Trans Possibilities Intensive Fellows
trans actress, producer, filmmaker, & writer
Project: The Waltz
thewaltzmovie.com / theavadavis.com
The 2021 Trans Possibilities Intensive is a new groundbreaking initiative from the Sundance Institute which features 6 artists in the inaugural programme. The New Current spoke with writer, actress and filmmaker Ava Davis about being part of this unique programme for Trans Artist and what she hopes to gain from the experience.
Hi Ava thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
Strange times indeed! It’s been a catch-22, but overall it’s been a net positive experience. I think during the course of the pandemic I was able to find my essence and centre my purpose, which sounds out there but … I don’t think I’d had a chance to stop going for a long time. And, in being forced to sit down I was able to reflect and hone my artistic voice.
Look, 2020 was supposed to be the year I launched my first major short film and celebrated the success of that, and then we all were forced to shift gears. 2020 was also my first year on hormone therapy, and being at home let me figure out and refine this new identity I was coming into. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
But, it also gave me more time to reflect - on where I want to go, and the things I want to do. I started pushing the ball forward on my feature script, The Waltz, polishing up an older script, Elle. Launched an online vlog I deign to call a talk show. And working on taking my alter ego, The Duchess of Grant Park, on a six-city tour in my home state of Georgia in hopes of increasing queer and trans representation, but also building a connected creative community.
Basically, what I learned is that, given the resources and time, I will become a workaholic and powerhouse! And so, I’m also working now to find the funding to make these projects happen! I feel like I’ve discovered my “why I’m here in the world!”
Congratulations on being part of the Trans Possibilities Intensive at Sundance, what does it mean for you to be one of the 6 artists selected for the inaugural programme?
Thank you! It’s an incredible honour. It’s awe-inspiring and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. But I feel incredibly honoured and quite emotional, as though it’s validation for the work I have done and the work I want to do. I set out at the beginning of this year wanting to produce my film, The Waltz, and then quickly realized I have no idea what the next steps are. I think inclusion in a program like this will help me learn more, and more importantly, belong to a cohort of people who are trans and people of colour. We have a shared experience of belonging to different marginalized communities, but we share this love for storytelling.
I’m still trying to process what it means because it feels like, in terms of being an actor, writer, and filmmaker, there are so many more possibilities in front of me. Of belonging to this Institution and organization that over the course of the intensive feels like a family. And they keep saying if you need help in the coming weeks or months with your work, please feel free to reach out! That just feels incredible.
So, I guess it feels incredibly validating and incredibly supportive. That what I’m working on has value to others, and others are genuinely excited for the work I’m making. And that work wants to centre on queer black, brown, and beige people! That’s incredible. That is so incredible.
Do you think other festivals and creative organisations could benefit from providing equal platforms for trans artists and what do you think could be done to open up more space for Trans narratives?
Lower the barrier for entries. Create grants that target trans artists. Most trans women I know are struggling to survive, to take care of the basics of needs, which leaves little time for artistry. Whether that’s acting or film schools dedicating slots to trans students or … I don’t know what else that can look like, but examining ways in which their organization unknowingly (or possibly knowingly) excludes trans artists. Especially trans artists of colour.
What do you hope to take away from the Trans Possibilities Intensive?
Connections. A deeper sense of belonging in this crazy filmmaking world. But most importantly, more traction on getting my feature film made. This story lives in my heart, and I almost feel obsessed with it, but I think not only is it a story unique from my perspective and personal experience but also something that so many others can identify with- trans or cis, straight, bisexual, queer, and the rest.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Waltz, what inspired your screenplay?
I cannot talk about The Waltz enough. I grew up on a steady diet of romcoms from the late 90s and early 2000s. Shall We Dance? How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Silver Lining Playbook. Enchanted. Ever After. Trainwreck, The Wedding Date. I should stop! But in all of these examples are cis white women. And eventually watching them became painful, because I wanted a fantasy but I never saw someone like me in that fantasy.
