Woman on Top

Comedienne Gretchen Wylder on exploring gender, anatomy and queer dating in ‘These Thems’

Gretchen Wylder with director Jett Garrison

Gretchen Wylder has waited in the wings too long.

The ruby-headed queer writer/actress has honed her craft with the Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City, while also performing in numerous off-Broadway musical productions. Now her moment has arrived.

Three years in the making, Wylder’s digital comedy series These Thems earned a following on the festival circuit last year. It landed on YouTube February 27, where it has won an even broader audience. The show focuses on Gretchen (played by Wylder), a newly-out queer woman exploring her sexuality and gender fluidity. Along the way she meets Vero (Vico Ortiz), who becomes her non-binary bestie, and Asher (Shaan Dasani), a closeted transgender man who takes an immediate shine to her gay friend Kevin (Nick Park). Love, heartache and hilarity ensue as These Thems examines issues of gender, sexuality and dating with wit…and the occasional musical number.

Queerty scored time with Wylder just ahead of the premiere of the pivotal fourth episode of the show. New episodes of These Thems land on YouTube every Thursday.

This is a long time coming for you. What’s the response been so far?

It’s been really, really great. We’ve been doing these YouTube premieres to let our fans and followers know. People can live stream the show and chat with the cast & crew. It’s really fun, and a little more high tech than I anticipated. People have been flooding our Inboxes with excitement about the series, and saying “Thank you.”

Wylder with Vico Ortiz

So what made you—a queer, cisgender woman—want to do a show that focuses so much on gender and sexual fluidity?

They say write what you know. I am a cisgender woman. I’ve been out for 13 years, and I do tend to date people who are either butch presenting lesbians, or masc-of-center people who are all over the queer spectrum. Nonbinary people, trans men. There’s really not much in the media representing my personal experience. So when I started writing the show, it was a couple of sketches about what it’s like to be a queer fem in the dating scene. Once I started focusing on it, the characters took on a life of their own. I just felt like it was an important time to start giving visibility to the queer community I care about so much, and an authentic way we could educate people at the same time.

Why set the show in New York? Aren’t you LA-based?

I’ve only been in LA for a year. I lived in New York for 9 years. We filmed in New York. Honestly, while we were filming, I didn’t realize I’d be moving to LA. It was a couple of life circumstances that brought me out here. It’s interesting, because the queer scenes are very different, so I’m getting used to that. I feel like New York is the perfect place to set this show, because New York has this really magical queer scene, where masc identity is really embraced and celebrated. Other cities are starting to catch on to that, but I just view New York as a queer Mecca.

On that line, there’s so much conversation right now about involving the people you’re writing about, about doing research. So what kind of research did you do to ensure authenticity?

We had four table readings in New York before filming. When we did those, I invited a lot of friends. Some of them were straight, most were queer. I could hear through laughter and people giving feedback about what was working, or what wasn’t working. Also, I do view this entire process as a collaboration. It was important to me to find a director who was transmasculine, since two of the main characters are. Our director, Jett Garrison, was heavily involved in making sure things felt right. On set there was a lot of fluidity. If something didn’t feel quite right coming out of someone’s mouth, I would say “If it feels better, do that.” 90% of what you see on the screen was written. We also have an amazing consulting producer, Aden Hakimi, who also checked that was I was writing was accurate to people’s experience. There were a lot of checks and balances throughout production.

And Jett is very talented. He does some very interesting things to keep the energy up and moving.

He’s very talented. The performances that he was able to pull out of the cast with such intense time constraints was amazing. I still watch the show today and everything moves so well together, story lines and character development really shines through. And that’s all the sign of a brilliant director/.

Shaan Dasani & Nick Park

One of the key themes of the show is ways in which the notion of gender penetrates all parts of life in ways we don’t necessarily perceive. The show picks up on this all over: gender reveal parties, in the workplace, places we don’t think about. As a cis woman, albeit one familiar with this area of the community, what are some realizations that you had in making the show?

I love that question. It’s interesting. This has been a really long process. I started writing the day after Trump’s election, so it’s almost three and a half years. Within those three and a half years, even my idea of gender has shifted a lot. I really feel like now, more than ever, gender is a performance. It’s kind of what we feel comfortable presenting ourselves in. As far as acknowledging that in the show, I did want to introduce the idea of what is gender? That is a question I had pinned to my writing board as I was writing. Can we define it? I learned so much also just writing this and going through the process of making it, even questioning my own gender norms. I grew up very Christian in the Midwest. So there is part of me—and this will be more explored in future seasons—that is how much am I performing my gender as a cis woman? How much is flexible? How much is something I put on like make-up?

Yeah.

I feel like there isn’t a real answer. I think we’re all figuring it out, and that’s something I really wanted to highlight. It was also important to me, in these episodes, that all the encounters we have with straight characters that nobody gets vilified. Some are learning, some mess up. Nobody is vilified. I wanted everyone to feel safe and seen when they watch the show. Characters are complicated, characters make mistakes, but nobody is evil. That’s the world I hope we all live in.

That’s one thing I really enjoyed about the show: nobody is angry. Even when people mess up, people are sad, but there’s no rage, which is the real-world go to at this point.

Mhmmm.

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It speaks well of you and the show that it is about exploration and learning. The whole thing has empathy and patience. But I have to ask a follow-up about that. What you say about the notion of gender as performance is very provocative. Do you think that performance is a performance we put on for other people, or one we put on for ourselves?

