Consulting on gender and intimacy in “Twelfth Night”

Justin Jain, MK Tuomanen, Brett Ashley Robinson, and Ross Beschler in the Wilma Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night." Photo by Johanna Austin.

This season, Wilma Theater is producing William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night” but through a queer lens. The play, known for its hilariously tangled love web, features cross-dressing, gender performance, and sexuality its crux. The Wilma’s production of “Twelfth Night” has explicitly embraced these themes, setting itself apart by giving visibility to LGBTQ+ narratives in classic storytelling.

Abby Weissman and Leo Mock have unique roles as Gender and Intimacy Consultants, helping develop the portrayals of the queer identities being highlighted. Through their work, they create a comfortable environment to assist the crew in bringing life to their creative visions and giving meaningful representation through the characters and the story. 

What are Gender and Intimacy Consultants and what has that been like for this production?

Weissman: Gender consultants are resources regarding stories surrounding gender and identity and sharing them in a way that is authentic, while avoiding common or harmful tropes that may come up. Intimacy consultants help safely stage theatrical intimacy and share tools with the team on how to be aware of each other and have agency and work within the actors’ boundaries. We led a few workshops focused on developing shared language and exploring the gender norms in the world of Illyria, as well as what it feels like to break those norms. It was really important to both of us to emphasize that the gender work is for all actors and characters — not just those who are trans or gender expansive. 

Mock: As gender consultants we can act a bit as tailors, figuring out ways to tell the story in a way that works for the play, the actor, and the director’s vision. We are advocates for the cast and crew members, we advise on authenticity of queer and trans representation, and we help avoid tropes and stereotypes in telling these stories. We also apply a BDSM & kink lens to talk about how these characters play with the power dynamics in their relationships.

What sets apart this adaptation of “Twelfth Night” as it dives into its queer themes?

Weissman: To me, it feels truer to the story. It’s exceptionally queer from the source text, but in a way that is not hyper focused on labels or struggles to fit into identities. I think it’s so clear in this production that sexuality and gender are fluid, and that romantic attraction can grow and change as you meet new people and have new life experiences. 

Mock: I know a lot of queer and trans people who love this play because they breathe life into the subtext. They see queerness, gender expansion, non-monogamy, even when the text isn’t explicit about these things. [The characters] go to the beach and clubs — places that can be sources of both freedom and violence for queer and trans folks — and it shows us the possibilities of finding joy together in these spaces. 

The queer community, especially gender non-conforming folk, are experiencing an influx of violence. Do you find that this production has a particular relevance to today’s climate?    

Weissman: The violence and discrimination currently targeting queer and trans people in this country is scary. With this production, I hope that it provides a space for members of the LGBTQ+ to experience laughter and celebration. 

Mock: Trans, gender expansive, and gender nonconforming folks are subject to such poor representation across media. I think we have an opportunity and obligation to tell stories that challenge the tropes that have existed for so long. The story is the same, but we’re interested in what it means for these characters to earnestly explore their genders and sexualities, not just point at it for laughs.

What do you hope theatergoers are able to take away from this production?

Weissman: Not all queer stories are full of strife, and while it is important to bring people into moments of queer struggle, I think it is also important to invite people into stories with joy and silliness. 

Mock: That queer and trans folks and our relationships don’t need to be perfectly understood to feel empathy for and experience joy with us. I hope people walk away with questions and get curious, and that people who don’t share these experiences walk away with a greater willingness to listen to us without needing to completely understand us. 

“Twelfth Night” at Wilma Theater is playing through June 25, 2023.

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