Ahead of its return to Broadway next month, Jagged Little Pill is facing criticism over its relationship to the transgender community, and specifically treatment of trans actors in the show. Producers released a statement on September 17 addressing the long controversy around the role of Jo — who was clearly a nonbinary character in the show’s Boston previews, but whose gender became ambiguous on Broadway, with the cisgender actor who played the role telling Vulture in 2020 that “Jo never was written as anything other than cis.” In the statement confirming that Jo is a nonbinary character, the producers wrote, “We want to recognize the reasonable and deeply felt upset around the issues of transparency and accountability and the character of Jo,” and outlined a plan to improve the show’s portrayal of trans and nonbinary identity. Yet in the days following that statement, trans actors involved with the Alanis Morissette jukebox musical have further criticized their interactions with the transgender community. “They don’t see the absolute PAIN this causes! i have PTSD!!!!!!,” Iris Menas, a nonbinary actor who was formerly the understudy for Jo, tweeted after producers released their statement. “Be aware that this is NOT enough,” zie added in another tweet. “We are asking for basic care and we are gaslit.”
Nora Schell, another nonbinary actor formerly involved in the production, tweeted that the production “failed me, and perpetuated violence against a mentally ill black femme” on September 7, after attending the Transgender March on Broadway. Then, days after the production statement, on September 24, Schell tweeted that they were “intimidated, coerced and forced by multiple higher ups to put off CRITICAL AND NECESSARY surgery to remove growths from my vagina that were making me anemic” when the show was in previews.
In a lengthy statement, Schell claimed that they had issues communicating with the stage-management team around their polycystic ovary syndrome diagnosis, and that the stage manager never told the creative team about Schell’s diagnosis, after previously saying they would. Schell also said after they fainted from anemia due to the condition, the stage manager and a “main higher-up” pressured them to perform that night; they later collapsed on their way to a dressing room and were allowed to leave. Schell said their gynecologist recommended a surgery after that day, but they were “effectively coerced” to wait for the surgery, even performing on Good Morning America the day before. The management team also, according to Schell, said they would not be able to take paid leave to recover from the surgery. “It is certainly the most alarming, fundamentally wrong, and DANGEROUS incident I experienced,” Schell wrote of the event. “I’m still dealing with the consequences of waiting to get this surgery.” Schell later added on Twitter that the stage manager involved was an Actors’ Equity Association vice-president.
Representatives for Jagged Little Pill and Actors’ Equity did not reply to requests for comment, nor did the apparent stage manager at the time, Ira Mont. But shortly after Schell’s statement, Tony-nominated actor Celia R. Gooding, who played Frankie, tweeted that the show’s issues with the trans community played into their decision to leave the production. “I cannot ignore the harm Jagged has done to the trans and non-binary community, including cast members on stage, off stage, and behind the scenes in the production-making process,” Gooding wrote, adding that they will perform for the final time at the Tonys. “I believe it will be in my best personal interest to focus more on work that I can align myself with emotionally and morally, just as Frankie would.”
The controversy comes amid focus on Jagged Little Pill ahead of September 26’s Tony Awards, where the musical is the most-nominated show and likely to be among the most-awarded. Weeks after, on October 21, the show will formally return to Broadway. The actions outlined in the producers’ statement on the role of Jo include hiring a new dramaturgical team that includes transgender members and members of color “to revisit and deepen the script,” and promising to “prioritize auditioning actors for the role [of Jo] who are on gender journeys or understand that experience personally” in the future. Yet Lauren Patten, who originated the role on Broadway, plans to return in the role in October. “I am profoundly sorry for the harm I caused,” she wrote on Instagram following the production statement, alongside a video conversation with Shakina Nayfack, a trans actor. Patten continued, “It is my deepest hope for Jo to be a character that can be claimed and owned by folks of many queer identities — butch and masc women, nonbinary and genderqueer folks, trans men, and many more.” When Nayfack asked Patten why she didn’t leave the role, Patten cited the “closure” of performing in the role again after the COVID-19 shutdown, along with Jo’s identity not being “cut and dried.”
In the days since the production statement, trans people have continued to criticize Patten’s involvement as Jo. “Though she talks about being a masc of center queer woman, Lauren very explicitly says ‘I am not trans’ and calls herself ‘a cis person.’ Therefore, in my opinion, there is no justification for her continuing to play the role of Jo. Period,” Christian Lewis, a theater critic, tweeted. “This discredits so much of the statement from yesterday,” they added in another tweet. Gooding also seemed to reference the casting decision in her own statement, writing that trans cast members “are owed space to exist and perform free of transphobia and the opportunity to tell their own stories, just as I have over the years.”
Update, Friday, September 24, at 6:45 p.m.: The Actors’ Equity Association said it is “deeply concerned” by the revelations in Schell’s statement. The group did not specifically address the claim that the stage manager was an Equity vice-president, but noted in a statement that it is looking into everything Schell brought forward. “We recognize this was a truly painful experience that shouldn’t have happened,” the statement said. “An actor who needs emergency surgery should never be prevented from taking medical leave, no matter where the show is in its life cycle. This is yet another example of why we need to end the ‘Show Must Go On’ mentality and prioritize the well-being of the people who make theatre.”
Update, Saturday, September 25, at 5:30 p.m.: The lead producers of Jagged Little Pill, Vivek J. Tiwary, Arvind Ethan David, and Eva Price put out the following statement: “We are deeply troubled by the recent claims that have been made by a former cast member. We met with our cast and members of our core creative team today to let them know we take this matter very seriously, and to share with them the actions we are taking in response. These actions include appointing an external firm, Jay Hewlin and The Hewlin Group, to conduct a comprehensive investigation of this incident and the individuals involved, and we are immediately launching an external review of all our policies and procedures with the wellbeing of all our employees in mind. Broadway shows are by their very nature collaborative human efforts, so there is nothing more important to us than our people. We are committed to continuing to nurture a work environment where everyone feels valued and respected.”
Update, Sunday, September 26, at 1:19 p.m.: The Actors’ Equity Association released a statement on Sunday announcing that they too are “also commissioning a thorough, independent investigation of the Jagged Little Pill workplace.” The organization which represents over 51,000 actors and stage managers in live theater is in the process of seeking an attorney to conduct this additional investigation.
Update Sunday, September 26, at 7:59 p.m.: Lauren Patten won the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical Tony for her portrayal of Jo. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her “trans and nonbinary friends and colleagues who have engaged with me in difficult conversations.” Diablo Cody also won for Best Book, but did not directly address the controversy.