Williamstown Theatre Festival premieres ‘The Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club’

There is a place called the Butterfly Club,where an ephemeral but magical community forms. Women gather at the moment of metamorphosis and watch one another stretch their newly grown wings. At a moment of transition, they create belonging. When they are at their most vulnerable, they are one another’s strength.

In the world premiere of a new radio play, The Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club, an international group of transgender women band together at a hotel in Thailand as they prepare for gender confirmation surgery.

This ensemble dramedy follows 13 vibrant characters, but it focuses on the journey of Kina, a trans actress from New York City who, despite the group’s warm welcome, is preparing for her life-altering operation alone. The group of women is strikingly diverse, arriving from Hawaii, Australia, Israel, the U.S. and England and ranging in ages and life experience. Some have children or life-long partners, some are astronomers, mystics, or racecar drivers, but they’ve all gathered at the Chonburi hotel for the same reason.

Unlike the other women who have brought loving partners, relatives, or friends to support them, Kina is determined to face this moment by herself, and she appears isolated, uncomfortable with the spotlight placed on her as the newest arrival.

She immediately stands out—tall, tattooed, with a shaved head—and projecting a mixture of spirituality and punk rock that catches the group off guard. As they question her about her praying and gender non-conforming appearance, her barriers come up and she seems convinced that this is an experience that, like everything else, she must endure alone.

“Kina, did you come all this way alone?” a concerned woman from the group asks. “That’s bold. We all had someone with us at first.”

“I just think of it as a do-over, you know?” Kina explains. “Like I’m hitting the reset button on my life and that’s something I gotta do on my own.”

As she struggles with her own transition and an instinct to push others away, this chaotic but supportive group—a caring nurse, a loving, older couple, and a karaoke-loving bellhop—will help her learn to trust others and to turn to her community for strength.

Originally intended to debut as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s summer season, the show has adapted to an audio play in response to the pandemic.

Playwright, actress, and trans activist Shakina Nayfack, known for her starring roles in NBC’s Connecting and Hulu’s Difficult People, wrote Chonburi and stars in the production as Kina. She says she began developing the idea for this project following her own experience of recovering from gender confirmation surgery in Thailand. She wanted to portray the incredible community of trans women she met there, she said, and help demystify and celebrate the process of gender confirmation.

“We were all strangers to one another but became sisters overnight, and it was such a magical, temporary community,” she said.

She draws inspiration partly from Stage Door, a Broadway classic by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber that she had been enchanted with when she was young. That play is set in New York City in the late 1930s and follows a group of young aspiring actresses living in a hotel in Chelsea as they try to break into the Broadway acting scene.

“It’s sort of an iconic, American, hotel comedy play,” she said, “but really it asks this question: ‘What does it mean to be an independent woman?’”

“’Who among us have not been made to feel that we were less of a man or less of a woman?” — Shakina Nayfack

That question resonated with her, and she was inspired to create a play that asks similar questions about womanhood.

Nayfack hopes that the show’s themes of community and isolation will especially resonate with people during this time.

“So much of this play is about one person’s struggle to reach out and allow for vulnerability and human connection,” she said, “and I think that now more than ever, that is a universal truth for all of us.”

“… We have all been isolated for the better part of a year, and so I think the story carries a new weight, because I think we’re all healing from that and wrestling with that. … It really feels like a gift to be able to bring it forward in this moment and in this way. I think people are going to feel, when the play ends, like they’ve just been hanging out with their best group of girlfriends they didn’t even know they had.”

“I think [Chonburi] does ask: what does it mean to become a ‘woman’?” Nayfack said. “What is that about? What is that journey and how do you have access to that journey when you feel like you might be an outsider?”

Nayfack feels that these questions of womanhood, identity, and self-realization which are so central to the trans experience also have the potential to resonate universally. She recalls an impactful moment when she was 18 and just stepping into her trans identity, when Kate Bornstein was speaking at Nayfack’s college. Bornstein, who plays Sivan in Chonburi, has been an icon for Nayfack and for the trans community for more than 30 years.

“She asked this question,” Nayfack said: “’Who among us have not been made to feel that we were less of a man or less of a woman?”

Nayfack feels that everyone tends to set a high bar for themselves and that reckoning with that identity or standard is something that many people can relate to.

“Even cis folks who have never felt the kind of gender dysphoria that trans people have to go through have encountered moments in their life where they feel like they are somehow not enough,” Nayfack said.

Photo by Mojo Disco

Shakina Nayfack stars in the world premiere of her play, Chonburi. The play, which follows an international group of trans women undergoing gender confirmation surgery in Thailand, is available on Audible starting December 29. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“I’m still really interested, for trans women, in what that bar is for ourselves and how society defines womanhood. And then we’re expected to fit that mold, and I’m more interested in breaking that mold and looking at all the different facets of womanhood and the ways they arrive organically through each individual woman’s truest expression of their being, cis or trans.”

She hopes that this play will help provide a sense of community and affirmation for trans women, but she also believes it can make the trans experience more accessible for cis audience members.

“I wrote this play for trans women to be able to see ourselves reflected in something that we don’t often or ever get to see ourselves reflected in,” Nayfack emphasized, “but also to be a window into that experience for other folks who want to know a little bit more about what it’s like and why we go through this daunting pilgrimage to really transform ourselves from the inside-out.”

Nayfack also wanted the show to be demystifying, in certain ways. She recalls how scared she was when contemplating her own gender confirmation surgery and being frustrated with the lack of information that existed. In this play, the characters often speak frankly with one another about the details of the operation, balancing a sense of the spiritual significance of gender confirmation with the more painful, physical logistics.

Nayfack feels that, first and foremost, people love, and learn, and discover empathy through a good story.

