Audio interview with Nikki Vivica, transcribed by Stephen Davidson and Ariel Cardoso Albuquerque
Stephen: So the first questions are just sort of basic getting to know you. How would you like me to write your name and gender?
Nikki: My name’s Nikki Vivica. I usually say my gender is female, I’m a trans woman.
S: You live in Melbourne?
N: Yeah, I live in Melbourne, Australia.
S: So tell me a bit about you as an improviser. What do you do? Where have you trained? Where do you play?
N: I’m playing with a group called Completely Improvised Potter– hence the Gryffindor cardigan I’m wearing. It’s part of my stage costume, that wasn’t deliberate because of the interview, it just happened that way.
We do improv Harry Potter stories. We get the audience to give us the name of a Harry Potter book that they wish was written but never was, and then we act that out. And this has been the most successful Improv show which I’ve done, and I’ve been doing it for a few years now, but I tend to be in a couple of ones at the same time.
I recently did Chicago style Improv, I took up about six years ago with a company here in Melbourne called “The Improv Conspiracy”. At the time, nobody was really doing that type of improv. We were doing it in the back bar at a pub, doing this weekly show, not really sure if that would go anywhere, but it got really popular. Now that company’s gone on and it’s a much larger school and has two venues.
I sort of went from there, doing different independent shows and touring shows and stuff like that, a lot of times with Improv Conspiracy and an improvised Shakespeare company, and then the improvised Potter show sort of came about as a spin-off project.
S: How does, if it does, being trans has influenced your Improv?
N: Um, and I think that’s a different question according to where in my improv career you’re looking. How do I quantify this? This is why it takes me so long to give written responses to things.
When I started doing improv, I was still in the closet to people, but I was on the journey, just not telling people in the improv world just yet. My two journeys, my creative journey and my personal journey, both fed into each other and conflicted with each other at different times and improv gave me a lot of freedom. I was very, very anxious and scared at the time I started and the confidence of improv gave me a lot of confidence in my personal life as well, especially that confidence to trust that things are going to be.
That was a very helpful attitude to bring to life, that you don’t need to be able to predict responses. You just need to go with your gut instinct, and then see how things turn out and deal with problems as they happen. So it was very useful like that and it was a good form to work in, especially early on because people don’t have to play by gender. There’s a lot of gender crossing, there’s lots of flexibility in how you perform, so it was good having an art form in which I could perform a lot of female characters without that being a thing, because before coming out, that was always a big deal. It was nice to be able to do that, not having to worry about my personal presentation at the time, be able to play the characters I want to play on stage. I found improv very freeing like that.
A bit later in my career, after I’ve come out, improv becomes a bit different. Because we don’t play by gender, there is still an obligation keep playing my own characters – which I don’t like doing- so my relationship with improv has changed a lot and it stopped being the same sort of freedom that it used to be and became a bit more sort of restricting and difficult for me to keep doing it, for that reason.
In general terms, I’ve talked about how being trans has affected my art, and I think it’s the reason why I’m a good actress- because I’ve been acting all my life. A lifetime of playing a role, working out how to pass myself off when I was in the closet and you know, I can play any character. I developed that acting ability very naturally, just as a matter of survival.
Once I started making the first big steps towards coming out, all my improv got much better. I remember that very, very clearly. It was like I got rid of this thing, which was wearing me down, this thing in the back of my head and I got better at my characters of all genders and I think that was the interesting thing.
I felt weird revisiting my characters after coming out, but it also became clear that what I’m doing is a parody of man- which it always was- and now that it’s more open, those characters actually got stronger since then.
S: Speaking of playing female characters, do you ever play trans or non-binary characters?
N: Surprisingly, rarely. I’m trying to think of a character I played that was explicitly trans in an improv context and I can’t really think of one. I’m pretty sure I play characters who didn’t have a gender, and I played a lot of gay roles and crossdressing roles and different other types of queer roles. But telling my own identity as being trans and ace, I’m less likely to play.
I don’t know why that is, maybe it’s because I talk about it a lot in stand up, so when I’m doing improv, that’s a break for me. Maybe it’s because with improv you can’t control the message in the same way that you can with standup, and so without knowing how your teammates are going to respond, you can be a bit more cautious about bringing it up. It’s kind of like, “Oh god, if I start a trans scene, how are the rest of them going to react? What if this goes to a bad space?” So I think I’ve been more cautious about doing roles that are too close to home in improv.
