How do you go about living your life, checking in on your friends and not losing your mind when the world is on the verge of existential collapse? That is the question addressed in “Soon,” a world premiere musical co-produced by Philadelphia’s 11th Hour Theatre Company, which opens Oct. 28 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City following an out-of-town engagement at Prima Theatre in Lancaster, Pa. The musical, by Broadway veteran Nick Blaemire, considers this quandary from multiple perspectives, including that of Stevie, a gregarious live-in-the-moment type of person played by trans actor Carmen Castillo. PGN spoke with Castillo about the aspects of Stevie they see in their own personality, taking ownership of the creative process and the trans representation they hope to see as live theater returns. Some responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you give me some background on “Soon” and the character that you play?
“Soon” is a sort-of postmodern musical set during an imagined apocalypse that’s taking place now, reflecting a lot of what’s happening with climate change and everything. The lens is a kitchen table comedy/drama where Charlie, the main character, is stuck on her couch with anxiety over everything. The show is a little bit more about embracing today and what it might be like to deal with normal life as the world is ending. It deals a lot with her relationship to her mom and to the character Jonah, who is her love interest. It also addresses the relationship with her roommate Stevie, who I play. Stevie is much more of a live-for-today kind of person, very erratic, very much a firecracker who commands the room as soon as they walk into it. They’re a lot of fun to spend time with, for sure.
Do you feel like you identify with Stevie, or is it a challenge to inhabit them?
There are elements of Stevie that I definitely see in myself, and there are other elements where I had to do just a little bit more work. The fact that Stevie is very much encouraging Charlie to pursue her relationship and pursuing her to live life to the fullest was something I had to investigate, because I’m always the “Girl, dump him!” friend. So I had to figure out why Stevie felt so strongly about this and why they needed to push Charlie. And that happened more organically once I got to meet [co-stars] Matt [Donzella] and Imani [Moss], and we got to create our interconnected relationship there.
I’m interested in the message you talk about with the show — how it embraces living for today while being cognizant of the bigger issues at stake in the world. Would you say these messages are what attracted you to the project?
Absolutely. The scene that I read for my audition was the first scene where you meet Stevie with Charlie, and I was just struck by how casual and everyday and relatable this conversation going on between two friends was. Coincidentally, the person who helped me with my audition happens to be one of my best friends in the world, so it felt very easy to create that organically in the spare room in my apartment, getting my tape ready. I was super attracted to this idea that Nick captured, that everything is crashing around us, but Starbucks is still open and I still have to go to work in the morning. How do we deal with that cognitive dissonance? That is what it feels like right now: Everything is broken, but also somehow everything is fine at the same time.
How has your experience been working in the Philadelphia theater community in general?
My introduction to the Philly theater scene has always been kind of on the periphery, just because of the nature of who I am as a person. I’ve always been bouncing around from place to place. I went to college in New Jersey, which is how I first got introduced to the theater scene here, and I think my first audition was actually for 11th Hour. Everything has sort of been a random opportunity based on someone I met, which I guess is probably how it works everywhere. But something I do appreciate about Philly is how genuine a lot of my connections have ended up being. You meet people and think, oh, I genuinely want to get to know you and foster our connection. Not just for the opportunities that might come up, but because you genuinely want to be someone’s friend. That’s how I’ve felt working with [11th Hour cofounders] Mike O’Brien and Steve Pacek over the years. They’ve not just been collaborators — they’ve been teachers, people I can talk to and confide in pretty easily. They’ve also been around and witness to my own personal journey. I started transitioning when we were in lockdown, and they got to witness that a lot through social media and social interactions they hosted, and they’ve been really here for me through all that.
It feels like there has been some progress not just in presenting trans and nonbinary characters in original musicals but also in reimagining characters who were previously portrayed as cisgender. At the same time, there’s also been some issues where trans or nonbinary characters have not been handled in the most respectful way. As someone working in theater, what kind of trans stories do you hope to see onstage?
That’s such a big question and one that I’m always interested in, especially because it’s my life right now. As far as straight and cis creators opening the door to trans and nonbinary interpretations of their work, I think a lot of people could definitely take a page out of Nick Blaemire and Mike O’Brien’s book. They were so game for all of my ideas. There was a lot of, “Okay, let’s try it.” The character of Stevie in particular was originally written as a gay man, which is not at all my experience, and I could never have played the role honestly as it was originally envisioned. It was very important for me, when I knew that Michael wanted me for this, to really face it in a way that would be very honest and specific to me. Looking forward, I’m of a couple minds. A lot of people in my community are just hoping for more avenues for trans writers to make our own stories and represent our own people. Conversely — and not everyone is interested in this, but I am sometimes — I am interested in revisiting some of the not-perfect representations of gender and queerness that exist already in the musical theater canon, just from an explicitly trans lens. I think the world still has space for “Hedwig” or “Taboo” or “Cabaret.” I still see myself so much in those kinds of characters, where there really wasn’t any sort of language or tact in gender nonconformity or genderqueerness. But I think there’s still space to revisit that, but with the same kind of intentionality that we are hopefully moving forward with in the industry.
“Soon” runs Oct. 28-Nov. 7 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street. For information and tickets, visit 11thhourtheatrecompany.org/. Proof of full Covid-19 vaccination is required to attend this event.