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By Brian Robin

Discovering More Than Her Voice

Else Went said theatre saved her life. Being someone else on stage gave her the opportunity to express herself with confidence, something a young, queer person growing up in the small Central California coastal town of Cambria needed.

And yet, something was still missing. Putting herself aside and portraying a character was satisfying—to a point. There were still parts of her personality waiting to burst forth and 90 minutes to two hours on a stage wasn’t enough.

“Writing came later, when I realized I needed more ways to express myself. Writing existed for me as a curiosity before that,” she said. “But as I was coming into adulthood, I committed to it as part of that expansion of self.”

Went used her distinctive voice and unceasing curiosity about the world around her to write An Oxford Man. The play is one of the selected readings for this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, the nationally recognized annual showcase of new playwriting talent May 3-5.

Directed by Emma Rosa Went, An Oxford Man takes the Segerstrom Stage Sunday, May 5, at 10:30 a.m. Went tells the embellished (mostly) true story of the life and times of Laurence Michael Dillon, the first “modern” transgender man, who ushered in a new age of understanding.

She came onto the subject while on a residency with the MacDowell Colony in 2020. She was working on Mongrel, a play on the legacy of colonization in Barbados, where her father’s ancestry is from. As she wrote that, Went began researching transgender people of history. When Went stumbled upon Roberta Cowell, the first transgender woman to receive gender-affirming surgery, that led her to Dillon. She read everything she could get her hands on, including his medical tracts and a podcast about Dillon that provided a rich vein of information.

“I wanted to use a slightly sideways version of history. I didn’t want to do a biography,” she said. “The impetus was realizing how many firsts he accomplished in his life. He was the first to use certain hormones as therapy, and later in life, he was the first to receive a phalloplasty. This man was so accomplished and offered up so many gender-affirming medical procedures.

“Being an unsung man, he lived a private life. Later in life, he moved to Tibet and became the first transgendered monk. I don’t feel like I had quite the complexities of that experience. He changed his name and wrote a lot about philosophy that followed his medical journey. He was always seeking truth, and I found that really admirable as to what I wanted the focus of the play to be about.”

A trans playwright, Went writes with a sardonic, dry-witted style, one born of growing up reading everyone from John Steinbeck and Sherwood Anderson to the British playwrights. Having an immigrant father and a maternal grandmother from Australia brought a rich mixture of language.

“People always told me I spoke in a particular way and a lot of people told me I had an accent, even though I grew up in California,” she said. “I grew up with a lot of different versions of English around me. There were a lot of situations in which I became familiar with expressions that weren’t native to where I was living. So, I grew this conscience of language. That became a natural way for the way I approach dialogue.

“I love all the British writers going back to Shakespeare, but I really appreciated Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Douglas Adams—people who just use language as a way to surprise you. That lends itself to comedy and gut-punches.”

Went developed that voice first at San Francisco State, then on a playwright exchange in England, and finally at Sarah Lawrence. She used her cloistered upbringing in Cambria as the template for Initiative, a story exploring the intertwined lives and struggles of seven teens growing up in a small California coastal town at the turn of the 21st century. Initiative became a semifinalist at the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2020.

One of Went’s artistic passions is exploring the role of queer society throughout history. An Oxford Man allowed her to not only introduce us to a man who was literally ahead of his time, but do so in a way that enlightens and entertains. She said An Oxford Man was “a joy to write.” Her first draft took only a week to pen. Subsequent drafts came easier than usual.

“This is a play with two trans(sexual) people in it and a lot more queer people in it and all of them don’t have the same idea of where our place in society is and how we should be treated,” she said. “I want the play to be life-affirming, but I want it to challenge the idea that we are a political monolith.

“We forget the times when we were scattered and not a coalition and it’s important to look at those times because of the figures who laid the groundwork for the awareness of queers. They get overlooked and not only minimized, but they get politicized and marginalized. Their complexity is often overlooked in favor of a grander narrative.”

Explore this story, along with six more plays at this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival. Tickets are on sale and can be purchased online at or by calling SCR Ticket Services at (714) 708-5555. Don’t miss the chance to see tomorrow’s big hit today.

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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