Introducing Beyond the Binary
Beyond the Binary is a new initiative supporting artists whose gender identities exist outside of the culturally dominant binary. In its pilot season, the program will support six writers (Imani Russell, Evie Shuckman, Paris J. Alexander, Oya Mae Duchess Davis, Nikomeh Anderson, and A.A. Brenner) over the course of a six-month residency, and they will gather in intensive, private sessions to share work-in-progress with each other around a table without guests or actors. Sessions are led by Playwright and Lark Director of Development Nora Brigid Monahan, and theater artist and former Lark apprentice, Manny Rivera.
In this interview, Manny and Nora discuss how this new initiative at The Lark seeks to address the lack of representation of the vastness of nonbinary and gender expansive folks, the importance of relationship building with individuals to support their unique needs, and what they hope Beyond the Binary will continue to grow into.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer Haley: What is Beyond the Binary? Can you explain how the initiative started, what inspired you to create it, and how you got involved?
Nora Brigid Monahan (They/Them): There's been amazing momentum in representation for trans folks in media and the wider cultural conversation over the past 20 years. But it usually reflects the binary gender construct, and the few depictions of nonbinary people that have sort of broken through have been fairly homogenous and really not reflective of the vastness and diversity of gender expensive folks.
I pitched that I wanted to start my own group for nonbinary playwrights, and would The Lark be interested in partnering with me on that? They were overwhelmingly supportive and immediately said yes, and offered to give the resources needed to launch this pilot version. Hopefully we will continue to build on from there to further provide opportunities for nonbinary and other gender expansive writers in The Lark community.
JH: Could you talk about this cohort of writers and how they came together? The initial conversations about Beyond the Binary were about representation and intersectionality—how gender identity also intersects with other areas of identity. And so maybe we can also talk a little bit about starting this initiative from a place of intersectionality from the start?
Manny Rivera (He/They): I know that Nora was looking to work with Black and brown nonbinary, Disabled people, which was really exciting to me because those are the folks that I'm most engaged with right now. I got really excited because in my experience with The Lark, I hadn't really encountered many trans folks. So I was like, oh, how do I bring my folks in?
I appreciate that The Lark is consistently thinking about: how do we also materially support people? I was really excited to involve people in my world, not affiliated with The Lark, who I knew could really use this money and the support. This is important for me: to bring new folks in as a way to start to facilitate that relationship.
These are folks who already have been experimenting and going beyond these forms. They have already embraced this experimental way of creation, by way of necessity. We’re talking about low income artists, just trying to make it with what they have, and they're making the most cool ass fucking work.
NBM: When you bring together a room full of folks who already embraced an expansive understanding of their own identities, the work that's being brought into the room every month is, I feel like, really expansive for the medium of theater.
From the beginning, the goal of the program has been to uplift the nonbinary experience and to show that we are not homogenous. I feel like the only nonbinary actors I've seen who've made it on TV and in film are skinny, white, and androgynous, and I was really hoping to highlight the fact that that doesn’t encapsulate what a nonbinary identity is. So we weren't going to run the program unless it was majority BIPOC. We weren't gonna run the program unless at least a third of the writers participating identified as Disabled. We have a majority BIPOC and majority disabled room of folks, which is really amazing.
We, as a group, started from a place of trust and intimacy. We've only all met collectively three times, but because of the way it was curated, the room is so warm, and so intimate and supportive. The work that people are sharing is incredibly personal, raw and vulnerable. That is what we strive for in all our programs—to be able to create a space where writers can do that. I attribute a lot of that to Manny as well, who knows how to hold space better than anybody.
JH: This sense of community and safety seems integral to the creative process and innovation. What has been helpful to running the room that has supported everyone’s creative process?
MR: Speaking as a co-facilitator in that space, I think how you hold the space is really important. In my own practice of facilitation, it is important for me to have a check in process. Where are you at today? And that just shifts a lot of stuff because we’re socialized to ask and not give a shit what the response is. I make sure in all the spaces that I facilitate to really prioritize that check-in. And then some sort of like close out ritual, some sort of assessment of what it is that we just experienced with each other.
