by Kevin Shaw | photos by Kevin Reed
Kicking off 2019, is a new play at POTS@TheWorks called Back When Mike Was Kate. It’s a new play that deals with the subject of being transgender and how other people deal with this information. Unfortunately, not enough stories about the transgender community are being told, but, fortunately for Memphis, this one is. Focus Magazine spoke with the director of the show, Claire Rutkauskas and one of the stars, Josh LaShomb about the importance of such new theatre.
Focus: Tell us a bit about the origin of this show.
Rutkauskas: The show is a new premiere that is a part of the NewWorks series and will be performed at Theatreworks. It takes place in Chicago. The script jumps back and forth between 2009 and 2013. The story revolves around two Cisgender characters, Howard and Astrid, and their connections with Kate who then transitions into Mike.
Focus: Tell us about the author and what inspired him to write this show.
Rutkauskas: In our discussions, the playwright (Ben Kemper) revealed that he identifies most with the character of Howard. He did not necessarily set out to write a play about a transgender character, but “Mike” was discovered during the writing process. Kemper also spent some time living in Chicago, inspiring the location.
Focus: What do you hope the audience walks away with after seeing this show?
Rutkauskas: My hope is that the biggest takeaway is that there is now a new transgender character represented in a theatrical piece. The transgender community is severely lacking representation in many written forms–particularly in a way that presents depth, complexity, and normalization. I think this play provides that for the Trans Male community. I also think the show would be great for people outside the queer and trans communities to help them consider their own relationships and their impact on others.
Focus: Claire–how did you get involved with this show?
Rutkauskas: I work full time at Playhouse as the Assistant Director of Theatre Education. One of the programs that I run is Q&A (stands for Queer and Allied) and it is a Queer Youth Theatre troupe sponsored by the national Pride Youth Theatre Alliance. I have worked with Q&A for the 5 years that it has been around. Working with the Queer youth (which includes several young transgender people, particularly men), I have been fortunate to be fairly immersed in the dialogue around a number issues and ideas within the community. It seemed to be a natural for me to be the one to take on this project given my experience in devising and creating queer theatre with Q&A. We are also very excited that we have three Q&A members involved in the show–Jasmine Simmers, 19, (Stage Manager), Ronnie Karimnia, 21, (Cast), and James Boyd, 18, (Working with the Scenic Designer as an apprentice).
Focus: Did you learn some things about the trans community that you didn’t know before in directing this show?
Rutkauskas: We have 5 transgender men involved in this process, in one way or another, and I have learned even more about the day-to-day consciousness that they have regarding how they are presenting vocally and with their mannerisms. Obviously, no one’s story is exactly the same and that is important to remember.
Focus: Was it difficult finding a trans actor for this show? Was it important? Would you all have done the show without a trans actor?
Rutkauskas: We were always 100% committed to casting Mike with a transgender man and never a cisgender man (even if we had to do a nationwide search), but we were very excited to be able to cast it locally.
Focus: Josh–how did you get involved with this show?
LaShomb: I happened to stumble upon Playhouse on the Square’s booth at Memphis Pride this year. They were promoting open auditions for BWMWK. I’d honestly given up on the possibility of ever performing again after I transitioned due to vocal changes, but this was right up my alley, so I went to the auditions the next day and here we are.
Focus: Josh–when did you realize you were trans? How did your family react to the news?
LaShomb: Thinking back there were moments sprinkled throughout my entire life but my “aha” moment was when I was 23. My family has been the epitome of supportive. My mom even told me (and we were always insanely close) that she felt like she was seeing the real me–who I was supposed to be, finally.
Focus: Are you out at work? Are you worried about work finding out?
LaShomb: I’m not out at work. Normally, in most of my past jobs, it’s not something I hide, but, in my current job, it’s not the safest environment to be out. I’m not super concerned about being outed since I doubt anyone from work would be interested in the type of media I’d be in. If they were though, then I hope they’d respect my desire to remain closeted.
Focus: Having lived in New York and Nashville, how does the Memphis trans community compare?
LaShomb: I only lived in NY as a child, so I can’t attest to the LGBT environment there. My transition started in Nashville and I believe Nashville’s community has grown a bit, but I strongly prefer Memphis. I find the community more welcoming here and, what’s more important, I find the resources in Memphis are easier to access.
Focus: Anything else you want our readers to know about this show?
Rutkauskas: If you know of an organization that would like to participate in a talk back after the show or advertise any services in the lobby during the run of the show, please contact Marcus@playhouseonthesquare.org.
Runs January 4 th -27 th , 2019 at POTS@TheWorks