So, this story is partly a love letter to the younger me and my obsession with Beauty and the Beast, and it is partly a thought experiment I ran one day before fully transitioning: what if I had to date again? It’s terrifying to even consider. I lurk on a lot of trans-friendly online haunts (helps make the journey seem less isolating) and one of the most human of experiences is at the forefront - relationships. Losing one, or getting into one but fear of disclosure, or fear of rejection, or so many other fears.
I wanted to take my own fear of what if - and use this story to work through it. In this story, Claire is a transwoman who has transitioned, she has found success in her career and is supported by her family. But, she wants a relationship. On a drunken evening after scrolling through social media and seeing her friends moving forward in their lives with their relationships, she signs up for a dance class. She’d been obsessed with Beauty and the Beast since she was young, and the idea of waltzing with someone who loved her always made her happy. She wants to learn how to waltz.
The whole relationship between Belle and Beast in the 1992 Disney movie serves as inspiration. The boorish behaviour, in the beginning, the two finding something in the other person. And even a big dance number in the midst of the film. And the tone of the film draws from Shall We Dance and Silver Lining Playbook and Trainwreck. I hope that there’s a feeling of possibility and hope with this film, but also the idea of reality settling in.
As well as writing The Waltz you also appear as Claire, did you always plan on appearing in your film and did you have any apprehensions about taking on the role?
No apprehensions whatsoever, and I always planned on it. I wrote this film because I feel like I’m having to make my own work to see the type of roles I want to take on as an actress.
I remember the first trans role I was cast in, and it was the butt of the joke for a sizzle reel. I was excited to play a trans character, but the disappointment in the way that it turned out was absolutely heartbreaking.
And then, my first big audition, when I was signed to my first agency, was that of a trans character on a major tv network. And it was a beautiful and powerful story. But it was also centred on trauma. Being trans is traumatic enough, and I believe those stories should be told. But we also need stories about trans joy. About being happy and healthy and thriving so that our queer youth can see and imagine a future.
And that is another reason I love Sundance’s Trans Possibilities Program because I feel even more empowered to tell my story, and this support feels incredibly validating to keep making and telling these kinds of stories.
But, I will say that in taking this role I’m having to actually confront my own insecurities as a transwoman. Writing those experiences is one thing, but to then perform them and create those realities. I can already tell from the virtually staged reading we did that this is going to be an emotional journey. But I am also incredibly lucky with those who are on this journey with me, my two co-stars Spencer Mumford and Nikki Garza, and my director Hillary R. Heath.
What was the process like making The Waltz and working with your director Hillary R. Heath?
So, we haven’t made the film yet! We did do a staged reading of the film, and we’re actively seeking an executive producer to help guide us and actively seeking financing so that we can get it made!
But working with Hillary is like working with my twin. We both came through the same acting class here in Atlanta, and we’ve been friends since. We were also part of a sketch comedy group, where we wrote and performed our own work, and she loves directing. I love her decision-making process and eye for everything - she knows what she wants from a scene but also wants her actors to explore and work at the moment so that we can all discover something, and she allows herself to change what she wants from a scene with that in mind!
What we have worked on together so far, and I love the direction she’s taking with it, is a virtual staged reading of the script. This was a wonderful experience, and also in the midst of the pandemic, it gave us something to do to help move the project forward. And even in the virtual reading, we collaborated with visuals and music and I got to hear her work with myself and the other actors about their choices - I love how she can focus on the nuances of a scene while still keeping the larger work in mind and how that influences next choices. It’s absolutely amazing to watch her work, and honestly, I feel like I could watch her direct all day!
How much has your life and experiences living/working in Atlanta inspire the work you create?
I think a lot of my experiences in living in Atlanta.
Have you always had a passion for writing and acting?
