“Their world is not our world,” talking Biltmore Academy with Michael Niederman

It’s always alot of fun talking to Michael about art, politics, and social issues, so when I saw that he and Ellie Foumbi were making a film about a little boy in a dress, who has lesbian parents and attends in an elite private school in New York City, I knew the conversation would be interesting, and so we had it. I’ve known Michael since we were both at Columbia School of the Arts studying playwrighting, and since then have worked with him on numerous Stickies. He’s a prolific, passionate writer, and Biltmore Academy, currently in pre-production and fundraising, promises to be a fascinating project. There’s a cool event tonight, Dragalogues, in support of the show, so if you’re in NYC, go see brand new work that you won’t find anywhere else!

In Biltmore Academy, the connotations and extrapolated meanings of a little boy in a dress are made by adults. Do you think kids are aware of the adult-world meanings of their actions and choices?

As an artist and an educator, that’s one of the biggest questions that I struggle with: what do kids know, and when do they know it?  A great deal of research and scholarship has been made, by teachers and professional educators (the two are not always the same thing), that investigates this question.  How are aware are children?  And do they understand the adult-world reactions to their choices?  I guess my answer would be… kinda?  They’re sorta aware?  And maybe they have a sense of what adults think?  This is not to disparage, or to dismiss the minds of children or adolescents.  I work with too many of them to say that.

But kids are figuring out the world, and they can only attempt to understand based on their own contexts of the world.  And as we are still learning (by we, I mean, you and I, Libby, a pair of encroaching upon middle-aged white vaguely heteronormative overeducated mostly-straight people) gender is revealing itself to be more and more of a social construct than we thought.  Sex is biological.  Gender is a social construct.  Yes, a small child understands the biology – who has which parts – but they’re learning the sociology.  At the most basic level, when told to act a certain way, they rightfully ask the most elementary of questions: “Why”?

So are kids aware of the adult-world meanings of their actions and choices?  Especially younger children?  I’d say no.  They’re figuring it out. But I’d also say that our meanings aren’t really valid to their choices.  Kids are going to do what they do; figure out the world as they go.  Their world is not our world.  And our world is not theirs.  Be honest; 20 years ago would you really think that LGBTQ issues would be as mainstreamed as they are now?  Back in ’95, my liberal self sure didn’t.  The fact that we’re talking about these issues in prime time, and not on the front page of The Village Voice, is reason enough to recognize that a sea change is happening.

While I disagree with you about a real difference between sex and gender, and so too do many scientists who find no difference between the brain chemistry and make up of male and female brains, where do you think this sea change is coming from? Bottom up or top down? Is it that children are like “I’m the other thing,” or are adults looking at behaviour and saying “oh, you must be the other thing?”

I’m not really interested in getting into a debate about the difference or similarities between the male of female brain, because that opens up a whole can of worms regarding not just sexuality and gender, but also race, criminality, eugenics, and other great 19th century pseudoscientific movements.  The how of the question can sometimes get us into sticky waters; I think it’s better to focus on methodology.  Especially when talking about gender, I always like to go to a scene from the 1998 Todd Haynes film, Velvet Goldmine, where Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a glam amalgam of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, is performing on the television in his glittery finery, and a teenager played by a Christian Bale, watching with his family in 1970’s England, turns to his father and yells out with joy: “That’s me, Dad!  That’s me!”  Does it help the conversation to ask: is this a specific chemical make up in his brain that makes you feel this way, or did he just fall in love with satin and glitter before his tastes changed to black kevlar armor with bat ears?

I don’t think it matters if this is Bottom Up or Top Down.  Yes, I think children are being given more opportunity to say “I’m like this”, but I also think that parents have more latitude to be able to say “based on these signifiers, I think that you are like that.”  Both of these would not be possible without a person having the courage to say “Dad, that’s me!” and a father who’s open enough to listen. As to where the sea change is coming from – I just think that people are communicating more, and better now, than they were able to in the past.  We know more now, and we’re open to more.

Do you think there is an essential self that is lost when a person succumbs to adulthood?

