How Playwrights Horizons Led to New Backstage Profile Changes

When Playwrights Horizons’ casting director Alaine Alldaffer began the casting process for Taylor Mac’s upcoming play “Hir,” she expected to do something similar to what she’s been doing for years. “Originally I was thinking, I’ll throw in a few wild cards here and there and see what happens,” she says. But Mac was adamant that the actor playing the trans character in his play be an actual trans performer.

“Hir” is about Isaac’s return home from the wars to care for his sick father as his mother—thrilled by her newfound freedom—seeks to destroy the patriarchy with the help of Isaac’s transgender brother, Max.

Alldaffer, associate casting director Lisa Donadio, and casting resident Bailey Jordan Koch worked over the wording of the casting breakdown to carefully avoid gendered language. “Bailey wrote the first draft and then we went over it and tweaked things and put things back,” Alldaffer says. “There was even a discussion about, ‘Is this going to be too complicated for agents during pilot season? Will they see ‘cisgender’ and go, ‘I don’t know what that is so I’m going to put this on the back burner until I can Google what that is’? So we were concerned that it could possibly muddy the waters. But we talked about it for a few days and then said, ‘We’re going to go for it.’”

“This is a moment for education and outreach, as well,” Koch adds.

As a matter of fact, the casting process of “Hir” has led to some big changes on Backstage.com. When we originally posted the casting notice, we were able to be specific in the text of the role description that actors auditioning for the role of Max be trans, but there was no way to categorize the role as transgender for the purpose of search; the role and profile search options on Backstage were limited to male and female options. Contacted by Playwrights Horizons, Backstage took the necessary steps to keep pace with the times.

Backstage users can now identify their gender on their profiles by selecting from male, female, unspecified, and transgender options. And they can further customize their selections by choosing multiple combinations of gender options, such as transgender male, transgender female, or just transgender (with the "unspecified" option allowing users to not identify as either male or female, if desired).

Casting directors and talent seekers can then filter through the Talent Database and their Application Manager without selecting any gender options (so they can see all talent by default), or by choosing specific gender options as search filters. Choosing the transgender search filter will narrow their search results to just transgender talent. Choosing a combination of gender filters will likewise focus their search on profiles matching their criteria (e.g., choosing the transgender and male options will focus their search on transgender-male talent, etc.).

Likewise, casting directors can now tag the roles in their character breakdowns with any combination of these gender options (or leave a role gender-neutral by choosing the “N/A” option)—in addition to providing more specific gender details in the character description, if needed—to attract appropriate applications to their casting calls. And actors can then search through the roles based on their gender preferences.

As for the final casting of “Hir,” which will begin performances at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater Oct. 15, the process became dependent on the passionate outreach led by Koch. After a “dismal” Equity Principal Audition, Alldaffer and her team were able to bring in 25 trans performers to read for the role. Many of them found the notice via Facebook posts that friends of friends had shared; some were there because Koch had contacted them via email. And the eventual choice to play Max was 18-year-old trans television actor Tom Phelan (“The Fosters”), who put himself on tape and then came in to read in person while in Manhattan to audition for college theater programs.

“I guess he’s going to defer!” Alldaffer says with a laugh.

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