Photo: Claire Avitabile, 2008
High Standards by Tynan Power
Bay Windows, Wednesday Oct 1, 2008
Standards of Care, a new work by transgender playwright Tobias K. Davis, comes to the stage in Northampton this week. This is Davis’s first play since his award-winning The Naked I: Monologues from Beyond the Binary, which earned the moniker “the trans Vagina Monologues.” Claire Avitabile, who was the assistant director of The Naked I, will bring her 20% Theatre Company from Minneapolis to produce Standards of Care.
In this new work, Davis turns the typical love triangle on pointed end with the hilarious and moving story of Nancy, Jason and David. In some ways, Nancy is a typical mother who is not coping well as her 16-year-old, “Jessica,” comes out as “Jason.” However, Nancy isn’t just a typical mom; she’s also a gender therapist who treats transgender patients every day. What’s more, she’s falling head over heels for one of her patients, an FTM named David who is in therapy with her only to obtain the letter necessary for him to get “bottom” (or genital) surgery. Meanwhile, David is volunteering at an LGBT youth center where he meets Jason, but has no idea Nancy is Jason’s mother.
While the unwitting entanglement of the characters provides lots of laughs, the story goes deeper than the surface humor. The play reveals how complicated family dynamics can become for transgender people, even when they aren’t outright rejected. It also explores the transgender community’s relationship to healthcare, especially around the controversial Standards of Care authored by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (formerly HBIGDA). The Standards of Care provide a guide for healthcare providers to use when caring for transgender people, and, obviously, inspired the name of Davis’s play.
According to Davis, the relationship between the characters of Nancy and her FTM patient, David, is unusual. Most people obtain therapy because they need or want a therapeutic relationship and Davis says that’s not the case for David.
“David doesn’t need therapy. He doesn’t need a therapeutic relationship. He’s there because of this hoop he has to go through,” Davis explains.
Davis says the play also shows how even liberal-minded parents who are accepting of LGBT people in general may have difficulty being accepting when their child comes out. He calls it the “Oh my God, not my kid” response.
“When you have a child, you have an idea of who you want the kid to be, who you think the kid will be, and then it doesn’t match up,” Davis says. He adds that this reaction doesn’t only happen around gender or sexuality issues, but can happen even when parents think their child wants to be an art major, but the child decides to study engineering.
Davis thinks that parental reaction is one of the elements that makes the story more universal and helps the audience members find sympathy for the characters even if they’ve never had any experience with transgender issues before watching the play.
Claire Avitabile, who directed the show’s world-premier in Minneapolis in June, also feels the story is accessible to people regardless of their familiarity with transgender issues.
“It was incredible,” Avitabile recalls of the Minneapolis production, “after every performance, the company was dedicated to offering a post-show discussion – which we are also going to do in Northampton – so people would stay afterwards and all the actors would come up with me on stage. We would just sit there and answer questions and ask the audience, ’What was your initial reaction?’ Every single time without fail, it was unbelievably positive. … Thank-yous for doing the show and thank-yous for writing the show. People who had no prior experience with anything related to transgender came to the show and felt that it was very entertaining and very human.”
It shows growth in Davis’s writing, as well.
“With this play, I really wanted to create characters that actually talk to each other,” he says. His previous works were based on monologues.
Davis also explores a different view of transgender lives. While the monologues of The Naked I focused on self-identification and introspection around gender and sex, Standards of Care goes beyond identity to the stories of transgender lives in context.
Davis is thrilled that Avitabile and 20% Theatre – which was rated the #1 regional lesbian theater in the country by Curve Magazine in 2007 – are coming to Massachusetts to bring those stories to life on local stages.
“When you write a script, it’s your baby. Then you revise it and it’s your annoying toddler that you can’t stand. Then you take it to kindergarten and you have to say goodbye to your baby and hope they’re going to take care of it,” he says.
20% Theatre did just that, according to Davis, when they presented Standards of Care in Minneapolis to packed houses for a six-show run.
“Claire [Avitabile] is brilliant in every way,” he says. “She created parallels I didn’t even see and she cast the play incredibly well.”
