twitter, @marajoyloves (https://twitter.com/marajoyloves) right mainly tweet about stuff that I love. That’s pretty much it.
S: How does being trans affect your Improv, if at all?
M: It’s weird, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since you sent me the questions. Simultaneously, a lot and not at all. *chuckles* If anything, doing Improv affected me being trans, because I was doing Improv before I came out to myself, after a long time. And I think that once I started to explore that part of myself that I had explicitly not been exploring for a long time, I was able to explore stuff on stage.
I think generally that’s part of that journey and very common. I’ve become a lot more empathetic to stuff, and I read a lot more, and I pay a lot more attention… I mean, I always sort of paid attention, I was always quite well meaning and liberal but now it’s much more so. I’ve been known to drop into left-wing rants at any point in a show.
I think that’s all connected to being more open to different perspectives and especially like more oppressed people, not just trans people or queer people- which are groups that I am part of- but also other groups. You go from, “Oh well, things are fine” to going, “Huh, things are not fine for lot of people” and I think it’s important to explore that in Improv, so I try to, even though I don’t always do a great job of it, but you know I try to do it. And so I think that some of the choices I would have previously made, I don’t make anymore. I can’t think of any specifics right now, and I think that I’ve found myself- not self-censoring, because I don’t like that term particularly but- making more conscious choices.
S: You mentioned playing lots of female characters, do you ever play trans or non-binary characters?
M: That’s really interesting. This came up in a conversation we were having on a car journey back from somewhere recently. One of the people in my group was talking about how in America they’d seen a show where one of the members of the troupe uses a wheelchair, so they did a show where everyone in the troupe used a wheelchair. They had a Q&A afterwards and someone asked: “Do you ever get endowed in a scene as a character on a wheelchair?”; and she was like “No, never.”.
After she told me this story, I said “You know, you’ve never endowed me as a trans character, ever”. We sort of talked about it for a bit, and I think one of the reasons is fear, that somebody else will say something wrong, and politeness, because improvisers are nice.
The only times I’ve ever played trans characters or non-binary characters is when I’ve initiated it myself. Sometimes it gets missed and sometimes it’s just in the background. Like, sometimes people are like, “Oh, I know this character is trans”, but it doesn’t come up because, you know, it doesn’t, every minute, of every hour, of every day, or not to an outside observer at least.
So the answer to that is not very often, something that I’d like to do more I think. But it’s so hard because everyone else in the group is a cis man, like everyone else who’s on stage with me (our musical director is cis woman) and they’re very well-meaning, they’ve checked out things, they’ve read stuff. They know the basics, but there’s the rest of that fear of, “Oh, we don’t want to say anything wrong” and I’m like: “I get that but I’m only slightly less likely to say something wrong than you are”.
You know, we’re all learning. We’re all humans. The amount of times you’ve said something horrible as we said earlier and then went, “Oh, why did I say that, God? I feel horrible. Oh my goodness. That’s not what I meant at all” and you can, you know, you can explore that. I think there’s a fear, rather, and fear is the right word. Originally, I used to think, “It’s trepidation or nervousness”. It’s not, it’s straight-up fear.
It’s interesting because in our group, and I’m also gay, we play with sexuality a lot because we do a Harry Potter show, right? So the character… we don’t have our choice of the characters that we play, they tend to be characters already exist, in completely different versions of them, sure, but they are characters that already exist, which gives you in some ways less opportunities to explore that and yet we’ve had characters question their sexuality, have characters in sort of non-traditional relationships, that helps. We do lots of poly couples or open relationships and people figuring out whether they’re gay or bisexual or pansexual or all that kind of thing. We never do that with gender. And I find that very interesting. We never do that.
I remember one show where I had played Draco as explicitly questioning their gender. I get offstage and I’m like, “I was very pleased with that”. Nobody else in the show had noticed I had done that, and I was like, “Oh, I thought I was being quite blatant. Okay, that’s weird.” And people were like, “but I didn’t even realize you were doing it”… so what did you think I was doing? I think that very interesting that they are all straight, for the most part, though it’s all on a spectrum, and we have no problem dealing with that and yet gender doesn’t come up and I find that very interesting.
S: How do you how do you feel generally about cis actors playing a trans and non-binary character?
Hmm. It’s interesting. I think there’s a tendency. Outside of Improv, I don’t see any need for it whatsoever. There might be some special cases, okay, sure fine. But we’re not always going to get as perfect an opportunity as you get in Orange is the New Black, where Laverne Cox plays Sophia and her identical twin brother plays her younger self *laughter* Not every trans woman has an identical twin brother. But if that’s the situation, okay, fine.
But generally, that’s what happens in scripted media [cis actors playing trans characters]. It’s overdone and it presents a really horrible stereotype.
