Need a good belly laugh? In about two short months – the precise date unknown as yet – a new sitcom with all the main cast transgender or on the trans spectrum premiers on OUTtv. The Switch is not only filmed and set in Vancouver, its producers, technicians, and most of the talent are home-grown. The Switch is the first TV show to have a main character who is trans and is played by a trans actress.
This story by and about transgender people does not exclusively target one demographic though. While chatting with the show’s co-writer Shevon Singh, I asked who the target audience is.
“Anyone who enjoys comedy with a conscience really,” said Shevon, “We’re definitely writing for the LGBQT and the Vancouver community, especially the geeks amongst them. But ultimately the show is for anyone who wants a good laugh and (to) see the diversity in their lives – gender, ethnic, cultural, etc. – reflected in the media they consume.”
Producer Ingo Lou also emphasizes the importance of diversity in the show’s representation of the transgender population. This is, in part, why casting took 9.5 months. Ingo matter-of-factly says they had “embarked on the world’s most exhaustive transgender actor hunt in the history of the world”. Besides Canada, they scoured the US, UK, Australia, and Asia for actors.
In addition to Shevon and Ingo, I caught up with some other insanely busy people at Trembling Void Studios to get more insight on what we can expect. One thing I know for certain. The Switch is designed to amuse and entertain – a refreshing move from the dramatic edginess to which most of us are addicted.
Openly transgender actors are not entirely new. We’ve now seen Alexandra Billings, the first transgender actor to play a trans character on TV. She played the pivotal role in the 2005 made-for-TV movie Romy and Michele. Newcomer to daytime TV, Scott Turner Schofield is the first transgender actor to gain a role on a daytime soap (The Bold and the Beautiful). The list continues.
The shows, however, are definitely not one-size-fits-all. Most of the stories told about that segment of our population represent the bleak harshness of the trans realities. The Switch is different though. It is, according to producer Ingo, “the world’s first transgender sit-com”.
Hollywood has, for years, cast straight actors in roles of gay and lesbian characters. Currently, it appears there is a significant change of attitude underway in film production. I was curious about the difference – real or perceived – in such performances and asked the following questions.
It’s obviously important to you that all of the main actors be transgender. Why? Can a good actor not portray a transgender person realistically?
(Executive Producer/Actor Amy Fox plays the role of Chris, Su’s ex. whom she moves in with.) Too often in film, most parts are written for the more socially advantaged in terms of gender, race, accent, size, looks, (dis)ability, and so on. Most lead roles are written for a man who is handsome, slender, able-bodied, cisgender, white and has a local accent – a kind of super-majority. Over 95% of people and their stories then get frozen out of our society’s most popular medium.
Further, large roles that could go to literally anyone still go to the majority and “niche” actors are allowed only bit parts. We wind up paying Hollywood to make stories that say that unless you are that super-majority dude, you’re just a bit player there to support him.
When a role that is not dominant comes up, when there’s actually a chance to represent the other 95% of humanity, studios still decide to cast someone from that narrow and tiny super-majority and put them in makeup, or have them gain weight, or impersonate a disability or an accent, to play the rest of us. And we pay for it, both monetarily at the theatres, and in society as a whole.
We are making a show about the humour, wit and humanity in trans peoples’ lives. To that end, we are doing the decent thing and hiring people from that group. The common alternative – telling a stirring epic about humanity of an oppressed group while refusing to hire them – feels wrong. We also aim to set an example. If our company can find five trans leads (three of them local to Vancouver) on a tiny budget, then surely the big players can find one trans person to play their lead.
I don’t think it should have to be this way. I would love to live in a world where we write roles for all people, and any actor could play any role. But we’re not there yet. This is a good first step.
In your opinion, does your audience know the difference between an authentically trans actor and one who is not trans?
(Actor Chance Kingsmyth plays the role of Phil, a disgruntled FTM worker.) Absolutely. Cisgender actors playing Trans roles in my opinion is a form of drag which is gender performance. But Transgender actors are gender expression and authentic self. It’s a big difference and if you don’t think you cant tell the difference now, I guarantee by the end of our show you will know and understand.
I asked three of the actors in The Switch about their best moments of filming. They share their thoughts below.
What was the highlight of filming the first season?
(Amy Fox) My favourite part of making the first season was how the cast gelled together and formed a kind of family. My favourite was based on the short “Bill Please” by Jessica Han. In our show, Chris and Isabelle, two very dangerous people, go on a double-date with Sü and Russell, who are two very lovey-dovey normal people. When the cheque comes, Chris and Izzy both insist on paying and get into a slapstick fight that destroys the restaurant.
(Chance Kingsmyth) During filming I got to wear a few hats on set and help with production behind the camera and I got to meet a lot of fun crazy and amazing people that you don’t often get to know when you’re in front of the camera. And lots of hummus!
(Vincent Viezzer plays the role of Zoey, an orphaned Trans teen-ager.) There were so many parts of production that were exciting to shoot. We had a raccoon adult and some raccoon pups on set with an animal trainer to use for a scene with Zoey. I didn’t realize I was going to be in a scene with raccoons until I arrived on set! I was a little nervous, but they were calm and so well-behaved. We got some really great shots.
I think one of the biggest highlights was shooting Doomball, a sport that Sü signs up for, only to realize she is in way over her head. It’s a cross between roller derby and dodgeball. There was an ensemble feeling amongst all the cast, and we got to do some stunts! The audience is going to have a blast watching this, because we had an incredible amount of fun on set.
Amy Fox and Ingo Lou are both new producers and recent graduates of film school (Langara Film Arts). But don’t let their freshness fool you.
As brilliant producers do, together they have a grand vision. Trembling Void is bringing that vision to full technicolour, which we get to witness this Fall on OUTtv. If you prefer, you’ll also be able to download and stream it at roughly the same time.
Good producers have an uncanny sense about the “lay of the land”, and how to move Heaven and Earth to traverse that land. This power team is no different.
Early in the game, they recognized the need for a strategy to develop an ongoing stream of talent. So they established an acting school – ReAct is for people who experience barriers to artistic training. There are two programs: One for visual storytellers (which is funded by Canada Council) and the second is for acting.
They have, in fact, just got a Canada Council grant to move forward with React. The grant is generous enough to run the school for a year. Beyond that first year, they will be reliant on sponsors to fund operating costs. So the word is out – Trembling Void is currently in search of sponsors!
If you want more behind the scenes stories, photos and the latest news on The Switch and other transgender TV, there’s a Facebook page for that!