Theda Hammel Wants More Trans Stories, Especially Boring Ones

Theda Hammel Wants More Trans Stories, Especially Boring Ones

by Christopher Barnard

You may not be familiar with Wallace Shawn's rarely produced 1978 play Marie & Bruce, and that's okay. But Shawn, the prolific playwright and actor perhaps best known to lay people for his roles in Clueless, My Dinner With Andre, and The Princess Bride, has an ardent fan in actress and musician Theda Hammel who is currently starring in the (*very Beanie Feldstein voice*) titular role (Marie) at JACK in Clinton Hill through July 28.

The piece, produced by comedian John Early and directed by Knud Adams, is an atmospheric exploration of the extreme emotional corners a couple finds themselves in during a steamy summer evening, with a scatalogical monologue or two to boot. Hammel, whom you may know from her popular stint hosting as Hamm Samwich (alongside Early) at Ars Nova's much beloved Showgasm or Hamm Radio karaoke in Williamsburg, is trans, and thus Marie has been recontextualized to be trans as well. In this particular moment when the debate surrounding cis actors playing trans parts makes headlines, this production of Marie and Bruce is a rather timely antidote to that notion.

PAPER spoke with Hammel about playing Marie, the not-so-two-way street in cis/trans casting (for now), her interest in "trans boredom," and collaborating again with Early.

What was your first introduction to the play?

Wallace Shawn is a very brilliant but very underrepresented playwright, and doesn't get performed as much as he should. I was lucky enough to have a theatre director in high school give me one of his plays, not this one. I became fascinated by that and went to the library and checked out Marie and Bruce. It begins with this amazing torrent of vulgarity. Right away a flood of profanity and being quite engrossed and fascinated by it. It had a cool shape to it.

Is it adapted at all? I know Wallace Shawn is involved, but is it the same script?

When there is an official, proper revival of one of his plays he always revises the text. So he has a very kind of non-precious view of his own work. We are using a base version of the original 1978 script because that's the one that I fell in love with. And there are some things in the newer version that are really interesting, but it wasn't the exact same play.

It still feels very '70s? How does it work for now?

I totally agree. We're all kind of time bound. It's governed by the circumstances we're in. They are a youngish married couple, supposed to be in their thirties who go to this party. In a way the dialogue of the party can't help but be inflected by the diction of the '70s. Our production is not set in the '70s. That's kind of boring and because we really wanted to situate it in a world where it seems plausible that a cis man could date or even marry a trans woman and take her to a party without it being a huge upheaval.

"We really wanted to situate it in a world where it seems plausible that a cis man could date or even marry a trans woman and take her to a party without it being a huge upheaval."

So Marie is trans in this?


Or does it really matter?

I guess there are different ways to do it. If I was less visibly trans, if I was a more passing trans woman, we could maybe just do an interpretation where we didn't think about it at all, where it's just implied or assumed that I'm a cis woman, a cis actress, a cis wife. There's another interpretation where it can be kind of trans blind, "gender blind" — which I very much don't want to do that. [Laughs] So what I want to represent is trans heterosexuality where one party is trans, but it's like a heterosexual pairing. It's not a queer pairing in my opinion. And then the way that things play out, I'm not like eating estrogen on stage, and like tape tucking myself while sobbing into a mirror. I'm just on stage looking trans. And then all of the work of building out our interpretation and working in rehearsal and getting these subtle kind of things, we really try to incorporate and foreground the fact of Marie's transness for our own benefit. There is no explicit mention of it or allusion to it. She just kind of sits on a couch at this party and feels really alienated, which I think can be a very trans experience. And so hopefully it's self-evident.

Very recently there was the backlash against Scarlett Johansson, a cis actress being cast in a trans role. You're taking on a role that heretofore was cis and are recontextualizing it.

The street doesn't go both ways. The actors who are famous who are cis, and the institution that keeps them employed "Hollywood" — because they have their foot in the water of the contemporary pop-culture zeitgeist and realize that trans people are very much in the news, it falls into the category of "good, right thinking" and liberal thinking. I'm Jared Leto and I'm going to do a "sensitive" portrayal of whatever. The truth is though that their eye and their hearts always land on stories about trans experience that are completely sentimental and kind of pitiful. Hollywood loves a sad trans story, like the end of TheDanish Girl, Eddie Redmayne out in the sunlight having a botched GRS says "I'm finally a woman!" then dies.

