An Open Letter: A Statement to the Public Theater

Dear friends:

It took me a while to build up the courage to write this letter. Even now there is a certain level of anxiety that my speaking out will cost me opportunity, but I can no longer stay silent. The cost of my self-worth is too high. I couldn’t have begun to type this out without the courage of Karen Olivo, Eden Espinosa, Jaime Cepero, Sis and other artists who’ve spoken out about the abuses in our industry. The most recent March on Broadway, it’s organizers, and the support I’ve received from family and friends in the business have all inspired me to have courage in sharing my own story. I questioned whether to even publish this letter for fear it would read as just an actor’s ego driven complaint form, but for me it’s most important that my experiences are heard and in hopes empower others to speak up against the harm they face in this industry.

Like many trans actors in this industry, I have faced immense marginalization because of the intersectionalities of my identities. Being South Asian and being trans has greatly limited the types of opportunities I am called in for. Still, 24 years into this business, I have had a very successful career, spanning regional work, a Broadway national tour, film and television. But all of that success didn’t come without a cost to my self-worth and a lot of harm endured.

I could talk at great lengths about how I dedicated 5 years of my late teens and early twenties to the creation of Bombay Dreams only to be told by the casting director that I was too authentic to play an Indian trans woman. The coded language there was that they wanted someone the audience could point and laugh at, and the role ultimately went to a cis man, dressed in a saree and a wig in both the West End and Broadway productions despite having me as part of both workshops.

I could talk at great lengths about the many auditions trying to be trans inclusive only to make me sing music written for cis women and refusing to transpose it. Or having been told I should “sing like a woman because I sound like a man” during a Broadway workshop by a well-known Tony Award winning director and her MD.

I could talk about whenever the most minimal space is created for trans actors, every trans person in New York City is called into the appointment — not to cater to opportunities for trans folks, but rather a lack of understanding of our community and our individualities.

But today I want to talk about The Public Theater. Known for it’s progressive values and diverse productions, this institution was an artistic home, a second home, for me for nearly 5 years. Even prior to being cast in my debut, I always aspired to work there having seen many productions as far back as 20 years ago. It was always on my career bucket list. I felt like family there: walking through the halls, I felt like one of the popular kids in school. I made so many friends, best friends, in that building, and from it I take away so many wonderful, warm, and loving memories. But I also take away a lot of pain and a lot of trauma. It is why I am choosing to speak up today.

Many may criticize me for speaking against a company that had provided me a home for my artistic talents for so many years. But as we are learning from the many folks finally feeling empowered to speak on the abuse they’ve endured in other theatrical spaces, we have been conditioned to accept what the system gives us in hopes that the harm we endure will provide us with visibility, exposure, and opportunity. We fear speaking up will cost us jobs, security, means for our survival in a system already built to make sure we can’t succeed in the same ways. So we say yes to whatever is given to us and accept the behaviors put upon us: justify them and excuse them in order to make ourselves feel okay about earning a paycheck.

But there is a point where you realize you deserve more and your self-worth is not worth any contract, gig, or paycheck. You feel empowered to finally speak the truth, no matter how scary it is. Because otherwise my silence makes me complicit. But my voice will hopefully empower and create change.

My relationship with the Public Theater began in late 2015 when I was cast in Southern Comfort after a national casting call for transgender actors. I was living in Washington State at the time, and my military husband had asked me for a divorce the night before I flew out to New York for my final call back. Four days later, I returned with a contract in hand from the Public, and divorce papers waiting at home. As scary as it was that my marriage was ending, this new job, in my hometown was going to be an exciting and rehabilitating opportunity. I had put my own career aside for four years in order to support my husband so the chance to be back on stage, and in New York again was a gift from the universe. Bright eyed and full of hope, I arrived a few weeks before rehearsals began.

Southern Comfort is a new musical about a group of trans folks living in rural Georgia who create a chosen family among themselves. Shunned by their own families, they find comfort and love in each other.

The cast of 6 was comprised of 5 trans characters and 1 cis character. Prior to it’s staging at the Public Theater, it had workshopped at CAP21/NYU and Barrington Stage. Everyone involved in the creation of the show is cisgender. Though actress and activist, Shakina Nayfack, was always involved as a trans consultant, and later P. Carl as a dramaturg, the actual production had zero trans actors in it. When it finally made it’s way to the Public in early 2016, the creative team had realized they needed to open up the opportunity for trans folks to live in these characters. The only problem: only 2 of the 5 trans characters were up for grabs. Cis actors had already accepted offers to continue their performances in the other roles.

