Scott Turner Schofield returns to the cotillion for Debutante Balls.
Wed Jul 11 2007
Playwright and performance artist Scott Turner Schofield has come out in at least five different ways. When he was in high school—and was still living as a woman named Katie—he came out as a lesbian. In college at Atlanta's Emory University (where he and this writer were classmates), he came out as transgender. But while those are powerful stories, they may be less surprising than the events that inspired Schofield's latest show: As a young woman in Charlotte, North Carolina, Schofield came out at three debutante balls as a Southern belle.
For those who don't know Dixie, the debutante ball is an annual Old South tradition in which young women put on elegant gowns, get paraded around mansions by tuxedoed young men and symbolically announce that they are ready to join society. For the debs, this ritual is called "coming out," and the joke is not lost on Schofield. His solo piece Debutante Balls—which he performs twice this week at the Cherry Lane Theater as part of the queercentric Fresh Fruit Festival—pokes fun at the similarities between his time in cotillion culture and his journey within the realm of gender politics.
Schofield has unwittingly broken rules in both worlds. Consider, for instance, the story of his debutante gown: As a middle-class kid who didn't arrive in the South until his teens, he didn't know that upper-crust debs usually attend balls in white dresses and kid gloves. So what was his coming out attire? A spaghetti-strapped number with a long black skirt and a leopard-print bodice. Blanche DuBois would have died.
"But it was the only dress I owned!" he says, chatting via instant message from a theater workshop in Serbia after the telephone stopped working in the middle of this interview. "I bought it at a nice place at the mall! How was I supposed to know?" he asks. "Like with gender, you only know you're doing it wrong as you do it wrong."
Schofield wears the frock during a crucial scene in Debutante Balls to explicitly symbolize his time as a woman. For most of his audiences, both queer and straight, he says the transformation scene is "a magical moment," but there are some who don't want him to acknowledge his feminine past.
"Some trans people feel that being trans is a birth defect that they've corrected through various medical interventions, and now they are living as the men and women they were truly meant to be," he explains. "They get angry at being considered anything else."
But for Schofield, it's crucial to keep identifying himself as trans and not just as a man. "I rail against the system that says we can't be all of ourselves," he says. "I think trans people especially have something special to say."
Ironically, since he's on hormone therapy and passes as a man, Schofield now regularly "comes out" as someone who wasn't born male. That wrinkle only strengthens his artistic mission.
"The major point of Debutante Balls is to highlight the ways we can all come out as things," he explains. "We can be so defined. We can define ourselves out of our own truths, so we should trouble those notions and be all over them. It should not be possible for me to be a radical feminist debutante transman, but I am."
Schofield's perspective, which he has toured across the country since 2004, complements the rest of Fresh Fruit, whose fifth season runs through July 22. Several of the festival's other titles also hinge on gender and the various meanings of "coming out."
Lucile Scott's play Monroe Bound, running Saturday 14 through Tuesday 17, depicts an entire family facing its own identity issues, while British performer Joey Hateley uses his multimedia solo show A. Gender (July 21 and 22) to subvert both male and female archetypes.
Fresh Fruit artistic director Carol Polcovar is happy that the fest features multiple riffs on the same theme. "We tend to have pockets in our community that stay together and don't know about anyone else," she says. "I want people to 'get it,' to see that we're all coming at the same thing from unique places."
Debutante Balls is Thu 12 and Fri 13. The Fresh Fruit Festival runs at the Cherry Lane Theater and other locations through Jul 22. See It's Here, It's Queer, and also freshfruitfestival.com.