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Shrinking violet? Not Shakina Nayfack. She’s the trans actress everyone’s shouting about
Shakina Nayfack is a fighter, born from a long line of passionate fighters. There’s something about her genetic make-up that means she’s never been one to stand aside when there’s a cause worth campaigning for.
“I was brought up to combat oppression,” she says. “My great great grandmother killed a Russian soldier with an axe during the pogrom. My grandmother was a labor organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in Chicago. My grandfather grew up in an orphanage and ended up becoming a lawyer who built laws to protect the working people. My mom was also an attorney who did a lot of work for juvenile justice and LGBT rights.”
So even if, as a transgender woman, her gender wasn’t an issue, if that fight had been won and we were talking purely about her work – on stage with the self-penned autobiographical Manifest Pussy, as founder of the Musical Theater Factory, and on television in Hulu’s Difficult People – there would be something else driving that lively mind and keen social conscience.
“I’d have another cause ready to talk about,” she says, “whether it was immigration, or Black Lives Matter, or poverty, or child labor, or sex tourism. I would find a thing that I cared enough about to use my platform for good.”
“We built a black box theater in the back of this porn studio, dedicated to creating new musical theater.”
Now 35, she moved to the city from California five years ago and found herself living in a porn studio on W40th Street. “I had a friend from college who became a porn star, and he had a studio that had 18 months left on the lease. He said, ‘Why don’t you just do something in the back and I’ll give you a set of keys.
“So I emailed some friends and we built a black box theater in the back of this porn studio, dedicated to creating new musical theater. It’s where I created the Musical Theater Factory. There was porn being filmed, and musicals being made, and we’d share this space.”
Creating new musicals is really hard, she explains, and really isolating, especially for the writer. “If you’re a playwright and you want to hear what you’ve done, you just have to call your friends together and get them around someone’s kitchen table and you can read that play. But if you want to hear the musical you’re writing, you have to get a bunch of people together, you have to teach them all that music, then you have to hear it. You need space to do that, you need a piano to do that.
“Musical theater really saved my life as a young person,” she adds. “I can give you a chronology of my life based on the musicals I was listening to at the time, and why the shows were speaking to me, and what they were helping me with.” The list runs from Annie, through Godspell, to her own Manifest Pussy.
“I often tell people: musical theater is not the thing I care about, but it’s the way I care about the things I care about. Because it gives me the means I need to express myself about an issue and to build a community around an issue.”
Against this backdrop of new musicals and porn on W40th Street, Shakina would share a sort of makeshift bedroom with the porn star. He’d be there during the week. She’d live there at weekends. “We’d just change the sheets. Whatever. I did feel, ‘I’m living the New York life I read about! I’m doing it!’”
And as she was building this community of artists around her, she was also building herself as a woman. In 2014, she crowdfunded her gender confirmation, raising $22,787 to travel to Thailand for the surgery, and when she came back, she moved into the studio full time.
“Before it was a porn studio and a musical theater factory, it was a cage fighting gym. Those showers had gotten more than their fair share of use from the porn company as well.”
“There was no kitchen, no heat at night or the weekends, I used the public restroom that all the guests of the theater used.”
At least there were showers. “Because, before it was a porn studio and a musical theater factory, it was a cage fighting gym. Those showers had gotten more than their fair share of use from the porn company as well.”
Now she’s living in a Catholic home for women just a few blocks north. She laughs: “It’s an absolute 180.”
And Hell’s Kitchen, she says, is like living on campus. “Sometimes my friends and I will go to Five Napkin Burger and get a table on the corner and we’ll just hold court on a Saturday afternoon. We’ll sit there and people will pass by and we’ll say hi and give hugs. Over the course of an hour or two we’ll see 20 different friends. And it’s so strange because people think this city is so huge and people think our industry is so huge, and it’s like living on a small college campus. I feel like I’m in a liberal arts institution housed in an urban megalopolis.”
“The first time I was asked who I was wearing, I was so baffled, because I was wearing some $20 dress I got at some Venice Beach boutique … It’s been really interesting to step willfully into sexism as a trans woman.“
Two years on from the surgery, Shakina can sometimes look in the mirror and still not quite recognize the person looking back at her. “People think of gender transition as starting one place and ending another, but I don’t think it ever really stops. It’s an ever-unfolding process, and comes with a whole host of things. Like style – learning how to curl my hair. I’ve made some serious fashion faux pas and had some really bad hair days. I’ve learned what works with my body, you know?”
And sexism. That’s new. “The first time I was asked who I was wearing, I was so baffled, because I was wearing some $20 dress I got at some Venice Beach boutique. And I’d just never been asked that. It’s been really interesting to step willfully into sexism as a trans woman.“
She recently toured North Carolina with Manifest Pussy, in protest of the HB2 “Bathroom Bill.” And she’s breaking down more barriers as the first transgender actress to play a comedy role, in Difficult People. “One of the things you can find in the history of any unrepresented identity that’s forging its way into mainstream media is that the easiest way people know how to do that is by eliciting sympathy. This was true for black actors, Latino actors, this was true for gay actors, and now it’s true for trans actors.
“And what I love about Lola is that she’ll have none of that. There’s nothing sympathetic about Lola. She’s just a difficult person and she’s just as difficult as everyone else on the show.”
This interview originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of W42ST magazine. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you join our daily newsletter at w42st.com.