[Long pause]

Oh gosh. I don’t know if I’m an expert, but in my opinion, it’s probably a little bit of both. I think a lot of it comes from social upbringing and the gender binary that is forced down our throats. I think it’s a bit of both. Then it’s interesting too: I also want to make sure that nobody feels like their gender isn’t valid. Gender is performance, but gender is valid. However you identify is valid. I feel like there is this mask we put on. So taking that off, being more fluid with gender presentation, could actually be good for everybody.

Another provocative element is the way in which people question their own sexuality when they have an attraction to a trans person. That’s particularly interesting in the context of the Kevin-Asher relationship. Kevin is gay and has no issue with transpeople, but suddenly freaks out when he finds out Asher is trans.

Mmmhmm.

The way you address it is thoughtful and tender. Do you think that questioning of orientation because genitals may not match the way someone presents—and this relates to the previous question about the pervasiveness of gender—do you think that is a cause of transphobia? Homophobia? Or is it a result?

Wow, you’re digging in deep. There is so much discussion going on about this specifically. I just saw a meme going around that said genital preference is transphobic. I don’t feel comfortable saying one or the other, because I don’t identify as trans. But I do think it’s interesting to separate something as basic as genital attraction from something that is separate, which is an attraction to a gender presentation. Especially with the Asher/Kevin presentation, that story arc came in much later. Every good narrative needs some sort of conflict. I wanted to make sure that it was something the community is dealing with, and something that people are experiencing. I wanted to treat the experience with empathy, as something we can all relate to. I also wanted to leave the show open-ended to start discussions.

Yeah.

For example, if I was a gay guy on a date with another guy, and I found out he was trans, how would that affect me? Am I attracted to a certain genitalia? Is there transphobia? What is it that I am attracted to or not attracted to? It brings a lot into question, especially when you separate genitalia from gender.

It’s wonderful that you confront that in a transmasculine context. There’s such a dearth of transmasculine stories right now. Beyond that, so many of the transwomen I’ve talked to all bring up the hypersexualization of transwomen, how they’re viewed as objects of fetishism. By confronting these issues of attraction in a transmasculine story, you eliminate the fetishistic elements, and address more fundamental questions.

Right.

So the series includes a song destined to be a drag anthem. What is the origin of “Listen to your P*ssy?”

[Laughter]

The cabaret number somehow allows you to be Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming at the same time.

Thank you. There are three fantasy moments in the show. I wanted the third to feel big and to really express how Gretchen would claim her sexual power. Sexuality and gender expression go hand in hand, and also, this is a story about Gretchen’s coming out and discovering who she is. I wanted to do something overtly powerful.

Sure.

And I didn’t want to beat around the bush…no pun intended. I didn’t write the song. The writers are my friend Natalie Tanenbaum and the music by Kevin Wanzor. They are both queer artists. We did some collaboration on the song and told Natalie, who wrote the lyrics, exactly that. I wanted an anthem that wasn’t shy. When they approached me with “Listen to your P*ssy,” my first thought was oh God, my mother!

[Laughter]

But when we rehearsed it and worked on it, [I realized] this is exactly how Gretchen needs to go through this arc: listening to her p*ussy, to part of herself that’s been repressed. I think anyone who comes out later in life, we do see overtly sexual energy. I wanted to capture that. Besides, I’m a musical theatre kid.

Nothing wrong with that.

You know, I just want to add that with Jett, with our producer Sophia Clark, on set, every day, was so full of love. Everyone brought an A-game. This project would not exist without the two of them, and the community coming together. It’s so much bigger than just me.

That speaks too to the optimism of the show, which, as we sit here under lockdown from the coronavirus. It’s like everything can get better.

Totally.

You’re a performer…artist…who has been around for a while. As an unapologetically queer woman, what’s it been like for you going in for auditions, or submitting for a writer’s room?

Honestly, when I started making this, I stopped auditioning. I was at a point where I was doing mostly musical theatre. I wasn’t happy doing other people’s work. I feel like Hollywood is behind the times, but Broadway is really behind the times. Most of the stuff I was going out for, I wasn’t happy with how women were portrayed. There were very few queer characters, and a lot of misogyny. After Trump was elected, I didn’t want to give my energy and talents to something that wasn’t part of my purpose. Right now I don’t have representation. I’m trying to lock some down.

Ok.

I will say I met with two agents here in LA. Both were very concerned I was making this show. Both of them didn’t know how much [of the show] they could use on a reel. They were like this will pigeonhole you and limit you.

Wow.

So they weren’t the reps for me. I put all my energy into this because I felt like I was at the end of my rope, honestly. I felt like if I were to quit, I should do something that would make a positive impact on the world so I could move on and feel good about it. When I was making this, I thought it would be the last thing I did.

That’s amazing.

But I didn’t expect to have such great production value. So now, I’m like, maybe this will open doors instead of being the final thing I do before becoming a farmer.

Nick Park

Writing a whole series alone is a monumental task. What’s the status or plan for Season 2? Would you ever consider a writer’s room of your own?

I actually have Seasons 2-5 outlined. The idea is to go the EastSiders route, where Netflix sees the first season and puts it up, or funds future seasons, or a network like HBO sees the value in the characters and wants to expand on it. I don’t have anything written out apart from the outlines because it is really important to me to get a writer’s room for future seasons. I literally did everything I possibly could as a cis white woman. I don’t want to do Season 2 unless there is a writer’s room that reflects the people who are on camera. Season 2 won’t happen unless I can collaborate with writers. And the outline is so damn good. But representation matters in front of the camera and behind the camera. Every person, aside from two straight male actors, was either female, queer or a person of color. Even if HBO comes knocking, that will be a priority.

New episodes of These Thems stream on YouTube each Thursday.