Theater News

Preston Max Allen on Discovering Joy and Representation Ahead of Concert for Trans and Nonbinary Artists

”A Place for Us”, featuring 14 pieces written and performed by trans and nonbinary artists, streams live June 30.

June 30 marks the end of Pride Month 2021 and the culmination of A Place for Us, a series of panels, dance classes, Q&As with theater professionals, and vocal masterclasses, all aimed specifically at trans- and nonbinary students and young people.

The concluding event, also set for June 30, is a free virtual concert featuring 14 pieces written and performed by trans and nonbinary artists, including César Alvarez, Truth Bachman, Ty Defoe, Bree Lowdermilk, Jessye DeSilva, and many more. The evening, a celebration of the breadth of talent in the trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming artistic communities, supports the Gender & Family Project, and features music direction by Anessa Marie and direction by Madsie Flynn.

A Place for Us is the brainchild of playwright, composer, and lyricist Preston Max Allen (We Are The Tigers). TheaterMania spoke with Allen about the impetus behind A Place for Us, the exciting artists involved, and the state of trans and nonbinary representation in the theater industry.

Preston Max Allen
Preston Max Allen
(image provided by Preston Max Allen )

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What was the initial impetus behind A Place for Us, and how did the series evolve?
Theater purports to be one of the most celebratory and accepting places for the LGBTQ community, but in reality we've seen a lot of behavior that has been very antithetical to that, specifically for the trans and nonbinary communities. The greater commercial industry often writes off our voices as either not worth hearing, or maybe even threatening to the audiences that need to be appealed to commercially—rather than embracing us and challenging those audiences.

I was just kind of in an actionless rage about that, and as I looked at the programming that was coming up for Pride, I wasn't seeing any real attentiveness or focus on the trans community in the large-scale events. There's certainly trans artists who perform in them, and there are concerts like Trans Voices Cabaret. But there's never been a large scale event celebrating trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming artists in musical theater.

So I tweeted that: "This should exist." And I had friends respond and say, "We should make this happen."

A big goal of A Place for Us is reaching young people who may not have as much access to trans role models and communities in their area, or in their lives.
A lot of young people following harmful things that are happening in the Broadway community come to me and say: "It doesn't seem safe to be in theater." My response is always, absolutely we have to be alert and take care of ourselves—but at the same time, there are so many incredible trans and nonbinary artists in theater doing really powerful work. It's just not as visible. So I wanted to amplify that art for those kids.

The series is also about providing resources and continuing education. We had a panel with RE:THEATRE on creating safe and inclusive educational spaces for trans and nonbinary students, and a Q&A on how to take care of yourself in the industry. So it's both the joyful "here we are" content, and some long-term work on how to take care of ourselves and the future of representation.

Mimi Scardulla, Jenny Rose Baker, Wonu Ogunfowora, Lauren Zakrin, and Kaitlyn Frank star in Preston Max Allen's We Are the Tigers, directed by Michael Bello, at Theatre 80 St. Marks.
MiMi Scardulla, Jenny Rose Baker, Wonu Ogunfowora, Lauren Zakrin, and Kaitlyn Frank star in Preston Max Allen's We Are the Tigers, directed by Michael Bello, at Theatre 80 St. Marks.
(© Mati Gelman)

Trans and nonbinary communities are under vicious attack in state houses across the country right now. How do you hold space in this series for positivity and looking to the future together as a community, while also acknowledging that offense which is taking place?
There's certainly a place for anger and for calling things out. I've seen positive responses to that. When I get angry and frustrated with the erasure that we see in Jagged Little Pill, or the dangerous themes in Tootsie, I'm able to know that I can reach some of these people, I can feel like I might be seen by them, and maybe we can discuss this. I can't go to the Texas state house and discuss this with them. I feel hopeless there. I shouldn't feel hopeless here.

All that to say—that is not the theme of A Place for Us. This series is about the incredible people making brilliant and fabulous art in our community. Instead of a list of demands, it's a bunch of artists contributing what they would like to see from the future.

In what ways can musical theater in particular be meaningful for the young people and students across the country A Place for Us is looking to reach?

Connecting on a musical level is an entirely different experience because it's so visceral, and so personal. For me, I hear these artists and go wow, to have heard this in my youth, artists who felt both the pain and the joy, had felt the struggle and had burst from that into happy adult lives and found family, would have made an incredible difference in terms of my queerness growing up. And I just know there are so many kids out there who are isolated, and just hearing one of these songs—even a joyful song that's not about being trans, from a trans artist—would make a difference.

Any songs in particular you'd like to tease from the concert?
We just got our first video that is edited and ready from two incredible artists in the UK, Robin Simões da Silva and Tabby Lamb. It is a song called "Peter." You know "Good Kid" from Lightning Thief, and "Michael in the Bathroom" from Be More Chill? Well "Peter" is that to me. It has that power.

It's about a trans guy who is supposed to do this Spider-Man couples costume, but his girlfriend broke up with him, so now he's in a Spider-Man costume having dysphoria and break-up feelings. To me it's so specifically trans but also so universal, and just so fun and angsty.

Register here for A Place for Us: A Celebration of Trans and Nonbinary Artists In Musical Theatre, streaming June 30 at 7pm.