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Penny Sterling is out to break hearts 

click to enlarge Comedian Penny Sterling rehearses "Someone No One Can See," a show with PUSH Physical Theatre that explores a turning point in her early life. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Comedian Penny Sterling rehearses "Someone No One Can See," a show with PUSH Physical Theatre that explores a turning point in her early life.
Imagine being a teenager who feels misunderstood by the world, especially your parents. You pick up an album because its minimalist black cover with a triangle prism appeals to you. The cover is so cool that the music could be polka for all you care, but it’s not: it’s a rock album about feeling isolated.

As you put on your headphones and listen to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” you think maybe you’re not alone in feeling like someone no one can see.

Now imagine that decades later, you get to put that moment on stage, surrounded by dancers from PUSH Physical Theatre. Penny Sterling, who joins PUSH to tell her story in “Someone No One Can See,” describes the experience as both amazing and heartbreaking. The dancers, she says, use “desperate and longing movements that encapsulate my internal dialogue in ways words can’t describe.”

Sterling is a comedian, writer, and performer whose work often centers on her experiences as a trans woman. She spent most of her life hiding her true self, even from herself, before transitioning in her mid-50s. Her show plays at Blackfriars Theatre from June 3 through 12.

Darren Stevenson, cofounder of PUSH, conceived of the collaboration after seeing Sterling at a TEDx Rochester conference speaking about the power of storytelling and becoming entranced.

Sterling asked her audience to consider the story of why, at a sold out event, people stood in the back while seats in the front row were empty. Perhaps people felt nervous sitting so close to the speakers. As a trans woman who doesn’t have the luxury of blending in with the crowd, she said, she always opts for the front row.
Sitting there, she explained, means not having to watch people turn their heads to stare at her.

“She just had the room,” Stevenson says. “You could hear a pin drop.”

Stevenson went up to Sterling after the talk to congratulate her — and to be upfront.

“I don’t understand you,” he recalls telling her and adding that he wanted to better comprehend her experience.

“It isn’t fair that trans people are dying because of transphobia,” he says. “I don’t need to understand very much to agree with that.”

Stevenson rejects the notion that collaborators must fully understand each other to work well together.

“All it requires is we both have an open hand," he says.

When he held out his hand to Sterling, she accepted.

click to enlarge Penny Sterling says PUSH dancers' "desperate and longing movements" capture thoughts and feelings of isolation that she could not put into words. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Penny Sterling says PUSH dancers' "desperate and longing movements" capture thoughts and feelings of isolation that she could not put into words.
“Someone No One Can See” mixes movement and spoken word, including poetry, as it jumps through scenes in Sterling’s childhood and adult life. Some memories, such as the last time she wore a dress as a child, will be familiar to audiences of her one-woman show “Spy in the House of Men.” But now these moments are reimagined with four PUSH performers representing what it’s like to be inside her mind.

Those familiar with Sterling as a comedian might be surprised by this show’s serious tone. She says this is the least funny she’s ever been on stage, though that doesn’t mean the performance lacks levity. She says she usually uses humor to give the audience a chance to catch their breath between more emotional stories, but expects that the movements from PUSH will “affect people with the beauty and amazement, which are also things that lighten spirit.”

Neither she nor Stevenson expects their audiences to be experts on the subject of life as a trans woman.

“You don’t need to agree with us here,” Stevenson says. “The question I want to ask is: ‘Should we kill Penny?’ I think most rational people would say, ‘Well, no.’ Should we, by inaction, allow her to live her life in risk of death or injury at the hands of others? That’s the reality she faces.”

Sterling responds with a quip: “I’m not sure I’m ever gonna die. Partly because I never finished anything.”

Joking aside, Sterling says she uses storytelling not to change minds, but feelings, because feelings ultimately impact choices.

“The feeling is ‘transgender people terrify me,’” she says. “The behavior is ‘I don’t want to be around them’ and the choice is to try to limit them.”

She tries to emphasize commonalities she has with other women, trans people, and even men.

“We’re just people trying to live our best lives,” Sterling says. “Everything that’s difficult about being transgender has nothing to do with being transgender and everything to do with the way people react to us. The sad part is, ‘everybody else’ includes the legal system and the medical professions.”

The amount of energy Sterling and other trans people must spend justifying their authentic selves can be frustrating.

“She’s got all this stuff to say about parenting, about decades of life and wisdom gained and generated, but she’s not really allowed to do any of that because she’s forced into this position of saying ‘I have to keep explaining this thing,’” says Stevenson.

Not that Sterling minds being many people’s “Trans 101” crash course.

“I’ve always wanted to perform,” she says, “to help people to learn, to get people to think and to feel and to laugh and find joy.”

She says she hopes to break some hearts with her show with PUSH. By that, she means the shield that transphobic people “put over their heart that allows them to hate and hurt people.”

“The only way you can possibly get them to stop doing that is to break their hearts,” she says, “and that’s what I try to do.”

Katherine Varga is a freelance theater critic for CITY.
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