I’m also a bit restricted in that regard, because we are mostly playing Harry Potter characters, and there’s not any canonically trans Harry Potter characters. So to try to bring it in, you’ve got to act like JK Rowling on Twitter, like, “Hey, here’s an extra detail about this character which you didn’t know”, which can be done, but it’s not what I’m doing the show for, it’s to try and recreate that feeling of the books, but I do a lot of queer storylines like adding subtext to characters’ storylines. We were doing that in Shakespeare as well, there was a lot of gay storylines, a lot of crossdressing. And there were characters which I played who I internally thought of them as having gender dysphoria, or I’m being trans but didn’t necessarily come out on stage like that.
There’s other improv I don’t do anymore, partly because of difficulties people had with my transition. There was a thing where after I came out, I’d go on stage and people were misgendering me on stage, like I’d have a clearly female character and people would call me by a male name. And so when that happened, my response was always: “Oh are you going to do that to me? Alright. This character is going to be super gay”, and then I’d add a heavy queer story on top of it, which was this beautiful idea that came out of a really shitty thing that people did to me on stage, and that my response to it was, “If you’re going to stop me from being this character, then I am going to really push identity stuff in the show”.
S: How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans or non-binary characters?
N: Well… Huh… I’ve never seen it done and it’s not been a little bit awkward. Yeah, it always is, and they never quite get it, of course.
In principle, I think people should be able to play everyone and that’s part of how we understand each other, how you understand people across different identities. It starts flowing through art, even if your attempts are initially clumsy or awkward. I think that’s important, I would not be the person that says you can never do things.
I think it’s mostly about the attitude of it. The problem is that what you get with artistic portrayals of us is that often it’s types of comedy, as if that’s the joke and the joke is us. One of the things that used to happen in improv was when an actor of a gender- or seemingly a gender- comes out and then someone would endow them as a different gender, the whole audience would laugh. That kind of stuff is really shitty. It doesn’t happen as much now, probably because now I’m in the room. It used to happen a lot. And there’s always been this history in comedy of playing trans characters or any gender non-conforming character as automatically a joke. I think it’s important that that’s voided.
Also, I really hate seeing cisgender actors try to play trans issues- you know what I mean- especially if they’re trying to deal with transphobia or other things like that, that can be absolutely harrowing to watch. I remember being once in this Workshop where I saw the coach really push two of these players into playing this scene about trans identity. It didn’t start as a scene about trans identity, but he sort of pushed it there.
It started as this really cute scene about this guy who bought ladies jeans at the ladies section- and that’s a funny thing, because why make a big deal out of it?- but for some reason the coach wanted to “yes-and” it into the character being trans, and it was awful because it was two really sensitive improvisers doing this scene and the coach really pushing them to make one of the characters transphobic. I was watching the girl who was being pushed by the transphobic character, she was one of the most outspoken supporters and most outspoken feminist in the group and the guy who was in the scene was the only person in the room who I was out to, at the time. I had to watch this scene happen and it was just devastating.
Just as I was getting around to coming out, there was a lot of talk about trans people in the media and a lot of people wanted to deal with it on stage and talk about these issues on stage. But then if they try to go too heavy with it- and I don’t understand it why they’d do it- then they could do really damaging things.
I’ve seen cisgender players with a bit of understanding of trans people, actually really touching things which I was really happy to see on stage, and it’s funny because I used to have a bunch of my trans friends come and see me- even though I was in the closet still- I had like all my trans friends come and watch me. I remember sometimes trans stuff would come up on stage. I remember watching this one girl who was playing a trans character and she was sweating because there were so many trans people in the room. She dealt with it really well and you know, people can do it.
An actor who does have a capacity for empathy and understanding can play someone who is quite different to themselves, but it is about how they go about it.
S: Besides announcing it, or making it an issue, how do you demonstrate that a character is trans or non-binary?
N: You’ve got to do it quite openly, if you’re going to do it, because until it’s something you said on an improv stage, it’s not real. I had characters who I was performing them and they were totally a trans person, but if you haven’t explicitly said it and you’re playing with non queer performers, they’re not necessarily going to pick up on it, even if you do what to you seems an obvious clue; they might completely miss it. You might be laying a few hints that this character is trans and then I’ll just do or endow you something completely different.
And so that’s the thing with most improved scenes: if you want something to be real, you’ve got to be very bold about it; if you’re being too subtle about it, it will just get missed. I think that’s part of why I’m cautious about bringing trans characters of stage. That “yes-and-ing”, it can be a trap.