It’s crazy to think just six years ago people didn’t realize the need for authentic representation especially when it came to trans people. Laverne Cox and TransParent were gracing the covers of every Hollywood publication; the industry celebrating our identities while simultaneously gate keeping our space and sensationalizing our stories. And yet we weren’t allowed a seat at that table, unless it was given to us by the cis creators.

Somehow justifying the casting for the remaining roles in Southern Comfort with cis actors and after holding a national casting call for the remaining two, Donnie Cianciotto and I were cast. Shortly after we accepted our offers in December of 2015, a press release announcing the entire company was published on all the major theatre publications. Almost immediately, the show saw backlash — and for good reason. Little did I know that would only be the beginning of a lot of controversy and a lot of transphobia I would encounter in my time there.

Before I even stepped into the building prior to my first rehearsal, we, the company of Southern Comfort, received an email — that an open letter to the Public Theater addressing the harms of casting cis actors in trans roles — was published online. The then-Director of Producing relayed how grateful she was for our presence in the show and the work we were all about to gather for, but not before ending the email instructing us to remain silent about the open letter.

“With a larger platform can come increased scrutiny, unfortunately, and so I want to alert you about an open letter that we received about the casting of SOUTHERN COMFORT from a local member of the trans community. This letter was also posted on social media. It is pasted below, in case you haven’t seen it.

Our communications department is preparing talking points in response to this letter, which we will absolutely share with you once they are ready. We care deeply about your work on this project (for many of you, that equals YEARS of work on this show), and will strive to honor that work, as well as to respond thoughtfully to the questions raised by the trans community in this letter.

It will help us if you please refrain from responding to the letter on your own at this time, and let us proactively guide the communication and response. This means if you or anyone connected to the production is contacted by someone (member of the press, blogger, facebook friend) and asked for a statement, please forward the request to [redacted].”

We were told to stay quiet. To shut up. About issues being raised about our own community, and the harms perpetuated by the casting of this show. They, the entirely cis creative and producing team, thought they knew better how to respond than we did. Than actual trans people. Once the show opened a month later, a Town Hall was held, yet the harm was already done and it was too late to seek an apology.

When rehearsals started, I immediately realized that I was the sole trans woman AND the sole person of color in that entire company. Though I didn’t realize or expect it at the time, it became a constant struggle to have my voice heard in that space. Once we got to tech and began previews, the show started seeing some changes. One major change occurred in a confrontational scene in Act 1 involving the entire company. I raised concern at the writer’s suggestion to incorporate an incredibly transphobic and misogynistic joke hurled by my character to another struggling to come out, stating my character, and a woman like her, like me — would never say that to another woman. It was out of character for mine to be so cruel in that moment, let alone appropriate for any trans person to say to another trans person. After all, this is partly why I was hired, right? To give input on the authenticity of the character I was living?

The director and the writer were insistent on leaving the joke in. Having my concerns ignored upset me and so we went on a break. My co-star and dear friend, a cis-white male, sat with me while I cried at feeling completely invisible and invalidated. Ten minutes later, we returned from break and the director gathered us all to tell us the joke had been cut, and then privately relayed to me that my co-star had come and talked to him. As grateful as I was to my co-star for his support and voice in a moment I wasn’t being heard, I should have never felt invalidated to begin with. My voice, the voice of a trans woman of color, should have had equal space in that room.

The pressure was immense as Opening Night got closer. The pressure to prove myself as a trans woman of color in a place that believed they were in control of how much space I was allowed to take up. Ultimately during previews, I got very ill and the show closed down for 5 days, with Opening Night pushed back. Vocal rest and all sorts of medications had me on the mend, but the pressure to perform and prove myself worthy still loomed over my head. While the Public Theater did provide every resource to me for my recovery, I knew what was expected of me after I did. Luckily being the seasoned professional that I am, I rested and showed up. Opening Night was a huge success; the New York Times hailing the production a Critic’s Pick and nominations from the Drama Desk and Lortel Awards, despite all it’s controversy.

* * *

About a year later, The Public called me again. This time to audition for Maria in the Mobile Unit production of Twelfth Night, directed by Saheem Ali. Having only played a character that shared my queer identity, it was important to me to prove that I could also play roles traditionally cast with cis women, and so once again I stepped up to bat to prove myself worthy.

