What every queer, non-binary, or transgender artist needs to know
A conversation with Kaden Kearney, star of "The Prom"
I loved “The Prom” when I saw it on Broadway in 2018 and I loved it again Tuesday night at Shea’s.
In this tale of overcoming the odds, when the self-absorbed stars of a Broadway musical about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt get panned by the New York Times because they are too narcissistic to make the characters believable, they need some good PR and fast. They team up with a perennial chorine and an equally self-absorbed Juilliard grad working in a non-Equity tour of Godspell to find an attention-grabbing cause. The goal is to create the illusion that they are caring people. (They're not).
Twitter comes to the rescue with the story of a teenaged lesbian in rural Indiana who is not being allowed to take a same-sex date to the prom. In fact, in order to prevent this from happening, the high school has canceled the prom. These four egomaniacs head for Indiana.
Kaden Kearney plays Emma, the hapless lesbian teenager in the National touring company which is now playing at Shea’s as the first show of this year's M&T Broadway series. Kaden, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns “They” and “Them,” sat down to chat with Theater Talk Buffalo about this special show and building a career as an actor.
“This show is very very special,” confirms Kearney, in response to my confession that I cried when I saw it. “This is a show that has the ability to crack you open with laughter. People don’t realize it, but laughter makes you very vulnerable and open, and that makes it possible for us to touch your heart.”
Kearney talks about seeing The Prom back in 2018 while in New York for their post graduate school showcase. A “Showcase” is just what it sounds like, a performance showcasing the talents of new graduates from acting programs, attended by New York casting agents and producers.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be a fun bubbly musical, and it’s queer, which is exciting.’ I went and I sat in the mezzanine, and I bawled my eyes out during the song, ‘Unruly Heart,’ and that surprised me."
The lyrics of “Unruly Heart” sum up the themes of the entire show:
Some hearts can conform Fitting the norm Flaunting their love for all to see I tried to change Thinking how easy life could be
I just kept on failing I guess that was a sign That there wasn't much hope For this unruly heart of mine
Then, you came along….
“I was like, ‘Oh gosh!’ I did not expect to have that emotional reaction, but this show is sneaky that way. The humor is so smart, and the show is very well constructed, and because of that we are able to touch all kinds of people, and I think for queer people and non-binary people especially this show is very special.”
Kearney thinks the show is especially meaningful to queer and non-binary people because there is such a paucity of representation.
“It’s a desert of representation out there,” emphasizes Kearney, “especially for queer women and queer fems – in musical theater at least – and so, as you realized yourself, this show means a lot.”
Kearney feels honored to step into the leading role in this celebrated show, which won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical as well as numerous Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.
“When I was in high school,” says Kearney, “if you told me that I would be playing a queer role professionally, I would have said, ‘No way!,' so even in the last decade, we’ve come a long way. And I think that it’s still challenging. I don’t think we’ve arrived, but it’s possible now. I think it’s better in terms of queerness.
“You can be out and have a career, especially in musical theater. For trans folks and non-binary folks, we’re still in the beginning of that climb to acceptance, I believe. This role is not written to be trans or non-binary, but it’s still meaningful that I’m in the role.”
Kearney sees a trajectory of progress.
“In terms of my goals and aspirations, I would like to see more trans and non-binary roles in musical theater, and in theater in general. We’re slowly starting to see it, which is exciting. And then in addition to that, let’s take roles that are traditionally cis and put trans and non-binary actors in them.”
In terms of opportunities for transgender and non-binary performers, Kearney finds the musical theater less welcoming that film or television.
“People have the intention of being welcoming,” explains Kearney, “and there is a desire to create that space, but I think there is some learning to do. And that’s okay because learning is totally fine. But I think that there are some people who need to admit, ‘Okay, this is something new to me that I have not learned enough about so I am going to take a second to stand back and listen and learn something so we can move forward together so we can have an even safer and more inclusive space.’”
In this regard, it turns out that Kearney and I know someone in common. Alexandra Billings, who was the first openly transgender woman to play a transgender woman on television. I met Billings many years ago in Chicago, before she played such cisgender roles as Mama Rose in Gypsy and Madame Morrible in the Broadway production of Wicked. I mention her as a transgender pioneer in the industry.
“It's funny that you mention Alex,” exclaims Kearney. “She is one of my mentors. I did a show with her in LA and she was my teacher at Long Beach State. I love her dearly.”
So where does Kearney think change needs to happen?
“I think that change has to happen at every level,” observed Kearney. “In producing and directing, and design teams and conception teams, and writing teams. I think we talk a lot about diversity on stage, and yes, we want to see diversity on stage, but we do not talk about diversity in the writing rooms and in production. I think if we focus on putting diversity there, a lot these problems are going to fix themselves.
“If you’re going to write a show about trans people, for example, but you don’t have trans writers, you’re going to stumble. So, hire trans writers! This can be applied to anything. I think that sharing power and passing the baton so someone else can have a chance, and saying, ‘Look, you probably know this story better so why don’t you write it?’ or ‘Why don’t you join the producing team, so that you can be part of the decision making. I think that is where we are going to see the change we crave, and I think that just takes people willing to step outside their comfort zone to do that.”
I share the story of one of my former students with Kearney. A young transgender man at Buffalo State, just heading down to New York to try his chances in the theater, asked me if I thought being transgender would be an impediment to his career. I told him, bluntly, that there was no way to know. He would, in fact, become the first member of his class to be offered important work, when Daniel Fish cast him in his workshop production of Frank Loesser’s operatic musical The Most Happy Fella at Bard SummerScape, where Fish had also introduced his celebrated production of Oklahoma!
What insight can Kearney offer young non-binary and transgender performers, just starting out?
“I went through the same thing [as your student],’ admits Kearney. “In graduate school, I had long hair. I went by a different name. I wasn’t out as non-binary or trans. I was out as queer, but I was still very much saying, ‘I can play a straight woman at any time.’ I thought for the longest time that if I cut my hair that would be it. I wouldn’t work. I would cut myself off from all these opportunities. But the second I did, I started booking things. I believe it’s because I was way more myself, and when someone steps into the center of their truth, that’s riveting and interesting.
“I mean, look at Lea DeLaria,” Kearney continues. “There’s no one like her. She is so herself and that’s captivating. So for people who think, ‘Oh I can’t be myself in this world. I have to conform.’ It’s not that the road is going to be easy, but you have to be who you are. Someone’s got to be a first, so why not you? That’s what I would say to people who don’t’ see themselves yet. I believe there is nothing more beautiful than someone being in the center of who they are. And I believe that almost everyone responds to that.
“As trans people, we’re constantly asked, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure? Do you really have to do this?’ It makes total sense to me that your student wanted someone tell him that this is going to be okay. It is going to be okay, because it has to be. Trans people exist, and the more of us who step into ourselves, the less they’ll be able to ignore us. We are working, especially in television and film.
If I could go back and tell my younger self, back when I was a student, ‘Worry so much less about what they want you to be, and worry more about why you do what you do. What is it about the craft and the work and the storytelling that makes you want to do this? Hook into that, and figure out who you are. Focus more on being a full human, because that’s what being an artist takes. It’s not about being commercial and sellable. We talk about those things, because that’s part of it. But if you focus too much on that, it’s actually going to hurt you. And when you’re just starting out, you don’t have to worry about that yet. Just worry about figuring out who you are as an artist. If you focus on that, you’ll be fine.”