That’s why I like working with queer improv troupes, though they are usually very small, and it’s so much better because people get the references so much quicker, and as I start talking about trans stuff in that context, people pick up on a lot sooner than if you’re playing with a bunch of cis-het people.
S: We’ve touched on this a little bit, but how has your local improv community been about gender in terms of your transition and now?
N: That’s an issue. That’s a big issue.
On the first instance, when I came out, I was really touched by the levels of support that I received, there was a lot of understanding, everyone I spoke to had some understanding of what trans was, I didn’t have to go through any of the usual explanations.
And there was a period of time, especially in my old Shakespeare troupe, I was not publicly out but I could go to our rehearsals as myself and there were different parts of the improv in which I was able to be authentic, even though I wasn’t out, hadn’t told my parents or anything. So, in a lot of ways, it’s been a really beautiful community like that.
But what I found over the time after coming out was that there were still problems that were never sort of resolved, and part of that was how people responded, and how I felt about the responses. I felt that there were a lot of people who, even though they were okay with me and they liked me and they liked my performance, they never really quite got it and they would never move past it.
They wouldn’t have any problems with how I’m presenting, how I dress, how I looked, whatever, but they would still not really accept me as a woman. They’d always see me as a lovable low-budget drag queen, I think, and that can be frustrating. It became frustrating in improv because it happened subconsciously, that people might consciously sort of accept you, but then on stage they still automatically misgender you every time you come on. That subconscious attitude still exists there.
I was an improv teacher as well for a while, and I used to find that quite challenging, because even though I had been in improv for years and I was a good experienced performer and a good teacher, I still felt like I was always proving my right to be there.
Every time I’d have the class show, I’d come into the room and all the new students and everyone would look at me like “What is that person doing in this room? This isn’t a queer event. Why are they here?”, and then when I’d get up and present myself as the teacher, they’d be shocked.
I still feel like I’m needing to prove my change to them. I still feel like I’m trying to, you know, I felt like I was always having to fight for space, and I didn’t want to have to fight for space. When I left my old company, they did something really disrespectful and I just went like, “Look, I’m done”. They started trying to have a conversation about how to make this a safe space, and I shouldn’t be having to fight to make this a safe space when this is a space which I’ve been in from the beginning, and some of you have come into it since then.
I wasn’t interested in trying to find a space in an organization which was safe. I was wanting the safety to be standard and that we’re trying to make art which is progressive- and that’s what I felt was frustrating. I didn’t feel that I couldn’t have made that space for myself in there, but I didn’t want to go to that effort when what I wanted to be doing was making art that was actually uplifting and progressive, which wasn’t possible if what you’re fighting for is just acceptance.
So it’s been mixed, I’d say. On the whole it’s generally positive, but just from a personal career perspective it got frustrating, having to having to fight against it.
S: I would love to ask more about how to make safe spaces. What are things that teachers, directors and other performers can do?
N: It needs to be very clear that no form of bigotry is tolerated. It’s something that has to be made very clear by cases from the beginning. There’s this idea, especially with comedy, that you should leave all your politics or your personal shit, whatever, at the door, and it’s not true.
The things about your identity, things which a lot of people think of as politics, are part of what makes you, you; so any time people are saying, “Leave that outside” what they’re saying is, “We’re all going to be operating within the dominant perspective.” That’s what happens anytime people have this kind of idea of art as this elevated thing, which we’ll do above all the personal stuff in the world. That always ends up being the route of the most privileged and other identities and other perspectives get sort of squashed.
I think it’s very important that it’s explicit that you don’t accept different types of bigotry. If you’re running a scene and something happens, you need to stop the scene; I always stop the scene if something awkward happens. I don’t let the students run out and carry it through to its end. I prefer to bring it to a halt and talk about it then. There’s no point in sitting in it, especially if it’s just happened- like it does happen. All sorts of problematic stuff come out of people- including well-intentioned people- because it’s improv, and your brain’s firing a lot of things and you’re more likely to do something a bit cooked in improv, more than they would do in real life. It’s in their mind and it could just be a problematic thing they’ve heard and it bubbles out of them.
Some genuinely very lovely, lovely men, they say the worst stuff in improv, because you put their brains under pressure and it brings out stuff from interactions, often interactions they’ve had with other men or things like that, they’ll come out… And yeah, I’m sorry I say man, but it almost always is. Not that there aren’t women doing problematic stuff on stage, because there are.
