I met Becca Blackwell eight years ago, at a table read for a play called Pony, by Sylvan Oswald. Becca had bright red hair, wore their masculinity with ease (they/their/them are Becca’s pronouns of choice) and acted like a pro: an inspirational figure for a then-twenty-four-year-old baby butch like myself, new to the downtown theater. Soon after this star-crossed/studded reading (Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon, then an up-and-coming Upright Citizens Brigade regular, read stage directions), I invited Becca, at the suggestion of director Brooke O’Harra, to join the cast of the Dyke Division of 2HC’s Room for Cream, a live lesbian serial that ran for three seasons at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. Our bromance began in that black box; we have acted together countless times since. Artistic crises, failed loves, new hormone regimens—Becca and I have shared all of these experiences in a very singular friendship.
Here we chat about gender categories, the limits of language, Eastern philosophy and Becca’s upcoming solo show They, Themself and Schmerm,premiering at The Wild Project on October 6 and 7 under the direction of Elena Heyman. The piece chronicles Becca’s struggles with abuse, sexuality, and gender, reframing trauma in dangerously comedic fashion.
(Note: For those unfamiliar with the word schmerm, Becca explains: “A schmerm is a schmear of gender. It is basically the sound that people make as they try to figure my gender out.”)
Jess Barbagallo (Rail): So tell me a little about this show. What is They, Themself and Schmerm?
Becca Blackwell: They, Themself and Schmerm is a show that I am creating based on this video that I saw called Me, Myself and I, by Corey Haim. It’s kind of a train wreck, self-produced … I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s a lot of him fronting and showing and pontificating, and it’s very awkward to watch. It’s thirty-six minutes of just like … why? I sent it to my friend [collaborator/video designer] Jill Pangallo. I had also been trying to force myself to write, because I knew it was something I felt really uncomfortable doing. They, Themself and Schmerm was a title I felt connected to, just with my own gender. And then I started to write something that was my own, using the influence of Me, Myself and I and my own stories to make some sort of container to talk about myself, my gender, and my sexuality. Really awesome, cool stuff that I see everywhere.
Rail: Is this your first time making your own work?
Blackwell: I’ve made my own work before. I’ve never done a solo piece. I’ve never been interested in doing a solo piece, because I like working with people. I’m terrified of working alone, I think. And performing alone with just an audience has never been the most exciting thing for me. It’s always something I’ve been uncomfortable with. I’ve done it standing in front of an audience—like monologuing, usually other people’s words and message. So to use [the solo] as a platform for what my own message was, I think was exciting for me as an artist. Because that was something that I always never felt like I was honoring. I was always helping other people make work and convey what their messages were. And I noticed I had a lot of feelings in me—not feeling acknowledged or heard working with other people—and I was like, I need to do that, via my own stuff.
Rail: Was there anything specific that set that in motion?
Blackwell: Well, I would get really frustrated with roles for myself, because I wasn’t getting or working on stuff that was exciting and challenging to me. I remember going through this phase where I was just like, Fuck me. Can somebody just hand me a script that’s already written instead of me helping to develop it? Or developing their concept and turning it into something—it just felt like I was doing so much work. And I don’t think people realize when you just ask a bunch of people together and say, “We’re going to make something,” how much I’m generating for them. Like the image of someone just shooting at my feet and seeing what I do and being like, “Oh yeah—that’s awesome! So if I shoot at their feet …”
Because I’m not someone who is ordinary I can’t slip into really easy performance. It’s a Catch-22. I’m very grateful, but usually, because I stand out in what I look like or represent or am, I’m used to challenge an audience. For example, I’ve always wanted to play Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. For me to do that it would be like when they put Blair Underwood in it with an all-black cast: we’re going to do something very specific with a different race than it’s usually done by. Or if it was done by an all Japanese cast or an all Native American cast, you’d have to explain what their context was. Stanley Kowalski isn’t Polish anymore. (Laughs) So if I were to do that [role] it would be this “thing.” I haven’t had top surgery, we’d have to navigate around that. Would there be some sort of side note because I’m not a cis male?
Rail: When you’re self-identifying or being described by others what is the language you like to hear?
Blackwell: I don’t know!
Rail: If you were to introduce yourself to someone?
