Interview with Playwright MJ Kaufman

Bailey Roper (Dallas, TX)

MJ Kaufman is a queer playwright and devised theatre artist working in New York City and Philadelphia.

Their work has been seen at the Huntington Theatre, New York Theater Workshop, the New Museum, Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, Page 73, Colt Coeur, Yale School of Drama, Lark Play Development Center, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Aurora Theater, Crowded Fire, Fresh Ink Theatre, New Harmony Project, and performed in Russian in Moscow.

Kaufman is currently a member of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers’ Group, a core playwright at InterAct Theatre, and a Resident Teaching Artist at Philadelphia Young Playwrights.

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Kaufman attended Wesleyan University and recently received an MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama.

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Bailey Roper: What are your pronouns?

MJ Kaufman: He or They. In writing I tend to prefer they.

B: Cool. Why the difference in writing?

MJ: Because I feel like when people see me and they hear my voice and they use “he” or “they,” it’s an experience of gender nonconformity. But in writing “he” kind of gets flattened into neutral and I wanna preserve the gender nonconformity of my identity in print.

B: So how do you identify?

MJ: I would usually choose the label trans. I like other labels like genderqueer, trans-masculine, and gender nonconforming. I don’t always go for the non-binary ones or a-gender but I feel it’s a continuous umbrella.

B: Totally. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is as a trans artist, do you feel a certain responsibility with your art to educate regarding the trans community? And how do you negotiate that sort of educational responsibility with making the art you wanna make?

MJ: It’s a great question. I would say I feel a huge sense of responsibility because in so many art and theatre spaces that I interact with, I’m the only trans person in the room. And I worry about that with audiences, too. If this is the only trans story that they’re getting next to maybe, like Caitlyn Jenner or an episode of Transparent, what is the message that this is providing?

That level of responsibility can be huge and silencing because there’s just no way I can represent the full spectrum of trans experiences. I can only tell my own story.

I definitely go back and forth between writing something that I feel like is written for my community, who has a certain lens and a certain shared queer consciousness, sense of queer time, and queer aesthetics, and queer life cycles that are different from straight, cis gender, and normative family life cycles.

Other things I’m writing are definitely meant to push mainstream theatre audiences which is who most theatre audiences are right now. And so we can have one character and they have to really over-explain themselves and I’ll do these like formal acrobatics to make it not be pedantic or whatever. And have it seem like it’s funny or organic to the character. But actually, what I would love to be able to write more of is trans lives and worlds and characters who don’t have to explain themselves. I do feel a certain sense of like, “Well I can only write so many of those plays because who’s gonna produce those?”

B: Yeah, I feel like it’s difficult for me to make work right now that isn’t rooted in identity, but that I’m still satisfied with at the same time. I feel like I should be able to make art about anything ya know? I can’t decide if I feel that that is confining or not.

MJ: Totally. Yeah. I feel like you have to dig into how the muses are speaking to you at any one moment, like if that, ya know, burn that fuel till it runs out.

B: As a person who uses gender neutral pronouns, or just isn’t cis-gender I can testify to being misgendered pretty much daily. What do you think is the best way to handle correcting people on pronouns in a helpful way?

MJ: I tend to take a full on empowerment lens with that of like, “What do you need to feel safe and comfortable?” And sometimes that means correcting people, and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no need to be consistent, to take care of their feelings. A lot of times you correct (people), and then sometimes they won’t apologize to you for an hour afterwards and you’re like, “Uh-uh, that’s not what I’m here to do.”

B: Right.

MJ: So I would say if you want to correct them, do. Sometimes depending on who I’m working with, I’ll correct every time. And sometimes that means that they’ll get it, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some people, like I was just working with a director who I really loved, who was a really great director, and he almost never got my pronouns right. And I just couldn’t correct him very often because it just kinda hurt. I was just like, “I’m just gonna pretend that didn’t happen, I’m just gonna move forward, and we’re just gonna do business. We’re gonna do this play, and I’m not gonna think too hard about what it means that you can’t change that in your head about how you think of me.”

Some people would say, “Speak up more often,” but I really think it’s: “What do you need?”

There’s no demand that you be the same consistent person everywhere you go. You could enter a space, be having a hard day, and decide, “I’m not gonna correct anyone today. I’m just gonna leave this party early.” Or you could enter a space and every time someone does it wrong, you correct them. I think it’s helpful when people correct themselves. If I’ve heard anyone correct themselves then I’ll definitely correct them every time.

B: Something I experience a lot with correcting people on pronouns is the immediate response of: “Oh, I’m sorry I’m from a different generation!” Like that is a justifiable excuse. Is that something you have experienced a lot and how do you handle that?

MJ: The people who get my pronouns right are definitely not consistent across age. There’s older people who get my pronouns right, and there’s way younger people who don’t. Like four year olds often are pretty gender binary because that’s developmentally what they’re working out. And sometimes teenagers will be really disrespectful because they’re in a judgmental period where they’re working that out, you know?

So I don’t get this generational thing like…. Trans people have always been here even when we weren’t queering language in the way we are now. We were doing it in other ways. And you not wanting to work on that, that’s your loss.

I don’t care about people messing up or taking longer to get it right. I feel like that process is really beautiful, actually. Showing someone you’re learning or living in the incorrect and stumbling places of our language- that’s places of our language- that’s powerful.

That undoes the way that we think and the way that we interact and communicate, and it’s not like I’m hurt when someone messes up my pronouns and corrects themselves. I want them to do that, and I don’t want them to be making excuses. Like that excuse, “I’m from another generation…” Well, you just made all the trans people in your generation invisible. And there are them.

B: Do you have any LGBTQ+ role models or artists that you really look up to?

MJ: Yeah! The person who taught me playwriting is a playwright named Paula Vogel who’s queer and pretty genderqueer although I think she’d probably choose the label “butch.” I really look up to her and she has really inspired me.

I really love and feel inspired by Taylor Mack, um, I mean, I feel really inspired by a lot of my peers who are making really exciting beautiful things like Becca Blackwell, Will Davis, Azure Osburn-Lee, Star Amerasu, Dark Matter- there’s so many incredible contemporary trans artists working across media. Buzz Slutzky. Some of these are my friends and I get inspired by them, to share with them, and that’s just such a gift.

B: What do you feel that you need in order to feel safe in a space or how would you define a safe space?

MJ: I mean, definitely bathrooms. Definitely how people are talking to me and about me.

What really helps me feel safe is when I see other expressions of gender nonconformity. I think a lot of times in a theatre I’ll just see from outside that the lobby is full of people in high heels and long coats, and I’m like, “Who are these people? Is there space for me here?” You can’t always see who someone is or the extent of their gender journey from how they look on the outside… but mostly you can so.

In general, I’d say that in theatre I don’t see gender nonconformity on stage or in the audience or in the lobby. Even though now a lot of theatres have started to put up a little sign about their bathrooms, that doesn’t just cancel out huge structural issues of you not creating work for or by the (trans) community.

That safety has to come from that kind of structural change of: “How are you building the space?” And “Who are you building it for?” If that is including trans people and gender nonconforming people you can see it in who’s there and what’s going on there. If it’s not, and it’s like you’re just trying to include us? I don’t know it’s kind of a little tag- a little after thought, you know?