Ruminations on Clickshare and Art

By Rebecca Coates-Finke

I’ve been trying to write an article about my experience watching Clickshare (the faculty-produced show written by Midd alum Lucas Kavner ’06.5) last Wednesday night. I left the play feeling isolated, frustrated, and shaken. While my peers laughed I found myself more and more disturbed by the choices both the playwright and the director made in the construction of this story. Since Wednesday night, however, I have had many different conversations — including a conversation with the director — which have shifted my understanding of those choices. I have talked to people who think the play is brilliant, to people who were as uncomfortable as I was, and to those who could understand my feelings but did not mirror their intensity. And so, instead of writing a burning piece filled with self-righteous fury, which I was inclined to do, I am going to present some thoughts that will hopefully lead to important questions and conversations. It’s important to know that I don’t present these thoughts lightly. I present them because they are vitally important to justice and equity in our community and our world.

I have written many iterations of this letter, and I think the best way to start this conversation will be to focus on just one of my concerns regarding the play. This concern was born out of the choice to cast a man in the role of Milano, a role that was originally written for a woman. Throughout the show, Milano is referred to using “she/her” pronouns; the actor (Alexander Burnett, ’16) wore a long dress and wig, presenting as feminine. I was extremely curious and concerned about this choice. Throughout the course of conversations about the play, I have heard several reasons posed for that choice. Some thought that it was simply funnier that way. Humor is important, but what about a man wearing woman’s clothing is so funny to us? That feels crude at best, at worst overtly sexist and transphobic. Professor Draper, the director, told me that casting Burnett gave Milano a formidability and age that would be harder to capture with a 20-year old actress. This was a reason that made sense to me, and was fascinating from a gender perspective, as in many places post-menstrual women (middle-aged women) are given traditionally male roles (in some ways, seen as men). Another reason given was that Burnett’s portrayal gave a certain bizarreness to the character; again, I must ask why that is true, and what that means in how we understand those in our community and in the broader world who have what might be understood as “non-normative” relationships with gender. Draper also suggested to me that Milano was not in fact a woman, but a man who chose to present as a woman. He then clarified that Milano was not in “drag.” As we spoke further, it became clear that the complexity of a statement like that, and the complexity of the way gender operates as an identity category in general, was missing from the conversation.

My concern is rooted in the story that is most often told about transwomen in popular narratives, which is that they are men “pretending” to be women, that they are deceptive, that they are “bizarre,” and most importantly, that if they are not these things, it is because they “look like women” (ie, they have boobs, a vagina, and a traditionally feminine face). At best, this is extremely invalidating and disrespectful. At worst, narratives like these contribute to the 21 transwomen killed in the United States just this year. My concern is that the Middlebury theater department entered into a conversation that they were not fully equipped to have, and they lacked the information to know what questions they should be asking in the first place.

I think as artists, we spend a lot of time talking about how powerful our work can be as an agent of “good.” Music heals, theater transforms, stories will save us. I believe this completely. But I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the ways art can destroy. We don’t spend enough time fearing how easily we tell stories that are oppressive, that conform to mainstream narratives of who is valuable, who is loveable, who is in power, who can be a hero, who can be a villain, and who will always lose. And sometimes, when we are trying to tell a story that will break down walls and reconstruct the world, or when we are trying to bring a story that was shoved to the back forward to the light, we lose something in the subtleties and completely mess up. But when we mess up, people get hurt. Maybe not physically, maybe not even today, but in small and meaningful ways. So I appreciate that Clickshare complicated notions of gender in their play. I hope in the future, they come better equipped and with a little more caution.

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