Sometimes a character will say something awful- sometimes you have an awful character and that’s fine. You can have an awful character in improv, but you can’t end the show leaving the audience feeling like that’s what you as person think, you need to set it right, somebody needs to call it out on stage. One of the other characters needs to give the audience their perspective. You need to just see that that awful character isn’t representing your voice as a company and that’s true for everything.
In dealing with trans people on a day-to-day basis, that concept of creating space is also very important. There’s a thing where people like slip up as they do with names or pronouns or anything like that, they try to sort of move on as if it hasn’t happened and you can’t do that. People act like maybe we didn’t notice, but we noticed.
If that happens to me, I won’t make a big deal out of it because I feel awful about it. I don’t want to draw attention to it. I’d rather not draw attention to it having happened. But I do always notice what happens and you do need to correct the conversation before we can move on. You need to apologize and correct, and then keep going and not make a big production out of it after that.
The other thing is to remember that respecting people is all the time, not just when people are there. It can’t be like when men talk a certain way when women are present and go in a very different direction when they’re gone. But especially with queer people and trans people, you don’t know who’s in the room listening. Because a lot of us are around and in the closet, too scared to come out.
It’s something that I would see a lot when I was still not out yet, that people would assume they were safe and bad mouth certain identities. You get stuck in a difficult situation where you want to express yourself, but you’d have to out yourself, which you don’t want to do when people are expressing these opinions. You never know what identities people have that you’re not aware of, and maintaining respect is an important thing to have in theater companies and things like that, all the time.
S: So interesting how many people I interview broadly agree about a lot of things, from all over the world. Part of the reason I’m doing this is because I didn’t want to be speaking on behalf of all of us and I felt like I was sometimes but y’all agree with me! Great, beautiful.
Thinking about wider media and the world, are there any examples of trans or non-binary characters you think are done really well?
N: Oh. Oh my God, it’s slim pickings. Like I said, a lot of times, trans characters are a joke.
Have you ever seen this show Tangerine? How do you explain it?… It’s kind of trashy. It’s set on the streets of L.A., I think, and it’s got like a couple of trans girls as the central characters in it.
I think they are both sex workers in it, but also one of them is an aspiring musician, so you get to see like all these different characters in there, different people who are trans involved in that. It was just such a true depiction of those characters and such a heartfelt fiction of those characters. It was trans women playing trans characters as well and I loved it, because I know I described it as being trashy, but it’s not like these women were disrespected by the film, it was really sort of honest and beautiful in its own way.
That’s something that is nice to see, it was really nice to see a trans woman playing trans characters (rather than getting a cisgender person to), but also to see people get to play fun, real, flawed characters who are not there to represent some symbolic thing, but are there to be a couple of people who you can relate to and like some parts about them, and not like other parts. Cis people get to be depicted as people, not as an identity. That’s what matters to me most.
S: So last question. What’s something special that you and trans and non-binary improvisers generally have to offer?
N: I’ve already talked about how we are natural actors and stuff like that, but I think one of the things that I think is, if you’ve gone through a big identity process of coming out, it means you really thought about identity, you thought about society; you’ve had too. You’ve had to look at yourself with a sort of intensity and honesty, which most people don’t have to. You’ve had to look at society and how it works with an intensity and an honesty, again, that most people don’t need to.
That’s why I always find performers who come from different minority backgrounds way more interesting to watch the regular cis-het white dudes. Anyone who’s coming from a mainstream perspective, and ones come from privileged perspective has never had to look at themselves in that way. There are all these things about themselves which went unexamined. I’m not saying that that’s true of all people, I absolutely talk sometimes about the “examined straight” versus the “unexamined straight”. I guess there are some straight people who have really thought about their identity and thought about where they fit in society and whatever, but they don’t have to.
Pretty much all queer people have to- trans people certainly do- and I think just the fact that we’ve gone through that process gives us an insight into people and into society, which you know that not everyone necessarily has. I said, it’s almost a matter of survival, a matter of necessity that we have to look at the world with intensity like that, but it’s good for acting and it’s good for art.
And it’s not just for art, for the way straight people want trans people to be useful for art. It’s not just for drama. I was talking to a friend the other day, a poet (I did poetry as well). We’re talking about being a trans poet and it’s just… people just want the pain. They just want to get in your pain.
But it’s not just pain, our perspective gives us insight into a whole world of humor, and comedy comes from having different perspectives, and having had a multitude of different perspectives over the course of our lives, that gives us access to a whole world of humor.
S: Yeah. I really like that. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed. I really appreciate it.
N: Great. Thank you again, it’s been really fun.