Several of the biggest theatres in the UK have pledged to only cast trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming actors in roles for characters with those identities, in a move industry figures have described as a tipping point.
The Royal Court, Oxford Playhouse, Contact theatre and the Royal Exchange in Manchester are among the supporters of the trans casting statement that commits them to “never cast, or endorse a production that casts, a cisgender person in a trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming role”.
The statement was triggered by a controversy last year when a cisgendered actor was cast as a trans character in Breakfast on Pluto in the West End. That decision led to Kate O’Donnell – a trans actor who was cast in the production – pulling out of the show, and afterwards Milk Presents, Outbox and The Queer House began work on the trans casting statement.
Donmar Warehouse and Birmingham Rep, the original producers of Breakfast on Pluto, have also supported the statement and O’Donnell says the commitment is a first step to addressing the lack of trans representation in British theatre.
In a statement, the Donmar said it was “truly sorry for the hurt we caused with the casting” of Breakfast on Pluto and that it was committed to “actively improving diversity and inclusion across all areas of our work”.
O’Donnell said: “The frustration around casting has been building for a while, and the casting issues are probably the tip of the iceberg – I think that’s the issue that is most visible.”
Birmingham Rep confirmed the “only way” Breakfast on Pluto could return to the theatre would be “if the character of Patrick / Pussy were played by a trans actor”.
“We are making a promise to standby all elements of [the trans casting statement] from casting shows to recognising that this is just the beginning of a wider conversation,” a spokesperson said.
Earlier this year, a report commissioned by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which looked into trans casting found that commercial or mainstream theatres “very rarely commission trans-led work and that trans roles are limited” and the majority of trans-led productions were currently on at fringe venues or on tours.
Trans actor, writer and performance artist Mika Onyx Johnson said the statement could help to open doors for trans actors, although they think large venues and institutions perhaps have not signed up for fear of pushback. “The bigger a venue is, the more pushback they’ll get from transphobic people,” they said.
“Visibility on screen and stage is all linked to how people are treated in real life, in the street. I think the statement will lead to more people being able to get in the room, and ultimately get more work.”
In April, the producers of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert defended their decision to cast a cisgendered man as a trans character saying they encouraged transgender actors to audition and that “inclusivity extends to all members of the company and that all roles are open to everyone”.
Kate McGrath, director of Fuel Theatre, a production company that supports the statement said in principle it “would be great for any actor to be able to be cast in any role”, but added the inequalities trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people faced in theatre, and in public, made the statement necessary.
O’Donnell said: “I think casting is part of it, but encouraging more trans work to be written, and more trans directors to be supported is too.”
The statement also asks supporters to recognise that Black trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people “face the toughest barriers due to anti-Black racism” and take into account other biases, such as colourism, when casting shows.