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Lester Cook: Emerging

Lester E.D. Cook Interview

  Ercole and Megara is a deeply personal true story of love and family in the face of a partner transitioning. The staged reading of this compelling piece will take place on May 11th at Playwright’s Horizon’s Downtown at 6 p.m. with catered meal being served one hour before the performance.  Lester E.D. Cook is the playwright and lead actor.  We had an opportunity to chat with Mr. Cook.  We appreciate the time he took to share insights about his life and career with us and the candor with which he shared them.

     “I’m probably the guy who is more eclectic in my approach.  I will admit, I’m really drawn to the Suzuki method. Because I am mostly a physical person as my wife tells me, “You have a kinetic intelligence that is uncanny.”   I’m a huge admirer and fan of the golden age of both Broadway and Hollywood; particularly of the musical aspects of that time whether music itself or the dancing aspect.   I’m the guy who will say what everyone else is thinking and yet no one will say it aloud.   I’m the guy who isn’t interested in stereotypes or believes in monolithic voices.  I believe that everything and anything is a complex and complicated story.  Because we go by what we see in our society. We all have an inherent bias and theatre is supposed to challenge that bias and the stereotypes that media generally wants to tell us about ourselves as a whole society.   I want to focus on what we can’t see.  Being a singer as well I’m really drawn to any kind of music.  One of my biggest concerns around my transition was what would happen to my voice and my ability to sing. Thank the Goddess I can still sing, and my voice is getting back to where I want it to be.  I have an amazing vocal coach in Adam Baritot, and he makes sure I understand my instrument and how it works and how to take care of it.   A second voice change is common for men of transexperience.  I never use the terminology that is reductionist and is biomedical and doesn’t really encapsulate the experience of transitioning.  I was born deformed, and this is just me addressing what I see as an impairment.  The issue becomes there is the physical transition, there is also however, emotional, mental, racial and gender norms that you must adjust to when you begin being read as the gender you knew you were always meant to be.”

     Sometimes having to take required courses in college can be a drag.  In Mr. Cook’s case it led to a poignant piece of theatre and a long and productive relationship with a theatre professor.  “Funny you should ask how this came to be; it was a final classroom assignment, and you write it over the course and turn it in at the end of the semester.  If you are theatre major at the City College of New York you are required to take Play Writing, this is how this play came into being.  I had spoken with my professor who is today the dramaturg for this play, Dr. Kathleen Potts. I had many questions, about what I could and couldn’t do.  “What are the rules exactly of play writing?”  Kathleen taught me rules and I wrote.  The only question I ever asked was, “Can I have two protagonists?”  For me, knowing I wasn’t the only one in transition is why I wanted to write and give voice to one group of people who are completely ignored, silenced, and invalidated and are considered important support systems for us, yet they have no supports of their own, no services offered to them.  They

are given platitudes and are told condescending cliches as if their concerns aren’t valid.” 

      Mr. Cook’s creative process is multi-layered and includes cerebral, physical and visceral components.  “My creative process is weird as it isn’t linear.   I have an idea and I will let it percolate with me for quite some time till I take pen to paper.  I still do my 10 minutes a day of free writing like I was taught to do when I was becoming a field researcher.  I have a moleskin and a particular type of pen I use when I write.  I may use my iPhone and write some notes there and expand on those notes when I can get to paper and put it down on hard copy. My creative process involves using ½ a gummy at night.  My process involves I must be physical and get alone time so I can sort things out, listen to the voices, and lessons my characters are trying to convey to me.  I always ask, “What or why is this important to my character to say?”   My process usually includes long bike rides.  I ride about thirty miles a day and early in the morning and I must have my time near the water. There is something about the water that provides both clarity and adventure.  The biking provides me the ability to sweat and that sweat provides a detoxing component I need and cleansing my soul and body needs.  My process always includes research when I’m playing other characters whether Ezekiel Cheever or the Narrator and Mysterious Man.  I will find those answers either on the internet or in the script itself.  The Crucible gave me many answers on the internet.  With Into the Woods the answers I needed were in the script to create my background story and it was in the script I discovered I was the villain. And of course my process has a ton of music in it.”

     “I take the character creation part of my work very seriously and I am adamant that by day one whether memorized or not I should be ready to work when I show up at the studio.  I have auditioned and impressed folks and still didn’t get the part because you need to make bold choices no matter what.  I’m not ever afraid to make bold choices.  Every audition is a learning experience and I see it through that lens, so I am never disappointed no matter how an audition goes.”

