Breaking the Binary Theatre Is Creating a Home for Trans, Non-Binary, and Two-Spirit+ Artists | Playbill

Playbill Pride Breaking the Binary Theatre Is Creating a Home for Trans, Non-Binary, and Two-Spirit+ Artists

In a time when many longtime theatrical institutions are shutting down and newer artists are needing guidance, George Strus is creating their own space.

George Stus and Breaking the Binary Theatre

In less than a year, Artistic Director George Strus has taken the Off-Off Broadway Breaking the Binary (BTB) from an annual festival to a year-round theatre organization. Created to support and amplify trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit artists, BTB began to form in Strus’s mind in 2020. “The pandemic forced me to sit with my thoughts in a way that I never had to before. I really started to think about my gender and started that journey,” says Strus. They identify as trans non-binary. “It aligned with the moment I was finding myself in in the theatre space where I was looking for community. I struggled to find something that felt like what I was needing at that time.”

Strus moved to New York City eight years ago to pursue a theatre degree, and concentrated primarily on producing. Since arriving, they’ve worked throughout the city’s ecosystem of nonprofit theatre, kicking off their professional career with a position at Manhattan Theatre Club. As their career developed, Strus ended up at Second Stage Theater, where they worked as the manager for artistic development. “That was where I understood for the first time that artistic leadership is something I'm really interested in and wanted to explore,” Strus shares. “At this point in time, I'm more interested in building something new as opposed to stepping into an existing nonprofit.”

Those experiences have prepared Strus for developing BTB, which launched as the Breaking the Binary festival held last October. The festival has since expanded into a community and new work development hub which launched earlier this year in February. And it’s off to quite the start as BTB recently announced it will hold a summer intensive with its Core Community Advisory Board members and Tony nominee L Morgan Lee, and will be part of Playbill’s second annual Pride in Times Square. From 11:15 AM to 12 PM on June 24, BTB and director JJ Maley will showcase the work of transgender, non-binary, and Two-Spirit+ theatre composers.

The pandemic really forced Strus to sit down with their thoughts about what’s next in their career—and their gender identity. “When I moved to New York, I didn't carve out a week where I wasn't doing something. I like to be busy,” they reveal. So while the pandemic itself was certainly a difficult time, it had the silver lining of making Strus take a step back. “It was early in the pandemic when I really started to think about my gender and that journey for myself. I think it's aligned interestingly with the moment I was finding myself in within the theatre space. I was looking for community as I was navigating this very interesting and often challenging period of my life, which I still ultimately find myself in. I couldn't really find an outlet for trans or non-binary folks in the theatre space.”

While a challenging time personally, it was also an unsettling one for Strus as they saw theatre struggle. Strus lists off theatre organizations they saw floundering or disappearing, like Lark New Play Development Center, the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and the Sundance Theatre Institute. They weren’t concerned about if theatre would survive, because “there will always be theatre.” But there was something that did scare Strus: “How are we shepherding the next generation of voices?” They thought about what it would be like to build something new and that would shift the status quo. “We’re giving our artists the agency and the tools in their kit to then go out into the world and advocate for themselves.”

There’s two necessary parts to fostering change. First, as Strus says, “understanding precedent is important because that's how you can change it.” Second is amplifying the voices BTB serves. In order to create a new status quo, the organization needs to center its values and its community. Hearing from members and artists is vital to that process. BTB holds town halls in addition to providing access needs forms and feedback forms to all its artists. “Any way in which we can be improving and re-interrogating our values and norms is something that we're still actively doing on a daily basis,” says Strus.

BTB also holds something called an accountability check-in. BTB first held an accountability check-in with the festival last fall, and will continue to do so in the future after it proved incredibly effective. “It revolves around the notion of spaces built for particular communities and how you can find commonality with someone, and perhaps let your guard down in a way because you're like, ‘Oh, we're so similar.’ That can be helpful in a lot of ways, but it can also perhaps lead to harm in other ways because maybe you're not being as intentional about what you're saying,” explains Strus. It’s an active way to foster not only accountability of BTB to its artists, but accountability between the artists themselves. Part of that work to Strus is important because the goal is for “as little harm to be perpetuated as possible.” It’s also important as the hope is that artists will “feel more empowered to create the best art when they're with us.”

Roger Q. Mason and Dominic Colón in BTB's reading of THE PINK: An Intimacy Ritual Joseph O'Malley

BTB integrated its values into how it operates—including its budget. All participants are paid New York’s living wage, community members receive complimentary tickets, and artists are entitled to car reimbursements for any work with BTB that goes past 7 PM. These policies center support, community, access, and safety. And it doesn’t end with how BTB runs; the organization is partnering with Off-Broadway plays and musicals featuring members of the TNB2S+ community to help increase access for the community to attend. Strus acknowledges that BTB isn’t the only theatre organization that’s also trying to change the precedents that the industry typically operates on. They say BTB “stands on the shoulders of some organizations that are doing really incredible, values-driven work already” such as Soho Rep and Movement Theatre Company—two esteemed organizations devoted to nurturing newer artists and those making groundbreaking work outside the mainstream. And it is in the same spirit that BTB has developed a “very values-driven way of working,” says Strus.

While Strus has been a part of trying to change theatre and empower others, shepherding BTB has changed them and how they operate in the world. “My work as a theatre-maker is sort of doing work as an advocate in and of itself,” they say. That’s “a direct reflection” of artists they’ve worked with over the past several months.

The timing of BTB’s arrival is deeply prescient. Anti-trans legislation and erasure is sweeping across the United States with disturbing velocity. “I think our work at BTB is feeling more urgent to me on a daily basis as these anti-trans bills and laws continue to pop up,” says Strus. “In a period where they're trying to erase us, we are legitimizing and documenting our presence in this specific field.” It’s work that echoes Strus’s own growth as they now see their work as a theatre-maker as a form of advocacy. That integration has become integral to their vision for BTB. “I want to make sure that we live as closely to that intersection of arts and activism as we continue to grow.”

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