Featured Member — Avery-Jean Brennan
Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Avery-Jean Brennan, an award winning Transfeminine actor, director, teacher, playwright, and producer who is dedicated to Trans-inclusive storytelling and community building through live performance.
Recently, they were nominated for the Bra d’Or Award from the Playwrights Guild of Canada for their work advocating for Trans & Non-Binary artists in Canadian theatre. They have studied writing under dramaturg Christopher Weddell, composer/lyricist Leslie Arden, and through The Musical Stage Company’s NoteWorthy program. Avery-Jean’s first original musical, The Pansy Craze, was the recipient of Queer Theatre Toronto’s inaugural LGBTQ Fringe Award for pushing boundaries in representation for Queer & Trans characters in musical theatre. They are currently training as the RBC Apprentice Artistic Director through The Musical Stage Company. Other recent works include No Country for They/Thems, the book for Mind the Light with award-winning songwriter Gabrielle Papillon, and an upcoming collaboration with Camila Diaz-Varela. They are also very dedicated to their practice as an educator, working closely with Sheridan College and Neptune Theatre School.
Tell us about how you got your start writing plays.
It was a long journey to finally get myself there — in high school, I was lucky enough to have my after school drama program taught by Halifax’s Zuppa Theatre Company, who are known for their stunning works of collective creation. In my grade 12 year, instead of doing a traditional play, Zuppa led us through their creative process to build a show of our own. I was very resistant to it at first (all I wanted to do was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown for whatever reason), but through that process I started to feel very confident in my own creative voice.
During theatre school, I’d have a few more opportunities to create short works independently or collectively, but it wasn’t something I took very seriously. I just wanted to be an actor at the time. It wouldn’t be until I came out as Transgender that I’d shift my focus to writing, when my acting work went away for a few years during a time where many theatres & directors didn’t know how to even speak to Trans people, let alone cast them (which is a time that we still aren’t quite out of, mind you).
Frustrated with the lack of roles for Trans people (especially in musical theatre), I got more serious about writing and wrote the book, music, & lyrics for a new musical called The Pansy Craze, a story featuring multiple roles for Transgender actors, about a Trans woman trying to make it on the vaudeville circuit towards the end of prohibition. I worked with dramaturg/writing mentor Christopher Weddell, and used skills I’d picked up in a year-long writing intensive under Leslie Arden. At the time, I viewed it as work I was doing just because I wasn’t able to act any more. The show would go on to a very successful run in the Toronto Fringe, and I remember standing in the venue as we were striking our set after closing, with this beautiful feeling I’d never had before. Some of it was about the ways we’d just broken boundaries for Trans representation in musical theatre, but I realized over time that something I’d thought was a survival skill that I’d picked up by chance and developed out of stubbornness was actually something I loved doing just as much (and sometimes more than) performing. How lucky is that??
You have stated that your primary focus is “community care for the Transgender and Non-Binary communities through art”. Can you tell us about that mission, and how you have found that art can have a positive impact on these communities?
While I wouldn’t say my writing shies away from the difficulty and pain that comes with be a Trans and Non-Binary person in our violently Cis-normative society, my focus nowadays as an artist (whether I’m writing, performing, or directing) is on the joy. The ways that our experiences (both the good and the bad) can bring people together in a loving way. If I am going to write about harm, I’m also going to write about how we process those feelings, how we can heal, and how we can celebrate ourselves through hard times. I think these are universally needed stories. Even if the specifics of my own plays and musicals are usually about events that are happening to Transgender characters, the themes of weathering difficult and nuanced situations are things that anybody from any community can take something from. We already know that harm exists in our world, and a lot of these experiences are familiar to my Transgender friends & family coming to see my works. Our works don’t exist in a vacuum, we’re bringing what we know of the world into a theatre every time we go to sit down and watch something. It’s impossible to separate it from these stories. So my goal now is to accurately honour that reality while providing a space of community, connection, and healing, both for how I treat my collaborators in the creative process, and how I treat my audiences with my storytelling. This is something I’ve been able to see through my work on shows like Mind the Light (co-written with award winning songwriter Gabrielle Papillon) and No Country for They/Thems. We see Queer people going through some tough and heavily nuanced troubles in those shows, yes, but the point of those stories is see how the characters find joy and healing in themselves and their community, even if they don’t completely overcome their difficult situations. This focus on joy, healing, and community is something I try to carry into all facets of my work, from the content, to my methods of working & collaborating, to how I interact with audiences and media.
