The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
Summer in London is a play written and directed by celebrated playwright Rikki Beadle-Blair, and is currently being performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London (8-29 July). It features an all-trans cast, including up-and-coming star Ash Palmisciano, who has kindly agreed to be interviewed by me for Edinburgh Trance.
Ash, first of all, can you tell me something about the play you're performing in, Summer in London? The director and writer, Rikki Beadle-Blair, likens it to romance and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I can't think of a more contemporary, twenty-first century piece of theatre from everything I've seen and read about it so far.
So the play is a cinematic style rom-com set in London following four homeless boys living on their luck. They all fall for the same girl, Summer, after a chance encounter with her and her life coach Joan. The story follows each of the boys as they try to romance her and as she changes them in ways they couldn't have imagined. Although this universal narrative seems on the surface a typical light-hearted rom-com featuring themes of gender and homelessness there is more going on under the surface. All actors in this play happen to be transgender. It's not the purpose of the play or the central point. The idea is that as all the characters unfold the audience forget they're transgender and start watching humans living their lives. The play isn't an education on what it means to be transgender but the message is to help normalise what it means to happen to be trans and to hammer home that we are all the same. We all, as humans, experience love, loyalty, heart break, transition, friendship and life's challenges.
What comes across in one of the promotional videos of the show is the chemistry between the actors. In fact – if I've got this right – you're renewing your on-screen 'clash' with the actor Tyler Luke Cunningham, whom you act alongside in the TV series Boy Meets Girl. What has it been like to work with this cast?
I can't tell you how amazing it's been to work with this fantastic, amazing cast. You're right I met Tyler last year on a cold rainy afternoon in Manchester waiting to film for Boy Meets Girl. We hit it off immediately exchanging our experiences as lads and trans men. I was so excited to see him on the first day of rehearsals for Summer in London. He's a fantastic actor and I knew the day we met we'd work together again. The others are fantastically talented actors and the nicest humans I have ever met. It's been a real experience working in a room with a majority of transgendered people as this has never happened to me before. It's been comforting, self-assuring and thought provoking experience I will never forget. All of the cast are humans first who are actors that happen to be trans people. It's helped me to be proud of my journey and also so great to work with such talented and experienced actors. Each of them have offered me so much support acting wise and personally.
One issue that immediately struck me about Summer in London is the all-trans cast. In the past, the absence of transactors when depicting trans characters has been controversial, eg in Transamerica (2005), Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and The Danish Girl (2015). How important is it to have real-life transactors depicting trans characters? Is this the way it should be?
I think it's extremely important. As an actor first I believe that the best actor for the part should be cast. However, who better to play the part of a trans role than a trans person who has lived and felt exactly what it feels like to be transgender. Also growing up in my small town I knew nothing of what it meant to be trans, I had not one single trans role model to learn from. There were no trans people in the media and this lead me to believe I wasn't valid and wrong to think the way I did about myself. I think seeing trans people as actors, as characters and as forming great careers for themselves sends a powerful message and provides great role models for young trans people growing up.
I'd like to continue focusing on trans identity for a moment, by asking you about your role with the anti-bullying Being Me campaign. Could you tell me what this means to you, and why you got involved?
What a fantastic campaign. I have worked with them along with an amazing charity called Diversity role models who focus on helping young people to be proud of who there are. I've been into schools with Diversity role models and delivered talks on what it's like to happen to be a trans man. It was the most terrifying thing I've ever done and it did take a while to find confidence within myself to do. But I had to! If only I'd heard this talk at 13; I wonder how much more confidence I would have had. There was a time I'd have loved to forget about my past and be like any other male without a label, however it's so important to help show young people it's ok to be yourself it's ok to be transgender you can still do everything you want in your life and actually being yourself is pretty cool.
To return to the production you're starring in, Summer in London seems to be like one more sign of a growing confidence in the trans scene, certainly in the arts. Would you say, in your experience, that being out as trans is now much easier than it would have been in the past, or do you think there's still a long way to go?
It's getting so much better and I'm extremely grateful for that however there is still so much work to be done. Most of the population are still scared or uneducated on what it actually means to be transgender. The more positive representation we have the better. We need characters in soaps, musicians, and all popular culture showing trans people in a positive light. There's an extremely high attempted suicide rate in young trans people nearly half. I truly believe it's because we as a society need to work hard to help them feel ok about themselves and the media can help change this massively. It's ok to be yourself is a message that we really need to keep alive in the media. Showing people that happen to be trans in a positive awesome way will help change this. It would hopefully help towards more human rights for trans people and better help and care.
Finally, I think it's worth noting that your acting career has already become notable in a very short space of time, especially given the instabilities of the acting world, and your own personal journey. You came out as trans in 2013 and already by 2016 you appeared in a major British TV series (Boy Meets Girl, 2016), and then in the short movie Mum (2017). Now you're working with a celebrated writer and director in a London play. How do you feel about your career and where it's going, and what advice do you have for other actors starting out?
After a crazy hard few years of transition I attended an amazing course specially for trans actors at the central school of speech and drama organised and set up by the legend that is Fox Fisher (trans activist and filmmaker) and the amazing Charity Gendered Intelligence. This acting course gave me a real confidence to pursue my real passion. I've always wanted to be an actor and performed shows every weekend for my grandparents as a kid, I loved showing off and acting like different people it was a real passion of mine. But my transition was so tough I lost my confidence and kind of forgot about it. It was this course that helped me get back on my feet with it and I was lucky enough to have a few auditions for Hollyoaks and Eastenders from it. This gave me further confidence to get out there, join Spotlight (an online actors job site and get an agent). I've also since worked with an amazing charity called 'all about trans' who work extremely hard to help represent trans people in the media. Their help and training along with GI (gendered intelligence) has given me a real confidence. Then I met with the amazing Rikki Beadle-Blair who has given me this amazing opportunity in Summer in London. I can't thank him enough for his help and his passion to help change the representation of trans people.
Being transgender isn't going to stop me from achieving my dreams and that's my message to anyone out there who happens to be transgender. Be you and the rest will follow. I hope to go on to play cisgender roles or trans role and I'd love to get on screen and be in a British film. My plan is to really work hard and keep learning as much as I can. I want to use my acting craft to help tell people's stories and educate the world. Oh and I wouldn't say no to maybe a Hollywood film either ;)
Thank you so much for the interview.
Ash, thank you for agreeing to take the time to do this interview. And good luck with Summer in London – I hope you can persuade Rikki Beadle-Blair to bring the production up to Edinburgh!
All the best. Gina.