     Mr. Cook is hoping that the audience gets the message of the piece and leaves the theatre having profound meaningful conversations about what they saw.  “FIRST!  THIS IS NOT A TRANS STORY!! This is a story about 2 people who choose to stay together. And I resent professionally and personally the constantly believing and the categorizing that it is.  And the reason I’m so strongly committed to the narrative that it isn’t a trans story because if we change the context and talk about for example a circumcision that went wrong and that man was forced into being raised as a woman only to turn around and live as nature made him; would we still call that man, “trans”? I know that this definitely who I was born to be.  Would we categorize the veteran who was hurt in the war and lost his phallus and had to have it replaced, “trans”?  We know that we don’t view it through that lens and my story is no different except for its context.  I want people to walk away and go to their barbershops and discuss it, go to a 12-step meeting, and discuss it.  I want people to begin to have this conversation in diners and colleges and family dinner tables.  There is no place I don’t want this to be a part of a larger conversation as it is part of the human experience.  I want people to wonder more about our partners and their stories.   I want our partners to be supported and not constantly be dismissed, so maybe, just maybe our relationships can be part of a bigger story in society in general where we really are viewed through the lens we are just like other folks.  We have children and we have problems with respect, life choices and other things that happen.  It is about looking through something through someone else’s lens. I want them to also look at what’s being done to women who are born anatomically female.” 

     Mr. Cook weighed in with his opinion of the strides made in the transgender community.  “I have very strong opinions on this subject.  First issue, is you can’t marginalize a group of people twice. We are currently doing that by how we are treating women of transexperience in sports.  We marginalize anatomically born women twice once by being women, and then the coercing of their spaces to accept people that weren’t born anatomically female, and I believe this about men as well.  I’m an egalitarian, and I think that’s an important distinction to make.  I’m referred to quite often as a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) we aren’t talking about bathrooms here, we’re talking about peoples lives.  I think what is most notable is the absence of the men’s voices and I’m willing to bet that if men of transexperience are beating anatomically born men in competition that they are too ashamed to discuss it because of how masculinity is viewed in our society. The derogatory comment I’m sure is, “What?  You couldn’t beat the “tranny”?  You couldn’t even beat the he/she.”  When we speak of the “strides” exactly about whom are we speaking?   If we’re talking about women of transexperience, then yes, there have been strides made there however, what strides exactly?   Women of transexperience are more likely to be in television however, the question becomes in what capacity?  Most times, we see them as convicts, sex workers or the victims of crimes or the perpetrators of crimes the sociopath who hasn’t been able to transition, think Silence of the Lambs.  As far as men are concerned, we aren’t even on the highway that leads to the parking lot to be part of the conversation.   Women of transexperience are always part of the mainstream conversation.  When I look at Chloe Cole, I think about all the years of reparative therapy I endured.  I think why the media focus on those kids who are being coerced into “reparative therapy.” And for the love of all that is decent tell me, why we haven’t also focused on the kids who are happy?  Why haven’t we found adults like me and tell those stories.  If we’re going to make strides, then the conversations need to be more inclusive and driven by men of transexperience.  If there is no voice speaking out, then it becomes the obligation if given a platform to start to a whisper for men of transexperience I’ve given them a big platform where they can begin to whisper among themselves about the biggest medical decision they will ever make.  The one about whether they need or want to also have a phallus.  I see it as my obligation to give them a place to start real conversations.  I pass and I recognize what a privilege that is.  So, to whom much is given much is expected.  I want our collective whispers to get louder.  I want us to have equal billing.  Till we are as much a part of the conversation as women are we are erased from the conversation and ergo erased from the society writ large.” 

     This is a highly personal and emotional project for Mr. Cook.  He not only wrote it, but he is starring in it too.  He discussed how he feels about sharing his life with the public on this level.  “I’ve always wanted to live stealth which means I never admit I transitioned, and I try to bury, erase any part of my former life.  That said, there’s no way I can live stealth anymore. It was too important not to tell this story.  I also wanted to give couples of transexperience some validation and give them a place to start discussions around bottom surgery.  Bottom surgery especially phalloplasty as a surgery is its own beast.  It requires much from the couple and can surely test their resolve as a couple to see this process through together. If I can help one couple stay together then this was worth it.  If men of transexperience begin to have conversations in their own communities around their physical and emotional journeys, then I did something right.  If we can stop lesbians telling men of transexperience they betrayed their communities then that’s an important part of this process.  I want people to know they aren’t alone and that things are more complicated than they appear.    I want everyone to have a voice and I want all those voices included.  I want people to hear the experience of some of the horrors that happen on an inpatient unit.  I was raped on an inpatient unit and although I don’t mention it in my monologues I did have it in there and then my wife Debbie who does all my editing insisted I remove it. I mean people are going to talk and people are going to criticize, me, I just rely on what Teddy Roosevelt said about the critic and being the man in the arena.  I’m grateful for the strong woman my wife is that I have someone who knows how to help me shut out the outside chatter and make sure only what needs to get through does.  I’m a high maintenance man and there’s no doubt there are times I need to be managed.  Someone must be bold enough to take a stand and say I will not be moved or silenced.  My truth and voice, my humanity is as important as anyone else’s.”

     Mr. Cook has a lot of artistic and educational plans to keep him busy for the foreseeable future including potentially being addressed as Dr. Cook.  “I do want to take this play, cut an album, and turn it into a musical.  I have a history college professor who is very much in my corner and wants me to write a play about the history of Eugenics; since that is what I specialize in social welfare and public policy.  Eugenics, disability, and child welfare.  I want to act and get some background work, get other work that is related to the stage versus the screen and eventually do both.  I also need to prepare for the eventuality that I will return to school to pursue my Ph.D.”  

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