As a Trans Performer, I Feel Like I'm a Late Bloomer

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  • Nathan Patterson

I’m a “late bloomer”, in every conceivable sense of the word. There truly is nothing more tantalizing or torturous than watching performers younger than you succeed while you remain stagnant, feeling caught in a limbo of mediocrity.

Had I been born a cisgender male, I would now be coming up on twenty years of experience in musical theatre. However, as I became older, and grew into a body and gender I knew to be fundamentally mismatched from my truth, my interest in theatre was regimentally diluted until any interest I had in performance seemed gone, replaced with… well, nothing.

As a child, I performed.

I played characters in recess-time games, pretending I was my favorite heroes from television, video games, and movies. All of them, male. I was fortunate enough not to be questioned on this by my peers. But, as soon as an opportunity came to bring my schoolyard acting shenanigans to the stage with school plays and stage schools aimed for kids my age, I adamantly refused to take part. I was petrified that I would be cast in a female role. This anxiety about playing a woman blocked me from entering the world of theatre and performance for a decade and a half. I knew I liked acting, and I knew I liked singing – but I just couldn’t bear to play a woman. The thought of doing so was enough to ruin theatre for me.

I remember feeling as if taking a female role in a show would be my affirming my womanhood in a very public way – something I had carefully managed to avoid my entire childhood. Of course, I didn’t have the vocabulary then to articulate that. Back then, the feeling simply took the form of an impenetrable cloud of “wrong-ness” that hovered over the entire concept of doing theatre. I knew I didn’t want to play a woman, but I didn’t have the knowledge to figure out why. While cis classmates joined stage schools, played leads, did musicals and grew their craft, I did my best to ignore theatre. Theatre “wasn’t for people like me”, I told myself, before I even knew I was trans. What I thought a “person like me” was at that time, I can’t tell you. I thought it was shyness – it wasn’t. I truly wasn’t shy during breaks, embodying my favorite characters, pretending I was a Time Lord or a Pokémon Trainer. These times were precious to me, because in playing these male characters, I was, if briefly, able to express my truth before I even knew I wasn’t living truthfully.

I look back to cis castmates I’ve had, younger than me by several years, who had no such overwhelming mental boundary when it came to theatre. How nice it must be to know you’re male, have the world at large perceive you as male, and be cast in male roles from the very beginning of your theatre journey. If that had been me, I would be, by now, a decade ahead in my singing, in my acting and in my general comfort onstage. Having a passion for a world you firmly feel you’re incompatible with is torturous. When you can’t even articulate why you and the thing you love are incompatible, the mental strain only increases. I didn’t know it was to do with gender, and I knew it wasn’t shyness. But how is a kid to figure out they’re a transgender man in 2008? The only transgender person I had ever heard of was Nadia Almada, winner of Big Brother UK in 2004. I didn’t even know if such a thing as a transgender man existed – nor did I realize Nadia Almada wasn’t the only trans person in the world. Back then, the general consensus in the town and country I lived in was “not in our little Catholic town”. Fifteen years after Nadia’s victory, that attitude still does pervade somewhat, but my God, has it been proven wrong.

The “transgender tipping point” of 2012-2013 was when everything changed for me. With trans stories slowly garnering increased media exposure, I finally became able to put words to the nebulous feelings of “wrong-ness” that appeared to adhere themselves to every activity in which I might have to assert any kind of shred of femininity. Another piece of media that was released in and around 2012-2013 was Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables. The convergence of the transgender tipping point and my teenage self’s complete and utter enrapturement at Les Misérables was the final nail in the coffin. I had to do musical theatre. It wasn’t just a fun hobby I could take up – it was my calling. I could not envision myself doing anything else with my life. Musical theatre, Les Mis in particular, introduced me to a whole new form of storytelling. This was the kind of storytelling my life had been lacking. I watched films, television, played video games, and even saw plenty of non-musical plays. None of these things ever did for me what watching one musical did for me. It evoked feelings nothing else had even come close to unearthing. I knew then that the rest of my life was going to be dedicated to becoming a proficient storyteller of this medium, somehow, some way. I could no longer, in good conscience, sit on the sidelines, unable to phrase why I couldn’t bring myself to stand on the barricades with Enjolras when all my cis friends seemed ready and willing to.

Having no qualms playing men was one of the first clues as to my trans identity. Around the same time I discovered Les Misérables, I started to question why Javert was my dream role. Why was my dream role in the show not Éponine? Why not Cosette? (Okay, bad example. Is she anyone’s dream role?) The answer really is Occam’s Razor – Éponine and Cosette are female characters, and I am not female. The characters simply never registered with my brain as being possible for me to play, even though back then, my voice was unbroken and I would have been able to sing these songs that are impossible for me now. Unless I want to get nodes – which I do not want to get.

As Javert and I share a gender, the role never seemed impossible to me, despite the fact that at that time, it most certainly was. No production is going to cast a 17-year old, who, despite presenting as masculinely as possible, does not “pass” – with an unbroken voice (thus singing Stars up the octave), and on top of everything, who has never even been in a show or done an audition before.

