Queer singer-songwriter Seann Miley Moore and trans queen playwright and performer Glace Chase each had to leave Australia to forge their careers because of a lack of opportunities for gender diverse artists here. Each has now returned to remedy that lack of authentic representation, playing versions of themselves.

Moore, currently starring as Angel in Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent at Sydney Opera House, a character Moore wants known as a gender non-specific “goddess” rather than labelled a drag queen, bought a one-way ticket to Britain five years ago.

Seann Miley Moore as Angel with Callum Francis as Collins in Rent at the Sydney Opera House. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Born in Indonesia to a Filipino mother and English father, and schooled in Sydney, where “I got teased a lot for the colour of my skin”, Moore became an X Factor UK contestant and performs self-penned songs at Pride gatherings across Europe, sometimes wearing earrings, gloss, heels and dresses, both on and off stage.

Now 28, Moore has no regrets about relocating to London because it is “a mixing pot with so many beautiful ethnicities in all walks of life”, surrounded by “all my crazy, sexy, beautiful friends owning their authentic self unapologetically”. Moore laughs: “Australia needs a bit more colour.”

Seated by a piano in an Opera House dressing room, and prompted by Limelight for preferred pronouns, Moore nominates ‘he’ and ‘they’, although sometimes friends address Moore as ‘she’: “Call me whatever you want,” the singer laughs, “as long as you’re calling me.”

Melbourne-born Chase meanwhile will star in the self-penned play Triple X, the “first trans love story on the Australian mainstage”, in Brisbane at Queensland Theatre in March, playing trans character Dexie, who falls in love with a blokey Wall Street Banker: “It’s me, basically.”

Chase, who like Dexie uses the pronoun ‘she’, took off for New York several years ago, performing at parties and nightclubs among many others from drag origins – hence Chase’s identification now as a “trans queen” – while also creating and leading comedic walking pub crawl tours.

Glace Chase will star in Triple X for Queensland Theatre in March. Photograph courtesy of QT

Director Paige Rattray convinced Chase to write and star in Triple X, a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company, after Chase told the director about a liaison the performer had. The Sydney season is yet to be rescheduled after the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled the play’s planned Brisbane and Sydney runs in 2020.

Both back in Australia, Moore and Chase have had front-row seats to the local furore among trans and non-binary artists over the casting of cisgendered performer Hugh Sheridan in the lead role of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and agree with the producers’ decision to cancel the new production that would have premiered at Sydney Festival this month.

“Hugh would be great in the role of Hedwig; I know him, I’ve worked with him,” says Chase. “But maybe they should have cast Hedwig 50-50 with a trans performer and announced that performer’s name at the same time. There were ways of positioning [Sheridan’s casting]. It did feel very tone deaf.”

Chase was in fact invited to audition as Hedwig in the ill-fated Sydney production and learned all the lines, but pulled out when she realised the Hedwig season would have been too close to her commitment to Triple X. Chase says she came to understand the role was only that of understudy.

“It was only a two-week rehearsal period [but] Hedwig is a massive Hamlet kind of role; you basically never leave the stage,” says Chase. “It’s grueling emotionally and vocally. The producers said everyone was welcome to audition, and I believe that, I think they would have been very responsive.

“What wasn’t taken into account is, if you’re casting Hugh, you need to give the trans community time to get up to that level because we just don’t get any roles. I work in nightclubs, I have a rock and roll voice, I can do it, but at that level?

“I don’t think it’s necessarily understood, the pressures trans people are under. You’ve got to set it up to allow us to win. For that [role], I didn’t feel I could win. It’s a role that crucifies my soul.”

Hugh Sheridan in a promotional image for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo supplied

A former star of Packed to the Rafters on television, Sheridan, 35, wrote in News Corporation’s Stellar magazine in October last year [2020] that he had been told it would hurt his acting career if people thought he was gay or bisexual. The coming out essay declared he had slept with men and women but eschewed sexuality labels.

