BY: DANNY GOLDSBARY
From the stage to a classroom and everywhere in between, Alexandra Billings has experienced life in a way that has helped her reach her dreams, and now she’s staked her claim at our very own theater department. A whirlwind of events brought Billings from Inglewood to cities around the country, and right back here to Long Beach.
Billings began her life on stage as a female impersonator by the name of Shanté. This was before she made the transition from male to female. Since then she went on to perform in productions like “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” as well as television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “ER.”
Her roles on these shows marked the first time a transgendered woman played a transgendered person on television. These roles portrayed some of the struggles that transgenders face in our world today, although her characters in the shows often ended up dying.
While the roles did portray an important aspect of what transgendered people have to endure, there is still much progress to be made with the representation of trans people in the media.
“Let’s have a trans person just be trans, but the focus is that they’re a doctor or a housewife,” she said.
One of Billings’ most memorable stints performing was when she played Rose in the musical “Gypsy.” The week before the show opened in Chicago, her father Robert Billings came to visit. They were able to spend that week together and say everything that they had wanted to say to each other.
“He asked me why [I’m transgendered], and I said I don’t know,” she said. “I asked him why he divorced my mom, and he said ‘I don’t know.’”
Two weeks later, Robert Billings passed away. “Gypsy” dealt with the relationship between a mother and a daughter, so Billings felt a strong connection between her personal and professional lives.
“That’s when I realized that my art and my life are the same thing,” she said. “That there is no difference.”
Around seven years ago, Billings was working with the Steppenwolf Theater Company. Steppenwolf is based in Chicago, but reaches out to educate students in California as well. Every couple of years, the company is involved with a summer arts program at CSU Stanislaus where students are taught the art of improvisation.
Billings was teaching her students about viewpoints late one night when someone caught her eye. Hugh O’Gorman, Cal State Long Beach’s head of acting at the time, saw her teaching and called her over.
“What the fuck are you doing?” O’Gorman had said. “Teaching,” Billings responded.
The rest is history, and Billings has been with CSULB for about six years, but became a full-time faculty member just a year ago. She said the students at Long Beach are some of the best she has worked with.
“They want to find their artistic voice in a way that is so powerful and so authentic that it takes my breath away,” she said. “It makes coming here a joy, every day.”
Billings said that she feels a connection with her students and that she sees herself in all of them. She knows what it’s like to feel inauthentic, to feel silenced and to want to assimilate.
Billings’ most recent project at CSULB had her directing “Fever/Dream,” which is an adaptation of “Calderon’s Life is a Dream” by Sheila Callaghan. The play ran from October 4 to October 12, and was her second directorial ambition.
“It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” Billings said. “You have to have a very specific sensibility to be a director. You have to piece together a puzzle and see the story within.”
Billings commends our generation, as she believes it is the smartest generation to come along in a long time. She said that we are making things smaller and faster, which is an undeniable blessing. The opportunities for exposure through the Internet and smart phones are drastically different than just the television set that Billings had when she was a child.
“In term, conversely, [this generation] thinks very quickly,” she said. “So using your imagination on your feet instead of through a machine takes work.”
The connection she feels with her students, whom she claims help and teach her just as much as she teaches them, is clearly genuine. When she leaves her office door open, students and faculty will continuously poke their heads in to visit Billings, and she greets them with a smile.