Willkommen! And Bienvenue! The New Feminist had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with the extraordinarily talented Mason Alexander Park, whose stellar performance as the Emcee in Cabaret has been nothing short of sensational.
Mason has the ability to seamlessly bring the iconic Emcee to life night after night with their dynamic portrayal, injecting an intoxicating blend of humour, charisma, and vulnerability into every scene. But beyond the accolades and standing ovations lies a deep-seated commitment to breaking barriers and pushing boundaries.
In an industry where diversity and inclusion have become rallying cries, Mason Alexander Park stands as a beacon of trans representation, fearlessly embracing their identity (“a spectral, genderless ghost- that’s my vibe”! they say) and using their platform to challenge norms and stereotypes, paving the way for a new era of authentic storytelling with every performance.
You are the first out trans person to headline Cabaret on the West End; how does it feel to make history and be a trailblazer in the industry?
It’s an exciting and sad thing when you think about it. It’s 2023, and the fact is that trans and non-binary people have been performing for ages, and many of us have been trying to be included in the industry for a very long time, and only recently have trans people been given access as performers and creators. It’s still a depressing, limited number of us that have broken through in any capacity. But it is exciting to be a part of the change and get to see the culture shift and see people like me represented more frequently. It’s really cool to be able to go to work and play an iconic character like the Emcee in Cabaret, which is one of the shows that helped me feel a lot better about my place in the theatre and provided me with inspiration as a theatre youth. It generates a lot of big feelings playing the role, but I’m very excited; it means I get to be a small part of history also.
“It’s really cool to be able to go to work and play an iconic character like the Emcee in Cabaret, which is one of the shows that helped me feel a lot better about my place in the theatre and provided me with inspiration as a theatre youth.”
Why do you feel your representation in this role and the wider industry is more important now than ever?
At home, in America and the UK, we’re seeing harmful legislation being introduced, and attitudes are shifting in a disturbingly negative way towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Historically, it has happened many times. There are explosions of queer culture and anarchy, and then a swift backlash that follows suit, which is very reminiscent of what we are experiencing now. I am fearful of the way our community is being used to scapegoat many things, and that is exactly what Cabaret is about. To be performing it in a weird parallel time when a lot of the tactics being used from fascist history are being used again now is harrowing. It brings up a lot of complicated feelings as a performer and as a human. It’s fun but feels like meaningful work, and the piece is entering the human consciousness when needed. It’s weird the show has existed for so long but always met audiences going through similar experiences.
Have you faced any unique challenges as a trans actor working in the theatre industry? How do you navigate those challenges?
As a theatre artist or artist in general, I have been very lucky. I went from there being no work at all to trying to find my place in a specific niche part of theatre that acknowledged gender play. Growing up, I found Rocky Horror, Hedwig and Cabaret, which all made me feel seen as a person. I went to school for musical theatre, and after I graduated, my first job was Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It radically changed my life, it is one of the few non-gender conforming roles in the musical theatre canon, and it helped me in finding terms and ways that I could use to describe my identity. I never had to put myself in a box, I was really fortunate that I was seen at a time when there weren’t many parts that were trans roles. I got really lucky that I was able to participate in a bunch of shows that almost reclaimed trans theatre. That is not everybody’s experience, and I recognise how lucky I was that people saw what I was putting out there and allowed me to use it.
You are currently playing the character of Emcee in Cabaret on the West End. For those who are yet to see it or are unfamiliar with the play, could you tell us a bit about the role?
The Emcee is the master of ceremonies for the evening; they exist in the real world and the magical liminal space that may or may not be happening in your head. It’s an incredible opportunity for an actor to get to paint with every colour they have. The Emcee is a shapeshifter, they are a mischievous character that oversees the action and the plot whilst being able to engage with the audience. My main acting companion is, in fact, the audience, which I find so much fun. I get to come and do all these ridiculous numbers whilst also following really dark and strange areas as the show falls apart and gets closer to the historical events that are happening in the piece. It’s an exhilarating opportunity to play with all those sides of myself.
What drew you to the role?
The fact that it’s something that I have loved for so long. There is a history there. The first thing that drew me was the gender nonconformity. There was something so immediate and tangible about seeing a person, specifically Alan Cummings, in that costume with the makeup on. It’s indescribable the experience I had coming across the character when I was a teenager and thinking, “Oh my god, that’s how I want to present myself.” There’s a power, charisma, and energy to the Emcee and the actors that have played it that draws you in as an audience member. That sort of command of the stage isn’t easily taught, and that was an exciting thing to do for me. When you’re trans, you’re taught or conditioned to be afraid of your identity because you will be an outsider, to see someone like the Emcee so loved by so many people immediately, it tells you the complete opposite story, which was euphoric to see.