I feel like the work isn’t necessarily the point for me. The point is the process. Having a structure within our meetings to talk about the process and how people are doing has been super helpful because we’re not just showing up and jumping into it. Let’s slow down, and let’s talk about where we’re at before we share these vulnerable things, you know?
NBM: And I think, too, that there is always something special about being in some kind of affinity space. This is a kind of affinity space that I’ve never been in before. That ability to move in a space together, knowing that we have some shared experiences and shared vocabularies, embracing the differences and uniqueness in all of us, and how we understand our expansive identities. It’s been really special and transformative, and more impactful on me personally than I anticipated it would.
JH:One of the things that I would love to hear from you two is how you think the field or other theater organizations or artists groups could be better and more inclusive of trans and nonbinary folks, gender expansive artists and audiences? What are the conversations that theaters and theater organizations should be having around this?
MR: The short answer is to just build relationships with people. The relational tools that we have are vastly underrated, and they’re also somehow not what people prioritize. Be in right relationship with folks, show up, support, and make space for people to ask what they need.
NBM: Know that building a relationship with one nonbinary writer or gender expansive, Two-Spirit writer, whoever they are as an individual—they are an individual. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue building relationships with other nonbinary writers. We’ve seen in this group the expansiveness of this identity, and the community is infinite.
MR: The support for one person is not going to be the same support for the next person, depending on whatever it is that they’re up against: class, race, access to healthcare, all this stuff. It’s a really multifaceted kind of thing. The affinity space is a way to signal and create a container for people who share an identity to be together with each other, but how do we go beyond that? How do we continue to be in right relationship with each other? Figure out what people need and creatively support them. The creative part is actually just saying, what do you need, and then following through on whatever that thing is. That’s how mutual aid is created.
JH:Aside from holding space, holding community and building relationships, are there other goals you have with this initiative?
NBM: I’d love to see other institutions give nonbinary folks the resources to create their own creative spaces. Like Manny said, the whole notion of mutual aid is that within a community we can often take care of each other and ourselves, and queer folks have historically done an amazing job of building community and providing for ourselves—especially in the theater. Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch both did it in the 70s and 80s, and now look at National Queer Theater and Trans Lab. But I want bigger institutions—specifically institutions with deeper pockets—to make the commitment to distribute some of their resources to us as well.
MR: We do need more spaces for trans people who already have been completely, historically excluded from this field of theater where they can find spaces to show up to do the thing that they are already fucking doing. These people are already creating. They're already writing. And so it's just literally creating the space, paying people, and showing up to meet the material needs as best we can.
JH:Final question: What do you hope this initiative at The Lark looks like next year or the year after? What’s the big dream?
NBM: I’ve been really inspired by another initiative at The Lark, The Apothetae Initiative, which is for Disabled writers and theater artists. Gregg Mozgala, our program partner speaks so beautifully about meeting needs in multiple ways—not just one program at a time—and also not just cordoning off Disabled artists and only supporting them in the context of programs about Disability, but actually having Disabled artists be a central part of your wider community as well. Which, full credit to Gregg, is also what impressed upon me how important it is to proactively include Disabled artists in this program.
And along those same lines, I would love to provide as many programs as possible for these writers. We have this monthly group right now. Maybe there’s also something like our Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop that could happen, or something like what Keith Josef Adkins does in The New Black Fest, where there’s a week long festival with multiple public readings. And, of course, I’d love to have a fellowship at some point where there’s a really substantial financial commitment.
I’d also just love to have the initiative constantly bringing more nonbinary and gender expansive artists to The Lark to participate in all of our programs—not just the ones that are facilitated by us as part of Beyond the Binary Initiative. This is just the pilot, so it’ll take a couple of years, but I’m sure we’ll get there. That’s my big picture vision. What about you Manny?
MR: I'm thinking about: How do we use this affinity space as a stepping stone laboratory so that there's some future where we don’t have to lean into these categorizations?
I'd be curious to hear what these folks in Beyond the Binary envision for themselves. How do we re-imagine these networks of support, and taking their lead? Because I guarantee you they will be really fucking creative about that.