About a year ago, a group of visionary gender non-conforming theater-makers banded together to mitigate a prevailing rift in the New York theatrical landscape. They staged Breaking the Binary, the first-ever festival dedicated to showcasing work by trans, non-binary, and two-spirit (TNB2S+) theater artists who previously have been systemically excluded or rendered invisible.
The response was so enthusiastic from participants and the theater community at large, they immediately began expanding the scope of their mission and plan for their second festival.
“The week was such a joyous week for me personally,” founding artistic director George Strus (they/them) said during a phone interview. “That reflected back from a lot of our artists and supporters. So my advisory board and I thought, maybe this is something that doesn’t want to just live in October. Maybe there’s a way Breaking the Binary can be a resource for trans and non-binary theater artists throughout the entire year.”
They launched community-building programs such as BTB Gives Back, where they amplify and award fiscal donations to other trans-led organizations. Since its inception in July 2022, BTB has paid out over $145,000 to more than 150 TNB2S+ artists.
This year’s festival has evolved significantly from their premier outing, held at Theatre Row in Manhattan. They have expanded their footprint into Brooklyn, at 3 Dollar Bill nightclub, where the opening night event on October 23, “Paradise: An Interdisciplinary Revue,” will feature a cornucopia of acts, including vocalists, drag artists, burlesque dancers, comedians — even a flutist. The pioneering event was conceived by Strus along with Noax (they/them).
The balance of the program will take place at the Shiva Theater at The Public from October 24-29. The lineup consists of five fully-staged plays with TNB2S+ themes, culminating in the closing night, “Bliss,” a collection of 12 commissioned scenes and monologues, co-conceived by Strus and L Morgan Lee (she/her), the first openly trans Tony-nominated performer (“A Strange Loop”). The roster of performers includes Sara Ramirez (they/them), Indya Moore (she/her), Lio Mehiel (they/them), and the illustrious Murray Hill (he/him/showbiz).
Compared to the previous year, the festival cast a wider net in adjudicating programming, launching their first open submissions policy. They invited TNB2S+ artists from anywhere in the world to submit their play for consideration in the festival.
“We received over 160 submissions, which was sort of mind blowing,” Strus enthused. “We engaged a literary manager and a team of over 20 trans non-binary, two-spirit-plus readers. So all of those plays were read at least twice to ensure that we were opening up our practice and getting multiple perspectives on the work. It was a difficult programmatic process because there were so many incredible plays that were sent our way.”
The BTB festival has already proved to be an incubator of sorts for TNB2S+ theater. Some pieces from last year have been workshopped or staged by various groups such as Clubbed Thumb and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. On the day of our interview, the finale program of monologues from last year was officially put on sale via their partnership with Broadway Licensing.
“So now, anyone across the nation, any trans non-binary two-spirit-plus performer looking for material specifically written by and for our community can purchase that work and license it and do wherever they’d like with it,” said Strus. “This is an exciting and fun way for that work commissioned for last year’s festival to continue to live on.”
When asked about the ongoing debate about eliminating gendered categories at awards presentations like the Tonys, Strus was optimistic.
“People dream of working in the theater and one day win a Tony. So the fact that, as it stands, perhaps it’s not possible for certain people, I’m hoping that the Tony administration committee can find some sort of solution that doesn’t ostracize people and mitigates any potential harm, so that everyone can be just as eligible for this thing that we all hold so near and dear.”
Because the festival is considerably larger than last year, they are able to employ more theater-makers and attract a larger audience. Like last year, admission is free, ensuring that people from all socioeconomic backgrounds have access.
“As BTB continues to grow, I think about how we can continue to lead with our values and lead with care as we employ more artists and bring more folks into the BTB fold,” said Strus. “I think those two things were really what made the festival such a special experience for a lot of people last year. So it’s important that we…prioritize care in the way that we do, in hopes that we can continue to capture that same sense of what we captured last October.”
Breaking the Binary Theatre Festival | October 23 at 3 Dollar Bill (260 Meserole St.) | October 24-29 at the Shiva theater at The Public (425 Lafayette St.)| www.btb-nyc.com/23festival | Free admission