Four members of the original five-person cast will be reunited for the Northampton production, while one local actor takes up a small part.
The show will enjoy a three-night run in Western Massachusetts. On Oct. 2-3, Standards of Care will be at the Mendenhall Center at Smith College; on Oct. 4 it will be at the Student Union Ballroom of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
20% Theatre Hits the Valley for Standards of Care by Tynan Power
The Rainbow Times, October 2008
On October 2nd, Claire Avitabile will return to western Massachusetts with her 20% Theatre Company to produce the east coast premier of Standards of Care, by award-winning local playwright, Tobias K. Davis. After graduating from Smith, Avitabile moved to Minneapolis and co-founded the 20% Theatre Company with her partner, Blythe Davis. In 2007, the company was ranked number one regional lesbian theater company by Curve Magazine. The mission of the company is broader than “lesbian” implies—it aims to produce progressive new works by female, transgender and genderqueer playwrights and to support those gender minorities behind the scenes, as well.
It makes sense, then, that the company would take this opportunity to showcase Davis’s new play. Standards of Care is the story of Nancy, a female gender therapist, who falls in love with a transgender FTM client named David. Unbeknownst to Nancy, David is mentoring Nancy’s teenager through his own transgender coming out process—a process with which Nancy is not too happy. It’s a touching and, at times, hilarious story that will engage the attention and the hearts of even those audience members who have little or no experience with transgender issues. Avitabile and 20% Theatre presented the world premier of the play in June, in Minneapolis. It drew a packed house each night.
Fans of Davis’s work may have heard of Avitabile before. In 2003, while still at Smith, Avitabile was the assistant director for Davis’s acclaimed The Naked I: Monologues from Beyond the Binary, which was quickly dubbed “The Trans Vagina Monologues” and went on to be selected for production at the 2003 National Transgender Theater Festival in New York City. 20% Theater will bring The Naked I to the stage in the Minneapolis area in 2009. You can see the playwright on Oct. 2 and 3at Mendenhall Center, Smith College and on Oct. 4 at the Student Union Ballroom, UMass Amherst. The cost is $5 general; free for students
2008 Theatre Year in Review by John Townsend
Rated one of the Top Ten Best Productions of 2008!
[...] Trans plays were in top form with yet another groundbreaker, 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities’s production of Tobias K. Davis’s Standards of Care, which is arguably the best play yet written about female-to-male (FTM) transgender life. [..]
“Absolute Brightness” & “Standards of Care” with Dixie Treichel
This Way Out (radio program): July 7, 2008
Gender issues are getting more and more exposure in the popular media, but that hasn ’t necessarily translated into more space for transpeople to speak for themselves. Enter the award-winning playwright TOBIAS K. DAVIS, a transman whose latest work, “Standards of Care,” found a world premiere home with The 20% Theater Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He and Artistic Director CLAIRE AVITABILE spent some time recently with This Way Out correspondent DIXIE TREICHEL (from KFAI-FM’s “Fresh Fruit”). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8:07 (click to go to mp3 of radio interview)
Tonight is your last chance to see a truly breakthrough play, STANDARDS OF CARE, by Tobias K. Davis, produced by Twin Cities 20% Theatre Company. While MTF (male-to-female) transwomen’s experience has become increasingly visible—such as the Hollywood hit “TransAmerica”—FTM (female-to-male) transmen usually are invisible to the point where many people might not even know they exist! After this totally engaging play, that can no longer be said.
David is a transman going through the psycho-therapy required for every ttansgender person, in order to get “the letter” from a therapist that signs off on getting sex-reassignment surgery. Played to perfection by Anthony Neuman, with warmth and quick wit, he wins you over by the end of the first scene. While he has romance struggles with girlfriends who are uneasy with his gender identity, David has a solid sense of his own center. What’s most surprising about Neuman’s performance is that while only 22, he’s communicates being almost in his mid-thirties, having survived some years of drug and alcohol abuse and getting sober.
Heidi Edgeton plays Jessica/Jason, a 16-year-old becoming intensely aware of her-his male identity and through the course of the play, embracing that true identity more and more. Edgeton deftly communicates the touching awkwardness, longing to belong, risk and rage at not being accepted in an extraordinary performance, that bodes well for this 18-year-old Mainstreet School of the Performing Arts’ grad’s future acting career.
