Manifesto TranspofágicoPhoto: © Danilo Galvão
Manifesto Transpofágico, Photo: © Danilo Galvão 
Manifesto TranspofágicoPhoto: © Danilo Galvão
Manifesto Transpofágico, Photo: © Danilo Galvão 
Manifesto TranspofágicoPhoto: © Danilo Galvão
Manifesto Transpofágico, Photo: © Danilo Galvão 
Manifesto TranspofágicoPhoto: © Danilo Galvão
Manifesto Transpofágico, Photo: © Danilo Galvão 
Manifesto TranspofágicoPhoto: © Danilo Galvão
Manifesto Transpofágico, Photo: © Danilo Galvão 

Cleaning-up Trans Stereotypes in Theatre:
A Fight to Change the World
Renata Carvalho On-Stage at the Schaubühne

by Joseph Pearson

24 April 2024

Renata Carvalho is many things: an actress, trans-activist, neologist, and social scientist. Her theatre piece »Manifesto Transpofágico«, directed by Luiz Fernando Marques, will appear at Schaubühne’s FIND 2024 festival. It comes to the Berlin stage not only with a message for better trans-representation in the creative industries, but a plan to make that happen.

Carvalho speaks to me from her office in São Paulo. I’ve asked her to tell me about the challenges faced by trans people in Brazil, and she raises one eyebrow and explains that Brazil is the deadliest place in the world for trans people (according to the Trans Murder Monitoring research project). More trans people are murdered in the country than anywhere else. The second most prevalent cause of death is suicide. According to the NGO TransVest, 90% of trans people in Brazil are in prostitution, and trans life expectancy is only 30 years old. It’s a tough neighbourhood, and one Carvalho knows intimately.

She tells me that she started researching the challenges faced by trans people––or what are called »travesti« in Brazil––from an anthropological perspective when she was in her 20s:

»I worked with trans sexworkers. I also worked as a prostitute myself when my parents kicked me out of their home. Why did I start to study my body and trans bodies? I wanted to understand why my mother, father, cousins, and aunts stopped loving me. And I wanted to change the narrative of what I’d read in books that spoke only of the historical exclusion of our bodies, about why trans bodies are immoral and criminal«.

Carvalho tried to make her way as a professional in Brazil’s theatre world but found, at every turn, that she grappled with stereotypes and dehumanisation: »When I speak about my body on stage, it’s about a body that has suffered censorship and retaliation because it’s not a body accepted within the parameters of theatre. For a long time, I needed to work backstage, as a make-up artist or in tech just to be involved in the theatre field. I went backstage because the on-stage visibility of my femininity was unacceptable«.

In 2016, Carvalho made headlines when she played Jesus in a show called »The Gospel: According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven«. She tells me how the show was censored five times, she received death threats every day, and she had to go on stage with a bulletproof jacket. The technical team and others involved with the show were also attacked because of the public backlash against a trans person playing the religious figure.

Carvalho’s experiences led, ultimately, in 2017, to the creation of a national movement for trans artists called MONART, for which she wrote the Trans Representativeness Manifesto. I ask her about the organisation’s goals, and she tells me that her aims are »big, universal, and beyond borders«. Indeed, six years after the launch of her manifesto, she says she has begun even to see results from the Brazilian movement in other countries, such as Italy, France, Portugal, Chile, and Romania.

‘Tell me what your organisation wants to achieve’, I ask her.

»We are asking for the permanent inclusion of trans representatives in creative spaces. What we want is a moratorium on transfake practices, which is when a cis-gendered actor/actress plays a trans actor/actress. We request a stop to transfake practices for thirty years so that trans people are given the opportunity to be represented in every artistic space. We can move towards equality only when we are together in the same place. Only then can our humanity be restored to our bodies. This manifesto is not just a theatre show; it’s my life’s purpose, which is to clean-up trans-stereotypes from the creative sphere«.

»What do you say to those who say any actor/actress should be able to play any part?« I ask.

Renata says, »It’s easy to reply to that. First, we need to talk about who these people are who can represent everyone because I, as a trans person, can’t be just anyone on stage. If I play Juliet, nobody will see me as the cis-gendered woman who completes Shakespeare’s dramatic arch. My Juliet will always be a trans person. Put a trans-Juliet with an obese Romeo on stage, and the audience will think you are deconstructing Shakespeare. Everyone will be allowed to play anyone only when I’m able to play a cis-gendered pregnant woman romanced by a handsome guy, and no one thinks it’s strange. Today’s reality––because of social constructions and religion––is that trans-people in the arts field are stereotyped and hypersexualised. Nobody with a body like mine is supposed to have intellectual and artistic initiative. The 21st-century art scene needs to take responsibility for reconstructing these prejudices«.

Carvalho likes to invent names, telling me on our Zoom call: »There are so many important things that lack names, and unless they have a name, we cannot fight against them. I call my large library of academic and artistic works on trans bodies a »Travesteca«. And I call my anthropological work »Transpology«. As Roland Barthes said, we need to »cheat the language««.

But her activism is not just in her organisational work, her manifestos, or language. It comes together in her electrifying plays. I say, »Your show at FIND2014 is activist, but am I right in thinking much of the activism comes from pedagogy?«

Carvalho replies, »In Manifesto Transpofágico, I first discuss the history of trans bodies. But then I stop and break the fourth wall and tell the audience: now that you see the history, let’s talk about it. I invite reflection«.

I reply, »I can imagine that people who don’t have much context for learning about trans lives, or who don’t understand the difference between gender and sex, are afraid of making mistakes, such as using the wrong pronouns. How much space do you give them?«

»The first thing is that I use non-violent communication. I have to say often that I support and love you. Feel hugged! You are safe here. We are all going to learn. Don’t worry about making mistakes. This is the perfect place for us to do that. But then I begin to ask provocative questions and show them that it’s no big deal to discuss them. I try to show them scientifically that a lot of transphobia and homophobia come from fake news and that more in-depth, informed conversation is needed rather than speculation. But of course, there is a limit. You’ll come across those situations when maybe some cis-gendered guy gets abusive, and I can’t allow that«.

»What do you think people ultimately learn from seeing your work and your body on stage?« I ask.

»I don’t know what people learn. It would be a pretension to say everyone learns something from my show. But I do know that when trans people take their families to my show, parents might begin referring to their children with the correct pronouns. This fight is indeed pedagogical: people don’t have all the information, and a lot of it is prejudiced. But I am motivated. I fight because I want to change the world«.

With thanks to Ariane Cuminale for translations from Brazilian Portuguese.


Manifesto Transpofágico

by and with Renata Carvalho
Director: Luiz Fernando Marques
Guest Performance FIND 2024
São Paulo

Premiered on 27 April 2024