A Conversation with Andrea Prestinario and Royer Bockus of Ring of Keys
Written by Kelly Wallace
Art by Emma Pratte
April 5, 2018
When Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron became the first all-female writing team to win Best Score at the Tony Awards, Tesori said: “You have to see it to be it.” Andrea Prestinario and Royer Bockus are hoping their new organization, Ring of Keys, will help queer women+, trans, and gender non-conforming artists be seen a whole lot more often both on and offstage. Ring of Keys seeks to help connect non-cisheterosexual theater professionals connect both with each other and with potential employers. At a time when so many theater companies are talking the talk about commitment to diversity, Ring of Keys is challenging the industry to move beyond lip service and start doing the work.
I talked to Andrea and Royer recently and they told me all about how Ring of Keys got started, where they’re going, and why Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a problem.
Kelly Wallace: Tell me about Ring of Keys. Where did the idea come from? What motivated you to start it?
Royer Bockus: I think the story of how we met is basically the story of how the group got started. I was going to do a workshop of an opera that our mutual friend had written the music for. He said, “Oh, Royer, there’s another woman in the cast, she’s an actress and…she’s a lesbian.” Like, he whispered it.
Andrea Prestinario: I had the same experience of being whispered at with, “Andrea, I really want you to meet this girl who’s going to be in this reading with us, she’s a lesbian.”
Royer: And obviously Andrea has a partner, so it wasn’t about setting us up. He just really wanted us to know each other. What’s crazy is we get to the opera reading and we meet each other and we’re instantly friends and I’m like, “Did the music director tell you that I was a lesbian?” And she said yes and I said, “Oh, great! Well, I guess now we’re friends.” We realized, or at least I realized, that we don’t really know any other queer, female actresses in the community. Gay men have kajillions of people who are out and open and networking with each other and they’re very visible. We had the idea that we wanted to find all of us.
Andrea: We needed to find each other!
Royer: We needed to be organized and find a way to meet one another. It meant so much to me to meet Andrea. I just felt like I was alone, in a way, in the industry and that I was invisible.
Andrea: It feels like we’re the butt of gay mens’ jokes still? We’re not all one team; we’re still the joke. Even though he was kidding, there’s some implication there and we thought that we needed to join and merge and make our own club.
Royer: And so we did! After awhile of being just friends, we decided we were going to make our idea into a reality and that’s how we got here.
Kelly: Were there other specific moments in your career where someone made a joke or said something that made you aware of the discrimination that queer women face in this industry?
Andrea: I remember a moment of just being in a dressing room and coming out to the other women in my dressing room and they were like, “You can’t be gay, you’re too pretty!” I am straight-presenting and I think that’s also part of the issue in terms of having to come out again and again, obviously, but it being this idea that I felt alone in that world.
Royer: I think most of it for me, instead of outright discrimination, I didn’t feel represented in my industry. I remember completely losing my mind the first time I heard the soundtrack to Fun Home because I couldn’t believe that it was my story and my genre. I had never realized that those things had never met before. Also, I just didn’t know anybody else, or if I did, they weren’t out or were keeping it a secret. I felt like I had two identities, in a way: I had my work identity and my personal identity. One of the things that we hope, by creating this group, is that when we all see our collective queerness, and the industry sees our collective queerness, people will want to represent those stories onstage. The stage is one of our society’s pedestals for ideas and people, and we all know how important representation is. I know that’s what Stage & Candor is all about.
Andrea: I would add too that Ring of Keys is a collective for queer women, trans, and gender non-conforming artists working on and offstage in musical theater. We want to encompass everything under the umbrella of the queer spectrum that is not cis-men. When we see queerness onstage, they’re primarily cis-male narratives.
Kelly: Intersectionality is a big goal you’ve talked about for Ring of Keys; how do you plan to make sure transwomen and nonbinary people feel welcome, especially when there is a lot of trans-exclusive rhetoric in the cis-lesbian community?
Royer: I mean, I think the most important thing in that situation is to listen to their concerns and adapt to them. We can say all kinds of stuff about wanting to be inclusive and that we want to make sure you feel welcome here, but we need to listen to people. I hope that anyone would tell us if there were reasons they didn’t feel welcome.
Andrea: We also really look forward to having diversified leadership in the future, as our organization grows. We understand that as much as we try, there’s just a perspective that we don’t have. We are absolutely anti trans-exclusive radical feminism. We are not interested in anything that excludes trans and non-binary people.
Royer: We’re definitely striving to make space for marginalized voices within our own queer community, and we look forward to a leadership that isn’t just three cis women.
Kelly: What has the reaction been so far since you’ve launched?
Royer: It’s mostly been overwhelmingly positive from folks who have been seeking and needing this kind of collective. Everyone who has signed up to be a member has been looking for this and their responses in their applications have said so.
I had a gay friend who was concerned it would be anti-guys, and I found that to be an interesting comment because we’re making space and asking to have a seat at the table. Gay men set the table. There are all kinds of other humans that are under that queer spectrum, and those narratives aren’t being told. You want those stories onstage but you also want to see queer leadership off the stage as well.
Kelly: Why did you decide to go with the name “Ring of Keys”?
Royer: “Ring of Keys” is a song from the musical Fun Home. It refers to a moment in the character Young Allison’s life when she sees a woman in a diner who is basically like old school butch lesbian, and she has this moment where she recognizes something in herself in that person. It helps her to understand her own identity and grow into it. I think most queer people who you talk to will speak to the truth of this song. It’s so affirming to see yourself in someone else, to feel like you’re not alone in the world. That’s the goal of the organization. We want to be visible so young artists can look at us and think they can do this—they can be in musical theater. It’s really hard to see yourself in musical theater sometimes.
