On “I’d Prefer Not To”

By Jo Kellen


Jess Barbagallo smiled and shifted his gaze to the floor.

“People tell me that I look happy, so I try to believe them.” He looks up, still smiling. The folks seated at Red Eye Theater let out relieved laughs. He’s been talking about some economic and philosophical problems in contemporary performance: what does it mean for a piece to have impact when the actors are impoverished and seats are fifty bucks a pop? How can we measure impact over time? Are we (the artists in the audience) creative, political agents or are we merely clever assemblers wilting under our desire to connect with others?

I’m glad to laugh. I don’t have answers. Jess makes me nervous because he’s smooth, older than me, and willing to share his vulnerabilities with stunning eloquence. I’m young, newly out as genderqueer, and willing to share my vulnerabilities with proper artifice. He feels realer than me. Certainly Barbagallo knows how to use artifice, though — he’s a theater guy, after all. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Maybe I should take Jess’ lead and try to trust people who tell me how optimistic I am.

The talk’s over and all I can think about is loneliness. He just delivered an articulate polemic, elucidating several points on inclusion and politics in the U.S. performance world which have rolled around in my brain. He expanded beyond the stage, too, describing his experiences of buying expensive cheese to impress well-meaning liberals at yet another gala; navigating the difficult choreography of belonging as a trans body in a cis world. Jess made me feel better because he illuminated and criticized relatable situations. He made me feel visible. At the same time, he showed me that this shit doesn’t stop as you get older. It didn’t seem to get easier for him.

I’m a young person (twenty-three). I haven’t met many older, trans role models. Meeting Jess was a relief and a wake-up call. “How cool,” I thought as I nervously introduced myself, “a recognized, smart person who can tell me a thing or two about living life as a trans artist”. When I heard the reading of his play “Analog Intimacy” and sat in on the group discussion after the talk, I knew he was someone I looked up to. I felt assured that there were more folks among his ranks, too, that I just needed to carve out time and space to discover these artistic and personal relationships.

I saw his patience. I saw him look exasperated. He was so willing to be vulnerable, so eager to give and receive love.

Despite that, his work and his words gave me the sense that this loneliness I feel when I consider my identity might be an ineluctable piece of it.

At the end of his talk, Jess signed off with a story about being invited to audition for a production of “Our Town”. The audition was for a minor character — the milkman — and the twist was that another trans friend of his had been invited to audition. Neither of them received the role, and it seemed obvious to everyone in the room that neither of them would have been invited to play larger ones.  “In 2017, the inconsequential milk man is trans”, Jess concluded, and we all smiled because we knew he was right. What was he right about, though? That an inevitable part of a transgender person’s experience is that they will always desire to be within, yet they’re heartbreakingly without? What does it mean for this idea to resonate with me so deeply? For it to incisively and succinctly give language to the gaping hole carved into innumerable emotional memories? Mundane ones, too?

When I make work in rehearsal rooms, I crave unity. I aim to play inside an animate mosaic, maybe, some ideal, ever-changing shape made of diverse parts all contributing to a cogent whole. This is what I dream about. What usually happens is less poetic and grandiose. I walk in, often the sole trans artist, and we talk and talk and I get misgendered and apologies and flinching and casual sidestepping and talking and working and cis people flirting and working and talking and on into oblivion, sure: I experience this most days. Jess mentioned that artists are motivated to create with others because of a desire to connect. This is true for me. I want to connect with you, though it’s difficult to do this — especially in a vulnerable space like a rehearsal room — when I don’t feel understood. I’m jammed in a paradox. I make art as a response to desire and, inevitably, the problems within the social dynamics of artists stymie that desire.

Jess offered nuance to this conversation through both his talk and his play. He made me think about the powers of representing marginalized voices on stage while reflecting on its fleeting impact. He made me consider equally the content of performances as well as the interrelation between the artists staging them. He made me feel trapped while equipping me with new vocabulary. The words he organized around this tension are best described as technology: a new tool for me to use tactically against the loneliness I perpetually surmount. I walk away from these interactions, the play, the impassioned words as an affected, confused artist. I choose to interpret this abstract haze as an opportunity to grow and understand difficult moments as passages toward something else: maybe not enlightenment or even a coherent understanding, but an insight into the unknown shapes which precede and form a geometry of becoming.

Jo Kellen is a musician, playwright, and teaching artist based in the Twin Cities. Their work has been acclaimed by City Pages, The Grey Estates, The University of Minnesota Press, and Reviler Magazine.

Photo Credit: Missy Simon Photography

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