Parker: Why I stopped acting at NU


Illustration by Lily Ogburn

“NBWays” is a column that discusses the trials and tribulations of transgender and nonbinary student life on NU’s campus.

Riley Parker, Columnist


I used to be an actor. I was a classic theatre kid all throughout middle and high school, the kind who listened to musicals, obsessed about upcoming auditions and took acting classes after school. I know what method acting is. I can hit a high C, and I’ve spat out some monologues enough times I’m not sure I’ll ever scrub them from my memory. 

Theatre shaped me. Although school musicals tend to tie their roles to the gender binary, directors often allowed me to choose my costume pieces, especially if I was a member of an ensemble. Unencumbered by the pressure to conform to others’ ideas, I could wear a top hat and tails in one song and change into a lace gown for the next. It was pure play that offered me joy. 

When I arrived at Northwestern last fall, I was eager to leap into what I had heard was a vibrant and bustling theatre scene. I didn’t want to go into show business professionally, but I loved the security it brought me as a hobby. I signed up for the late fall round of general auditions, putting my name in the running for multiple shows with one audition. When I learned that I had snagged a few callbacks, I felt elated. One of them was even for a role designed for a transmasculine actor.

I felt NU was sincerely validating my gender expression … until the cast lists came out. That transmasculine role went to someone who wasn’t even a NU student. 

Disappointed but undeterred, I tried again Winter Quarter –– but to no avail. I told almost no one I had failed, afraid I would be judged. Any director will claim they simply cannot take every talented person, but auditions look different from the fisheye perspective of the performer on the other side of the table. I thought I was cursed to be forever consigned to rejection. Shame stopped me from trying again, and it’s only months later that I understand that my transness may have hurt my chances of being cast.

“The Prom,” a flagship queer production that promises to be a colorful delight, is set to open next fall. I scrolled through its callback list and realized, although several of the roles are queer, none of them are explicitly written to be transgender or nonbinary. The callback sheet may be festooned with rainbows, but its inclusivity has limits.

Acting is not for everyone. It requires a specific cocktail of resilience, bravado and charm. I can’t say for sure that I’ve acquired the right mix of those ingredients, but I can say I probably would not have found success with NU theatre even if I had. Whether or not I can command a stage is almost irrelevant because I look like a teenage boy, I sound like a soprano and I behave like something in between. Gone are the days when that discrepancy didn’t matter and I could freely switch between different gender expressions in the wings. Theatre students at Northwestern are committed to their art, which means that even student-led theatre is imbued with an air of professional intensity. Gender deviance like mine — and that of other nonbinary students — looks like a mistake on stage.

I don’t see an easy fix for this issue, largely because it isn’t the fault of anyone or anything in particular. The vast majority of the published plays and musicals I know lack explicit representation of transness, and transness can be distracting in shows meant to star cisgender actors. I’ve seen individual examples of reimagined characters — including the Dolphin Show’s interpretation of the character Miss Honey as gender nonconforming and a staunchly queer vision of “Funny Girl,” both of which opened last winter — but these are generally aberrations. It’s rarely more than one character at a time. It could never be me.

Theoretically, I could play cis roles, but I would never look “right” for a cis part the way a cis actor would. So, I gave up acting. I started doing stage management work because I don’t need to look like any specific gender. Just a year ago, I would have sworn against doing stage crew; now, I find the freedom I searched for in it. Perhaps someday I’ll find another opportunity to perform, but for now, I’m content in the background. Here, there’s plenty of space.

Riley Parker is a Communication freshman. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.