But Sheridan “has the privilege of being on a long-running soap,” counters Chase. “I’ve never had that privilege, not even had the opportunity to work [on screen and previously on the mainstage]. That’s what a lot of the furious response is about. It feels annoying and wrong when people want to just float in and take the juicy roles. They haven’t done the work and suffered. When do we get our chance?”

Over the years, Hedwig has been played by various cisgendered men, some identifying as gay, as well as by the female actors Ally Sheedy and Lena Hall. When the Sydney production was cancelled, Hedwig co-creator John Cameron Mitchell, who played the original Hedwig on stage and screen, and writer Stephen Trask issued a statement saying the character should be “open to anyone who can tackle it and, more importantly, anyone who needs it”.

“The character does go on a gender journey, but it is sparked by a coerced, non-consensual surgery,” their statement read.

“Though we’ve always been so pleased to hear trans folks find resonance in the character’s journey to find his/herself, it’s really through drag and performance that Hedwig does so, creating a persona that is ‘more than a woman or a man’ and making ‘something beautiful and new’ out of trauma. Drag is a mask available to all and that’s why anyone should be able to play Hedwig.”

But Chase is not convinced such wide opportunity is available. “John Cameron Mitchell says anyone can and should play Hedwig; it’s for those that really need Hedwig,” she says. “I think that’s true, but I guess the question is, who needs it? Do the producers need a bankable name? That’s not going to be a trans person!”

“My trans sisters resonate with Hedwig,” agrees Seann Miley Moore. “They have all the right to raise their anger when again [Hedwig] is taken and played by another white man. We just want to see ourselves being represented in shows and films and theatre and when it’s the same botched castings it’s boring. Come on, Australia, there is talent of all shapes and sizes and queer identities.”

Moore also points to Australian theatre’s overwhelmingly white casting decisions, having joined the 2014 touring cast of Opera Australia production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, when New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a white singer, took the lead role of the Thai king.

“I’ve been away for five years and maybe I had to leave Australia because I did get some things like, when I was in The King and I just behind the scenes of people going, ‘Oh, don’t wear that dress because there’s casting people here’, certain things like that, and I was like, ‘Don’t put your insecurities on me’.”

“There was a Filipino musical at the end of 2014, Here Lies Love, [by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, about former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos] and I didn’t get into that and I was like, ‘I’m Filipino! What’s going on?’ My goodness.”

Teddy Tahu Rhodes with Lisa McCune in The King and I for Opera Australia and John Frost. Photograph © Brian Geach/Opera Australia

“You know what, I definitely will play Jean Valjean [in Les Miserables] down the road but I was like, ‘I need to be the lead in my own show’. As Seann Miley Moore. It was metaphorically speaking, but I have to be the lead in my own show. It was good that I went to the UK because I got to be really confident and comfortable in my own skin.”

With international borders closing, neither Moore nor Chase know when they will get back to their adopted metropolis homes; Chase in particular is feeling homesick for New York, but the bar scene there has again been closed down.

One time, Chase recalls, she performed at Mattachine at Julius Bar in Manhattan’s West Village – a long-running queer party organised by a group of party throwers that included one John Cameron Mitchell, who was in the bar on that night.

“I’ll never forget, I did That’s What Friends Are For [a song Burt Bacharach-Carol Bayer Sager wrote for Dionne Warwick] and I’m on the bar in this ridiculous dress that’s sort of like a bow, and it was so stupid,” says Chase.

“I was being very ironic and I changed the lyrics to, ‘Remember John Cameron Mitchell was holding auditions for Hedwig and you said I’d be really great for the role and then I kept calling you up and you refused to answer my calls, That’s What Friends Are For,” Chase laughs.

“He was just laughing hysterically. He got the gag.”

Rent plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 31 January. Triple X is at the Bille Brown Theatre for Queensland Theatre from 6 March to 1 April

Supported by the City of Sydney

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