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Becoming a Man in 127 Easy Steps: Talk like a man

Grappling with the myriad angles of trans issues

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Earlier this year, 7 Stages' first production of Scott Turner Schofield's one-man show Becoming a Man in 127 Easy Steps sold out two performances on Super Bowl Sunday. That impressive statistic begs the question, what kind of man puts on performance art during the Super Bowl, anyway?

Schofield's show provides answers that are at once engaging and incomplete. "Becoming" a man may be more of a journey for Schofield than for most guys, as he happens to be an actor, writer and female-to-male transgender person (not necessarily in that order). Becoming a Man offers a playful, kaleidoscopic evening of Schofield's observations, memories and even some physical acrobatics that correspond to Schofield's balancing act as he transitions from one gender to the other.

Directed by Steve Bailey, Becoming a Man may be the least visually static one-person show I've ever seen. The audience enters the small Back Stage space at 7 Stages to find swaths of white and red fabric dangling in the performance area. We hear Schofield's recorded voice, see projections of embryonic ultrasound footage and realize that all along, Schofield has been hanging in a fetal position, hidden inside the red fabric. He shifts within the material, partially emerges and "swims" in suspension, while meditating on the in utero causes of transgender issues.

Following the striking tableau, Schofield chats up the audience. I've seen him as an actor and once wrote a Creative Loafing cover story about him, and he's clearly his own best character. Becoming a Man plays to his strengths as an ingratiating, disarming personality. He casually encourages plentiful audience participation and talks about "the satisfaction of a well-built fort" as he turns the performance space into the equivalent of a sofa-cushion clubhouse for grown-ups to share stories and secrets.

Schofield's first monologue play, Underground TRANSit, at times relied on literary artifice and extended metaphors based on the likes of the New York subway system. Becoming a Man proves much more fertile with its theatrical artifice and devices, which include distributing toys and other possessions to the audience. Early in the show, Schofield flips a coin and, based on what the audience calls, he removes half of his clothes and describes the possibilities for gender reassignment surgery, marking his skin to indicate where the incisions would go.

The "127 Steps" of the title refers to Schofield's "decoder wheel," with numbers that correspond to words like "man," "woman," "gay," "lesbian" and "body." Schofield claims to have 127 stories to go with each permutation, and the audience calls out the number of the story they want to hear. Each performance means a different lineup, in a different order, although at times it's not clear how the labels match the tales. The combination of "straight" and "woman" leads to Schofield explaining an essential masculine rite of passage: He shotguns a canned drink while the audience chants, "Chug! Chug!" until he punctuates it with a belch.

Autobiographical monologue plays can easily lapse into self-absorption, but Schofield avoids gazing too deeply at his own navel (or any other body part). He's a born raconteur for the MySpace generation. In one of the highlights, he describes going before a Texas judge and requesting to have his name and gender officially changed. Schofield captures the sympathetic but reluctant judge so vividly that it's a shame his stories (at least at the performance I attended) don't feature more "characters" drawn with equivalent sharpness. The play makes a running device of Schofield's answering machine messages, but they're so difficult to hear that their content doesn't really come across.

In one story, Schofield addresses the idea that his example makes the female-to-male transition "look easy" and reflects on his youthful suicide attempts. He reclines on his back, mentions the painful aspects of "waiting for change" and sustains the moment in silence with an impressive sense of dramatic timing.

As a former Emory women's studies major, Schofield takes feminism and gender issues seriously, but also with a refreshing, ironic sense of humor. At one point some pretentious verse about sexuality rolls onto the screen, but we're instead captivated by Schofield's puckish, karaoke-style rendition of "Son of a Preacher Man." He also clues the audience in to such details as the "tranny bladder:" All transgender people apparently have the superpower of being able to hold it until they can find a private or otherwise safe bathroom.

Outside the restrooms at 7 Stages, I saw a couple of signs informing visitors that Schofield's audience may include people who don't fit everyone's idea of normal gender, concluding with the request to "Please allow everyone to relieve themselves peacefully." The message indicates how complicated 21st-century gender relations can be, even at a bohemian safe house like Little Five Points' 7 Stages. Becoming a Man in 127 Easy Steps unfolds like an ideal work for people grappling with trans issues, from the inside or the outside. Of course, the phobic, bigoted or confused audiences who'd learn the most from the show are the least likely to see it.

Shapeless by design, Becoming a Man may include more gimmicks than it really needs, although Schofield seems to have the logistic complications down pat. The show feels like a work in progress, but not as an artistic limitation. Instead, it indicates the extent to which Schofield has wrestled with and continues to work out complex matters of identity. Being a male is dictated by biology, but becoming a man can be an ongoing process, no matter what you've got in your undies.

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