Nonbinary actor and artist Bailey Roper doesn’t remember a time when they weren’t performing. Their love of the stage brought them to Philadelphia, where they studied at the University of the Arts. After graduation, Bailey put down roots in Philly, and they are currently appearing in the Arden Theatre Company’s production of “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
Adapted by the actor and writer Nia Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of the same name, “Tiny Beautiful Things” chronicles the experiences of an advice columnist and the many people who write seeking answers. Roper plays multiple characters and stars alongside heavy-hitting Philly actors Emilie Krause, Joilet F. Harris and Akeem Davis.
PGN spoke with Roper about their journey to the stage, the state of queer theater in Philly and their dream roles. Some responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is the story behind “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and what role do you play?
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is based on the book of the same title by Cheryl Strayed, who ran the advice column “Dear Sugar.” The play is comprised of a ton of letters written anonymously to the advice column and Cheryl’s responses. All of the letters in the play are real letters by real people that Cheryl responded to. I play a ton of different folks that wrote into the column, including an eighth-grader trying to make friends, a Forrest Gump-quoting boy with major girl problems, a trans man with family issues and about 20 other brave folks that wrote to Sugar.
What do you look for in a theatrical role?
To be honest, I’m not at a point in my career where I get to be super picky about the roles I get to play. I always look for the ability to grow in every play. It’s hard to talk about without sounding super wooey, but stepping into someone else’s shoes teaches you a lot. It opens a lot of doors — some comforting in how they reassure you and validate feelings of your own, and some that are super uncomfortable and honestly terrifying. Every character I’ve played has taught me something about myself. I look for something to learn.
How did you end up wanting to be a performer, and what brought you to Philadelphia?
I’m one of those classic “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t performing” kind of kids. I started doing theater in school and at the community theater when I was pretty young and just didn’t ever stop. Theater feels like a special blend of connection and trust that you don’t really get anywhere else, and I think that became super important to me early on. I moved to Philly to go to college at UArts and have stuck around since. I don’t think I expected to stay in Philly for so long, but I really love this city. The performance community is so supportive of young artists. I’m really lucky in that after I graduated, I had a lot of peers and mentors actively pushing me to make my own work and creating space for that. I started making my own solo work and was a company member of the experimental collective Plant Me Here my first two years post-grad. DIY theatre is HARD, but I think it’s far more affordable and accessible in this city than most. I feel really grateful to be a small part of that.
How do you see the state of queer theater in Philly?
In terms of regional theater, I’m definitely seeing a lot more queer and trans stories being told on stage. This is great, but I’d also love to see more queer and trans characters in stories that aren’t ABOUT them being queer or trans. I’m also a big advocate of companies needing to take responsibility for creating inclusive spaces when they tell these stories. Trans sensitivity training should be required for companies that want to tell trans stories. There should never be just one queer person in the room. Progress is definitely being made on a regional level in terms of including the queer community, but I definitely think tokenization is an issue. I wish it wasn’t such a rarity to see just one trans person in a play. There’s also a lot of amazing queer theater happening in the drag/performance art scene. I highly recommend following @hawkmothevents. The Bearded Ladies are doing a ton of amazing queer-ass theater that consistently brings me joy. My favorite queer theatre things are happening outside the space of “The Theater.” But yeah, of course, queering theater means going somewhere new that isn’t the typical theatrical space we think of when we imagine going to see a play.
What would your dream acting project be?
When I’m not freelance acting, I work in education, and I love teaching kids. I’d love to one day work on some sort of queer education theatre funky weird magic performance piece that toured to rural areas and brought queer resources to kids there. I was really lucky last year that I got to tour “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival to schools all over Pennsylvania. We went to some super rural places, and I was always nervous about being visibly queer in these spaces. But at every school, there was at least one kid that would come up to me and say, “Are you uh… queer?” or occasionally even, “Hey, are you nonbinary?” To which I’d say, “Yes, thank you so much for noticing!” Some kids at one of the most rural towns we toured to even gave me a they/them pronoun pin after the show. The kids often shared that their peers didn’t have an issue with queerness, but they had no resources and did not know how to talk to the adults in their lives about their identities. A lot of them told me I was one of the first openly nonbinary adults they had met. I’d really like to one day make something that is full of queer magic and made for young audiences that is accompanied by workshops or other educational resources.
What do you hope audience members will take away from seeing “Tiny Beautiful Things”?
This play is heavy. I hope anyone who resonates with some of these letters feels less alone. I hope audiences see the power of listening a little more each day to the unexpected.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs through Dec. 8 at the Arden Theatre Company in Old City. For tickets and information, visit ardentheatre.org.