“This is a play about courage,” says playwright Brooke Murray. “It’s not said that the three characters are all trans people, but we get it really gradually and it’s really delicate.”
Murray, 25, who identifies as a transmasculine non-binary playwright, lives and works in Melbourne and Pink Soap is Murray’s first mainstage play. It is part of Intersection 2019: Arrival, the latest edition of the annual showcase of new writing presented by Australian Theatre for Young People. Each short play is focused on what it is to be 17 in Australia, today.
Pink Soap is a rarity in theatre: a play written by a trans playwright for trans actors playing trans characters in high school.
“I wanted to write a play for trans actors because it’s so important for us to see ourselves on stage from a young age,” says Murray, who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs. “As a kid, even going to Sydney to see theatre, or turning on the telly … I just had no idea about gender. I had to go to YouTube when I was 21 to even understand what I was going through. We just need to see ourselves on stage, and I think that’s true for a lot of other marginalised groups in this country.”
Pink Soap involves two teenagers, Ari and Bo, talking about a third character known simply as “green pants”. There is a rumour going around school that “green pants” has used a gender affirming bathroom for the first time. The bathroom fits their identity but is not the bathroom used for someone of their assigned gender.
“It is so courageous,” Murray says. “We see the other two characters unpacking it and working through their emotions about it. To a cisgender audience, I’m trying to highlight how one act of going to a bathroom can be so fraught and anxiety-inducing. But at a deeper level it’s about coming to terms with all the different ways we can be trans. When you are young or newly transitioning, it is really easy to be prescriptive about it towards yourself and other people.”
“We don’t have a lot of role models.”
Murray says some trans people might think they have to be an activist or behave in certain way to fit in with the community. “So I’m trying to present transness in a nuanced way so people in the audience, who are young, can look at it in a nuanced way.”
Murray grew up in regional NSW, in Taree, and is from a Christian background. They started writing plays at 16 in high school, and worked on scripts in theatre clubs at university in Bathurst. But it wasn’t until after graduating that Murray started thinking about gender identity issues in a personal way.
“It was really long and complicated for me,” Murray says. “I realised I’m not a woman and I’m not a man, and I needed time to process that. From my background, I just wasn’t exposed to ideas like that so I had to sort it out for myself. It was more a way of seeing myself.”
“I did change my pronoun but I kept my name because it’s gender neutral and I like it. It was really trying to find things that fit the way I actually felt on the inside.”
Murray often felt that wearing gender-conforming clothing was like “wearing a costume”.
“But it’s not even about wearing pants or dresses. It’s really internal. It’s also about the way we present ourselves to the world. If you play with the light and shade in your identity, it’s a little bit harder to assert yourself to the world. I do feel more masculine. I’m transmasculine non-binary.”
“I cut my hair short. I got a lovely little buzz cut. That helped a little bit.”
“I want to be able to move around in a world that does understand that just because I’m wearing a big floral dress one day and track pants another day, doesn’t mean I identify in another way. To bring down some of those assumptions that people have based on looks would be wonderful. Now that I have sorted all that out, I have a voice I didn’t have before and I want to use it.”
Murray explains the word ‘trans’ is an umbrella term for a wide diversity of gender identities. Some transgender people have transitioned from the gender assigned to them at birth to the ‘opposite’ gender, such as male to female. This is a binary trans person.
Others transition away from their assigned gender into a non-binary gender identity. They might consider themselves “agender” or gender-fluid (whereas a cisgender person is someone who identifies as the sex assigned to them at birth).
“Trans is really an umbrella for a really diverse group of people but the common thing we share is that we don’t identify with the gender we were given at birth,” says Murray.
“A lot of non-binary people have what we call a social transition. We might change our names or change our pronoun. We might start dressing a different way. We might jump off the women’s netball team and into a mixed netball team. Or you might not change your pronoun. It’s really individual and that’s what I’m tackling in the play: three characters who have experienced transness slightly differently.
“That is why it’s important that we are in control of our own stories. I am the playwright and I’m non-binary and the two actors identify under the trans umbrella as well.”
Identity is not a costume.
Actors Salem Barrett-Brown and Harry Winsome play the two trans characters in Pink Soap. Barrett-Brown is non-binary. Winsome is a trans man.
“It’s really cool because we’re both trans performers and we’ve actually known each other for a long time so we’re very comfortable with each other,” says Barrett-Brown, 23, who plays Ari, a headstrong and angry kid, a “little bit punk” and a queer activist.
“The play beautifully describes what it’s like to be non-binary gender in a school. The first time I put on more masculine clothes – because I was assigned female at birth – I had a bit of a breakdown it was so new and different. But this play has a happy ending. Normally we see theatre where shit goes wrong, and the trans character has no agency or power.
“In this play the trans kids get to be the cool kids making their own choices.”
Barrett-Brown believes only transgender actors can tell transgender stories.
“There’s been a rush of trans roles recently now that trans issues are in the zeitgeist, I mean just look at the Prime Minister talking shit about us,” Barrett-Brown says. “So there are roles but not necessarily writers or directors. Trans people are more likely to be poor so they are less likely to have gone to the right school or attend fancy acting institutions or have the time to be at rehearsals because they need to work.”
Rehearsal spaces rarely make space for unisex change rooms or bathrooms, and directors rarely ask actors what their preferred pronoun is, says Barrett-Brown.
“If ATYP hadn’t done a callout for trans actors on Facebook, these roles would have gone to cis actors bumbling their way through a trans role. You will get a far better performance from a trans actor in a trans role.”
Barrett-Brown says in a perfect world, all actors could play all roles. But for now, the roles are so limited for trans actors, they must be offered the chance to play trans roles.
“Otherwise, trans actors don’t get cis roles, trans actors don’t get trans roles, trans actors get no roles. When a cis actor plays the role it’s like they are putting on a costume. My identity is not a costume.”
Murray says Pink Soap has been written for young audiences, but in an age-appropriate way. It is hopeful.
“The play doesn’t have any of the “angst” we normally see in trans stories,” Murray says. “It’s so common to see trans characters juxtaposed against other characters and there is a lot of angst. I wanted to write something that is a beautiful actor-driven piece, with a lot of poetic language that any trans actor can pick up and perform. I think you’ll be seeing something really different on stage. I’d like young audiences to be able to see trans people early and start to understand.”