The Woman Who Becomes a Woman

In Cassils’ first ever dance piece, trans bodies made movement — and a striking canvas. By the time she was a teenager, “I felt like I could do anything. There was nothing that wasn’t possible for me.” By 15, Cassils had already begun working with the dancers’ names as “Verners” and then “Verners and Zinnias.” One of these, Zinnias, was a dancer who was a “born and bred New Yorker,” but found that New York was alienating. “I always say I didn’t go out of my way to go to New York, but I went to New York. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.” Zinnias made her New York debut in 1976 and then moved to Los Angeles. There she worked as a backup dancer and actor. The next year, on her own, Zinnias and her husband, an actor and dancer, had their first child, and they moved to Los Angeles to start an acting career.

After her second child, Cassils also began to explore her identity as a woman whose physicality was beyond her gender. Her body and appearance were shaped by her body as a child in a village in Pakistan and her mother’s desire to make her look like a boy. “By the time I was 10, I always felt like myself to be a boy,” she said. In high school she would “dress as a boy to go to school. I was wearing a suit, a white shirt, and a tie.” At 17, she went to London to take acting classes at the Sylvia Young Theatre School. “I didn’t want to be a girl so they made me wear dresses and makeup. I took it and I hated it.”

Cassils said she “found my calling” as a theater artist at 24, when she heard a performance of Twelfth Night at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. It was just the sort of show that had been a seminal influence on her life. “I felt the play spoke to me. I wanted to be in a theater company that had a female director. Then I saw Anne Heche in a film called The Piano Teacher, and she had this great voice and I was like, ‘I’ve got to do that!'” Cassils went on to study acting at the Yale School of Drama, but “didn’t like the school.” She went back to Pakistan to find “more of who I really am

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