I learned just how important this is the hard way through writing The Pansy Craze, and working on another show soon after it. Originally, The Pansy Craze started as a protest piece about the societal response to anti-Queer hatecrimes like the Pulse nightclub shootings, and it had a lot of my anger in it. I was determined to show the harsh realities of my life as a Transfeminine person as a lesson to Cisgender audiences, and the dangers of the heightened bystander effect that occurs when we see harm enacted on somebody from a marginalized community that we do not belong to ourselves. In time, however, I came to realize two very important things — First, I was exhausted and upset all the time when I was writing drafts of that show, it was an extremely draining process and kept me in a very poor emotional state, which led to some not-so-great work. Second, the people I’m trying to protest to and yell at, would be VERY unlikely to see our advertising and think “Oh, y’know what, that’s a show I should go see!” The majority of people who would just die to come and see a show like this would be the ones who already KNOW about these experiences, whether because they’ve lived them or their allyship game is strong enough to recognize what’s up. I would be preaching to the choir, and just reminding us all of how much pain there is in our existence, something that we are all well aware of, purely for the sake of people outside of our community who likely wouldn’t even come see it.
I don’t ever want to downplay the difficult reality of existing in this world as a Transgender person, but focusing only on the hurt and the anger and trying to shove the harsh realities in peoples faces like that would simply be retraumatizing for all of us working on the show or watching it. There are other ways that are just as (if not more effective) in raising awareness of the inequities in our society. Instead, I want my work (no matter my role on the project) to be something that wraps a tight, loving hug around my audience, my collaborators, and myself as we bravely face these difficult, nuanced realities together. And if my detractors somehow end up in my audiences by accident, I truly think this would be a better method of reaching them, anyway. I don’t need to write plays that only serve as reminders and lessons that life is hard, that’s going to show up inherently in what we create without us having to try that hard. As I’ve mentioned, our work isn’t viewed in a vacuum. Even if I write something that’s purely about two Transgender friends having a lovely time together, the artists and the audiences are coming in knowing how hard it is outside of that moment. What we do need instead are more reminders and lessons about how to survive and thrive through the hard things together, otherwise we’re just going to stay stuck in this cycle of societal abuse, and the exploitation of that abuse for the entertainment of our oppressors.
You were the first winner of the LGBTQ Fringe Award from Queer Theatre Toronto for pushing the boundaries of Queer and Trans representation in musical theatre for your piece The Pansy Craze. You also became the first out Transfemme person to play a transgender character in a professional Canadian musical at Neptune Theatre. How does it feel to be paving the way for trans representation in the theatre industry?
It feels great, terrible, nourishing, and exhausting all at once. Being any kind of trailblazer is a mix of rewarding and terrible. I am simultaneously very happy to have done those things, and very annoyed that I’ve had to. There is so much additional labour (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, etc) that goes into anybody paving the way in any context, and it’s very hard to describe the feeling (and it often takes away from the time & energy I would otherwise put into my actual art itself). It’s something I still experience on projects to this day — I’m usually the first out Transfemme person to be in the positions I work and play in. Often it’s even something as (relatively) small as being the first out Trans person that someone’s ever met, which is always terrifying, exciting, and dehumanizing for me in some way. When our industry and society have been built to systemically exclude us in favour of our Cisgender friends and peers, our lives are FILLED with these moments. They are hard, easy, terrible, and wonderful all at once.
Ever since The Pansy Craze, even when I’m not working on anything, I will still routinely receive both the most vile hate messages you could imagine and the most heartfelt fan mail through my social media channels. Anything between people telling me I should kill myself all the way to young Trans people from across the country saying they’ve chosen to write about me for an essay for English class talking about someone they look up to. There are people who seek me out knowing nothing about my work beyond the fact that I’m Trans and loud. There are people seeking me out because they’re starting to question their own genders and are in need of guidance and support from someone within our industry (which has led to some of my most beautiful relationships). There are people who avoid engaging with me because of their own insecurity talking about Transness. There are people who recommend I be brought into a room specifically to help advocate for the needs of Trans artists. There are people who view everything I’ve done and everything I go through as trivial because they refuse to see Transness as a form of marginalization that requires equitable treatment in our society. There are parents and relatives of Trans people who write to thank me for helping them better understand and support the loved ones in their lives.