Kelly: It feels like it’s almost…not for you, on some level.
Royer: I used to wish when I did shows that I could put some sort of asterisk or indicator in the program that I was queer because I know how much it would’ve meant to me as a kid and see there’s somebody like me.
Andrea: I also have a friend who’s a very butch, gay woman in her 60s, and when I told her about Ring of Keys, she was so taken by it. She told me about how she used to see shows all the time and thought about doing musical theater. She said, “But I would go see musicals and nobody looked like me.” And so she thought it wasn’t for her. That breaks my heart. You have to see it to be it. She didn’t see her story, or anyone that looked like her, and so she went in another direction.
Another thing was when we did a Stage & Candor interview about two years ago, you had asked me why I thought we weren’t in musical theater, and I thought, maybe because our stories aren’t being told. It seems obvious when we think about it through that lens.
Kelly: The offstage representation is something I think a lot about. There are so few trans, NB, queer roles available, and there are mostly cisheterosexual men and women playing those roles. You wish that wasn’t true and that more people got to play “themselves.”
Royer: I think that any time somebody plans to profit artistically or financially from a character who is trans, nonbinary, queer, those people should get the opportunity to play that role. Those characters are never onstage, or so rarely onstage, and now that they are starting to be, the idea that we would cast somebody else in those roles, to me, is unfortunate and wrong.
Kelly: One thing I do want to talk about is the discourse around shows like Carousel, My Fair Lady, and Kiss Me Kate, which are all returning to Broadway. Are they sexist? Is it a good idea to produce these shows right now? What’s the line? A lot of older shows don’t align with our goals of representation and equality now.
Royer: I don’t see the value anymore in putting museum pieces onstage. If I’m going to see an older piece of our canon, I need to see it through an intersectional feminist lens. I thought Sweet Charity at the Signature did that well. I left that production thinking there is a future for musical theater and there is a future that doesn’t just completely throw away our canon. You can perform old pieces of theater through a lens that demonstrates either how far we’ve come or how far we haven’t come, but I’m not a fan of putting up “purist” revivals that don’t really say anything about the gender politics or racial politics within them. It’ll depend on what these productions do with themselves. If they put women at the forefront of the stories, if they are produced in a way that highlights that, and doesn’t make things sugary and sweet for old school audiences, put that onstage. If it’s behind a piece of museum glass, I’m not interested anymore, personally.
Andrea: I had a conversation with a casting director in a casting director session and we were talking about the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. They’re doing it in their season because their audiences demand it. I think we need put more impetus on the chokehold theaters say they’re in with their audiences. Are you sure they “demand” it? I think we’re not exposing them enough to know that. They’re smarter than that. They just can’t know what they don’t know. His comment was about how he would have a hard time with that show “in this day and age,” it’s an example of raising consciousness. He finally looked at a musical and saw women abducted and taken against their consent and saw that was not okay.
Kelly: It’s honestly a terrible show.
Royer: And if you still want to do it, you need to navigate that. Our current consciousness is not going to be okay with that. And it’s so great that we are having these conversations and saying like, yeah, this is troubling. I just want to see that continue and for all of us to constantly have this lens. I don’t want it to be that you can’t do it because of the #MeToo movement right now and you’re going to do it next summer. It’s not okay. It’s just not okay.
Kelly: I think that’s a valid fear that a lot of women have, that this moment is temporary and things will regress to what they were before.
Andrea: There’s a fear that it’s just a trend, but we’re pushing the needle. We can never go back.
Kelly: I think my concern with something like Carousel, the creative team is pretty much all cis white men.
Royer: You can put my groaning in the interview if you want. [laughter]
Kelly: It’s just so hard to trust the idea of these shows when the same people are in charge who have always been in charge.
Royer: That Sweet Charity I described was directed by Leigh Silverman, who is a queer woman. I didn’t know that when I saw it and was experiencing it, and afterwards I thought, of course. Queer women were at the table; queer women were running the ship.
Andrea: Consider the fact that so much of the Golden Age was written by men. Why are most women written in that time period just virgins or mothers? The female perspective and experience wasn’t there.
Kelly: And all of this goes back to what you’re doing with Ring of Keys.
Andrea: It’s the intersection of queerness and musical theater and not being a white cis man.
Kelly: What else do you see in the future for the organization?
Andrea: I think the future is unknown, in terms of what potential Ring of Keys has. We’re twofold in our mission. One is to build a community and two is for it to be a hiring resource.
Kelly: It’s great that beyond just having this online network, you’re also committed to having in-person events and bringing people together that way. What kind of things will you guys be doing?
Royer: Well, we started with just gathering, which I think is really important. We got to know each other and learn what we’re doing as artists and activists in our own communities. I think of Ring of Keys as a community center. I think it would be great in the future to have readings of people’s work, to go see theater together, to organize politically and artistically. Ring of Keys is the building in which to do that, both online and in-person.
We’re looking to produce events too that showcase our members in concert, in cabarets, and in workshops.
Kelly: How would you explain to someone why Ring of Keys is important if we want to make change?
Andrea: To me, it’s like, just think of how much it would mean to other people for you to be public about your identity in this industry.
Royer: This is our diversity; it’s an asset we bring to the theater world. It’s exciting to make room at the table for these stories and drive opportunities for these artists. I think that this is an opportunity to, as we put it, kick-ball-change open the closet door and reveal a vibrant, new musical theater landscape.
If you are a queer women+, trans, or gender non-conforming artist and would like to apply to be a key, you can find more information at www.ringofkeys.org.