Growing up, performance artist Rebecca Kling didn't often see people like her reflected in the media. And when she did, they were often the butt of a joke or the victim of a crime. Kling reclaims and revises that narrative through one-woman shows such as "Storms Beneath Her Skin," a piece that explores questions around authenticity, gender roles, and sexuality that emerge as she embarks on a journey from male to female.
Kling—a transgender woman and Northwestern University graduate who performs across the country at high schools, universities and festivals—brings her entertaining and educational show to Central Oregon Community College Thursday as part of Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international day of commemoration dedicated to remembering those who have been killed in hate crimes the previous year.
The Source talked to Kling about the power of storytelling and why she does such personal work.
Source Weekly: You call yourself an identity performance artist. How do you identify?
Rebecca Kling: I identify as many things, depending on the context. I identify as trans, as a performance artist, as an activist, an educator, a Chicagoan, a sister, daughter, aunt, a geek, a reader, and more. In terms of my artistic life, I identify as a performance artist and activist whose work is centered around identity-based narrative storytelling. That seems to be the most accurate description of the work I do.
SW: Why do you use storytelling as a form of activism? How did you get started?
RK: At our core, humans are creatures of story. We love hearing stories and we love telling them. As children, we demand to be read the same stories over and over, and we love to make up our own stories. Storytelling is one of the easiest ways to build a bond between strangers, and is what we really look for when we meet each other: Asking questions like "What do you do?" or "Where are you from?" are really ways of asking "What's your story?"
Unfortunately, minority populations don't usually have readily-available stories by and about members of our populations. As a trans person, there don't exist a ton of stories by and about trans people. I frame my artistic work as activism because I want to tip that scale, to help provide accessible and truthful portrayals of trans identity.
SW: Why is a multidisciplinary approach (storytelling, comedy, movement, video) necessary to tell these stories?
RK: While storytelling is the core of my work, I'm open to any and all mediums of expression that will help get my point across.
SW: What other artists inspire you?
RK: As a performance artist, I draw a lot of inspiration from Tim Miller and Holly Hughes. As a trans artist, I look up to Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Kate Bornstein, Sean Dorsey, all the folks at Topside Press, and all the other amazing trans artists out there making work.
SW: You perform very personal material. How does your willingness to be vulnerable enable you to connect with audiences?
RK: I'd link this back to the idea of humans as creatures of story. I want my work to inspire dialogue with an audience rather than function as a one-way street of me talking at them. Personal vulnerability—willingness to lay myself bare—is a key way to make that connection.
SW: Does that vulnerability ever make you feel unsafe? How do you deal with that?
RK: I don't think I've ever felt unsafe, but I've certainly felt uncomfortable. I try not to shy away from that discomfort, though. I think, as an artist, going towards what scares you is a valuable way to learn and grow. I try to deal with that fear by surrounding myself with strong support systems and checking in with myself to be able to know when to take a break. I'm not always good at giving myself a break, but I'm getting better at it!
SW: What's your favorite thing about touring with your performance art?
RK: I feel incredibly lucky being able to do something I love and care about for a living. I get to travel around the country, meet incredible students and teachers and activists and artists.
SW: What can people expect from your show?
RK: I'll be sharing "Storms Beneath Her Skin." It's a piece that deals in large part with my own processing of what it means to have a body that isn't what you want it to be. The piece was written before I had gender reassignment surgery, and has been updated since then, but centers around finding comfort in one's own skin.
SW: Does performing on Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) give the show a greater gravity?
RK: Trans people face hardships year round. I think TDOR is an important tool in highlighting that hardship, but we also need to remember the oppression trans people face the other 364 days of the year. As such, I certainly hope the conversations around my show will be filtered through TDOR, but I don't expect it to change my experience as a performer.
Rebecca Kling: Storms Beneath Her Skin
4:30 pm. Thurs., Nov. 20. Hitchcock Auditorium, COCC. Free.