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There is no need to be on the defensive at climACTS!, The Theater Offensive's annual festive fundraiser. The event takes the theme of "WET" this year, but promises no water balloon ambushes — though there will be an abundance of water, milk, lube, sweat and paint found in the commissioned visual art and sensorial performance installations that will adorn the Royale in downtown Boston for the occasion. More than just a sexy spectacle (which it absolutely will be), the event supports the organization’s 26-year mission by celebrating diversity and acceptance within the LGBT community through the arts.
“This is a way that local artists can get exposure by The Theater Offensive, and to The Theater Offensive,” says Nick Bazo, the assistant director of programs, before he runs through the list of acrobats, aerialists, models and dancers who will perform on March 26. “Artists in past climACTS! have ended up in productions, or as teaching artists, running workshops, or somehow involved in one of our programs. We use this not only as a fundraiser, but as a way to highlight and showcase local artists, as well as build relationships with them.”
Keeping with tradition, The Theater Offensive has identified someone who “creates groundbreaking and edgy work that embodies OUTNESS in the arts” to present with their OUT on the Edge Award. Alexandra Billings, a theater teacher and stage and screen actress, will be in attendance to receive the award, joining past recipients Tony Award-winner Billy Porter (who is in town for his directorial work for Huntington’s “The Colored Museum”), comedian Alec Mapa, playwright Sharon Bridgforth, author Kate Bornstein, actor Alan Cumming, playwright Paula Vogel and Boston’s own Gunner Scott of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.
You may recognize Billings as Davina in the Amazon series, “Transparent,” a mentor and friend to the show’s central character, Maura, who is seeking an ally as she comes out to her family. You may not know, however, that back in the early aughts, Billings became the first transgender actress to play a transwoman on television, appearing in the TV-made movie, “Romy and Michele: In the Beginning.” And before that milestone, The Theater Offensive hosted her first one-woman-show, “Before I Disappear” in 1999.
Though Billings, 53, has been breaking down barriers and living out and proud — the essential criteria for the honor — for decades, the award comes at a rather appropriate time in her life and career.
In a recent phone conversation, she reflects on her frustration for only being cast in television roles that centered around gender reassignment surgery. “I was a walking, breathing stereotype,” says Billings, pointing to the ways in which the writing on, for example, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “ER” “desexualized,” de-romanticised” and “de-gendered” the trans characters she portrayed.
“Billy — I can’t do it anymore," she says, recalling a fateful phone call to her manager. “‘I cannot, nor will I, put on a blue gown or set foot in a hospital. So if anything that runs across your desk has anything to do with that, say no immediately.’”
The result: “I didn’t work for two years.”
Just as she thought she “was done with television and film,” she auditioned for and was offered a role in “Transparent.”
“They had offered me the role,” Billings told The Guardian in a 2014 interview, “...so I went up to [the producer] Jill [Soloway] and said, ‘I want to be who I am, which is a jeans wearing, e-cigarette smoking, transgender-by-birth-but-fabulous-by-choice kind of gal!’ …I said to Jilly, you’re looking at a transgender person, so let’s not draw any caricatures or cartoons. How are people going to know we exist if we don’t speak up? Davina is a birthing of myself and of Jill. She’s a real person.”
Whether it was because she put her foot down to roles in which only a sliver of a transgender person’s humanity was represented or not (something compels me to point to the former), her television career has taken a tremendous and welcomed shift, one that has had a profound impact on her entire being.
“I have learned that I am enough,” says Billings, of what she’s taken from her experience working on “Transparent” so far. “I don’t have to scream and yell and rage anymore. I don’t have to be violent to be part of the revolution. I don’t have to stand on a mountain with a bullhorn, I can stand toe-to-toe in community. I don’t have to pretend to be a million different people. I can be me, and that’s enough."
“Being in this particular role, on this particular show, with these people — these very compassionate people — I have learned that I can stand on my own two feet and still be a student.”
While the show has been acclaimed for its progressiveness, it has also been criticized, primarily because Jeffrey Tambor, who won a Golden Globe for his performance as Maura, is a cisgender man. Billings says she understands and even predicted the outcry over the casting choice, but she is proud to be a part of the team, nonetheless. She points to the authenticity of the storyline — one inspired by the producer’s own experience with her father —, the presence of the trans community in the cast, crew and, most recently, the writers’ room, and the “profound[ity],” “roman[ce],” “kindness” and “intelligen[ce]” Tambor brings to his role as reasons why the production should be celebrated, not lambasted. Billings hails the work as not only important (“all art is important”), but “actual.”
For attendees of climACTS! WET and fans of “Transparent,” a walk-on role is one of the prizes to be bid on during the evening's live auction.
As our conversation steers back towards The Theater Offensive, Billings says, “I love their work with youth!” She continues: “Their ability to pass generational and historic LGBT information — you can’t put a price on that. That’s extraordinary. We can’t fade away, our history can’t fade away. People think that — and this is true in our own queer lives — we sort of appeared in 1970. Like, there were no queer people before Stonewall, it all happened at Stonewall. Stonewall is a huge milestone, but we have been around since the beginning of time. I think that’s an important thing to tell the young queer generation.”
Members of The Theater Offensive’s vast youth programming, such as True Colors, the oldest out and allied youth theater troupe in the world, will benefit from funds raised at climACTS! WET, but due to the 21+ plus environment, they will not be permitted to join the raucous revelry. However, they will have a chance to interact with Billings during a meet-and-greet prior to the event.
ClimACTS! WET promises an evening of lubrication and titillation regardless of and in celebration of one’s sexual orientation. Visit The Theater Offensive’s website for tickets and more information on the March 26 fundraiser.
“No, guests are not ambushed with water balloons,” says Bazo, “but if you want to jump into a pool with a model, that is your right.”
Susanna Jackson’s writing has been featured in Art New England, Boston Globe and DigBoston. You can find her on Twitter @suedoesnttweet.