Two Transgendered Performers Find Haven in the Fringe

Jul 20, 2011

With a dizzying array of theater, dance, and visual arts - and sometimes in a combination of all of those - the Kansas City Fringe Festival kicks off its seventh year this weekend.

Kansas City, Mo. – With a dizzying array of theater, dance, and visual arts - and sometimes in a combination of all of those - the Kansas City Fringe Festival kicks off its seventh year this weekend.

Featuring 115 artists performing over 11 days at 17 venues, the festival's slate of shows can range from family friendly to edgy and controversial. Coincidentally, two shows this year feature transgendered performers who might not find a haven at more traditional theaters. KCUR's Steve Walker reports.

Rebecca Kling, a Chicago-based performance artist, recalls how she was teaching an after-school theater program north of the city in the fall of 2010, and things seemed to be going swimmingly - that is, until the Piven Theatre Workshop (Evanston, Il.) sponsoring the classes heard from a school administrator.

"They'd gotten a phone call that said they wanted a different teacher. And we weren't quite sure why," says Kling. "Over the next week or so, it came trickling in that students has asked questions about my deep voice and big hands - and as far as anyone had ever told me, my hands aren't freakishly big, and my voice not freakishly deep - and that the school administrators thought a different teacher might be a good idea."

Kling was born male but has lived as Rebecca since 2009. She says Piven Theatre Workshop's response was, "No, we actually sent a really good teacher" and canceled its affiliation with the school. Kling says the incident inspired the performance piece she's bringing to the Fringe, "No Gender Left Behind."

"I was teaching a theater workshop. I didn't bring up my gender, I didn't bring up my religion, I didn't bring up my race, because those weren't relevant to the workshop," says Kling. "So it was doubly offensive both personally and professionally. One thing I'm excited about with this show is casting my gaze a little outward. My previous shows were a lot more introspective. And this show has that, but also speaks to a broader experience beyond my own."

Also performing at this year's festival is Roman Rimer, a transgendered man who lives in Queens, New York. He says his show, "Evolution," was prompted by a 3-month stay in the deep South, where he worked with gay and lesbian college students attending Christian-affiliated colleges.

"Did you feel immediately welcome?" asked Steve Walker. Rimer replied, "I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't feel unsafe or anything; they seemed like any other college to me."

What he learned, though, is that students enrolled at these colleges can be expelled for being openly gay, and though he says he didn't go there intending to write a show, his experience informed one anyway: "I try to find out the most important thing I learned in those places and find out what's universal about them, like fitting in, seeing myself in others, meeting people, trying not to be alone, and watching out for others."

The Fringe Festival's executive director, Cheryl Kimmi, explains why the Fringe and shows featuring transgendered artists make a good match.

"People who come to the Fringe are open to new theater experiences. For me, that's why I do it - it's about social change," says Kimmi. "I think it's through our artists we can see other perspectives, things that are outside our realm, and I love to come out of a show going, 'Oh my goodness, I never thought of it that way.' It helps expand people's horizons, it help them think outside their box."

The entire Fringe calendar is vast indeed, from a new Heidi Van show to be performed in the windows of the Fishtank, to a melding of Hamlet and zombies.

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