In two steps, participants explore the sensory experience of their chosen names, both as a way to determine if the name feels right for them, and as a way to connect with and embody that name.
The first step proceeds similarly to the “Baggage” exercise. First, participants are asked to silently repeat their chosen name, just as they had with their original names in “Baggage.” They are asked to again attune to the feelings it evokes, and respond visually. Then they are asked to repeat each sound within the word of their name, and free associate each sound with other words, other sounds, and other similar vocal shapes. After free-associating with each sound, they are asked to use the whole sound of their name and free associate with other words and sounds. If the participant speaks in ASL (American Sign Language), they should proceed through the exercise by spelling out the name, free associating with similar gestures and other signs, before determining a sign for their full name and free associating that with other signs.
Second, participants are asked to form the visual sign of their name, in writing. They are asked to start by drawing a non-literal image of their name (not using letters or symbols). They are asked to create this as a sygil, a new symbol. Then they are asked to draw each letter of their name, again free-associating them with other doodles. They then do the same for their entire name.
We started by naming traits specific to ourselves. Some of them were physical traits, others emotional, and others experiential. We named things we were comfortable with, happy about, or proud of. Then we chose to focus on one. People chose everything from a beard, to the way they walk, to their maternal instinct. I ask the participants to create an image of that trait with our bodies. Then we push it to the extreme. First, we push it until the image takes over the whole body. Then we give the trait its own tone of voice, then its own movement. We make the trait so extreme that it becomes a super power. Once our super powers are established, we name them. Next, I have everyone sit to watch the playing area and asked one person to act out a simple “problem” (such as opening a heavy door). The actor would then get to choose which super hero they wanted by saying something like “If only Bearded Wonder were here” or “Please help me HandyWoman!” and the corresponding Super Trans would have to join the scene and devise a way to use their superpower to solve the problem. Sometimes I ask them to create more complex or difficult problems like a coming out disaster, and other times it is more fun to play silly scenes like opening a jar using a lilting voice. After playing this for several scenes, participants are asked to regroup and think about traits that they liked less, or traits that were mocked by others. We go through the same process of devising a SuperTrans name, power, movement, and voice to correspond with our new traits and played the game again.
Telling a Name Story
This exercise proceeds similarly to Playback Theatre. Playback Theatre is an applied theatre technique in which a storyteller tells a story orally, and after they finish, performers reenact the story as a complete image—with movement, characters, and music. This exercise also begins with an oral storytelling tradition. Participants are asked to tell the story of their birth name (though they do not need to state the actual name) three times. First, they are asked to tell the story of that name as it is told by whoever named them—replicating as closely as they can the way that person tells the story and their feelings about it. The story is then acted out by other participants in Playback Theatre style while the storyteller observes. The actors are asked to extrapolate details and make the characters as rich as possible. Then, they are asked to tell the story again from their own perspective, including any retrospective feelings or experiences associated with it. Again, the story is acted out by other participants.
Afterwards, the storyteller is asked to comment on the experience of watching the different stories unfold. The storyteller is asked if they want to add any more details and the scenes are re-performed.
Finally, they are asked to merge the two stories, while both are acted out simultaneously alongside the storytelling. In this performance, the actors are asked to push their performances to a less realistic, more physical/image theatre style in which it is much clearer if the objectives and emotions are conflicting. The two sets of actors should compete for dominance in the story.
The storyteller is then asked to reflect on the experience. What did they notice about the objectives, fears, and desires of those in the first story? What did they feel was being asked of them in this naming process? How did those desires impact their own experience of their name (story two)? How did the two stories conflict or converge in the third performance?
Madlib a Name Story
Each participant is asked to write and perform their name story—how the name was chosen, how it was given to them, what the process/ritual/ceremony entailed if there was one, etc. To then put these stories in conversation with their questions of legibility and what is asked of our names, participants are asked to recreate these stories as MadLibs, removing crucial details as well as their dead names. We then redistribute the MadLibs and have one person read the script while two (or more, depending on the needs of the story) participants act out the scene on the spot. The rest of us would call out words to fill the blanks, and the actors would improvise our story.
This exercise is a two-part somatic method. It begins with a meditative silent image theatre practice to develop a conscious understanding of where the body holds trauma. The second half uses that body-knowledge to then recognize and externalize the ways names instill behaviors, traumas, and memories on the body.
In a quiet space when all troupe members are sufficiently prepared for the work of reencountering their traumas, participants are asked to find a still spot and calm their bodies and minds. They are walked through a gentle calming meditation, easing the tension out of their muscles and joints until they are relaxed. They are then asked to focus their minds on one moment of trauma. They are then asked to think about the trauma in advance so they would be able to focus closely without searching for which trauma to choose in the moment. They are asked to think of a trauma that pulled them into their past, either with a longing to reconcile the trauma or a longing to travel back before it. I also asked them in advance to only choose a trauma they felt ready to work on with the troupe, using their own judgment. They are asked to imagine the exact moment of that trauma. I asked them to imagine the smells, the sounds, the sights, and to let their bodies reflect those sensations. They are asked to reflect in their bodies their fear in that moment, then their physical sensations, then their emotional sensations. They are asked to be as non-literal as they can. They are asked to push their energy through each part of their body, examining where they are holding tension and where they feel pain. They are asked to identify one spot where they find a lot of that tension and pain and focus all of their energy on that spot. They are asked to send their loudest scream into that spot, simultaneously pushing their muscles towards it. They are asked to cry if they want, to yell, to shake, whatever they need to create a pulse of all this energy. Using their hands and their breath, they are asked to begin to smooth the tensions from the rest of their body into that one spot. They are asked to feel the heat of that spot, and to pull it out with their hands, and breathe it out with their mind and air until the tension is outside their body in a ball of energy. They are asked to examine the ball in their hands, to note its size and weight, its energy and color. They are asked to calm it, to refocus it, to use their bodies and their breath to reshape it. Then, they are asked to replace the ball back into their bodies. They are asked how it feels, the same or different. They are asked to hold it, and to acknowledge it. They are asked to repeat this exercise as many times as necessary as we identified spots of tension from the original trauma. At the end of the exercise, they are asked to reenter their memory of the trauma and let themselves respect their bodies’ responses, noting how they had shifted or not.
