“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” -- Brene Brown
In the waning days of 2014 Emjoy Gavino messaged me via Facebook. It was our first contact ever, and she mentioned a group called The Chicago Inclusion Project. This organization barely even existed, apparently; it had only one scheduled event and that was over 5 months away and would involve serious fundraising work to pull off. Membership would involve an investment of time, for an uncertain return. The kind of offer that many busy people, including me, often take a pass on.
Well, its now nearly a full year later. And my saying "yes" to Emjoy's Project has proven one of the best things I've ever done. Ever. Let me explain why.
On a purely personal basis, it had been a long time since last performing -- as of December 2014, I hadn't been on stage in 10 years. In that last role as a male, when I was already a year into my gender journey, I'd felt uncomfortable, like I was in drag, constantly lying not just to the audience but myself. I'd found the sense of personal exposure and revealment so necessary to delivering a good performance very unsettling, even worse than when I was a teen-aged newcomer with no skills or experience. Factoring in the additional rejection of auditions and reviews, the stress of constantly meeting new artists, and it became clear I couldn't do both the gender transition and the career.
But I had other reasons for stepping away from my art, too. Back in 2005, I honestly didn't think there would be a place for me in Chicago theatre. Would I have to "pass" for "female"? Could I possibly still perform as a man? Would I want to? Could the theatre community even accept me, personally, or would I be marginalized as a freak? And what about the audiences, would they revolt at the very thought of watching a transgender actress?
In short, I had felt excluded both from within and without. But during my decade away, I'd come to realize just how important theatre was to my life. I tried to keep my hand in, a bit. Once I helped a transgender friend write and prepare a theatrical piece. Through the kindness of my former partner, a well-known and accomplished Equity actress, I attended some opening nights and other theatre functions. The connection I kept was a thin thread ... but it was there.
So once I came out as Delia, and began living full-time as a female I turned my attention back to my love of theatre. And the question became, how do I get back into the acting business?
As a member of TCIP I've since learned that gaining access is a dilemma many actors contend with. Some of us simply don't find a way in. They are not white, so should they even audition for a show often "traditionally" cast with caucasians? They are in a wheelchair, so should they even consider reading for the lead -- or any role? They are a bit of both genders physically, so which should they even read for, or should they even bother?
Yes, Chicago has theatre companies serving its racial and ethnic minorities, handicapped persons, and queer community. Some superb ones in fact. But I've come to know that those opportunities are sometimes limited and besides, their very existence implies that such minorities represent an Other, perhaps even a "Less Than" type of presence, relative to mainstream theatre. Such actors might find their own little enclaves artistically -- but should we have to? Instead, in a world progressively more and more diverse, should our stages maybe reflect that variety? Is Chicago theatre really being served by the status quo?
Do not all actors deserve a seat at the table?
This is the discussion The Chicago Inclusion Project wants audiences, casting personnel and all theatre artists to participate in. That's why we're here, and why I believe in our mission. Through our play readings, website and other resources we are creating opportunities to experience inclusive casting in action, reflect upon and discuss its ramifications, its viability, its desirability.
And me? TCIP gave me the courage to get out there and meet theatre people again, start auditioning. I discovered that performing in my true gender was a thrill, which in turn gave me more confidence. In 2015 I've participated in two major play readings, assisted with auditions at The Gift Theatre, and then understudied a new show there, working alongside the legendary David Rabe and an ensemble including some of Chicago's finest theatre artists. And then, about 10 months after Emjoy's message, I was cast in my very first female role. And have other projects also on the horizon.
And this is why I'm really in the Chicago Inclusion Project. I want every actor to experience the same hope, have the same chance to connect with opportunities, to show their best, and maybe make a go of things.
For after 10 long years it seems I now have a seat at the table. Having been without, I am aware as never before how that is necessary to create a sense of connection, of purpose, that's so necessary for all humanity. And especially its artists.