Name as you’d like it to appear: Tom Zalatnai
Gender as you’d like it to appear: Non-Binary (they/them)
City you live in and/or improvise in most: Montreal, Quebec
Personal website or another project that you’d like to link to: www.upfordnetwork.com (I’m the Executive Producer and host a couple of shows there)
Impro(v) Bio: I started taking classes at Montreal Improv Theatre in 2016, after having taken a break from any sort of stage performance for about 5 years- I was a theatre school dropout before that. I signed up for classes mostly to scratch the live performance itch, but was immediately struck by how much more there was to it. It was less about stage time and more about connection and community, and I loved it. I took all of the regular program courses and a handful of advanced classes, performed whenever I could, and then took a break about a year and a half ago when my partner and I had a baby. I was hoping to get back into it this year, but the pandemic has sort of delayed that. In the meantime, I’ve also been hosting and producing podcasts for the past 5 years. One of my shows, Natural Toonie, is a Dungeons & Dragons actual-play show, which has definitely been fun from an improv standpoint, but I look forward to being back on stage with people. In person. What a wild idea.
How does being trans*/NB influence your impro(v)? To be honest, a lot of my experience as a non-binary person has been pretty closeted/passing. If I had to describe myself, I’d say I’m like… a male-passing non-binary person who, internally, is kind of super uncomfortable with being identified as male/masculine. I’ve always (at least in my adult life) been open about my sexuality, but my gender identity was a pretty private thing for a long time. I only fully came out last year. So in that sense, I haven’t really done improv as an out non-binary person. I do think that in spite of that, it always led me to playing characters who weren’t “traditionally masculine”- partly because, despite presenting as a large male body, I’ve never really felt connected to that, and partly because it’s just more fun for me to play against that type. I think I also tend to default to Not Really Caring what gender my characters are on stage until someone else endows them with something, because I’m comfortable with that fluidity, you know?
Do you play trans*/NB characters often? I’m currently playing a non-binary trans character on Natural Toonie. Without getting into too much of the nerdy details, they’re a human who swapped bodies with a dragon, and they’ve had to sort of navigate the experience of being in a body that they super don’t feel comfortable in, while also realizing that their gender identity wasn’t super binary to begin with. It’s fun for me to explore the non-binary experience from a perspective that’s pretty different from my own, and I think it’s also important because there’s not One Right Way to be non-binary. That’s kind of the point.
How do you feel about cisgender actors playing trans*/NB characters in impro(v)? I guess I’m theoretically fine with it if it’s done well. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it done well though, so, like… Yeah. I think people should be allowed to explore experiences that aren’t their own, but I’ve seen enough bad scenes where the character’s gender identity or sexuality are the Joke instead of just being their truth, and that’s not cool.
Besides announcing it, how might you know/show a character is trans*/NB? This is such a tough question because everyone I know who’s trans or NB *constantly tells people about it*- maybe I just roll with a lot of really proud, out queers haha. Because of that, it almost feels more real to me to see a character just announce their pronouns when they walk into the room (my friends are Really Extra)- I’m not sure how I’d show it without just saying it. It doesn’t have to be a big announcement, obviously.
How do you feel about playing different genders generally, in terms of naming gender and of expressing it? I think, for me, as a non-binary performer, I’ve always been pretty comfortable playing any gender that comes up. I usually just let my scene partner endow me with whatever they see me as. Which has been kind of revealing- sometimes I get up and play a character who just feels true to me and immediately get endowed as a female character, and I’m like “ok cool, that’s kind of the balance I’m going for here, despite the beard and the height”- and sometimes they’re like “oh this is a MAN” and I’m like “yeah alright I guess this is also fine.”
Does your local impro(v) community know/understand your gender? If so, how has that been in terms of acceptance/understanding? I wasn’t fully out when I was last performing there regularly, so I don’t know offhand how much of the community knows, but I do think that there’s a general culture of inclusion and acceptance there, so I suspect there’d be no real problems. Although I also am pretty sure I’ve never seen a trans or non-binary person in any of the featured casts at the theatre. I think that speaks more to individual producers/directors than to the overall community, though. I’ve certainly seen representation from third party productions, just nothing from the “house team” side of things (at least while I was there- things can change in a year and a half!)
What are some things that teachers/directors/other performers can do to make sure trans*/NB improvisers feel safe and welcome? I think a big one is representation. If I go to shows at a theatre and the entire cast is straight, or cis, or white, or in most cases all three, I’m put off. I assume that the person who produced the show doesn’t care about the community at large. I think beyond that, teachers can create that safe space by normalizing things like sharing pronouns, calling out bad comedy that’s done at the expense of marginalized groups (even if that looks like lovingly correcting people, it makes a difference) and being thoughtful about people’s identities and their boundaries around those things.
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? To be honest, I don’t know if I have an answer to this one. I wish I did. I think I haven’t seen enough satisfying portrayals of trans and non-binary characters yet. There have been a few in some Netflix shows that have been promising, but they always end up being on shows that I sort of fizzle out on after a few episodes, so I don’t end up building as much of a connection to them.
Who do you look up to/admire as a trans*/NB person in impro(v) or the world generally? This is a tough question! I think the answer that feels the truest for me is that the trans/non-binary people I look up to the most are the young people who figure out and own their truth way earlier than I was able to. Actors like Josie Totah and Lachlan Watson, activists like Rebekah Bruesehoff, young people who look at a scary world and go “well, why does this have to be scary, I’m going to be unapologetically myself now and you’re just going to have to deal with it” in a way that my closeted, conservative teenage self never could. I think we can all stand to be a little more true to ourselves, and it gives me a lot of hope for the future when I see younger people coming out and being proud.
What’s something special that you and/or trans*/NB performers have to offer? I think, apart from representation (which is important for other trans/non-binary performers to see so that they’ll feel like there’s a place for them) the big thing is self-reflection and being true to yourself. Generally speaking, trans and non-binary performers who are out and letting those parts of themselves show through in their performances, are performing from a more vulnerable and intimate place, and that’s an awesome thing that everybody should do! I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather see characters being genuine and earnest than see some schmuck being snarky and coy because they’re afraid to open up at all.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about being trans*/NB or impro(v) in general? I guess I’ll end by repeating myself about representation because it bears repeating: if your show’s cast is entirely straight, cis, white people, you’re doing yourself and your community a disservice. Don’t be a gatekeeper, even by accident. Be intentional and thoughtful. It’s not hard. Don’t limit the queer, trans, and POC members of your community to being audience members and guest monologists.