Following a debrief of this exercise, the group continues on to the second part of the “Baggage” techniques, using the same meditative somatic/image theatre practice to examine the embodied experience of their original or dead name. Prior to this exercise, the group again speaks openly about trauma, triggering, and safety in these exercises, recognizing that anything asked of them in this exercise can be skipped or modified to suit their limitations and needs.
To begin this exercise, participants once again find a quiet and open space in the room. They comfort and still their bodies and bring their breath to a steady pace. They are asked to attune to any remaining tensions in their body as a sort of “pre-exercise” status for personal comparison. They are then asked to conjure their original name in their heads, silently. They are asked to let their body respond viscerally. They are asked to attune to the changes in their breath, the changes in the tensions in their body. They are asked to form their bodies around the name, trying to make their body fit within its demands. They are asked to embody the name, embody the person expected by the name. Frozen in this image, they are asked to examine the places in their body that cannot or do not fit. They are asked to push those parts further, stretching and bending them to make them fit as best they can. They are asked to scream and push into this body and wrestle with its incongruity. Then they are asked to examine the parts of their body that are still, easy in this posture. They are asked to feel and acknowledge the parts of their body that do fit within this image, to accept them. They are asked to release this image and find a comfortable position once again. Then they are asked to form their mouth around the word of their name, at first silently, then as they are able, with sound. As they do this, they are asked to say it first, hear it second. They are asked to attune to the sensation of saying the word, not the sensation of hearing. The process of separating the motion from the hearing others the word—separates it further from their person, allows them to disempower it. If their body responds to the word, they are asked to lean into this movement, attune to these tensions. They practice this until the word is made strange, or until their body recovers its easy breath and pulse. This process continues then as did the first part of Baggage, where they find and push energy through places of tension in their bodies, reforming their bodies.
Performing the Deadname
The Name Game
In a circle, all participants start by composing their bodies in images or gestures of their choosing. The first player points to a discreet body part on the person to their right (anything from an eyebrow to a leg, a belly to a finger), and asks “is that your [blank]?” In the “blank” the first person chooses a noun other than the actual name of the body part to which they pointed. They can try to identify an object that might correspond with the image/movement the second player is displaying or choose something incongruous, as long as they choose a noun other than the actual name of the body part. Player 2, the person being questioned, then responds in two ways: physically, they try to use that body part to embody/recreate/display the image of whatever word the first person used. Verbally, they respond with “No, that’s my [blank]!” Similarly, in this blank the second person inserts a word other than the actual name of that body part. The second person then turns to a new player on their right and begins the process anew, starting with the word they used for their own body. An example is as follows:
Player 1, pointing to Player 2’s arm:
“Is that your umbrella?”
Player 2, now using their arm as an umbrella:
“No, that’s my blender!”
Player 2, pointing to Player 3’s foot:
“Is that your blender?”
Player 3, now moving their foot as a blender:
“No, that’s my flower!” And so on.
The game continues moving around the circle until it seems the players are moving and posing as many body parts as is possible.
The game then breaks for a short debrief before restarting with a twist. The second part of the game is focused directly on personal names, rather than the idea of naming, but I found in the workshop that without this first part as a primer, the question of names was much too personal and difficult to approach. Since names usually come at the beginning of every applied theatre workshop, beginning with names felt important, but it also felt like we needed to start with a common language about names—a common discourse on how we might approach names in this workshop. While the naming process might suggest a stability of naming, Crawford argues that for trans people it is often felt as an expression of linguistic slippage. While the players in this game are naming themselves as they choose, they are also playing with the dissociation of the signifier from the signified, destabilizing the sign.
I designed the second part of the game to work with or without the above mentioned debrief break. If the group feels like they are already developing some trust, cohesion, and willingness, I would recommend proceeding through both parts before debriefing. If the group feels like they are not quite internalizing the themes and are still resisting, taking a moment to stop, talk, and restart might be necessary. The second part of the game begins just as the first, but now follows people’s names rather than objects:
In a circle, all players begin by posing in an image or gesture of their choosing. Player 1 turns to the player on their right and asks “Are you [Player 1’s name]?” Player 2 responds in two ways: physically, they embody the gesture or image of player 1. Verbally, they respond “No, I’m [their own name]!” The game proceeds around the circle like so:
Player 1 to player 2: “Are you [player 1’s name]?”
Player 2, now copying player 1’s image: “No, I’m [player 2’s name]!”
Player 2 to player 3: “Are you [player 2’s name]?”
Player 3, now copying player 2’s original image: “No, I’m [player 3’s name]!”
This cycle of taking on the body of the previous person and asking the next if they are your name continues until it returns to the original player 1, who then can choose any player in the circle at random, moving across the circle popcorn-style. An example is as follows:
Player 1 to player 4: “Are you [player 6’s name]?”
Player 4, now copying player 6’s body: “No, I’m [their own name]!”
Player 4 to player 3: “Are you [player 7’s name]?”
Player 3, now copying player 7’s body: “No, I’m [their own name]!”
This continues around the circle as many times as feels reasonable.