Still, it was mostly down to the realization that Javert was my dream role that I discovered my trans identity. The realization popped into my head one autumn day, and the amount of sense it made was frightening. I knew immediately that it wasn’t just an intrusive thought. I knew that it was, in fact, my brain finally managing to assemble the words behind the overwhelming feeling of wrong-ness that had pervaded my entire life.

I started testosterone treatment when I was 18, and within a year, my voice was breaking roughly 6-7 years late, having already broken once before (though the “female” puberty voice break isn’t nearly as dramatic). I was afraid of never being able to sing again, as I had heard many truly horrifying anecdotes about testosterone-related voice drop disasters that ruined the voices of people who had been fabulous singers before. A YouTuber I watched refused to take testosterone in case it ruined his voice. Of course, he has every right not to take it for that reason, but it was enough to evoke intense fear within me. Looking back, I may simply have obsessed over only the negative stories I found, glossing over the ones where testosterone made the storyteller’s voice better, but I digress.

For a whole year, I steered clear from singing, just because I assumed that any kind of singing at this point would ruin my voice. Instead, I focused on non-musical theatre, and joined my first theatre group aged sixteen. I learned about Shakespeare, I learned about devising. I performed in showcases and festivals. I got into university, majoring in theatre and taking part in college shows both on and off the curriculum. My life onstage was progressing, and I was becoming a better actor with every lesson and every production, but my singing was being neglected. Around the midway point of my second year in university, I decided the time had come. I was 20, and my voice had been broken for a year and a half. It had settled into place, and I was ready to start musical theatre.

My first musical theatre show was in February 2018. Following that, my second was in March 2018. Then another followed in April of 2018. Another came in May of 2018. Then, in July of 2018, I got my first lead in which I had a solo song. And this was when things really got real for me – having a character in which I can explore acting through song was a gift I treasured. Getting to combine my two greatest loves, acting and singing, in front of a crowd of hundreds night after night, confirmed everything I had first thought about musical theatre back when I first discovered it. The intimacy and catharsis of singing and acting at once never fails to invoke intense emotion within me. It is the most anxiety-inducing and rewarding thing I have been able to do in my life. It is the only thing that makes me feel truly alive, and reminds me what it is to be a human being.

If I had even the slightest uncertainty as to whether musical theatre was the only path I was willing to dedicate my life to before, my first lead stamped it right out. I was ready then, and remain ready now, to dedicate the rest of my life to becoming proficient in musical theatre.

More leads followed after my first one in July 2018. Another arose in November 2018 – and then another in December 2018. In 2019, another followed in April.

I now find myself in a position where I’ve decided that I need to do a Masters’ degree in Musical Theatre Performance. As incredible as these leads have been, my age stands out like a sore thumb in the casts I’ve worked with. Many of my castmates from shows in which I’ve played leads have now moved away to the UK to train in London, with the aim of working on or off the West End, turning their voices into their careers. These people are 18, while I am on the cusp of turning 23. They have been at this game their entire lives, never encumbered by the cloud of gender dysphoria, or having to take testosterone. They may be 18 - but some of them have 15 years’ experience, where I have just about one years’ experience. My status as a “late bloomer” has never been so apparent. I have already done my undergraduate, and though it was excellent, it didn’t train me to be a performer of musical theatre. If I was cis, and thus was never afraid to step on a stage for fear of being given a role in a gender I wasn’t, and had a long-broken voice at 18, I would have applied for one of those same colleges in the UK. But it’s too late now – I have my degree, and I want to do this professionally. But God – I am such a late bloomer, and I really don’t think there’s anything I could have done about it.

I am so, so far behind most of my castmates in shows, and my mental health suffers as a result. I practice so much, spend so much money I should be spending on my daily needs and necessities and spending it on practice instead. I have so few onstage credits in musical theatre that I travel my country auditioning for anything and everything, looking for experience that will mould me into a solid candidate for one of the six Masters’ programmes I have my eyes set on. I simply have got to get enough experience to allow for acceptance into a one of these programmes. Theatre is in my blood, my cells, my DNA. I don’t know anything else and I don’t want to know anything else. If I get cut, I’d probably bleed Les Mis lyrics. Theatre is the language I prefer to speak and I will stop at nothing to make it my career – especially as a trans man who almost missed the boat, who has never seen another trans man performing onstage in a musical, ever. The truth is that I don’t know how many trans people have done Masters’ degrees in Musical Theatre Performance. To me, this whole situation is uncharted territory, unexplored waters.

I am currently in the process of practicing for my many Masters’ applications, with the hope of getting into one of them next year, or the following year. I need to do this, and my life circumstances have given me a somewhat rough deal in discovering my passion. I had to re-learn how to sing after testosterone. I didn’t start until a year ago. I’m afraid to post this officially under my own name. People can’t know I worry about this. I struggle with mental health issues, some disabilities and a chronic level of zero self-esteem, a lot of which is exacerbated by the critic in my head that tells me I’ve missed the boat on ever being good enough at musical theatre to do it as a career – that at 22, I’m now too old. But despite that, every waking moment has been spent trying to catch up with my castmates and peers. I have a hell of a lot of lost time to make up for – and that’s just what I’m going to do, because I truly cannot envision a life doing anything else.

Maybe I’ll even play Javert some day.

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