Blackwell: I think me having the name Becca makes everyone kind of like, “Whoa! My So-Called Life.” That’s when Becca became mainstream ’cause she was one of the main characters on that. When I was 11, calling my boyfriend at the time, his mom answered the phone and asked what my name was, and I said, “Becca,” and she said, “Sounds like a rapper’s name.” This was in 1986.
Rail: That’s hilarious.
Blackwell: “Becky” was what people used instead of “Rebecca,” but the only person who called me Rebecca was my grandmother. I used to be obsessed over the fact that my name was not Rebecca—it’s Becca! I never understood Becca as being a feminine or female girly name.
Rail: If you introduce yourself do you say, “I’m transgender … I’m a transman … I’m genderqueer”?
Blackwell: I don’t know. I hate the words. Transman. To me that seems weird. I know people use it. For me it seems weird. Language is subjective to whoever is experiencing it. What I experience, I would never assume that anyone else has. Based on the conversations I have daily with people, I look at the world very differently than most, for a myriad of reasons. I just can’t be lumped into a typical response. I feel confused by [language]. There’s new words popping up so fast, I’m like, “Shit—what if I wanna be that?” And then I’m like, “Fuck these words.” Who’s making them up? It’s usually educated, righteous young people. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I went to college. I didn’t graduate, but I went to college. I felt righteous. But my instinct was never to tell anyone what I thought. I wasn’t going to march about it or stalk you on the Internet and tell you that you’re politically incorrect. That kind of freaks me out—[the internet] makes me feel like no one has any room to work things out. It’s like being a celebrity. Everything is public now. You have no leeway. I couldn’t imagine if in the ’90s, I was taking selfies of myself doing cocaine at Crazy Nanny’s in the walk-in cooler, doing bad fucking slam poetry. I’m very glad—
Rail: —there’s no documentation of that! Does this show you’re making touch on those parts of your life?
Blackwell: Parts of my life where I was partying or parts of my life where I don’t necessarily know how to identify? I’m still developing it, so it’s terrifying. I was obsessed when I saw in Me, Myself and I someone who was obviously sexually abused, and I think there’s a way that you can see that in people. There’s a way, I don’t know, you can just tell when someone has gone through that. The way they respond to stuff. I’m fascinated by that. And the way they try to escape from the world. There’s a part of me that is really obsessed with darkness and evil. Going to this really dark place in ourselves. Where is that place? What good is it for? Climbing out of it. [The piece] has been changing more since I’ve been doing this qi gong— which kind of pisses me off. ’Cause it’s more complicated.
Rail: Making the work is more complicated in light of this new spirituality?
Blackwell: This philosophy of Eastern thought really opens up the playing field: that everything happens for a reason, there’s an essence of destiny, and there is a freedom of choice. You are literally alone for your spiritual journey, and each of us has an individual journey. Or we don’t have to be alone for it, but it is very individual.
Rail: You’re feeling silly about universalizing your story? Is that the tension?
Blackwell: It’s just gonna be me talking about—and hopefully I do it in an interesting and engaging way and give people a space to enjoy—the humor of being molested. Good old knee-slappin’. And I think there’s a part of me that likes to “Take Back the Night”—how do I make being molested funny? ’Cause it was a horrible dark thing. It’s very confusing. How could someone not molest children? Look at the way we structure the world. Look at how we structure marriage. Just in the last sixty years, marriage [has stopped being] about ownership and property.
Rail: So there’s an entitlement to children’s bodies.
Blackwell: That’s the way I see it. I see, as I get older, that adults are dumb. I’m a forty-two-year old and from what I remember of my parents at forty-two, they didn’t know shit.
Rail: In your life have you encountered anyone of wisdom?
Blackwell: There’s definitely people I’ve met of wisdom, but I’ve realized they’re not always in a state of being wise. You can always find people who can teach you something. Even the biggest dick, inconsiderate, narcissistic, clueless person can teach me and show me wisdom. I wouldn’t say they’re always wise. I would never say I am. I feel like I’m walking around half the time trying to figure it out. This is why I never wanted to make a solo show ’cause I was like, Oh my God. My feelings change every few days—things I wrote, whatever I was looking at. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve come to new conclusions.
For me it’s just really hard to grapple with. When I use other people’s shows and containers, I can manipulate myself, and I also know that the point is for me to shine for their work and myself through it, so it’s not as much on the line for me. This feels very on the line.