There has been a greater awareness of trans people in the media thanks to shows such as Orange is the New Black putting trans characters at the forefront.
Recently we caught up with Simona Continente, an Italian trans performer now working in the UK. She is to star as Lili Elbe, the first trans woman, in Lili, a show with an all-trans cast running at the Etcetera Theatre from 28th July.
We found out from Simona a bit about the show, about her own perspective on the role of trans people in society and the arts, and about what pioneer Lili Elbe was like in person.
Tell us about the show Lili and what audiences can expect.
Our production of Lili is unique, because it is a play that has been devised by an all trans cast. The company’s experience of undergoing realignment has been at the centre of shaping the story about Lili Elbe. The cast have worked with the experienced Creative Producer Chris Mellor to ensure that their true life experiences are reflected in the play’s narrative and as such makes this a play about coping with the trans journey: the hormones, the hair removal, the depression – it is not just an historical account of the first trans woman, so don’t come expecting a history lesson, it’s a story for today.
What sort of person was Lili Elbe?
Lili Elbe can be described as a brave and courageous woman who underwent a truly transformative experience that gave us a blueprint for living a new self. She lived in Denmark and Berlin in the 1930s and started life as a male painter, who was quite well-known. She was supported throughout by her female partner Gerta, who was also an artist. Lili recorded her transformation and her gruelling five experimental operations in a series of diaries. We use the diaries to focus on her later years in the play.
Where did the idea come from to tell her story on stage?
The idea of the play came out of my discussions with Chris Mellor our Producer who decided that the story of Lili could only really be told by trans people who had undergone re- alignment. I agreed, so he challenged me to work with him on developing the roles from a trans perspective. He then got support from like-minded trans performers to create a script from Lili’s diaries. The play was born and I was asked to perform the role of Lili.
It’s a collaborative venture, so how was the script worked out?
The script was worked out by us first of all having several classes on Lili’s history, her social background and the cabaret world of Berlin in the 1930’s. We all drew up a timeline and improvised around the significant moments in her life. Then working with a writer we developed a draft script which we worked in our experiences. The cast are all very enthusiastic, generous and keen to share personal stories as well as creative thoughts and ideas. We have been working well together and have shared many tearful moments too. We have bonded very well considering we were all strangers initially.
Tell us about your role in the show, and about the company you are working with.
My role is Lili. I used the feeling of isolation as the way in to understand the character of Lili, she was all alone in undertaking the five experimental operations and needed to find some inner courage to cope with her emotional and physical journey. That experience resonated with me too. The production is aiming to show that trans people can play a range of parts, and not always play to type. Trans people just want to be seen as being able to play challenging and demanding roles. The show focuses on the last few years of Lili as she prepares for her last operation, but enjoys her new identity and new life style as she looks to reinvent herself. A truly challenging role for any actress.
How does life in England compare to Italy?
As an Italian living in England, where I underwent my trans journey, I appreciate that this country is more advanced in adopting diversity and equality action plans in the workplace to protect and safeguard my rights. Italy still has some work to do to enshrine trans rights in their employment laws.
In the light of Laverne Cox appearing on the cover of Time magazine and being nominated for an Emmy, do you feel that society’s attitude towards trans people is evolving in a positive way?
Society’s view of trans people is evolving slowly. In this production we are aiming to show society that trans people can play a range of parts. By casting a trans woman in a leading trans part we are showing society that gender pretending is off limits. It is the fringe theatre that is taking the lead on these issues and taking the risks, not Hollywood. We hope that this is a start to true and meaningful casting in theatre, TV and film. We think the tide is beginning to turn, and that our play will help a little in influencing casting directors to cast more trans.
What are the main challenges that remain for trans people?
Trans people still need to put themselves forward in all walks of life and show that they can engage and contribute in all aspects of civic life. Our play is just a small start that acknowledges trans people can do anything they want to. We want to take our play to new audiences in schools and youth settings to reinforce that idea to a new generation.
You can see Lili at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden from 28th July to 2nd August. Tickets are on sale now.