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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank.

'I want people to care': 'Always a Boy' is inspired by the life of its co-writer and star

Ground Floor Theatre

“Our experience as a family was much easier than most,” says Jo Ivester of the family story that is the subject of her 2020 book Never a Girl, Always a Boy. That award-winning memoir chronicles the trans journey of Ivester’s son, Jeremy. “And that's what we wanted to capture in a play, was the joy that we experienced as a family, [while] recognizing that a lot of people didn't feel that.”

Several months after the book was released, Jeremy and Jo began talking about adapting the memoir for the stage. They worked on a script together, which became the new play Always a Boy, now set to open at Ground Floor Theatre with Jeremy making his acting debut as Joshua, a character based on himself.

“it's fictionalized to make sense as a play,” Jeremy explains, “which has been great for me, actually, both as a writer and an actor – to have that little bit of separation. But it's still very much based on my story.”

“This play fits with Ground Floor Theatre's mission of producing works focusing on underrepresented communities,” says director Lisa Scheps, who’s helming the production. “And of course, a story around the trans experience is very near and dear to my heart personally as a trans person. And when Jo told me that she was turning her book into a play, I sort of jumped at the opportunity to be involved and have been involved from the get go, with workshops and other stuff as it was being developed.”

Jo says that both the book and the play chronicle the difficult and joyous moments the Ivester family shared. “Even in kind of the best of situations, where the family was loving and accepting and was benefiting from privilege – we didn't have to worry about food on the table or shelter over our heads – that it still was a really challenging time for Jeremy. And so that's what the play is about, is what happens in a family when there's a lot of love and a lot of joy. But there are still all of these challenges just because we didn't know.”

“I know when I was figuring things out in my late teens and early twenties,” Jeremy says, “there wasn't a lot of information about being trans and it seemed like every single story I saw were tragedies. And so it was important to me, once I had the ability to, to get more [positive] stories out there.”

“You know, we live in a world – and certainly we live in a state – that is not very fair to gender diverse people,” Scheps says. “And as Jeremy said, there are plenty of examples of the tragedy of being trans in Texas. [But] here's not much representation around a joyful story and the good things around it. That doesn't mean we ignore the challenges. We hit them straight on. But the bottom line is being trans does not have to be a tragedy. And it's important to show that on stage. And this representation of a trans experience is so important to the movement in general, in my opinion.”

As a longtime theater veteran, Scheps says she knew that the relative lack of conflict in the Ivesters’ personal lives was great for them as a family but might not lend a stage play the amount of drama it needed. “When Jo shared one of the very first drafts for me,” Scheps say, “I said, ‘There's no conflict. There needs to be conflict.’ And she said, ‘Well, this is the way it happened.’ I said ‘Your family isn't like everybody else's family.’”

So the stage version of Always a Boy, while still very much inspired by Jeremy’s life, is centered on the fictional character Joshua. “We took a lot of the internalized pain and thinking that that Jeremy eventually shared with us and we put it on the stage as if it actually had happened to Joshua,” Jo says. “And so there was this creation of conflict that was authentic. It was in Jeremy's mind, but he didn't face as much transphobia and lack of understanding in real life as the character Joshua does.”

“it's allowed me to, as a writer, make choices that are good for the character rather than trying to force it to be true to my life,” Jeremy says. “And that's been very helpful, and has made it less weird as an actor, I think. Where I might have a lot of insight into this character, it's not me, which is correct and good, I think.”

In Always a Boy, Jeremy is just one of three actors playing the lead character – two younger performers play the role at earlier stages of his life. Jeremy says that’s been fun but also challenging, since he’s pretty new to acting and doesn’t want to be the least convincing actor playing a character inspired by his own life. “Yeah, it's interesting because the three of us have interactions and it's kind of meant to be talking with my inner child to an extent,” he says. “And so it's very fun and also… a little weird. But [the other actors are] both wonderful. I think I'm the least experienced actor up there! And so I'm really trying to step up my game to match their level. So it's pushing me to do my best.”

“I have a very specific desire for what the audience will take away,” Jo says. “And that is that I want them to come out of the play really caring about each of the characters and feeling like they want to protect, respect, provide dignity for folks across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and for those who care about them and are family members and advocates. I think the power of theater lets you do that. First, it has to be a strong play, a really good production, to get people to care. And I believe we have that now. I want people to care and I want to start conversations, much like The Laramie Project did 25 years ago for conversations about being gay and the bullying and the violence. I don't want to be focusing on the bad things, but I want folks to come out of this play with a greater understanding and a normalizing of what it is to have a trans family member. And in our advocacy work as a parent, I feel like I have a platform because people may not know what it means to be trans, but people understand a mother's love for their kid. And so a parent is a great voice for advocacy work. I want my play to be that voice as well.”

'Always a Boy' runs February 15 - March 2 at Ground Floor Theatre.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces and hosts This Is My Thing and Arts Eclectic, and also produces Get Involved and the Sonic ID project. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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