30 April 2014

Rebecca Root: How I played my part in the Trans Comedy Award

Rebecca RootBy Rebecca Root, voice and speech teacher, actor, and Boy Meets Girl co-star

When the Trans Comedy Award script-writing competition was announced in early 2013, I received a flurry of emails from friends and family encouraging me to enter. Everyone knew of my penmanship from my academic work, poems and various (usually incomplete) outlines for novels and plays which I would occasionally show them or describe. It didn’t matter that I had never written a sitcom before: I have some facility with words, I’m an actor and sometime comedian, and I’m trans. I was bound to have a script somewhere inside me, wasn’t I?

Douglas Adams famously remarked: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as the go by.” So do I. As soon as I knew about the Trans Comedy Award (an idea developed at On Road’s Trans Camp at Channel 4 in 2012), the submission date was speeding towards me, and although I’d welcomed the prospect of trying my hand at script-writing, I still hadn’t got further than typing out my name. All of a sudden, the deadline whooshed past. In the stillness that followed, I realized I had missed my chance , but life went on as normal.

That all happened last spring. The joint winners, Elliott Kerrigan and Tom Glover, were announced in the summer. In October, my agent rang me to say that the BBC was going to present their scripts as rehearsed readings before an invited audience of producers, commissioning editors and Other Significant Folk. The lead role in each show was a trans woman of my age. Could be perfect casting.

I suppose at this point I should put my acting career in context. For about a decade from my graduation from drama school, I worked fairly consistently as a male actor. As many trans people will tell you, however, the strain of living a double life finally became too much for me, and eventually I transitioned to female. The range of roles apparently suitable for me was immediately reduced, not only because of an imbalance between female actors and characters available to them, but because I was now in an even smaller minority. How many trans characters do you see on stage, television and in films anyway? Back then there were even fewer than the few you can think of now. Julie Hesmondhalgh as Hayley Cropper in “Coronation Street.” Jaye Davidson in “The Crying Game.” Ummm…

Original TMA LogoI knew my acting career could possibly evaporate when I became Rebecca. It seemed worth it; as long as I was happy in my body, I could be happy in my work, whatever that might be. Since then, I’ve developed a second career as a voice and speech teacher, but I continue to act when the parts come along. These have always been trans women, inevitably in supporting roles. That’s OK. But the characters’ strengths were typically secondary to the nature of her gender. That’s where the Trans Comedy Award and the BBC took such a positive step to promote the trans identity. Here, finally, was a chance for a trans character – possibly even played by a trans actor – to shine in a lead role.

I was invited to audition first for Tom Glover’s piece, “Nobody’s Perfect”, which was being produced by Jon Plowman and directed by Francis Matthews. This was the story of a trans woman of a certain age in a relationship with a cis (not trans) woman; the couple lived with their various children from whatever previous partnerships they had. The script sought to find humour in society’s misconceptions of what the trans experience is; there were gags about the size of boobs and hands, and being an outsider even at a school diversity event. It was funny in places, but the humour felt awkward. I enjoyed the audition; however, in the end I didn’t get the job.

I was then asked to try for the other winning script, Elliott Kerrigan’s sweetly-titled “Love”, in which Judy, a 40-something trans woman still living with her mother, meets Leo, a 26-year-old cis man, also living at his parental home. The tone was noticeably different. The comedy sprung as much from this unlikely couple’s living arrangements as from their age-gap. Tired of rejection by previous lovers, Judy decides to do the “Big Reveal” on the first date with Leo. He quietly processes the information and then just gets on with the meal. “Would you like a starter?” he asks. No questions about her body. No inappropriate comments about the toilet. Just so. This episode makes no more bones about Judy’s gender than had she confessed to liking Fleetwood Mac (which she did in an early draft). I was over the moon to get the part.

BBCThe reading was produced by Sophie Clarke-Jervoise of Tiger Aspect Productions (Bad Education, My Mad Fat Diary, Mr Bean, Vicar of Dibley, Ross Kemp on Gangs) and took place in late November. We had one rehearsal and performed it the same day after Tom Glover’s piece – I was curious to see who had got the part I auditioned for. Had they found another trans actor I hadn’t heard of? No. They went with a male actor who wore make-up and prosthetics.

There’s a discussion worth having here about casting such roles. How close to “real life” do you have to be when casting? Do you only use Scottish actors to play the Macbeths, or murderers to play Fred and Rose West? Of course not – that’s what acting’s for, isn’t it? It’s make-believe. But at the same time, a director will often seek an actor who can bring the authenticity of a personal life experience to a part. An actor who can ride a horse competently will look so much more comfortable in the saddle, won’t she?

So when it comes to casting the few trans roles available, why does it feel like they are going to non-trans actors? Probably because there are so few of us out there – at least openly. There are additional complications when it comes to financing projects and the potential box office lure of a star. At the end of the day, no matter how good you are, you’re not going to be right for every single part. Yet programme makers and producers are obliged at least to search for the right actor in the first place. Hunt for that Scottish horse-riding ex-soldier to play Macbeth. Seek that pioneering gay computer programmer to play Alan Turing. If they don’t turn up in the casting process, use whoever can act like they are. I didn’t begrudge Lee Ingleby the part in “Nobody’s Perfect”: he played it well. At least I got an audition: I simply wasn’t the actor they had wanted.

SalfordBut that’s all beside the point, because I was chosen to play the role of adorable Judy. What’s more, the reception to the reading was beyond my dreams. This was definitely the part of a lifetime. I felt my moment had finally come.

Just over a month later, I heard that Tiger Aspect was going to film a pilot of “Love” for the BBC. There was a new producer and director on board and they wanted to be sure there weren’t any other actors, trans or otherwise, out there better suited to play Judy. I was asked to audition again; I got the part a second time.

We filmed in February, and by the middle of March, “Love” was ready for screening at the BBC Sitcom Showcase as part of the Salford Comedy Festival. By this time it had a new title: “Boy Meets Girl” – I had always liked “Love”, but perhaps that’s just because I’m an incurable romantic at heart. Again, the audience’s reaction was remarkable. It was an extraordinary experience to sit in a studio with 200+ people, many of whom were industry professionals and BBC Controllers, and watch a show that elicited such laughs, such gasps of delight, dismay and (spoiler alert) ultimately joy.

As yet, there is no news on whether the BBC will take the show further. It would be disappointing if they didn’t – it could be a real game-changer in British TV. Having said that, it is remarkable that the pilot was made at all. The goal of the Trans Comedy Award was to raise the profile of trans characters in mainstream British comedy; it’s on the way to achieving this. For my part, even though I didn’t enter the script competition, I know I contributed in the way I was trained to do – as the right actor for the job; as an actor who just happens to be trans.

To get in touch with Rebecca visit: www.rebeccaroot.co.uk

Rebecca Root ©2014

On Road, Project Manager for On Road.