“For 30 years my Dad thought he was a girl. This is the story of how he found himself.”
So says eight-year-old William Bouk regarding “Mr. Liz: Living in the In-Between,” a showcase featuring mezzo-soprano Liz Bouk and his family.
The show had a series of successful previews in late 2018, but will now get a run of shows at The TANK in New York City on Feb. 2, 3, and 10.
As the opening quote might suggest, “Mr. Liz,” not only shows, but reveals Liz Bouk’s journey from being a woman to completely accepting and assuming his identity as a man. Throughout the performance, Bouk pinpoints essential moments in his life, aided by his son William and partner Dan Bouk.
The show was curated and directed by Bea Goodwin, who had previously worked with Bouk on a number of shows, including “Tabula Rasa;” in this jazz opera, Goodwin wrote the role of Tristan Tzara specifically with Bouk in mind. Goodwin was among the first people that Bouk told about his identity, so working on this show together has special meaning.
OperaWire recently spoke with both Goodwin and Bouk about the process of creating “Mr. Liz: Living in the In-Between.”
OperaWire: How does a show like “Mr. Liz” become a reality? Where does the inspiration to tell this story so nakedly come from?
Liz Bouk: In July, Bea and I started to plan a collaboration for fall 2018, but it was unexpectedly postponed. When I told Bea the bad news, her response surprised me. “Let’s keep creating!” she said.
Bea’s positive energy was contagious, and a few weeks later I found myself in a coffee shop telling her that I wanted to write a show about my life. I asked if she would help me write the script, and she enthusiastically agreed. That’s how our collaboration on the Mr. Liz Show began!
OW: Bea, what was your vision for the piece when you came on board as director?
Bea Goodwin:Liz had become a best friend of mine. I met him as Elizabeth. I had experienced his transition to his truth and lived a piece within his storyline as well.
In college I read a play called “Well” by Lisa Kron. It is essentially the formula of a one woman show but her mother sits on a recliner on the stage and interjects the entire time. There was something about breaking the tradition of a one person show by integrating an outside voice to respond to and account for was super interesting to me.
Thus, Dan and William, Liz’s partner and son, were integrated into the script!
OW: What were some of the challenges to bringing it to life?
LB: It was really painful to sort through all the archival materials from my past. I had to make two trips up to Rochester, where I spent hours digging through old photos, artwork, and school papers in the basement of my childhood home.
There was a lot of mourning that happened as we were creating this piece. I spent more time crying than rehearsing for the November workshop, which was (looking back) very cathartic. I had to look myself in the eye — this old female self: daughter, young woman, wife, mother — and come to terms with her existence. She wasn’t my truest self, but she was a huge part of my life.
And in terms of writing, we had to distill all of my pain into something that expressed my struggle but wouldn’t overwhelm the audience. A lot of emotional moments were cut or condensed into just a few lines, which we surrounded with humor to keep the piece lighthearted. Writing the show helped me make peace with my past and has helped me celebrate my truest and best self: Mr. Liz.
OW: Tell me about the repertory selection, including the choice to sing the habanera from “Carmen.” Why do these pieces best describe your story?
LB: Carmen is passionate, sensual, commanding, and powerful. The habanera opens Act Two of “Mr. Liz,” because after I had my son, I hated being a mother and I was extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. I started practicing yoga, taking dance classes, and learning the role of Carmen. I thought that if I could become Carmen onstage, that I might become more comfortable in my own body offstage. Carmen represented the opposite of motherhood. I wanted to be more like her.
OW: A show this intimate takes a lot out of the artist, but how does it impact those closest to you?
LB: I’ve always been a fiercely independent person, and very private about my personal life. I was determined to create this show about my life, and ONLY my life. That’s how we started writing the script. But then, a few weeks before the workshop, something didn’t feel quite right. There was a missing piece.
A big part of me wanted to erase the painful memories of my female past; especially my life as wife and mother. But it turns out that my family was, and still is, a big part of my story. So, we wrote my partner Dan and my 8-year-old son William into the script.
By looking closely at my relationships with Dan and William, we created space for discussion and healing in our personal lives. In the show, Dan and William offer humor, love, support, and tenderness at the moments when I need it the most.
BG: After “Mr. Liz’s” show, my mother voted Democrat for the first time in her life. She didn’t know that so many people felt silenced and struggled this way. My mother is in her 60s, Italian Catholic, of a vastly different generation.
OW: Many transgender people struggle with coming to terms with their own identity and making the transition. So many relationships and parts of their lives are undeniably going to be altered in some ways. How can your experience offer insight for those who are still struggling with coming to terms?
LB: Being human is complicated and being trans is complicated. There is no “right” way to be transgender. I firmly believe you should express your gender identity in whatever way makes you feel most alive and free. It doesn’t have to look like someone else’s experience. We are all very unique and special as individuals.
Whenever possible, surround yourself with people who support you 110%. Don’t settle for anything less. Ask for help. You aren’t alone in your struggles. There are people and programs who can offer love and support. I’ve been seeing a therapist for almost two years now. And joining the transgender program at Callen-Lorde has been essential to my mental health. They have a wide variety of services available and provide a case manager to help you through any issues you may have.
OW: What do you hope people take away from the experience?
BG: Liz and I take much pride in the fact that this show is about a person and their life experience. There is so much that every single person can relate to and identify with, that when we get into the nitty gritty and taboo, people feel at ease and not judged for maybe not knowing some things.
The audience during our first go-round was filled with Mr. Liz supporters who maybe knew him but not so much his story. It was also attended by people who were never really around someone that they knew who openly identified as a different gender.
We ask a lot of important questions about what we are fed about gender since infancy. And we also satirize a lot too. People were laughing and then a distinct beat of “Oh….yeah, why is that?” came over the crowd. When you use comedy and personal life experience married with facts, people get it. People by nature WANT to get it. At least people in New York.