Kit Yan is a playwright, poet, performer and lyricist. He’s also a trans man. Melissa Li is a composer, lyricist, performer and writer. She’s also a lesbian. When the two turned their 2008 tour as “Good Asian Drivers” into the “Queer Asian” musical Interstate, they committed to casting actors who shared critical identity traits with their characters. This necessitated a lengthy nationwide search for a trans/gender non-conforming (TGNC)-identifying actor to play the lead, and both Kit and Melissa stand by the importance of that choice.

Why work so hard to cast people who have lived versions of their characters’ experiences? Shouldn’t a good actor be able to inhabit any role and bring it to life? Why shouldn’t a cis actor be considered for a trans role?

The answer is that representation matters. When the people behind the scenes invest their whole hearts in telling authentic stories about fully realized characters from a specific community, creating opportunities for members of that community to step into those characters touches the actors and their audience in a particular way. It’s an affirmation for those in the audience who relate to the people on stage, an introduction for those who have never experienced contact with a member of the community before and a declaration that honoring diversity in storytelling is worthwhile. 

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Kit and Melissa carried their dedication to authenticity through the entire cast of Interstate, and the resulting lineup was a breath of fresh air.

Cast and Creative Team of Interstate - photo by Shani Hadjian

Cast and Creative Team of Interstate – photo by Shani Hadjian

I spoke with them about their casting journey just before Interstate made its debut at the New York Musical Festival this summer, where their investment paid off with wins for Outstanding Lyrics (Melissa Li and Kit Yan), Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role (Sushma Saha), Outstanding Individual Performance (Andreas Wyder) and Outstanding Individual Performance (Esco Jouléy). They also received a special citation for Representation & Inclusion and were nominated for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role (Kiet Tai Cao), Best Musical and Outstanding Music (Melissa Li).

Leona Laurie: Why was it important to you to cast actors who share traits and experiences with their characters?

Kit Yan: It’s important to cast authentically, especially if we’re going to relate it to casting TGNC characters, because throughout time a lot of the characters in our story’s voices have been historically, systematically, institutionally denied access to having their stories told. And so specifically for TGNC characters, we need TGNC writers to write TGNC roles to be acted by TGNC actors, because if not, then what it’s saying is that the only way to validate trans and gender non-conforming and non-binary voices and lines is through the lens of cis-gender people.

Melissa Li: In all the other iterations we’ve had of Interstate we usually use a casting director, and we have the breakdowns for everyone. The main character has to be an Asian trans man, and we have this other character who’s a 16-year old trans/non-binary, South Asian teenager, and every time we submit those breakdowns to a casting agency they always come back to us with cis people. They’re like, “What about this cis South Asian person?” Or they’ll come back with white people sometimes, too, or it will be like: “Oh, well we were able to find someone who’s perfect. It’s an East Asian transgender person.” 

We just don’t really believe in cis-washing and East Asian-washing our characters, and we really hadn’t had much success on that front working with casting directors. So for this production we just decided to do it ourselves.

I personally researched every single musical theater program in the country. I researched every single drama program as well as performing arts high schools; queer youth theater programs and just general queer youth programs as well as performing arts camps. Literally just any place that might have this person out there, I emailed– in the US and the UK. And at the end of the day we got 12 people who were trans, non-binary folks who were South Asian and who submitted for the role. And from there were were able to cast a very talented junior from Ithaca College, Sushma Saha, who ended up playing Henry in this production. 

That’s our way of showing people out there that these roles that people say can’t be cast, or are too difficult– we went out and did it. It just takes some effort and commitment to finding the right person.

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KY: Yeah, and Melissa is sort of downplaying it. She sent thousands of emails.

We did an interview with a magazine earlier and talked a little bit about cis-gender people saying that it’s all just acting. “What’s the big deal? All acting is just acting.”

The thought that I had immediately was that if that’s the case, then are trans people being cast in cis roles? Why are trans folks so un- and under-employed in the world of acting? That pendulum just doesn’t swing the other way for our folks– in addition to the idea that your identity can only be validated by other people.

LL: Ryan Murphy’s POSE made headlines this year with its history-making trans cast. Were you aware of what they were doing while you were working on Interstate?

KY: I actually went to the POSE premiere and am friends with a bunch of people involved in that show, and we love what they’re doing. It is really inspirational to see that happening, and we really support what they’re doing, which is putting trans folks in front of and behind the camera. I think that’s really important work. 

LL: What were some of the best experiences you had during the casting process?

KY: Probably the day Sushma came in and sang. I just remember feeling so mesmerized and thinking: “Wow. This is why this matters.”

ML: Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree with you. I thought that was particularly great. I think the other thing is that we’re also really committed to casting trans and non-binary folks for cis roles as well. Sushma is not the only person in our cast who identifies that way, and I think that’s good. I think that’s giving more opportunity to trans folks.

Melissa Li, Sushma Saha and Kit Yan - Photo by Shani Hadjian

Melissa Li, Sushma Saha and Kit Yan – Photo by Shani Hadjian

LL: What were some of the challenges on your casting journey?

KY: All the people saying we’d never do it. Producers, casting directors, et cetera.

ML: Sometimes, depending on someone’s gender journey or process, their voices might not fit traditional vocal ranges. Sometimes you have to make adjustments that fit people’s voices and it’s just part of the process.

LL: Melissa, when you started saying that, I thought you were going to say “voices” more figuratively. “Thank you guys so much for telling a trans story, however, here’s my story, and I’d like this to be represented in what my character’s going to do.” But you meant literal vocal range. Was there any evolution in the show in response to the people you cast?

KY: Yeah, there so was. It’s such a blessing for us to have different ethnicities and different gender-identified actors in our cast, because they really help us keep the material accountable to the story we’re trying to tell. Sometimes they’ll come back and say to us, “This isn’t what this character would say in an Indian family.”

You really take those notes to heart and rely a lot on some of the expertise of our actors.

ML: Sometimes if you find the right person, maybe they need some extra help. Maybe they haven’t had the same opportunities as somebody else with voice lessons, or acting lessons. I think part of it is also committing to sending those resources and spending money to help them with their performance. Not just going out there and just saying, “Oh this person would be perfect, but they’re not as gifted.” But it’s actually important to really uplift these people who should be in these roles.

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KY: Also, raising $85,000. We didn’t have to do it this way. We didn’t have to crowdfund $85,000 to do a gigantic production, but it’s really important for us to involve our community as a part of that because the world of Broadway is so exclusive. You can’t invest in Broadway. You can’t produce on Broadway, and you can’t create on Broadway, unless you are super rich, or own theaters or have been doing it forever, and so this is an opportunity for our community to be the investors and producers of this show and to make the kind of show they want to see out in this world, too. 

LL: If you had to do the whole thing over again is there anything you would approach differently?

ML: Definitely not for casting. Our cast is pretty amazing. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Cast of Interstate - Photo by Russ Rowland Photography

Cast of Interstate – Photo by Russ Rowland Photography

Interstate’s run at the New York Musical Festival may be over, but you can still get involved. Subscribe to Kit and Melissa’s Drip page to pledge ongoing support to the future of this show and development of new works, and to opt in for updates and news from these innovators.