In Improv, I find it that every time is very different because you don’t know what you’re gonna play, we really don’t have scripts. You don’t do that and there’s a lot more freedom. What I would say it comes down to is that a lot of times we’re playing things on stage we have no experience of: I’ve never been a kayak. I have played a kayak on stage. But as long as it’s played intelligently and compassionately then I think it’s generally okay. There are people I’ve seen playing trans characters but it’s so far removed from my experience and the experience of any trans or non- binary person around, that’s not how any of this works and I’ll be like, “Please don’t do that again” or, “Please just stay in your lane”,
And then there’s people who have been able to play very nuanced and considered characters who just happened to be trans. I think it comes down to how educated you are on it. If you’re someone who has no idea, then maybe don’t, because you’re probably going to make a fool of yourself and offend someone, whereas if you’re someone who wants to explore that and you’re in a comfortable situation, with an audience who is comfortable with all that, and I’d recommend if you’re going to be doing that, it would be nice if there was somebody in your troupe who was not cisgender- that’d be nice.
Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of people playing dress up and that can be weird. So yeah, it’s complicated. I have not seen many examples of it and the majority of examples of I’ve seen have been actively awful, with a very small percentage of, “Oh, that’s actually quite interesting, I’m glad we called that”. Usually it’s, “Please stop or I was just going to leave”.
S: Besides just explicitly announcing it, what are some ways that a person could show they were playing a trans or non-binary character or endow that?
A lot of the things I can think of to say are, “I am Trans” or, “I am non-binary”, the only things I could really think of are weirdly either medical or inclement. We don’t usually play that on stage, and I don’t know… Not to say we can’t but if I was to just casually mention it like, “I can’t do that. I’ve got my GIC appointment that day”, then people would need to go, “Oh, I know what that means”, but they’d probably go, “What the fuck is that?”
I very rarely talk about stuff that would make it clear to people who are outside of my conversation that I’m trans unless I had explicitly been talking about being trans. Unless I’m like saying, “oh as a trans person this is like…” or, “here’s how things are going with me” or, “here’s where I am at.”
It’s much less about that and more about, “Oh, you know what it’s like, right?” “Nope”. “Oh, that’s because- oh, yeah, sorry” and I think that that’s something that I think would be very difficult to manufacture in an Improv scene.
I’ve played characters who in my head are definitely trans, and I thought about what would be different, like “Is it a different way of moving?”- no, all kinds of people, all across the gender spectrum move in all kinds of different ways, that doesn’t mean anything. Then I think about how you present yourself, but I know people, again, who present in a million different ways. As a stereotype, can you do it? I guess. Is it helpful? Probably not.
S: Thinking about all of the media, can you name trans or non-binary characters you think are done really well?
Hmm, that’s interesting. Yes, and much more now than there was five, ten years ago. You got shows like Pose (for all of those many, many flaws) about the drag Ballroom culture, which has the largest trans cast of any TV show ever. I’ve only watched three episodes of it. It’s a very good, MJ Rodriguez is fantastic, she’s great.
But there’s also stories I’m so bored of, and I know I’m not alone in this in the trans community: stories about being trans. It obviously informs who you are as a person but if I never see another film about somebody transitioning and coming out to their family, I’ll be happy… Or at very least, one written, directed by and starring cis people, because that’s so dull.
There’s a lot of trans and non-binary comedians I like- I know these are not characters.
But there’s one character I love in a TV show called Shrill. It’s about Aidy Bryant playing this journalist, who’s a fat positive journalist… That’s the whole thing, it’s based on a true story and one of the characters in her office is played by Patty Harrison, who is a comedian and actor and a trans women, and her character was also trans, but it never comes up. It just doesn’t. She’s a very weird character, she’s very droll, sarcastic- oh and also, she’s trans, and I love that.
There’s also a web series called Her Story, written by Jen Richards and Laura Zach, starring them and Angelica Ross. Fantastic as well. It’s just a great love story, also explores a lot of stuff about what it means to be trans and a lesbian, and how there’s potentially conflict there for some people. It’s really, really well done and part of that is because again, it’s written and directed by trans people.
There’s a show called Good Girls, which is fine, good fun. They’re mums who decide to start committing crimes and one of those mums, their child comes out as a trans man during the second season, and it’s handled surprisingly well for a show like that. It’s a show that is very over-the-top and very silly at times, and it’s very well developed, in part because the character is played by a trans man and they’d been vaguely inferred as gender-fluid or non-binary throughout the first season, but never actually been labelled. I think if you’re someone who’s open to these things, you’d be like “ah, this makes sense”; if you’re someone who wasn’t, you’re there thinking like “what? where did that come from?”. I find that very interesting.
This wave of trans characters, it’s a lot more recent. And I think that’s good; sometimes they’re done badly but the fact that they attempt, give them a B for effort. Like in the most recent series of Orange Is the New Black, there’s a character who is non-binary or uses they/them pronouns but it’s nearly always used as the punch line and it annoys me every time, but I’m also like, “but okay, like sure, sure, thanks for trying, try again later”.
My flatmate watches billions and his favourite character in that is a non-binary character played by Asia Kate Dillon (who’s also in Orange is the New Black, also great in that). People think that when you’re trans, you’ve watched all of the all of the trans media. People ask me, “What do you think of the fantastic woman?” I might not have seen it, I really should, it’s meant to be great.
S: Switching gears a little bit. What are some things that teachers are directors can do to make trans or non-binary cast members or students feel comfortable?
