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‘Jagged Little Pill’ Producers and Actor Address Controversy, Key Changes Around Gender Non-Conforming Character


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Ahead of Jagged Little Pill’s Broadway re-opening on Oct. 21, its producers have apologized for mishandling one character’s gender identity, outlining several steps the production is taking to offer a clearer and more respectful representation of its gender non-conforming character.

On Friday, the show’s lead producers Vivek J. Tiwary, Arvind Ethan David and Eva Price posted a lengthy statement to the production’s website and social media, acknowledging missteps in how they publicly spoke about and identified Jo, a lovestruck teen dealing with religious parents, their sexuality and a souring relationship while also going on their own gender journey, which has no confirmed outcome in the show.

The statement began by thanking “those who have spoken up on this subject” before acknowledging the time it took for the production to publicly respond to criticisms around its language and characterization of Jo. “We owe you a response in both words and actions,” the statement reads. “It has taken a moment to put in place the actions, so we also apologize for the delay in these words. We recognized the importance of the work and decided that doing it well was more important than doing it quickly.”

The issue around Jo’s gender and whether they identified broadly as non-binary, as another more specific gender identity or at all, was raised as the show made its way from a Boston to Broadway stage. The character was played by Lauren Patten, a cisgender woman, but Jagged Little Pill also directly referenced that Jo at the very least wasn’t a cisgender woman or man, with the character using they/them pronouns and having their identity invalidated by various people around them, among other narrative points. Many at the time labeled Jo as non-binary, though that identity label had never been explicitly attached to the character in the show.

Things became complicated after the show moved to Broadway in 2019, and audiences watched Jagged Little Pill with those previous discussions of gender removed. Marketing had also seemingly removed mentions of gender identity as among issues tackled by the show and in an interview with Vulture, Patten — who started referring to Jo with she/her pronouns on social media, responded to a question about the show’s pronoun shift, saying, “Jo never was written as anything other than cis.”

The statement acknowledges all of this, saying that Jagged Little Pill’s producers “set out to portray a character on a gender expansive journey without a known outcome” but that during the creative process, and shift from Boston to Broadway, mistakes were made around how the team handled the character’s evolution in “a process designed to clarify and streamline.”

“Compounding our mistake, we then stated publicly and categorically that Jo was never written or conceived as non-binary. That discounted and dismissed what people saw and felt in this character’s journey. We should not have done that,” the statement says. “We should have, instead, engaged in an open discussion about nuance and gender spectrum.”

The producers acknowledged the “hurt” of their “failure and its consequences” as well as “silence” for both Jagged Little Pill’s cast and fans, before outlining four key areas where the team has since made steps to rectify the mistakes in their portrayal of Jo. That starts with explicitly stating that Jo’s is “a story of a gender-nonconforming teen who is on an open-ended journey with regard to their queerness and gender identity.” It then confirms that a new dramaturgical team featuring non-binary, transgender, and BIPOC representation was brought in to “revisit” the script, and help the show to “commit to clarity and integrity in the telling of Jo’s story.”

They also addressed the issue of casting, promising that the production has adopted practices that “intentionally broaden” hiring for “all roles to artists of all gender identities.” That includes ensuring all future casting is not only explicit about Jo’s gender journey but will “prioritize auditioning actors for the role who are on gender journeys or understand that experience personally – including artists who are non-binary, gender fluid, gender-expansive — or otherwise fall under the trans community umbrella.”

Tiwary, David and Price also confirmed several other off-screen efforts, including partnerships with The Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline, as well as anti-bias training related to transphobia and anti-racism that will be offered to existing company members to help support a more inclusive, safe and supportive environment for Jagged Little Pill‘s new non-binary, trans, queer, and BIPOC hires.

“We do these things not to quell debate around these issues,” the statement concludes. “We are humbled by, and grateful for, the critical conversations that continue to occur. We welcome all who would be constructive in this enterprise. Broadway has much work to do. We have much work to do. We look forward to doing it together.”

Following Friday’s statement, Patten — who will reprise the role of Jo when the show re-opens in October — shared a 42-minute video recorded on Aug. 19 to her Instagram. In it, she discusses the controversy around Jo and the language she and other members of the Jagged Little Pill production team used when talking about the gender non-conforming character after the show made its way to Broadway.

Speaking with Shakina Nayfack, trans writer, actress and activist, Patten said that they agreed to share the video to increase transparency around the conversations that were being had about Jo to be accountable for harm resulting from the erasure of Jo’s gender journey as its linked to a broader conversation on Broadway about transparency and the production changes that have occurred in regards to representation, particularly over the last year.

“The truth is that I did not know as much as I should and stepping into something that I did know would resonate with a lot of folks — a lot of queer folks and a lot of trans folks,” Patten said. “I should have known more how to talk about it. I should have known how to exactly as you said, affirm the experience without trying to be it.”

During the wide-ranging conversation, Nayfack specifically addressed the decision to remove from the show’s final scene Jo walking out on stage in a binder, which was in the Boston show, and replace it with a sports bra for the Broadway production. “In the Broadway iteration, I actually put on a second sports bra for that scene, because it actually, for the journey of that character, was still really important to me what that character wears for the majority of the show,” she explained. “I still do have a change, just not using something that was signifying an identity in particular.”

While Pattens said she couldn’t speak to whether that was the creative team trying to craft the character more around her own experience — which is that of a queer woman whose relationship to gender “is not really cut and dry” but is also not something she talks about online —  but did say she was told that if the character was meant to be explicitly trans, they would not have cast her.

“What I know is that the breakdown for the character when I auditioned for the reading and what the creative team’s intentions were when I was walking into that audition room was to be writing a cis person because I would not have been at that audition room otherwise,” she said. “I’ve spoken with the creative team and I know that they have said unequivocally, ‘If we had set out with the intention to write a trans character you would have never been in that audition.’”

Patten also noted that the production had trans advisors from the beginning, but that it isn’t the same thing as having trans and non-binary voices in the room from the day-to-day, and that cis privilege among those working on the character prevented them from seeing potential issues.

“Part of why I feel like it’s, it’s been very important to me to do this video is just when changes are made without the transparency, I’ve heard from so many people at this point, friends of mine that I’ve known for a long time, that it’s like, it caused harm to make these changes and not talk about why and not talk about what the process was,” Patten said.

“Creative teams change things all the time from an out-of-town trial. That’s part of what an out-of-town tryout is. Sometimes you have a completely different act by the time that you get to Broadway. So conventionally, you don’t lay out for your audience here’s why every change was made,” she continued. “But I have always felt very strongly that with this character transparency is needed is owed to the trans community.”

Jagged Little Pill is based on Alanis Morissette’s hit 1995 album of the same name, with music by Morissette and Glen Ballard. The show is directed by Diane Paulus, with its book written by Diablo Cody and choreography from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. After premiering at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts on May 5, 2018, it went into previews at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre in November 2019, before opening on Dec. 5 that same year.

You can read the full statement from Jagged Little Pill‘s producers here.

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