“I hope that people fall in love with these characters and feel like they get to go on a journey that they otherwise might not get to go on,” Nayfack shared. “There’s a fine line between being so specific that you touch something universal and being so niche that you become alienating and so I really have striven to create something that reaches the universal and really welcomes people in.”

For Nayfack, creating this production has truly been an experience of community and collaboration. Many of the cast members have been helping her develop the project since the first draft in spring of 2017, and she said there are many other actors in the trans community all over New York City who aren’t in the production but have helped her and are “still in the Butterfly Club.”

Nayfack has loved getting to spend creative time with so many other trans people. The cast of 13 includes 7 trans characters but 9 trans actors, with two trans actors reading cis roles. Nayfack said she has never before had the opportunity to engage in a rigorous creative process with eight other trans people.

“So much of this play is about one person’s struggle to reach out and allow for vulnerability and human connection and I think that now more than ever, that is a universal truth for all of us.” ~Shakina Nayfack

“It’s such a luxury and an honor, really,” she said. “Everyone brought their own unique life experiences, just as I was trying to capture a real multiplicity of trans experiences from the women I met in Thailand, I also tried to integrate all of those experiences from the trans actors who worked with me on the piece.”

Nayfack also spoke warmly of Riw Rakkulchon, the play’s cultural competence consultant, who helped ensure that they were authentically incorporating Thailand as a character and place that resonated throughout the recording. The women are welcomed with Thai greetings against a chorus of street sounds, and new reports of political instability in Thailand float in the background as the hotel’s Thai bellhop, Gamon, and nurse, Hom, struggle with the challenges and rewards of continuing to support these women even as their country is in turmoil. Kina encounters Bangkok prostitution, karaoke culture, and a Buddhist spirituality that focuses on the decay of the physical body.

Nayfack has also enjoyed collaborating with Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield, Director Laura Savia, and Sound Designer and Foley artist Joanna Fang — she is very excited to have Fang, a trans, Asian American, Emmy-Award Winning Foley artist, on the project.

“It was so cool to have someone who connects so deeply to the material on so many levels, really creating the soundscape for us,” Nayfack said. “It was really a gift.”

Savia has also been an anchor for Nayfack throughout the process, she said.

“Laura has just been a wonderful friend, colleague, dramaturg, confidant,” Nayfack said. “Sometimes, because it’s an autobiographical play, and I’m playing myself in it while I’m trying to write it, it’s really easy to get lost in the muck . . . my work with Laura has been so great because sometimes I need to get lost in it and then she’s always there on the outside, looking in, seeing the big picture.”

For Nayfack, the process of pivoting from a stage production at Williamstown to a radio play has felt fairly seamless. Because it’s a new play, she explained, much of the process of script development already revolves around getting together for readings in order to hear the script out loud, so the play already existed in reading form.

“I was already accustomed to hearing the play and knowing what worked in the musicality of the language, so then it just became about really leaning into that and writing for the ears,” Nayfack explained.

Of course, it’s a different experience now that the show is purely auditory but Nayfack is excited for listeners to meet her characters in this way.

“What I love is that now this play will take place in the mind’s eye of every single listener, and so the creative collaboration isn’t complete until it’s heard,” Nayfack said.

“I wanted to show how universal it really is to take on the challenge of becoming who you were meant to be.” ~ Shakina Nayfack

For Nayfack, this project is a pivotal moment in her career. It is the first time, as a writer, that she’s written an ensemble piece instead of a solo performance, and it has allowed her to discover new voices. She also feels that this play is a culmination of a long journey for her personally, and that by releasing it into the world it will free her to move forward and begin to tell stories beyond her gender confirmation journey.

One aspect of the creative process that has been challenging for Nayfack is the pressure she feels to adequately represent trans women in her work. Because opportunities for trans creators are still so limited, she said, she puts a lot of pressure on herself to do justice to the entire community.

“I think that’s just what happens for artists who come from marginalized positions,” Nayfack explained. “There’s this expectation, whether it’s placed upon us or we put it on ourselves, that we have to somehow be ambassadors and represent a community that is just not a monolith, so it’s just accepting that and also knowing that you’ll never fully succeed at it. It’s a crazy catch-22 that you have to sit with.”

Shakina Nayfack

Playwright Shakina Nayfack stars in the world premiere of her play, Chonburi. The play, which follows an international group of trans women undergoing gender confirmation surgery in Thailand, is available on Audible starting December 29. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nayfack’s group of trans women in Chonburi represent a wide range of political realities from all around the world. News reports float into the soundscape as Thailand experiences political turmoil, and the women clash over their relationships to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Black rights movements in the U.S.

Although she was unable to capture the many political implications that exist for trans people, she said, she tried to hint at the multiplicity of that by showing the friction that occurs when these different people come together. She feels that these political frictions are something that we are struggling with in the U.S. today.

“I hope that when people experience the way these women learn how to listen to one another, it might spill over into the ways we learn how to do that as well,” she emphasized.

For Nayfack, the process of creating this play has been healing.

“This play is so much about Kina’s need to let others in,” she explained, “and in order to bring this play forward I had to bring other people in, I had to rely on Laura Savia, Mandy Greenfield, and this cast to trust everyone with the precious words, the precious characters I was creating. I think that I learned how to trust a little more, how to collaborate better, how to be vulnerable with other people, and now with the world.”

Nayfack hopes this play will allow for more vulnerability, trust, and connection. “We’re all on a quest, right?” she said. “Every person has the thing that they feel like they’re here to do to live their purpose and I think what I wanted to show in this play is that for many people the trans experience is really unfamiliar but I wanted to show how universal it really is to take on the challenge of becoming who you were meant to be.”

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