Photo From: Ring of Keys Website
Written By McKenzi Thi Murphy
The “lesbians from next door” are stepping out into the limelight.
“We were tired of being alienated as the token lesbian in a musical production,” Andrea Prestinario, the founder of Ring of Keys, said in an interview. Though she loves musical theatre canon (works already existing in the industry) she felt while it was specifically gay, it was not queer. Determined to do more than just sulk about what didn’t exist, she created something that did: a network that strives to, per their mission statement, “kick (ball-change) the closet door open to create a vibrant, diverse musical theatre landscape for the future.”
Since January 2018, Ring of Keys has existed as a national network for queer women, trans, and gender non-conforming individuals within the theatre industry. In that time, Prestinario and her co-founder, Royer Bockus, grew its members from just three to over 300, spanning 40 cities across two continents.
Ring of Keys promotes the hiring of queer women and TGNC people to “queer the stage” by subverting the norm. While the act of queering a theatre might seem complicated, the main component is visibility. Any material, Prestinario said, written by queer artists, highlighting a queer narrative, or even a gender-flipped interpretation of an existing work becomes queered.
The name of the organization is a reference to the most well-known song in Fun Home, a musical written by Lisa Kron (a queer woman herself) and Jeanine Tesori, based off of Alison Bechdel’s comic memoir. The show won the Tony Award for best musical along with four others in 2015, and is one of the few mainstream musicals to feature a lesbian lead.
The song, “Ring of Keys,” depicts Small Alison’s butch lesbian awakening when she sees a masculine delivery woman and her ring of keys whom she strongly relates to. “The song is about identification and about representation,” Prestinario said. “Seeing ourselves.” She received the two playwrights’ blessing to use the name because it had such a profound impact on her and Bockus. Lisa Kron could not be reached for comment.
Not open to just cisgender women, Prestinario’s network is home to queer people across the gender spectrum–everyone except cis gay men, who already have a definitive space in musical theatre.
“My first year in NYC I had no queer theatre community or connections,” Kat Griffin, a non-binary member, said in an email. Impending top surgery prevented them from a phone conversation. “It was just me feeling sad and out of place sitting at [Equity Principal Auditions] wondering if there was a place for me in the industry.”
With the help of Ring of Keys, Griffin was able to meet and connect with fellow transgender/gender non-conforming (TGNC) artists. “I went from feeling so isolated to really becoming like, almost overwhelmingly immersed with like-identified theatre people.”
The sense of community the organization brings its members extends even outside its sprawling directory. Though still relatively new, Ring of Keys partners with prominent fixtures of the theatre industry such as Maestra Music, Musical Theatre Factory, and National Queer Theater.
“A big issue in queer theatre is the expulsion of women and trans folks,” Adam Odess-Rubin, the director of National Queer Theatrer, said in an interview. “We really wanted to go against that; be more diverse and inclusive of all queer communities.”
To do that, Odess-Rubin believed the best way was to build broader bases, and connections. While Ring of Keys could provide its members with ways towards employment, it is not a producing company. But National Queer Theater is. And it needs artists; queer artists. Thus began a mutually beneficial relationship.
Through these partnerships, showcases, and new monthly workshops on topics ranging from theatre history to self-love, Ring of Keys continues to broaden its horizons. In the future, Prestinario hopes to one day have the resources to work as a producing company, queering as much theatre as they can.
There have been many great theatrical stories centered around gay men, but Odess-Rubin and Prestinario both want a broader diversity of narratives for queer women and TGNC people. The lack of opportunities stifles creativity, and erases entire groups of already marginalized people.
“The different ways homophobia affects queer women, it’s just erasure usually,” Pearl Rhein, one of the first people to join Ring of Keys, said in an interview. “People have assumed that there aren’t queer women working in musical theatre.” Having known Prestinario since their college years at Ball State University, naturally Rhein, who openly identifies as queer, had to be involved.
“Those of us non-lesbian queer people can be excluded.” For her, Ring of Keys being a queer space and not just one for lesbians, became incredibly important. “I have really loved how forward and progressive Andrea is with making it for all across the spectrum of queer identity.”
This past summer, Rhein married to her male partner. In some spaces, she said, being in a relationship that passes for heterosexual creates walls. “When I want to be in a queer space, that codes me as not queer enough, and Ring of Keys is so open and so focused on being a space for people of all queernesses that I have never felt excluded.”
Rhein believes that, as a rule, casting directors must make an effort to have queer characters played by queer actors, and Griffin goes even further to insist that trans actors play trans characters every time, no exception. There is no shortage of talent available, they both adamantly insist. To take away the queer identity of a queer story by casting only cis straight actors and consulting cis straight creators, is a standard practice that must be changed.
A common thread among all four of those interviewed, queer representation in musical theatre is vital.Representation matters; those who do not believe it does are already disproportionately represented.
“Queer stories are important,” Odess-Rubin said. “Valuable queer people are valuable. They have a story to tell, and capable of telling their own stories.”
“Representation matters,” said Prestinario. “We really believe that we are giving conscious and subconscious permission to future queer artists to elevate themselves… Our members are named “keys” and keys mean locked doors, and doors mean access.”
“I go crazy for narratives for bi people who are seen in relationships with more than one gender of one person and that being unremarkable,” Rhein said.
“Representation matters,” Griffin concluded. “Because young queer kids should be able to see themselves represented up on stage when they go see a show. Imagine a young nonbinary person trying to find the language to come out to their parents seeing someone with they/them pronouns listed in a playbill- it’s so simple but so potentially life changing.”