Robert Gilbert at the RSC this year Robert Gilbert at the RSC this year CREDIT: Robert Gilbert

What's it Like Being Transgender in New Zealand?

Monday 8 July 2013, 11:14AM
By RedPR

Last Summer while many of us were enjoying some of the best weather in years, Robert Gilbert was interviewing transgender New Zealanders in Auckland.

The Christchurch director, playwright and Rangi Ruru’s Director of Theatre Arts, is developing a play that explores the world of transgender New Zealanders in contemporary society, and is using group funding to get it off the ground.

“There are very few theatre plays that look at transgender issues which is curious when themes around cross-dressing, androgyny and transgender have been around for thousands of years, and were explored in the earliest of written theatre literature, for example The Bacchae by Euripides,” he says.

With the working title TRANS TASMIN, the play is almost at the stage where it can be workshopped and further developed however to do this, Gilbert must raise $6000 by August 11th.

“Boosted is an all-or-nothing fundraising model; the project needs to raise 100% of the money to get funded or it doesn’t happen,” he says.

Gilbert became interested in the topic when a friend underwent gender change, he observed that society and even the law were largely ignorant of the real issues facing transgender people and their families.
“I wanted to look at the way society sees Transgenders, how they see themselves – both before and after. We still seem to see men becoming women as slightly comedic, a la Mrs Brown,” he says. “We are still freaked out. You’d think in 2013 we could just treat people as people.”

TRANS TASMIN which will look at discrimination in New Zealand society, misunderstandings and fears about the transgender community, will be presented in a theatrically challenging context by including aspects of Euripides' The Baachae within the text. One of characters is Tasmin Mahika, a Māori transgender woman of Ngai Tahu descent. She is completely comfortable with herself as a woman. It is others who struggle with her gender identity, once they find out.

“It’s my intention to write a play where the issues of gender role, and transgenderism in contemporary society are seen against a backdrop of an ancient Greek Tragedy.  The scenes will be linked by the character Simon Greenwood, who is a first year university student studying The Bacchae. He is able to view his own contemporary challenges of having a transgender girlfriend against the gender-role themes in The Bacchae,” says Gilbert.

The playwright hopes that audiences will come away with a greater understanding of the transgender community, and perhaps have more tolerance and compassion for New Zealanders who are different to them.

“TRANS TASMIN is not going to hit people over the head with the issues, it allows real people to tell their stories in a way that many who know little about the transgender world, can understand and even empathise with,” he says.                                                                                                                  ENDS

For more information, please contact Ali Jones on 0272473112. Additional images are available.


Robert Gilbert began his theatre career in 1981 as a trainee actor with Prospect Theatre Company in Hamilton, New Zealand and has appeared in scores of professional theatre and television productions. His training includes time at The Globe Theatre in London, working on developing skills for performing Shakespeare.

As a director, he has won Best Production awards at many NZ theatre Festivals, Norfolk Island Theatre Festival, Port Macquarie Theatre Festival, and the Best Director Award at the Norfolk Island Festival for an unprecedented four times. Robert has also performed extensively in television, on stage and as a voice over artist.

Currently, Robert is Director of Theatre Arts for Rangi Ruru Girls’ School in Christchurch, is completing a Master of Philosophy in English (Theatre) at Massey University and resides in Kaiapoi.

“Trans Tasmin” – working title
This is a play that explores gender roles in contemporary society, and especially attitudes towards transgender people. Woven into the contemporary story is the story of Dyonisus’ ruin of Pentheus. The actors ‘double’ as characters from THE BACCHAE by Euripides.

TASMIN MAHIKA – a Māori transgender woman of Ngai Tahu descent (we don’t discover Tasmin’s gender status until near the end of Act One). She is a confident young person, astute and politically and culturally ‘in touch’. She has no doubts whatsoever that she is a woman and is resolved to make the final part of her physical transition. She adopts the notion of takatāpui to describe and identify with her sexuality, gender, and culture. She works part-time behind the bar at the rugby clubrooms (the actor playing Tasmin also plays CHORUS 3).

SIMON WESTLAKE – a first year university student majoring in Performing Arts. He is cast in a production of The Bacchae, by Euripides. He also plays premier-grade club rugby. (The actor playing Simon plays DIONYSUS).

DAN WESTLAKE– Simon’s stepfather (since Simon was very young) and ‘male role-model’. Dan is middle-aged and works as a builder. He is the coach of Simon’s rugby team. Dan is a secret cross-dresser. (The actor playing Dan plays PENTHEUS).

KATRINA WESTLAKE – Simon’s mother, a middle-aged clerical worker. She is an alcoholic. (The actor playing Katrina plays CHORUS 1/AGAVE).

TODD MATTHEWS – Dan’s co-worker and rugby club mate. He is very ‘macho’. (The actor playing Todd plays SERVANT/MESSENGER).

HILARY MORRIS – a nurse and Todd’s girlfriend. (The actor playing Hilary plays CHORUS 2).

“Mum would take me shopping for new clothes and she’d spend the rest of the day dressing me up, undressing me, and dressing me up again. Dad would come home from the pub and catch us. All hell would break loose. Anyway it got to the point where Mum and I would do the dressing up in secret. It was our secret. We never told Dad.”  TASMIN