My relationship to Shakespeare prior to my audition was nil. I studied it more than 15 years ago, for one semester in college, and it always felt inaccessible to me. Shakespeare always read as a space that was not meant for someone like me, Brown and queer. And because of my lack of education and experience with it, I didn’t dedicate anytime to studying it.

So in the days leading up to my audition and eventual call back, I watched video after video on YouTube of different productions. Though I got the gist of what was happening, I couldn’t make sense of the foreign language that Shakespeare can present itself as. Still, I was determined to work hard at a new challenge posed to me. When I got the offer to join the company of Twelfth Night: Mobile Unit, I was surprised but jubilated at the opportunity to give the Public a chance to see me as more than “the trans actress”.

Again, I walked into a rehearsal space where I was the sole trans person in the company. The weight of representation felt heavy, by my own doing. If I failed here, what would they think about hiring trans actors in the future? Gaslit into thinking I had to represent my community with my work, rather than being able to focus on my own work created a very complicated rehearsal process. To add to that, the marginalization of playing a Brown maid (Maria) to a white-passing queen (Olivia) weighed on my self-worth, already a target. Saheem Ali’s concept was all the servants were played by actors of color, and all the upper class characters were played by white and white-passing actors.

Each actor in the company was given an hour or two with one of the Shakespeare coaches. Coachings would happen during the rehearsal day, and the actor would be pulled for that hour and then return to rehearsal. My coachings were quite different. There were multiple days on the schedule where I would be in private coaching while others rehearsed. I met with both coaches multiple times, and had a session with the assistant director. I was met with frustration and judgment in my coachings — it was made known to me that I didn’t know what I was doing and was not on par with everyone else in my company. So much so, that on Opening Night, a month after we had already been doing the show on tour, I was told “you finally found her!” in reference to me ‘finding’ who my authentic Maria was.

I felt diminished in every way. It was a constant fight with my self-worth, convincing myself I belonged there. That I was deserving of this space. I was gaslit into believing I had to be grateful for the opportunity to even be there. All while The Public got to pat themselves on the back for being “more inclusive”.

* * *

My third show with the Public Theater, Masculinity Max, as part of their Studio initiative for new works, was a play I have been involved with since it’s first public reading two years prior. The writer, MJ Kaufman, a dear friend, has graciously allowed me to live in the character of Tamila throughout the play’s development. I was estatic that it was finally going to production, and that I would finally feel a little more safety in a room where trans and non-binary folks were in the majority.

Masculinity Max centers around Max, a white, cis-perceived, trans man discovering his privilege and the access he gains from it, while his interpersonal relationships around him crumble. The relationship with his closest friend, roommate and business partner, Tamila, a trans woman of color, begins to deteriorate until in the play’s climax she calls him out on his privilege and gives him a ‘woke-up’ call.

Considering the context of the play, it was a surprise to me that a cis, white male director was chosen for this project. Dustin Wills was not unqualified for the position having directed many acclaimed operas and other theatrical projects. However, having a cis man, here white, speaking on a trans woman of color’s experience became a recurring theme for me.

As opening night loomed closer and we begun running the show for refinement, one particular evening during notes session I was simply given the note to make Tamila less angry. That I was playing her too angry too much and that my performance needed more nuance. Stunned that I, a trans woman of color who often deals with being labeled too angry inhabiting a trans woman of color being labeled too angry was a trigger I didn’t even realize I had. I stared in silence and looked to my fellow trans castmates. One took it upon themselves to almost speak up, but noticing the hurt in my eyes and an uncertainty to speak on my behalf spoke with me after rehearsal ended.

Realizing how upsetting it was for me to receive a note in that manner, this castmate took it upon themselves to write Dustin an email, calling out his actions as inappropriate, pointing out that my lived experience as a trans woman of color is similar to that of Tamila’s, and that should more nuance in my performance be needed, it should come from the text: not my acting choices. I was BCC’d on that email and later received a email from Dustin wherein he admitted to making a mistake giving me that note but had not acknowledged he had to be called out for it. As though he had come to this realization on his own he offered to make a public apology in front of the company the next morning. I said no.

* * *

Acknowledging harm, making a commitment to learn from past mistakes, and a cooperative effort to do better is required for inclusionary progress.

