In 2007, Erin Armstrong began an intimate online portrait of her life as a transwoman. In her first video, Armstrong stands unaccompanied before a camera in a New York basement. She talks about her nervousness, and then shares her identity, making her a founding member of the YouTube transgender community. Her story is now part of the Mills documentary theater production, “Transcripts.”
Armstrong’s experiences, including her videos, provide the main narrative arc in the upcoming production about transgender stories. The play is the culmination of the two-semester Documentary Theater/Playwriting: Production course taught by Director of Theater Studies, Victor Talmadge.
Students in the course conducted interviews with members of the transgender community on campus and transcribed the interviews in the fall. The interviews and online materials about the transgender community, such as Armstrong’s video blog, provide the only spoken material in the play.
“They really took their time to get to know who they’re writing about,” Armstrong, a political, legal and economic analysis major, said.
This spring, the collected material is shaped into a documentary play about transgender experiences. Talmadge’s students act as the transgender people that they interviewed, something new for documentary theater.
In many other documentary productions, professional interviewers come into a community to create a script, and a separate team of actors enacts the script. In “Transcripts,” the cast is wholly composed of the editors of the script.
“The interaction of the community whose stories are being told becomes the critical element,” Talmadge said. “It really results in a deeper understanding by the performers/editors/interviewers of the issues that are being discussed.”
“Transcripts” does not include the interviewers as characters, nor is the interview process described to the live audience. This project forms the medium into something most appropriate for their goal to connect the community of actors with the community being portrayed.
“As I’ve done these pieces, what has become seemingly more important each time is the confluence of the community that’s presenting the piece with the community that is being talked about,” Talmadge, who has worked in documentary theater for over 20 years, said.
Documentary theater emerged in the mid 1990s when Anna Deavere Smith spun the medium into popularity with plays such as “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Talmadge worked with Smith at that time, and has become increasingly interested in connecting communities through theatrical productions.
Luci Liss, a junior majoring in theater studies, has transcribed many of Armstrong’s video blogs and will play her in the show. Liss is dedicated to accurately portraying Armstrong.
“We are going to do our very best to portray these people authentically and respectfully,” Liss said.
The entire crew shares this dedication, hoping to respect the openness they received from the interviewees.
“There is a lot of vulnerability that is happening in this process,” Sophia Dipaola, assistant director and head editor of “Transcripts,” said. “It’s really beautiful to see.”
The cast and crew are approaching the play with a certain fluidity that is appropriate for the topic: gender can be understood as a lifelong process – a relational experience as one navigates the world within a body.
Additionally, members of other departments including members from the art, dance, intermedia art, music and women’s studies have been involved. The collaboration is something Talmadge recognizes as important to the theatrical medium.
“The beauty of theater is that it’s a collaborative art form. It’s not one of those things where you extend yourself in order to collaborate—you don’t exist unless you collaborate,” Talmadge said.
The script continues to evolve even after the first week of rehearsals, a choice that gives the production the ability to change. Talmadge noted that even seasoned actors would find this prospect daunting, but the students are dedicated to this task, recognizing their subject is too important to close off the potential for change.
“Transcripts” will run April 29-30 in Lisser Hall, 8 p.m..