I know that’s a long list of examples, but it’s very hard to get the scope across, and, hey, I’m the featured writer for the month, I’m allowed to be verbose.
I embrace the simultaneity of my circumstances. I am so proud of myself for climbing my way to this position, and forever grateful for the support I received to get here, and I wish that it did not have to be this way. If I had my choice, I’d never have had to do any of this in the first place just to do the work that I love, but I’m at peace with the fullness of this ongoing experience.
You recently moved back to the East Coast from Toronto. Has this change had an impact on your artmaking or sense of artistic community?
Yes, but not in the way I would have expected. I question what it even means to be based somewhere during a pandemic where so much more of how we connect is done online than in person. I was very fortunate to be working for a company (Bad Dog Comedy Theatre) that did a VERY quick pivot to digital programming at the onset of the pandemic thanks to the leadership of their former AD & General Manager, Coko Galore, which kept me engaged artistically through that medium for a long time. It got me very used to working digitally from my home in a way that’s still enjoyable and creative, and, when that’s your focus, does it really matter where your physical home base is? I don’t think it does. A lot of the work I’m doing now is still based in Toronto, even though I’m living in Halifax, such as my time on faculty as a director for Sheridan College, and my current apprenticeship at The Musical Stage Company as RBC Apprentice Artistic Director. I’ve directed, performed, and written for many a festival or workshop held online. However, I’ve been able to reconnect to the artistic community of Halifax (where I grew up) in a way that I hadn’t been able to before when I was just flying in and out to work on contracts at Neptune Theatre. Professionally, I feel more connected to other artists now than ever before. I still plan to move back to Toronto when it feels safer and more feasible for me, but, for now, I’m very at peace along the ocean while I keep working to connect to people all across the country and the world. And, hey, I’ll fly just about anywhere if the cheque is right.
What are you working on right now?
A few things! I’m doing my first contract as a Music Director since 2019(!!!!) on Neptune Theatre’s The Rocky Horror Show, which opens May 6th and runs to June 26th. Music Direction is something that I was not as adept at transferring to online as I was with my writing/directing/performing work, so it’s a muscle I haven’t used in a long time that I’m very grateful to be dusting off. I’ve spent the last few years of the pandemic focused more on directing and producing, which I’m hoping to move more of my work into in the future.
I was also fortunate to have received grants from both the Canada Council and Arts Nova Scotia to workshop two of my works this year — the aforementioned Mind the Light and No Country for They/Thems, which I’m very excited to get into with the hopes of full productions as early as 2023. I’ve also received my first commission for a musical from another organization that starts workshopping next month, where I’m collaborating with Camila Diaz-Varela on a celebration of the inherent value of life.
Lastly, I’ll be finishing my time with the Musical Stage Company as RBC Apprentice Artistic Director in June with my work on the Creator’s Project cabaret, featuring Rosie Callaghan & Matthew Joseph, with artistic contributions from Maddie Bautista (Sound), Kaylee Harwood (Director), Alexandra Kane (Music Director), Kareem Vaude (Performer/Writer), and Haneul Yi (Music Director). I am constantly inspired by our cohort of apprentices, and can’t wait to show people what we’ve been dreaming up. Once that concludes, I’ll really hit the ground running as I search for Artistic Associate positions for theatres across the country, and continue producing my own works.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
SO MANY. Bunny by Hannah Moscovitch. Mustard by Kat Sandler. Any project with Christine Quintana’s name attached (catch the live streams of her new work Clean/Espejos available through the Cultch starting April 5th). Frequencies by Aaron Collier (with Francesca Ekwuyasi & Stewart Legere). Body Politic by Nick Green. She’s Not Special by Fatuma Adar. Fat Juliet by Stevey Hunter. Duecentomila by Kai Taddei.
And there’s some works still in development that I’m already excited about, like Kevin Wong & Nick Green’s In Real Life, Ingrid Moore’s The Incredible Glowing Woman (premiering July 14th — 22nd with Hapax Theatre), Stevey Hunter’s When You Leave Please Say Nice Things About Me or Fatuma Adar’s Dixon Road (premiering June 1st — 19th through The Musical Stage Company). There’s some GREAT stuff happening here these days.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.