Stephen Davidson interview

Name as you’d like it to appear: Stephen Davidson

Gender as you’d like it to appear: Male/transmasculine

City you live in and/or improvise in most: London, UK

Personal website or another project that you’d like to link to: impromiscuous.com

Impro(v) Bio:

Stephen Davidson is the Artistic Director of The Improvised Play,  Improvable, QI: Queer Improv, Carmen: A gender-swapped Film Noir Fantasy, and of Zeal: The Pride Improv Festival. Stephen teaches improv through Improvable and the Nursery Theatre, with the Free London Improv Project, and  Hoopla Improv. He has taught and performed all over the world.

Stephen loves improv and one of the world’s most cheerful people when playing or teaching. When coaching and directing improv he prides himself on creating a positive environment so that players can perform at their best. Stephen likes his improv like he likes his partners; silly, clever, and emotionally connected. Stephen has studied improv through i/o Chicago, The Nursery, Annoyance, UCB, Hoopla, The Maydays, Music Box, Showstoppers, Imprology, and with many visiting artists including Dave Razowsky, Bill Arnett, Kaci Beeler, Heather Anne Campbell, Deanna Fleysher, and many more.

How does being trans*/NB influence your impro(v)?

In myriad ways, really, because it’s an important lens through which I view the world. Like lots of actors and creative-types generally, I’m fascinated by what makes people the way they are… How they feel, how they see the world, how they see themselves, and how we can influence these things from the outside.

Because I’ve moved through the world as both a man and a woman, I’ve experienced first-hand not just how differently men and women are treated but also how big an impact that treatment has on one’s self-view and personality. We talk about status a lot in improv, but for me the very relevant cousin of that construct is privilege. Often we’ll ask actors to portray different levels of status without talking about how status is acquired in the first place, or how it’s expressed. For example, a lot of behaviours that we read as high status are masculine coded. It’s worth thinking about what feminine high status looks like, but also about how it might feel to be endowed as high status while playing a feminine character, or in real life. Because in real life women are often obliged to prove their worth in a way that men simply aren’t, turning that balance around can have many nuanced effects on a character and an actor if we allow it to be felt and understood.

I’m also very explicitly excited about improv that does something new and different. Having looked so closely for so long at stereotypes and the way people constantly express them in improv, characters who are more nuanced or simply different really hit the spot. Playing a character who is different, layered, has different gut reactions to the world, or even is stereotyped in a knowing rather than subconscious way makes me very happy, both as a performer and director.

Do you play trans*/NB characters often?

I explicitly do this occasionally, though I think that because my trans identity is quite strong and public it likely infuses many characters whether I say it or not. We bring a lot of ourselves to the stage as improvisers, and I think that’s important. I tend to play trans*/NB most often in queer spaces, where I know it’ll be welcomed, or in shows where there’s context that suggests they would fit well. For example, shows about personal journeys, identity, politics etc suit these characters well, whereas short-form comedy really doesn’t. I feel like if I’m going to do it I’d like to do it well, taking the time to flesh out a rounded character and give them some kind of depth and/or story arc. In a 30 second scene where I’m trying to steal someone’s hat or get to the end of the alphabet, “By the way, I have a vagina” feels like an odd move.

How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans*/NB characters in impro(v)?

I absolutely love it when it’s done well. A cis actor doing an even ok version of a trans*/NB character makes me feel seen and understood and full of warm fuzzy vibes. It means they took the time to ask some questions, do a little reading, maybe they have friends who are trans*/NB who they have meaningful conversations with. It’s a clear sign that they’re an ally, and a safe person around whom I can relax. It also means that that character gets to be on stage without me personally having to play it. I’m usually fine with putting myself out there to do it, but there’s certainly a bit of emotional labour involved in portraying my own form of diversity.

Of course, being trans*/NB as a cheap joke, to justify an incorrect pronoun, or in front of an audience who will assume that it’s the punchline is really problematic. I feel like it really depends on where you’re playing and with whom, as well as your own understanding. Let’s work to cultivate communities and audiences where diverse characters and actors can exist comfortably.

Besides announcing it, how might you know/show a character is trans*/NB?

Pronouns are a nice gentle way to do this, or a reference to a past event/self. For example, my mother taught me how to sew when I was a little girl, and I occasionally ‘out’ myself by mentioning it. It certainly needn’t be the point of every scene in order to make it clear! A trans*/NB status might even make itself clear through something like point of view or relationship. For example, as a trans person, I have strong feelings about bodily autonomy, chosen family, mental health, the healthcare system generally, vocal expression, toilets, and all kinds of other things that affect my reality (and that of other trans people) more than they do that of cis people.