As a teacher, I’m still working on this. Simple things like when you’re going around the circle at the beginning, saying your name and also saying pronouns… But if we were going to go over forcing people to say, that is also problematic. I can imagine how weird that would have been when I was questioning myself, for someone to go, “You, tell me conclusively what your pronouns are right now” I’d be like, “I wasn’t expecting this” and being open to that kind of thing and not using gendered stereotypes or gendered language.
That’s it, educate yourself. A huge part of the reason why I started realising things about myself was because I was teaching drop-ins and one of my students was a trans man and I was “Okay, cool”. But actually, what do I know about this is? What do I know about this entire thing that is gender? What do I really know about that? I started doing a lot of research. I’m not suggesting every teacher who ends up researching these things will discover that they are trans, I don’t think that’s the case; but at the very least you’ll get more of us who are aware of what could be a problem when teaching.
I think education is a huge part of it, especially self-education. If you have a trans person in your cast or in your class, don’t rely on them for all of the support, to do all your learning for you, because it’s really free. I mean there are times where I’m totally fine with saying “Yeah, I’ll talk to you and I’ll explain where I’m coming from this, and what the process is, the ideas behind these things”.
We live in an age where everything you could ever possibly want to know is in your pocket. There’s no excuse to not know. You didn’t know that, now go online and find out what that means. Find out what that doesn’t mean. Find why some people consider themselves to be trans femme and some people consider themselves to be agender, etc. You know, we all had to learn, nobody’s born going, “Ah, I now know everything there is to know about the queer community” or, “what it is to be trans;” I’m still learning.
Simple changes in language matter. At our hardcore show, we get a lot of young people with a myriad of gender identities and– this is not criticism whatsoever over the director, he’s a fantastic man, a great ally- but I had to sort of explain why it would be a good idea to stop saying ladies and gentlemen at the top of shows. If you’d never thought about that, it would never occur to you, until I was like, “I know for a fact there are people in our audience who do not identify as either”; so what you’re saying is “welcome to the show everybody, except for you, you and you”. It just seems unnecessary.
There was no resistance to the idea; a lot of the times it’s just, “Oh, I’d never thought of that”. So being able to listen and be receptive to people when they’re telling you that they have issues and learning stuff is I think the only way that things will grow, because there are times where there is just not good. I’ve been in classes where I’m just like, “I don’t feel comfortable here because of the languages used, because of the implications of stuff”.
There’s a lot of implied stuff that I’m like, “Hmm where’s that coming from?” And again, like I said just education and empathy and listening. If you’re a teacher or a director, you should be doing those things.
S: What do you think that trans and non-binary improvisers have to offer?
I haven’t seen a huge amount of trans and non-binary people improvise, so I don’t really know. I mean I’ve improvised myself, obviously.
S: Does the trans male student you had still improvise?
No, because he is heavily involved in theatre, and writing, and directing theatre productions. They did a production of As You Like It, where there is a character who pretends to be a different gender and they re-wrote the ending to be [trans.], and I’m much happier this way. I didn’t get to see it, unfortunately.
I’ve not seen many trans and non-binary improvisers, so I can only speculate. Generally, and this is a massive generalization because I’ve met some trans people who are awful- obviously, because people can be awful- but generally there’s a sort of an openness and empathy, and I think that can only be helpful when playing characters different from yourself. Put it this way: I spent 29 years playing a gender different than my actual gender. By this point, I think I’d be pretty good at that. I can, you know, I’ve got experience of that.
Just representing stuff that you generally don’t see. I mean absolutely no disrespect to improv shows that are five middle-class cis white guys, not disrespect to you at all, but I’ve seen you a million times. Can you do a good show? Well, yeah, but I’d much rather see different voices, different perspectives, different characters, different situations that you wouldn’t see from generic improv, you know, and I’m not saying queer improvers are special, and that we have superpowers and are incredible improvisers…We’re just different and different is good, you know, like variety and diversity and representation are all good things.
S: Is there anything else you’d like to say improv or gender in general?
Wow, I mean, it’s such a big topic… Improv in general is great. I love it. I think this is more of a note to myself, that we don’t need to do the same shows or the same scenes we’ve always done. I think one of the reasons I did the Me Plus One show was to get myself out of my comfort zone and I think it’s very easy, once you been doing this over for a while, to get into routine. Improv should be about exploring stuff, it should be about pushing stuff and address rules about gender.
There’s a lot of people that are like, “Oh no, I’m happy with how I am;” good for you, but have you ever considered what that’s like for other people, and a lot of people just haven’t. And that’s fine if they’re comfortable with that, but there’s no harm in going, “I wonder what it would be like to express myself in a different way today,” see how it feels. You may hate it, in which case you go, “Okay, now I know”.
We can be more open to stuff. We can push ourselves and each other more to just figure out what the hell we can do better, not just get stuck going, “Well, this has worked so far.” Because for a lot of people it hasn’t. Yeah, I think basically let’s just, you know, be more open-minded and explore what those goals are and figure it all out together.
S: I like that. Thank you so much for talking to me.