The nexus between David and Jason is Nancy—who is David’s gender therapist and Jason’s mother. Jill R. Hildebrandt has the tough task of playing the most difficult character. Single for some years, overwhelmed with loneliness, confronted by a professional ethical dilemma and especially challenged by her teenage child’s adolescence, Nancy emotionally stumbles in ways that are all-too-human. Holding back nothing, Hildebrandt embodies Nancy’s emotional roller-coaster. With Nancy, Davis has written a character who reminds us that love and the desire to be loved can be tested by the limits of our expectations for others.
The friendship that develops between Jason and David is real and moving example of adult-teen mentoring—so needed in the GLBT community. Jason also has a quirky friendship with Stacie, played by Perpich grad Kaitlin Ziehr, which is another delightful element of Davis’s story. Part of what I found so deeply affecting about STANDARDS OF CARE is the weight given to friendships.
There’s plenty of believable plot twists I won’t give away. However, for all the moments of drama, Tobias K. Davis so artfully creates, he also has a near-perfect sense of comic timing. Just when emotional tension threatens to go over the top, Davis employs great humor. STANDARDS OF CARE, directed by Claire Avitable (who’s also 20% Theatre’s artistic director) has an important story to tell and does so balanced with love, humor, pain and promise. I fell in love with these characters and as with all great stories, I know I’ll wonder what happened to them after the final scene’s end. So will you.
How would you feel if your mother, a gender therapist, could not accept that you were transgendered? That was the issue posed to an audience crowded into a classroom in Smith’s McConnell Hall on recently during a reading of “Standards of Care,” a play by Tobias K. Davis.
Davis, 26, a Smith graduate and current employee, presented the play which follows the life of Nancy, a gender therapist, who does not want to believe that her daughter “Jessica” would prefer much rather to be called “Jason.” The play interweaves the interactions between Nancy and Jason, and Nancy and her patient “David,” a 34-year-old Female to Male (F2M) who is in therapy seeking a recommendation for “bottom” surgery.
Davis said he wanted to explore what it might be like for a gender therapist with a transgendered child and to “raise the stakes and make it even more dramatic.” The play’s conflict was loosely based on a similar situation had by a trans person that Davis met through a trans circle.
The play’s title is derived from “The Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorders” by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, a handbook used by mental health professionals to help diagnose the characteristics and treatment of transgendered patients.
The play progresses as Jason goes to the local LGBT youth center where he coincidentally meets David, who volunteers at the center talking with teens about his trans experience. A few scenes later, Nancy and David begin a relationship that crosses the doctorpatient line. Eventually, the play comes to a dramatic end as the connections between the three are realized and Nancy is forced to look at the hypocrisy within her relationships with David and Jason.
According to Davis, he tries to write plays that are accessible to those who do not have any experience with transgendered people butthat are also true to life and enjoyable for people who are transgendered.
“There’s not a lot of theatre about trans people, there aren’t a lot of stories being told and I think that our community has a lot of really good stories,” Davis said.
Davis has written plays such as Crossing, a one act play which poses the question, What if Jesus were F2M? and The Naked I: Monologues from Beyond the Binary, a transgendered version of the Vagina Monologues. (In September of 2003, The Naked I was selected to be a part of the first ever Transgender Theatre Festival in New York City.)
“I think there is this sense that there is a desire for a community,” said Davis. “Usually when a bunch of trans people get together it’s the Day of Remembrance, or Pride, or it’s a conference. … There is a community around here, but I feel that there are not a lot of reasons [to get together] that are not political or intellectual.”
According to Davis, he has always been drawn to theatre.
“I think there’s something that sets it apart from other media because you and the actors are breathing in the same room,” he said. “I think that in terms of gender theory, the whole concept of gender as a social construct and as something that you sort of put on and perform lends transgender material very well to the stage.”
The play was sponsored by the Smith College Staff Council Diversity Community forum and is open to the public. The play will be fully produced by the 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities in Minneapolis this June.