How do you feel about playing different genders generally, in terms of naming gender and of expressing it?

At this point in my life as a trans person and as an improviser I’m totally chill about it and happy to play any gender expression. I had a hard time with it at the start of my improv career though! I was presenting as female when I started improv in grad school, and when I went to a different improv group the next year presenting male I was very sensitive about how I was being read. I vividly remember the only time I’ve completely frozen in a scene, back in 2009 when I was starting my transition. I was named as a female character, and I didn’t know if it was because my scene partner saw I was trans or just because he wanted to play with a female character. I froze for so long the person I was doing the scene with started prompting me to be the character! It was a long time ago, but I try to keep that memory when I’m teaching or directing because it’s important to remember what it’s like to panic or freeze as a new performer.

Does your local impro(v) community know/understand your gender? If so, how has that been in terms of acceptance/understanding?

Yes, I think at this point everybody and their dog knows about it! I sometimes worry I never shut up about it, if anything. I’ve found pretty much blanket acceptance and moderate levels of understanding. I often put myself in the position of educating people about gender, and have had good responses. I think because gender so deeply informs my performance and pedagogy, it’s easy to make it relevant to improv rather than feeling like I’m on a soapbox.

What are some things that teachers/directors/other performers can do to make sure trans*/NB improvisers feel safe and welcome?

In the last couple of years, it’s become more and more common to ask pronouns as well as names at the top of a class. I remember when I proposed it not that long ago even quite liberal people would brush the suggestion off as niche overkill. I’ve found that it’s really valuable though, even if there’s nobody in the room whose pronoun is surprising, because it’s an opportunity to mention that you can play a character of any gender in improv and we need to look at what another actor is offering us rather than just their physical appearance.

I think it’s also important as a teacher or director to recognise your position of authority. If a scene turns transphobic (or sexist, or homophobic, racist, ablist, etc), it’s your job to address that and to address it with appropriate knowledge. It’s so easy to cast your eye around the room and fob that responsibility off on a member of a minority because they have lived experience, but please remember that self-advocating is hard work and people come to classes wanting to feel safe and taken care of. Often when we shirk that responsibility it’s more about our own ego and not wanting to be the ‘bad guy’, not wanting to get it wrong, not wanting to step on toes; in a position of care, though, it’s not about your feelings. If you don’t know enough about racism to note a racist scene without asking the one black guy in the room to do it for you, you should read a book about that. Likewise transphobia, and other forms of discrimination. The resources section of this site is a good place to start!

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 quite like when a character’s trans*/NB status is a small but visible part of their story, rather than their whole ‘deal’. Part of the reason I’ve asked this question of others is that examples are few and far between! I’ve quite liked the OA, Sense 8, Tales of the City, and Orange is the New Black on Netflix, because all of these shows integrate trans characters into the story without that being their only function.

I think the biggest issue I see with trans*/NB characters is that their stories are often tragic. Classics like Boys Don’t Cry, The Crying Game, Rent etc. and newer shows like Pose, Transparent, and even Drag Race often portray being trans as difficult, sad, and lonely. It certainly can be those things, but so can any life. It’s important to remember that we’re all multi-faceted humans and can find all kinds of different paths through life.

Who do you look up to/admire as a trans*/NB person in impro(v) or the world generally?

I like to get a bit academic, so writers like Judith Butler,  Leslie Feinberg, Meg John Barker, and more have probably had the most influence on me. And to be honest… myself. You gotta be your own role model sometimes, y’know?

What’s something special that you and/or trans*/NB performers have to offer?

I think that understanding and acceptance go a long way in improv. Having experienced both judgement and different levels of privilege, I think I and other trans*/NB people am very equipped to listen without judgement or assumption. I also think that we see more of a thing from the outside, so not being part of the standard gender binary means we can see more of it. The more knowing and nuanced our understanding, the more we can use gender as a tool. And, I think that being trans*/NB requires an intense amount of self-examination and self-reflection, which for me is also an important ingredient in artistic practice. Because we’re required to do that as part of our existence in the world, I think it comes more naturally to reflect deeply on artistic practices and identity as well, which is necessary for growth.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about being trans*/NB or impro(v) in general?

It sounds wildly cliche, but I think that anything that makes you different can be your superpower if you let it. Especially if it’s something that’s made you feel shy, confused, less-than… As artists our emotions are our tools, so make sure you’re using yours.