Are there any themes or messages in Cabaret that you hope resonate with today’s audience?
The show is so brilliantly written that it doesn’t need to hammer anything over the head for you to understand truly how terrifyingly close we are in our current state to the themes of the piece. Nothing has been changed in the script, but it feels like it could have been written this year, which is frightening. I hope people really listen when they come to see it. The show is about being complicit and being willfully ignorant of the world around you in favour of self-presentation. It starts to take this thing which in the beginning is a beautiful common experience (Wilkommen, hyper-queer world, fun) and slowly but surely, it starts to strip everything that was colourful away. That is unbelievably present in today’s society. I hope people feel that parallel so that they realise we cannot continue to go on like that and feel empowered to act on it.
The character of the Emcee challenges traditional gender norms. How do you approach portraying this iconic role in a way that promotes inclusivity and understanding?
Most of the battle is already done for me because I just get to be myself. Standing on stage as a remarkably obvious trans person is radical in so many ways and does half the job. I’ve been surrounded by an amazing group of individuals who have reimagined and refocused many moments, concepts and ideas to fit the performer they are working with. Knowing that I am a trans person, the team, since day one, have been in deep conversation with me about what it means to be a trans person playing the role, which has led us to tweak costumes, moments and the Emcee’s trajectory throughout the show. It’s refreshing as usually when you replace a running role, you just have to slot in, you don’t always get to make substantial changes, so I am grateful they are willing to do the work with me to engage the community in better ways.
“Most of the battle is already done for me because I just get to be myself. Standing on stage as a remarkably obvious trans person is radical in so many ways, and does half the job.”
Could you share some of the challenges you faced or overcame while preparing for this groundbreaking role?
Time was the biggest challenge. I was shooting the second season of Quantum Leap in LA, which I have been doing for a year now, and Cabaret was always a thing we were trying to work in with the Quantum Leap schedule. The time frame finally worked, but It was a struggle trying to make it all happen so that I could be in Cabaret and filming in LA, but everyone was more than accommodating on both ends. I am so grateful to NBC and Quantum Leap for knowing how important Cabaret was to me and helping to make it all work. Because of how little time I had, though, I had a very limited rehearsal schedule. I did it in two weeks instead of four, so that was a challenge! But it was a great one, and I couldn’t be more excited that it has all worked out.
I have the chance to settle here for the time being due to the Writers Guild of America strikes back at home. I’m excited to see what these strikes mean for the industry, and it is a real historic turning point in the industry. Hopefully, we see a better version of the entertainment industry emerge in the wake of it all, where people are paid fairly for their contributions.
Could you share any memorable experiences or interactions you’ve had with fans who have been inspired by your groundbreaking role in Cabaret?
Oh my, yeah. I have a lot of tattoos, it’s like a scrapbook of little things I can remember because I have a garbage memory, so I enjoy adding little trinkets of things I have done to myself. Nothing is more insane but also moving to me than seeing people get tattoos that are inspired by something related to myself. I have had a few people at the stage door who have had tattoos they have just gotten or want me to write things out for their next tattoo so that never gets old.
On a lighter note, what has been the most enjoyable aspect of playing the character Emcee in Cabaret so far?
I am having the most fun, so it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I tend to enjoy theatre work because of how present you get to be with a group of people, it’s church to the most insane degree. The theatricality and the community of it is so cool to be a part of. One of the most fun parts is that I get to directly look at the people watching the show and engage with them as it’s happening. It’s fun to try and pull something out of the audience and get them engaged and excited. Specifically, in terms of a number, I love doing Two Ladies, it’s pure chaos, and I get a kick out of that every single night.
How do you see the role of theatre in challenging societal norms and promoting conversations about gender diversity?
I think that art, in general, is always in conversation with the world around it, so I think any form of art can be used to advance so many conversations. Whether that is political, social or economic, there are so many things that can be achieved by art. Theatre, in particular, is an art form that is in direct conversation with the audience, so it requires a group of individuals to come and share space and stories in a way that forces you to engage, or at least asks you to engage, and I think that’s a really exciting place to start a lot of conversations from, which isn’t an opportunity you get in film and television. Theatre gives you the opportunity for empathy and connection that you might not get elsewhere, I have truly seen how it has changed so many perceptions around so many things.