The point is these stories are conceived, framed and performed all through the cis vantage. And that has the effect of highlighting trans stories that I don't find relatable to my own life or to the lives of trans people I know or find interesting in any regard. What is much more interesting to me is what I would call "trans boredom." At a certain point trans people, though transness governs a lot of our lives, stop being so excited at the fact of being trans — like the clothes and the wardrobe... all of these things that a Hollywood actor cannot resist. They get almost aroused by all of these wardrobe changes, whereas for trans people it's just moving through life, centered in their own experience.

Yes they have ups and downs and emotional extremes, but those extremes might be much more similar to those of a cis person. Instead of waiting for a brilliant trans part to come along, I want access to the same depiction of universal human experience that cis people get. I think that this play says something very essential about womanhood and relationships and about estrangement that I would like a crack at it. I'm ignoring all of the implications and we'll see how it reads. But I don't see anything about Marie that prohibits me as a trans person from performing it. There may be other variables like... maybe I'm not a very good actress! But it's not my transness.

"Hollywood loves a sad trans story [...] these stories are conceived, framed and performed all through the cis vantage."

Is that paradigm of cis actors playing trans roles something you're hoping to change? Do you think it will change ever?

I think there are two approaches: One is a very rapidly implemented approach, which is just arbitrarily put trans people in cis parts and then just proceed. Do not think about it. And that way we'll just give trans actors a chance to act something other than Law & Order: SVU prostitutes, and people who are being killed. The second approach, which is a little more intense, is for trans people to have authorship. And that is happening more frequently as trans people take the reins over their own representation. I think that Pose is a breakthrough revolutionary show in that respect. Trans voices are behind the screen and driving the whole vehicle.

Related | Janet Mock on Why FX's 'Pose' Is 'Deeply Revolutionary'

Marie reminds me of everyone in New York once it gets above 90 degrees would you agree? Just kind of unhinged.

This is something that I brought up early in the process. I said we need to place it in the summer because in the winter everyone forgets how hot it gets. Complete amnesia. In that way her having to share space, intimate space in a very hot summer with her husband and partake in all of his bodily functions, like there is this cloacal motif in the play that's hard to miss. Urine and feces, and the smell of urine. She calls him a turd and there is a giant monologue about shitting.

Obviously this is something you wanted to do for a while but it is a kind of obscure piece. Was it something you had trouble convincing others to get on board?

I didn't have to try to convince John to do it, and then we didn't really have to convince Knud, our director who has worked with Wallace Shawn before and directs contemporary, new plays. My expectations for this play are just that the people who see it find it enjoyable. The description of the play is Marie is going to leave her husband, then go to a party, and she doesn't leave him. There is no way to do a fun synopsis, so we're just taking a lot of sexy pictures.

You recently interviewed Wallace Shawn for Dazed. How was that?

It was really crazy. I just love listening to him talk. He had given us the go ahead for this interpretation and then he came to the dress rehearsal. I had a complete mental breakdown. I was like, "How can I do this? He'll be five feet away." But then the breakdown dissolved, and now I'm very, very excited. I think it's very warm and has a lot of humor to it.

Related | Talking 'Pose' with Mother Mj Rodriguez

"Instead of waiting for a brilliant trans part to come along, I want access to the same depiction of universal human experience that cis people get."

You've worked with John before on different things, specifically your iconic run at Ars Nova a while back. What keeps bringing you together, and for something like this?

I've never in my relationship with John presented as an actor. I think that John is so amazingly talented and is such a gifted, effortless performer. I know he likes me as a musician and as a talker. He and Kate Berlant had shot this pilot and I was in it slightly, called This Is Heaven. It sadly never aired. I'm just myself at the party and played a little song. He seemed to like my performance in this pilot and then I dug into clay with my thumbs and I spread out this idea that I might act a little bit. I really don't know what compelled him to agree to this, but I'm so glad he did. We met at the Atlantic Theatre in an acting program. Since then we've torn our shirts of the theatre, so returning to it we're doing it a bit cautiously and with a real determination as much as possible to avoid lame pitfalls that contemporary theatre tends to fall into. But that's where we met. I was really obsessed with David Mamet when I was in high school and that's his company. Although I no longer feel that much interest in David Mamet at all, it did lead me on a weird series of events that led me to meet John.

Anything else from you guys upcoming?

Nothing on the docket right now. Somewhere along the line I want to do a trans Hamlet because it has my name in it. Hamm-let. That's the schtick. Go straight to trans Hamlet then I can quit theatre. I don't wanna be stuck in the back alleys of theatre for the rest of my life. I want to do this, I want do trans Hamlet, and I want shoot a movie.

Photos Courtesy of Theda Hammel / Poster, Set Design & the Role of Bruce by Gordon Landenberger