* * *

In the summer of 2020, I booked my first Shakespeare in the Park show but due to the pandemic the show would be virtual. I was excited about the opportunity to work with some incredible iconic actors in Richard II, but the production directed by Saheem Ali, again, didn’t thrill me to be once again cast as a Brown servant to a white queen. But I accepted the offer because I desperately needed the money.

With the murder of George Floyd and the marches for Black Lives Matter rightfully dominating our lives and media, emotions running high and the focus everywhere shifting to the injustices against our Black family and friends, many folks of the company of Richard II questioned whether the show needed to happen at all. This concern was raised to Company Management and they discussed what might happen next: whether to proceed with the show or cancel it entirely.

It was to my surprise when we received our daily call later that evening for the next day that they hadn’t canceled the show. However, we would spend the first part of the day speaking on our feelings with regards to the then-very recent events unfolding. Many folks, including myself, reiterated and expressed the desire to cancel the show and re-allocate the funds to support Black artists by commissioning their own work, or to the Black Lives Matter movement itself. That now was just not the time for Shakespeare. Many folks, including myself, were uncertain whether we would return to rehearsal the next day. Each of us were given the opportunity to speak on what we were feeling. It was a private and safe space.

When it was my turn to speak, I spoke from my truth — that being in this space and accepting what has been given to me made me feel complicit in the harm perpetuated against trans women, especially those of color, in these spaces. Being cast in only one scene as a maid to a white queen, yet again — accepting that’s all they saw me fit for- made me complicit in how theatrical institutions view our talent and skill level. And on a larger scale, how society views trans women of color in general.

Our existence is threatened every day. We struggle to get life-affirming healthcare. We have to fight to have a voice where trans women, especially trans women of color, are so often left out of. We can’t get justice for those who cause us harm, and often times, even death. Last summer, many folks, especially white folks, were finally awakening to the issues of race and marginality that many of us have been living all our lives. It made my choice to exist in certain spaces crucial to a larger system. I could not accept being in that space and taking that role. Not if it meant that I was viewed as deserving no more than that, especially after all I’ve accomplished in my career.

I left the show that evening. Saheem reached out acknowledging my reasons for leaving the show and admitting he hadn’t even realized he had cast me twice now as a maid to a white/passing queen. He hadn’t realized. The marginalization of women like me, trans women of color, has become so normalized in spaces like these that he didn’t even realize it was happening. But there was no real apology given. There was no apology given for putting me in a position to have to leave my job. An HR meeting was called where I addressed, not just this issue, but all of the issues of transphobia I have encountered within the walls of the Public Theater. I assume they were written down and filed away somewhere, but that was the end of any kind of conversation.

Since then I was never given another opportunity to work for the Public. There was no additional dialogue that happened as to take accountability to do better. But the real slap to the face came just a few weeks after I left Richard II and that HR meeting; headlines across social media that announced Saheem Ali had been promoted to Associate Artistic Director of the Public Theater. This felt like a gut punch. A stab in the back.

This disappointingly and painfully showed me that my experiences there, especially under Saheem, were tossed aside. That they were not important enough to hold weight: that a trans woman of color’s experiences in the workplace were not taken seriously enough that resulted in her leaving a job and promoting someone who perpetuates transphobia as a director.

* * *

When companies talk of buzz words like diversity and inclusion, it rarely goes beyond statements on social media. The real work requires sacrifice and risk — something marginalized actors have had no choice but to take every step of our careers. The only way to create truly inclusive spaces is to hand the keys of the gate to the most marginalized.

* * *

I’ve been screaming into the void for too long. And finally being able to tell my story is liberating.

This letter is absolutely a call out. This is not a call in. The way I respond to my trauma is not up for debate. I am angry. Tired. Infuriated. In pain. Unlearning all the ways this industry has diminished my worth. I’m tired of having to relive my traumas all over again so white and cis people can learn how to be better. I’m tired of having to be the one to always forgive and accept apologies. I’m tired of putting up with the harm even in the aftermath. I am not interested in engaging in conversations and bearing the additional labor of teaching you humanity and respect. I am not interested in apologies a year and a half too late. I am not interested in doling out forgiveness to those who had to be taught to be better in the first place. I’m not interested in sitting at a table you built so you can pretend to listen to me only to continue to cause harm, and only to save face.

I’m too busy building my own goddamn table.

Aneesh Sheth, April 23, 2021

Singer, Actress, and Trans Activist

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