The Importance of Play – A Keynote Speech by Regina Victor

The following is a transcript of the speech given by Editor-In-Chief and Cultural Designer Regina Victor at the American Stage Lift Every Voice New Play Festival on March 3rd, 2023 at the James Museum in St. Petersburg, FL. Published exclusively on Rescripted.

Hello everyone, what a marvelous gathering!

As Patrick said, my name is Regina Victor, my pronouns are they/them pharaoh, and I’m so grateful to be here at the Lift Every Voice New Play Festival. Thank you to the James Museum, and the team at American Stage for hosting us here together, to celebrate six new opportunities to play.

I want to start with a moment of collective memory. I want us to think back to the first moment we ever saw a play, when we knew we wanted to be creators and producers for the stage. Think back to that time, and think about, possibly even cherish, the amount you have accomplished since that moment. The stories you’ve shepherded, the lives you’ve changed, the joy you’ve discovered.

When I was in my early teens, I packed up with my family to go to San Francisco, to the African American Shakespeare Theatre in the Fillmore District. They were running a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Like every production at African American Shakespeare Company, there was an all Black cast, from Maggie to Big Daddy. This classic American story – fit them like a glove. I understood Brick in my early, undefined queerness. I understood Maggie’s unbridled – and frankly underappreciated – ambition, I saw a complex relationship to land, and ownership, and capitalism that made perfect sense to me.

At the time, I didn’t know who Tennessee Williams was. I didn’t know the play, or that it was written with white characters in mind. This play became my truth, and that truth was I genuinely thought I was at the center of the American Theatre. I would later learn the history of the piece getting my Bachelors. This performance, in a small theatre in San Francisco, on a stage I would later grace myself as an actor, gave me the audacity to live the life I’ve built for myself. It put me at the center of the world in a way Black, trans people often aren’t. It entitled me to a central, popularized narrative and existence.

The industry since has woken me from this utopian dream with its realities of oppression and mistreatment. But I’ve never lost that feeling – that I know, secretly, the theatre is for me. We all have a story like this or we would not be here today.

Looking out into this audience I am also sure that every single one of us between that first spark of joy, and this moment here together, have found ourselves stricken with a shared, vicious doubt. Why have we chosen this profession? I am here to recognize that fear, to alchemize that fear. To look it in the eye alongside you, and do my part to ease that doubt, and empower us all with the importance of our worth. With the importance of Play.

In the Summer of 2022, I was the dramaturg on Qui Nguyen and the Vampire Cowboys’ new play, Revenge Song at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This was a punk comedy romp and queer coming of age story set in the 1790s, with a 1990s punk aesthetic. After a raucous four previews, we opened in June.

It was not until I visited in September, and saw multiple performances during the run, that I was able to truly observe the impact of the power of representation

Each night after the performance, there would be a different pair or group of young people, often teenagers, dressed in full 17th century-meets-Joan-Jett inspired regalia.

Each night I watched their eyes brim with tears. I heard screams of enthusiasm escape their throats, rising to fill the dark Oregon sky with primal cries of pride.

Each night, they would rush to the performers telling them this was their second, fourth, seventh time seeing the show. Tears in their eyes, saying they had never seen something represent them so completely, so close that they could touch.

This is the importance of play.

New play. Visceral play. An embodied show and tell proving that you are not alone.

Revenge song marked the end of a period of over 6 months being away from my home working on new plays. A home I thought I understood. A home on which I thought I had a clear dramaturgical take.

I walked in my front door at the end of those six months, and everything about my old life was unrecognizable to me. I pushed against the narrative of my old life as though it were a new play.

I found the characters stale, at the mercy of the power dynamics they had created and unknowingly upheld, and like every new story I encounter, I set about stabilizing the draft.

I left my abuser, and began to take control of my narrative. Thus began a critical re-writing of my life, with characters entering and exiting, and a dramatic shift in the circumstances and setting of my story.

I could not imagine a different circumstance or way of living/being without the dexterity, mobility, and scope of creative imagination gifted to me by artists working on new plays for six months.

This, too, is the importance of play.

An essential character that entered my life during that time, was Will Davis, the recently appointed Artistic Director of Rattlestick Theatre in New York. He was co-directing a predominantly transgender and queer cast of performers in As You Like It at La Jolla Playhouse with their Artistic Director and Tony-Winner Christopher Ashley. They wanted me to serve as dramaturg.

I packed up and made my way to the ocean. This production, after all I had been through, was a critical experiment in creation for me. For most of us, our love of the arts began in a place of joy. Yet, we know all too well what it is to make art out of our pain, to make worlds that enclose our traumas. This is important work, but it was not the work I needed then.

Will Davis wanted to create what he called a Gender-Full world. As in, a world full of gender, rather than devoid of it, a sort of queer-conscious casting. He said to me, what happens if two trans girls go on an adventure in the woods and nobody gets hurt, and everybody falls in love? It was a story I had personally never seen.

This invitation came with a collaborative request: could I, as dramaturg, help to create a queer world comprised only of joy? I needed to answer this question. As a Black, trans, artist I was craving this space of joy, to live in the afterbirth of a nation built for me.

For the first time in my life, I am thrilled to report, as a team we achieved that dream on and offstage. You see, though I started the process as a dramaturg, I was later cast in the show, understudying Oliver and Orlando, and playing their brother, Jaques de Boys. Not only did I get to help build this queer joyous world, I got to embody it, live in it, and share it with thousands of people including students.

At our first music rehearsal, we sang in layers of one, two, and three instead of the traditional soprano, alto, and tenor thanks to our music director T Carlis Roberts. As we sang together for the first time, Will’s eyes brimmed with tears, and soon many of us were crying. Many trans people can experience vocal trauma and insecurity, and many people in the room had given up singing because hormones had altered their voices, or we simply didn’t feel comfortable with the way we sounded anymore. A community of trans folks singing collectively and joyously was something many of us had never experienced.

We brought those songs to the stage, and one of the most memorable performances was our student matinee. The full roar of the students was consistent from the opening beats of the show when we entered dancing ballroom to Lizzo doing, to the celebratory wedding, to the finale when we belted Cheryl Lynn’s Got to Be Real.

This is the story of an old play, done in a new way, and it was one of the most powerful and liberating experiences of my career.

So what possibilities lie in the new stories we will see here? Dillon, Melissa, Jayne, Doug, Miguel, and Madeline and their creative teams are inviting us into six new stories that can be created into worlds that will change lives.

I have learned that to make a better story, someone has to be brave enough to step onto the stage, or into the world, to create something new. Is that someone, destined for the stage, possibly you?

I hope to meet you all during this exciting weekend of discovery ahead, and hear about your creations. Until then, please, enjoy the festival!!!

Photo by Travis Hawkes. L-R, Jayne Deely, Miguel Muñoz, Regina Victor,  and Dillon Chitto at the Lift Every Voice New Play Festival at American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

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