I’m gonna say yes? Writing has been my passion. I started writing short stories in elementary school about my friends and me going on adventures and fighting the bad guys. And in high school and college, I wrote and performed poetry. I thought I was gonna grow up and be a big writer for the Conde Nast Family - GQ, Vogue, Vanity Fair. I had subscriptions to them throughout high school. So, my initial plan when I started at the University of Georgia was to get into the Grady School of Journalism (check) graduate and become a famous writer. But, I realized I loved fictional storytelling versus reality. So, I eventually changed to Comparative Literature, so I could study storytelling across cultures and incorporate dramatic writing, art history, and cinema into my degree. I think this solid foundation has supported both my acting and my writing - it’s all storytelling.
But I also wanted to perform. In college, I took an acting class, and I will tell you that was the worst experience of my life. I have horrible stage fright, and i manage it better now, but back then I was a nervous wreck, especially for my final. The first time I performed for the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival, I could not stop my leg from shaking. But finally, after graduating from UGA, I started taking acting classes. And getting more comfortable as a performer.
"If someone’s taking the time to help you make your work better, they’re giving you a gift."
Has your approach to your work changed a lot since you started out?
I hope so, because number one I transitioned! And I say that jokingly, but … I remember the script I wrote for my finals in undergrad, taught by the amazing Dr. Cheryldee Huddleston. And it centred on a trans character and her journey, and there were also my own fears of violence at the beginning. And also, she was not active in her journey.
Fast forward to now, and I’m finally polishing off the third draft of that script and the lead is much more involved in her own journey, and my perception of violence against trans women has changed. I look at the initial scene in the beginning with a much different lens, and I’m forcing myself to justify why it is included and if it serves the story. Ultimately it does.
But I would hope that anyone’s approach to their craft changes - we all gain wisdom and experience in life and in our craft as time passes.
How important is it for Trans artists to continue to push the boundary of the work they create?
I think there’s room for those who push boundaries and those who work in the safety of the boundaries created by our trailblazers. So much of life happens in the mundane that it is equally important, for diverse storytelling, to talk about those little moments, and what others may deem a little or simple life. For me, a lot of my work centres around what I want to leave for queer youth and those that follow, and part of that includes outreach to the adults in their life in hopes of making the world a safe place for them. And part of that storytelling involves the mundane. It’s kind of a warped worldview I have but I almost approach living my life in a hostage situation - I feel I have to humanise myself and my experiences to ensure my safety, especially as a black queer transwoman.
But, I also love the boundary-pushers, the trailblazers who are making works that are lyric, poetic, and incredible storytelling that crosses genres and mediums. The further boundaries are pushed, the greater that zone of safety is for others to create their work.
And finally, what advice or tips would you offer fellow Trans & non-Trans writers of colour?
Start with what you know and journal. Journal like your life depends on it, because it will help you get in touch with your essence.
Take a scene or a story that someone tells you and imagine it one step further.
Find your writing tribe - the group of people who will give you constructive criticism - and also most importantly, learn how to receive constructive criticism. If someone’s taking the time to help you make your work better, they’re giving you a gift. At the very least, they’re helping you see how your work will be perceived, and you can determine if your work is communicating what you want it to communicate.
Take an acting class. Take an acting class and get into therapy. Often, we set out to write to heal from something. And I love the sublimation process of that, but it is also helpful - especially when it comes time to end the work - to actually heal, and therapy can be incredibly helpful with the healing process. I also mention acting because it will help you get in touch with bringing your words to life. Of how you move when you read the words of others, and interpreting their words will make you much more conscious about how others may interpret what you have written when it comes time to translate it to someone else’s imagination, or the stage or screen.
Read. Read literature, read non-fiction, read the news. Turn on the closed captions or subtitles for what you’re watching and read the dialogue. Come award seasons, find those scripts on the studio’s pages and read them. Study up on mythology that interests you and storytelling practices across different genres and cultures. Drop into a college-level literature class. Read, read read!
But most importantly, live. Live a life, and you will have your experiences and thoughts to draw from to help make your characters and writing much more nuanced and complex.