The Rainbow Flags are everywhere. Those who shackle themselves to the binary are besieged by the onslaught of colour. Debates rage about why there can’t be a “straight pride parade”, or something to that effect. Within the Rainbow, there are arguments and debates to make the spaces more inclusive, and to remember its roots as a riot started by trans women of color. And while it shouldn’t be confined to a single month, June proudly declares her multi-coloured plumage as Pride Month.
It’s during this month that the Welders’ latest offering is Brett Ableman’s Switch, a play that purposefully complicates your notion of gender. What does it mean to be of your gender? What does society then want from you? What even is gender?
I’ve been a sometime collaborator with Abelman, and a fellow “Project Gym” alumni, so was glad to have the chance to speak with him by phone about his Welders-produced play Switch.
I recall there had been workshops for a different one of your plays that was potentially going to go into this Welders’ slot.
Switch is actually the third choice that I had for my show. Originally I was going to do a Science Fiction Play, but I decided it wasn’t going to work within the budget, because it really calls for big design elements. Also, after Trump got elected, I was less excited about an existentialist play that wasn’t particularly connected to the moment.
The 2nd play was Will-o-the-wisp, a play about new nationhood, and what you do when your country falls apart…which felt more relevant. But ultimately, I switched to Switch more for logistical reasons. WotW had a cast of 11, Switch had a smaller cast. It also felt more contemporary and felt like a better choice for this time and place.
It’d been in the back of my head for some time. I always felt like body switch narratives never really dove in deeply to the idea, the Freaky Fridays and so-forth, and even the ones that aren’t explicitly family comedies. I like the idea of how weird or alienating or strange it would be to be in another body, and particularly when switched to a body perceived as a different gender. I think a lot of people would be curious about what it would be like to be perceived a different gender, and I honestly think a lot of cis people in particular would be focused on what that did for sexuality, and all the different ways that gender is perceived in the world, how people treat them.
One of the original images that the play came from was these two characters orgasming together and then switching bodies, as well as the final image of the show, were two of the ideas that I’d started with.
Having a narrator be a genderqueer character I thought brought a lot of the themes and ideas of the show into focus, and into the present time. When I came up with that, that’s where I felt like I could actually start putting it on the page.
There was also a blog post where someone was asking: “If you woke up in the other gender’s body, how would you feel?”
A small percentage of people were really happy. Presumably people who are trans in some way? And there was a large chunk of people who said they would want to switch back ASAP, cis people I guess. But then there was a large chunk who were like…kinda okay with it? They were like: “eh” either way? I imagine those were the sort of people who didn’t experience gender or gender identity as strongly as others? And like this idea that the strength of one’s gender identity is a part of that identity, that’s a whole other dimension of it as well, that there’s not just agender people, but also people who are sort of indifferent, or happy either way.
closes June 23, 2018
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So I feel like digging deeper down, the deeper you look the more and more complex it gets. I think this survey informed this play a lot.
What were some of the inspirations for the characters?
…myself? Almost any character I write has a lot of me in them. A number of people, like the ensemble characters, they’re usually amalgamations of people I know. Particularly when I’m writing modern, to help them from being generic, I try to think of real people I know in these situations. Sometimes I do a fantasy casting of the show, I imagine an actor or two doing the acting so it’s specific, and I can imagine the voices.
With the conversations around gender being as dynamic and sometimes heated as they are, where did you research the concepts and ideas that would make it into Switch?
The Internet. To some degree, in contrast to the Science Fiction Show where I’d do a lot of research on space travel and sociology, this is a topic I already read a lot about, and have spoken to plenty of people about their experiences. In a way, it feels weird to call it research, because it’s already something…like if I were to write a play about the Jewish experience, I would feel weird calling it “research”, given that it’s already my experience. I already read a lot about gender and gender experiences out of my own interest, and talk to people in my life, my social circles.
For the production, we tried to bring in a lot of people from outside my friend circles to talk about their experiences and to give their feedback on the play. I didn’t want it to just be me reading this book that I bought, or this essay that I found; I wanted to make sure there were live voices responding to the play. I made sure to reach out to people to hear their experiences and their feedback on the play.
How did Switch go from concept to a fully staged production?
I think it was like, the Saturday or Sunday before the Tuesday deadline [October, 2017] when I figured I’d switch to Switch. I probably needed something on paper, so I wrote the first third that weekend. I had a few people read it over then.
Most of the development didn’t happen until after the casting of the show. We did a reading with Megan Behm (Director), and Aria Velz (Dramaturgy). We had a couple of weeks of workshop in April, with guests to come in to speak to and work with the actors. That got the play through its 1st and 2nd drafts. Then I continued to work on it right up until a couple days before opening.
What are some things you hope people take away from the play?
How about theoretical concepts, themes or ideas?
Particularly if there’s someone who identifies as cis, I hope their notion of gender and gender roles gets complicated a little bit. I want them to be thinking about “what is my gender identity”, “What would I do if I could switch bodies?” If they’re non-binary, I want them to be thinking about what they’d want people to learn about gender. That’s sort of the journey that the narrator goes through, watching the two cis people switch bodies, then seeing what they do and don’t learn regarding their gender experience. Like, what would you want people to learn and understand about gender, what do you think is possible for them to learn, and how could they do it, and what would that mean for you.
What are some projects you’ve got lined up for the future?
We’re gearing up for Hannah’s Welders show, In This Hope I Live: A Pericles Project. It looks to be really awesome, and really different, as is our Welders’ way. Then we’re looking at Rachel and Annalisa’s shows for next year, then picking Welders 3.0
Any seedlings of potential plays, or any backburner plays you might want to focus your attention on next?
I don’t really have a brain for that at the moment.
[Editor’s note: In addition to playwriting, Brett Abelman is also a writer for DC Theatre Scene.]