In your opinion, what does it mean for the theatre industry to have more diverse representation, particularly for trans and non-binary actors?
Art should represent and engage the reality of the world around us. People are starting to recognise that everyone should be invited to the table, and spaces should always be created. There should be no prerequisite apart from desire and talent to be in a job which has the sole purpose of make-believe. We need to think about how we make auditions less binary, make sure we remove gendered signage on dressing rooms, and make sure all the spaces are open. Those are small gestures that make trans and non-binary people feel like they belong in the spaces, which can change and push the conversation forward.
“Art should represent and engage the reality of the world around us… We need to think about how we make auditions less binary, make sure we remove gendered signage on dressing rooms, and make sure all the spaces are open.”
How important do you think it is for theatre productions to cast actors who identify with the gender identity or experience of the characters they play?
I think it is remarkably important, especially right now. We are not nearly in a place where things are equitable when it comes to representation. Trans people are severely underrepresented in the media, and often the characters people have seen are played by cis men, so the public experience of transness has been through costume and acting. In a world where people know little about trans people, only through what the media shows, the responsible thing to do is to allow trans people to tell their own stories. We’re not in a place where it’s a free-for-all that’s idealistic, but it requires people to do the work to get us there. Trans directors, writers and casting agents need to be hired, and cis men need to start saying no to playing roles that are queer if they’re not, as the opportunities need to be given to people with the least opportunity. Once things start to even out, I’m so excited to see people play with gender, but let’s get to a point in which trans people are fairly represented and compensated for their work and supported in the industry first.
“In a world where people know little about trans people only through what the media shows, the responsible thing to do is to allow trans people to tell their own stories.”
What changes would you like to see in the industry to ensure better representation for trans and non-binary individuals?
I think it’s a business, businesses are challenging because, in any business, the primary goal for decision-makers is money, so a lot of the representation gains are money motivated. I am excited to see the real allies in our industry and see the real producers and companies who aren’t just having trans characters and roles for a diversity checkbox but actually engaging with the community as a whole and hiring writers and people with those experiences. On The Sandman, for example, there are many trans actors coming into season two, so myself and my showrunner have made sure we have hired a trans consultant for the show, so they can ensure the space is safe and comfortable. They will check each department and make sure it is inviting for people who are joining the cast. That didn’t exist years ago, just in the same way that intimacy coordinators also didn’t exist. It’s important that you include trans people in your activism and that you’re not just hiring them as performers but that you are also hiring consultants and stagehands and lighting designers, and basically including them in all facets.
What advice would you give to aspiring gender non-conforming actors who hope to break barriers and pursue their dreams on the stage?
This one is always so hard because I never really know what to say. There is no rulebook for anything within the industry, especially when it comes to a community that is so desperately underrepresented and underserved. I grew up with hardly any representation, and yet here I am as an actor and in a place in which I never could have imagined I would be as my true self. It just happened because I stuck it out, it didn’t happen magically, it happened due to persistence, and that is key to any performer’s life. You may not be someone’s cup of tea now, but that is not representative of the entire world and how every single person will engage with you in the industry. Be true to your fullest self and introduce that version of you to the world and hope that somebody one day says, “I love that person”. I don’t know any amazingly successful actors that aren’t themselves to the fullest, so you must be true to yourself and refuse to put yourself in a box just to make yourself smaller and conform. It’s hard to do, and it might mean it takes you longer, but once you get there, you will be rewarded so much more than if you try and make yourself something you are not in favour of other people.
“It’s important that you include trans people in your activism and that you’re not just hiring them as performers, but that you are also hiring consultants and stagehands and lighting designers, and basically including them in all facets.”
Finally, what’s next for you after Cabaret? Are there any other roles or projects you’re excited about?
I’ll be shooting season two of Sandman simultaneously during the run of Cabaret. Once Cabaret is over, I’ll be finishing Sandman, and that’s the immediate future! Then I need to finish season two of Quantum Leap. Right now, the focus is on the things I am already engaged with, I get to go home to these amazing projects that I am so proud to be a part of. I’m really looking forward to doing something else like Cabaret in the future, my heart is set in theatre, and I’m hoping that next year I can add some more theatre in between my shooting schedules.