There have been many transgender stories told -- on stage, in film and in print --, none the least of which include the films The Crying Game, Breakfast on Pluto, Normal, Peacock, Transamerica, My Life in Pink (mi vie en rose), Too Wong Foo, and the staged play I Am My Own Wife, Jukebox Jackie, and Hit The Wall.
Lili Elbe’s life was the subject of the novel The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff in 2000. Nicole Kidman was set to produce and star in a film adaptation until casting problems caused the project to be shelved. A new film, starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Tom Hooper was announced earlier this year.
A new play about Lili Elbe, who is said to be the first reassignment transsexual in history, is being staged at the Etcetera Theatre by the Theatre Writers Workshop on July 28th. Written and inspired by Lili’s own 1930s diaries, the entire cast of this production are themselves transgender.
I had the opportunity speak with the director and cast, and below are excerpts from that interview.
As you’re all quite aware, there have many stories presenting the transgender experience, some as the main topic and others as a sub topic. Aside from the fact that Lili was the “first” transsexual, what makes your production unique and different?
Our production of Lili is unique, because it is a play that has been devised by an all trans cast. The company’s experience of undergoing realignment has been at the centre of shaping the story about Lili Elbe. The cast have worked with the experienced Creative Producer Chris Mellor to ensure that their true life experiences are reflected in the plays narrative and as such makes this a play about coping with the trans journey, the hormones, the hair removal, the depression, it is not just an historical account of the first trans woman so don’t come expecting a history lesson, it’s a story for today.
How long did it take the workshop to develop this production?
The Theatre Writers Workshop has developed this play over a period of six months, working with a writer, director and a producer.
Was the cast familiar with Lilli’s story before be cast in this production?
All the cast were not familiar with Lil’s story at the beginning so we had to devote several classes to her history, her social background, the cabaret world of Berlin in the 1930’s. We all drew up a timeline and improvised around the significant moments in her life.
Simona Continente - How did you find a way to relate with Lilli, being that she began her journey at the turn of a century when transsexual was pretty much an unheard of concept?
I used the feeling of isolation as the way in to understand the character of Lili, she was all alone in undertaking the five experimental operations and needed to find some inner courage to cope with her emotional and physical journey, that experience resonated with me too.
Does the production make a social statement through the telling of Lilli’s experience, or more a biography of her journey leaving the audience to take away their own thoughts of it?
The production is aiming to show that trans people can play a range of parts, and not always play to type. Trans people just want to be seen as being able to play challenging and demanding roles. The show focuses on the last few years of Lili as she prepares for her last operation, but enjoys her new identity and new life style as she looks to reinvent herself. A truly challenging role for any actress.
For years there was an outcry from the transgender community that transsexual women were not cast in so many high-profile films and plays about transgender people through the decades, does authenticity of this cast impact the play in a way a non-transgender couldn’t?
By casting a trans woman in a leading trans part we are showing that gender pretending is off limits. It is the fringe theatre that is taking the lead on these issues and taking the risks, not Hollywood. We hope that this is a start to true and meaningful casting in theatre, TV and film. We think the tide is beginning to turn, and that our play will help a little in influencing casting directors to cast more trans..
Was there a special camaraderie in an all transgender cast, working together to accomplish this monumental feat that translates on stage?
The cast are all very enthusiastic, generous and keen to share personal stories as well as creative thoughts and ideas. We have been working well together and have shared many tearful moments too. We have bonded very well considering we were all strangers initially.
In a short few words how would you describe Lilli and her life?
Lili and her Life can be described as a brave and courageous woman who underwent a truly transformative experience that gave us a blueprint for living a new self.
What else does the workshop have planned in the near future?
After the Camden Fringe the play will visit the Trans Action Conference in Norwich before touring the UK in the autumn.
OTHER TRANGENDER FILMS and PLAYS RECOMMENDED
The Crying Game (full film), Different For Girls (full film). Breakfast on Pluto, Gun Hill Road, Normal, Peacock, Transamerica, My Life in Pink (mi vie en rose), Too Wong Foo, and the staged plays I Am My Own Wife, Jukebox Jackie, and Hit The Wall.