For the past decade, Rebecca Kling has worked as an advocate, educator, and performer within the transgender rights movement. Her performance and advocacy work has always been grounded in the power of story as a way to reach hearts and change minds. She learned much of what she uses in her practice about story from her time as a student, teacher, and director at the Piven Theatre Workshop. We asked Rebecca to write this month’s blog to explore how storytelling can be used to explore identity.
By, Rebecca Kling
The Piven Theatre Workshop taught me how to tell stories, and how to craft original work from nothing more than an idea. I’ve been a part of the Piven family for most of my life: I took my first Piven class when I was eight, and I immediately knew that Piven was the place for me.
Storytelling, for me, has also been a huge part of my identity as a transgender woman. See, I was driven to tell my story because I had never seen my story told.
I was a transgender girl growing up in the ‘90s, by which I mean the world saw me as a typical adolescent boy; I was more than a decade away from coming out or transitioning. After all, the mid-90s was before I Am Jazz, before camps for transgender youth, and certainly before a transgender nine year old appeared on the cover of National Geographic. I didn’t see kids like me on TV or in books, and I didn’t learn about the LGBT community in school. If transgender people were positively depicted at all, it was in ways that were (at best) campy and tongue-in-cheek or (at worst) where the trans person dies so everyone can learn a lesson.
(As an aside, the main characters in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie
Newmar describe themselves as drag queens, but this 1995 movie was “probably as close to mainstream as a movie about transpeople [sic] got at the time.”)
No one at Piven ever told me that the work we were doing would later, as an adult, help me process my own identity and share my experiences with the world, but no one had to tell me; the power of story is implicit in everything the Workshop does. When I taught at Piven I would give the same general spiel on the first day of classes, with parents and students sitting alongside each other as a makeshift audience:
“Not everyone who takes this class will want to be a performer when they grow up, and that’s OK.” I directed this part of the introduction at the parents. “But everyone who takes classes with us, and who sticks with it, will gain tools to help them communicate, to understand both listening and being heard. That’s important no matter what profession you’re in. After all, don’t we want our doctors, our teachers, heck, our plumbers and electricians too, to be able to communicate well?”
Those storytelling and communication tools helped me come out as trans to Piven’s Artistic Director, Jen Green, and to Joyce Piven, the Workshop’s co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus. Coming out was scary, but Jen and Joyce both intuitively knew how to be supportive and not push me away. Jen, sitting across from me in the Piven office, thanked me for being open with her, and then (ever on task) asked what piece I was thinking of directing for that year’s YPC. Joyce said simply, over lunch across the street from the Workshop she helped found, “It [transitioning] sounds difficult, but like it’s what you need to do.”
The storytelling tools I gained at Piven also proved critically important as I began to perform my own original work, helping audiences (and, if I’m honest, helping myself) understand what it means to be transgender. I adapted Greek myths to transform gender from a part of our mundane, human identity to an issue fought over by the gods themselves. I used direct address, third person narration, pantomime, and countless other Piven-taught skills in my performances in Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and countless other cities.
More recently, I shared those same tools with transgender activists and allies in my role at the National Center for Transgender Equality. I’ve helped activists in Texas prepare to speak to the state legislature. I’ve worked with parents in Georgia so that they could better explain to the local school board the importance of supporting transgender students. I knocked on doors in Alaska to talk with residents about what it means to be transgender. I’ve shared recommended language with middle school teachers so they can explain to their school administration what policies need to be in place to keep LGBTQ students safe. And I’ve empowered other transgender people to write, speak, sing, perform; to tell their own stories, whatever that means to them, in hopes they find it as rewarding as I have.
March 31 marks the annual Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to celebrate the transgender community, to highlight the progress we’ve made, and to acknowledge the work left to be done. (Did you know that there is no federal law protecting transgender people from discrimination, and that 26 states don’t have any state laws protecting transgender people, either?) But we–transgender people and our amazing allies–will continue the fight. We’ll continue to march, to write letters, to make phone calls, to testify in state houses and protest in front of the US Capitol. Perhaps most important of all, we will continue to tell our stories; to change hearts and minds.
Rebecca Kling is an educator, storyteller, community organizer, and advocate for change. An Evanston native, she has been in Washington, DC, since early 2016. Rebecca moved to DC to work at the National Center for Transgender Equality, where she was the Education Program Director. More recently, she joined the Sierra Club as an Associate Press Secretary with their Beyond Coal Campaign, which aims to end the use of coal power in the United States. Rebecca considers the Piven Theatre Workshop her artistic family, and has been involved with Piven–as a student, a teacher, a director, and a performer–since she was eight years old