By Bev Wolfe
“Awesome,” “Brave,” “Tenderness” and “Thank You.” All words expressed by the audience following Saturday night’s performance of The Naked Eye: Self – Defined. The show is the quintessential definition of a community play – a play that seeks to give voice to communities or issues that are not otherwise represented in traditional theatre.
The show originated from a 2009 production of a play written by Tobias K. Davis. Similar to The Vagina Monologues, this’ play explored the bodies and experiences of transgender, gender-queer, and intersex individuals. Davis, a transsexual, working on a thesis at Smith College, conducted interviews with transgender people, including people from Germany. From the thesis, Davis created the play The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond the Binary which served to amplify the voices of the often marginalized transgender and queer community. Claire Avitabile, Artistic Director at 20% Theatre, knew Davis when they both attended Smith College and the 20% Theatre Company mounted a production of Davis’ play in 2009. The response from the transgender, gender-queer community to the show was unexpected and tremendous: the show sold out and even out-of-state groups were coming to see it.
Because the show struck such a nerve with the transgender and gender-queer community, 20% Theatre decided to bring it back as a community play, with Davis’ blessing, to continue exploring the queer and trans experience through story, poem and monologue. The second Naked I production, The Naked I: Wide Open, was produced in 2012. Wide Open was the product of submissions by multiple community writers, directors and emerging artists desperate to tell their own unique story. This second production “really exploded,” selling out all performances before it opened. Claire Avitabile noted that the transgender queer community can be “hidden” and “marginalized” so it was “remarkable” for those in this community to see their own experience on stage.
20% Theatre decided to make the Naked I series a bi-annual event. 20% Theatre received a similarly strong response to its 2014 production The Naked I: Insides Out. When seeking submissions in 2015 for the current show, 20% Theatre received 84 submissions from 77 individual queer and trans writers from three different states. The review committee selected 21 performed pieces (and pre-show performances) and two films. A total of 23 directing applications were received and 15 local directors were hired. Over 50 artists auditioned in December of 2015 with 32 performers selected. The artists had only two months to rehearse the show. This large community input has resulted in a total of 75 queer, trans and allied artists bringing this community play forward.
Anna Brenk, a performer, first attended a Naked I performance in 2014. To Anna it “was very moving” and “really spoke to” Anna. Anna decided to “push myself beyond my comfort level” to reach out to help share these stories. Anna noted that the show is a “coming to grips with multi-genders” and “accepting that you can be different genders.”
J.L. Mohnkern, the writer for the Knows No Gender scene, attended the second The Naked Eye: Wide Open production in 2012 and became a director for a scene in the 2014 production. J.L’s involvement in that production led directly to J.L. submitting a written scene for the 2016 production. J.L.’s scene speaks to the idea that “anybody could have a relationship with anybody” and that “sex and intimacy and love exist without gender.” J.L. noted that even though the Naked I series is thought of as a “trans play, all of us are impacted by the stories on stage.”
Atlese Robinson, a member of the 20% Artistic Advisory/Naked I Selection Committee, has a Theatre degree from Augsburg College and was selected to serve as director for the final scene of the production, Black Hole Queers. Atlese was interested in directing the piece to show the variety of people who identify in the transgender and queer community. Altese’s directed scene is especially effective since it goes from a single performer to the entire cast coming on stage showing a solitary voice.
After the show, artists took the stage to discuss their experience and take questions. To learn that many involved were not professional artists but were seeking to express their voice makes more remarkable the consistently high level of performances in this show. There were many standouts in the scenes and the two films and there was not a weak note in the entire production. The highlight of the show was the scene “Sailing Upwind” which was both written and performed by Freya Richman. Richman brought great humor to the issues connected to the transitioning period. These stories address both the humor as well as the pain in seeking acceptance and, most importantly, accepting one’s self. To this member of the non-trans, non-queer community, what this production spoke to the most was the basic humanness of each story regardless of a character’s gender identification or sexual preference.
The production is playing at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis through February 20, 2016. Although the production is sold out, there are usually some last minute tickets available through cancelations and standing room is always available. Free parking is available in the two lots next to and behind the theatre.