Actually, I think the opposite.  I think adulthood – or at least some level of maturity – is required for the self to determine who you are and how you choose to portray yourself to the world.  Not that children don’t know themselves or, or have clear opinions about what they like or don’t like, or want to be or don’t want to be.  But only that children, and this is an essential part of being a child, don’t know what all of their opinions are, yet.  They’re just figuring their world out.  Hell, we’re all doing that, young and adult alike, but at least those of us on the far side of high school have had enough life experience to have a better understanding of our personal points of view, but also the maturity to be okay with what that might be.

That being said, being an adult – and become a more “mature” individual – makes a person more likely to accept the contradictions of the self and the personal hypocrisies that become all to commonplace when we’re forced to deal with the real world.  There are all sort of things that I want to be, that I want to do, but I really am not allowed to, because I have to operate in adult society.  So, as I’ve succumbed to adult society, I don’t necessarily agree that I’m less of myself, but I do think that there is a part of me that I don’t let out to play unless I”m completely comfortable with my surroundings.

I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to this story – the fact that if a boy wants do – is demanding to – wear a dress, beyond identity, beyond nomenclature, beyond any sort of social justice or political correctness or gender theory, what we’re talking about is a young person who truly knows himself.  Maybe more than you or I did at that age.

Is it that he truly knows himself in spite of social conditioning or truly knows himself without an understanding of social conditioning? Or just likes the extra air flow for which pants don’t allow? Or once he makes the statement that he wants to wear a dress wants the approval of his semi-absent mom, who approves of the choice? What are the factors? Is he trying to create a self or is he revealing a self? Are those two different things or the same thing?

We specifically did not get into the why of Nicholas’ desire to wear a dress.  Nowhere in the film is there a conversation about “oh, he’s really a girl” or “he’s experimenting” or “he just likes the extra air flow” or “He just wants to look pretty.” We don’t get into that, by design.  All that we declare in the film is that this is what he wants, this is his choice, and his parents are doing their best to support that choice.  We didn’t want to get into the possibility of the discussion of why or why not, because that could lead to: “he really doesn’t feel this way” or “it’s just a cry for attention.”

As far as your last question: whether he is creating or revealing a self, isn’t that two halves of the same coin? Especially at a young age, I believe that sometimes you’re not aware of all the things you are, or all the things you can be, until it’s revealed to you by your experiences. It’s a combination of the nature and nurture argument that has been engaging social scientists for centuries. If we choose to see clothing as a costume, and that pieces are put together to create a whole, then he’s creating. If clothing is identity, and a fundamental part of who we are, then he’s discovering. Either way, he’s still putting his pants on one leg at a time (so to speak).


Is there an added significance to Nicholas’ parents being two women?

Of course there is an added significance to both of the parents in this film being women.  But at the same time, it was forced upon us by casting.  And the movie is all the better.

Some background: the movie is based on a New York Madness play “The Biltmore Academy” by writer Jeffrey James Keys, which starred actresses Jody Christopherson and Carolyn Smith.  It was about a young mother (Christopherson) who is called into the principal’s office of her son’s elite private school, to be told that her son, Nicholas, came to school, and was in violation of the dress cold.  The principal (Smith) was sympathetic with the mother’s situation, but the rules were the rules, and her primary job was to uphold them.  When co-director Ellie Foumbi and I were brought on to the filmmaking process, the script went through many permutations as it was adapted into a screenplay.  As we went through the adaptation process, and determined that what worked on stage doesn’t always necessarily work in film, we elected to alter our screenplay’s focus, drawing our gaze from the initial meeting in the principal’s office, and to the family’s home, dealing with the fallout after the fact.  And since both Christopherson and Smith were on board as actresses and producers, it seemed totally natural to cast both of them as the parents of our Nicholas.

And this casting was immediately incredibly fortuitous, because it brought to light what I think is one of the main theses of this film: that issues with gender (notice that I’m not saying gender issues), that confusion about nomenclature and vocabulary, that uncertainly with what the right thing to do, and how best to support someone that you love who is going through something that you may not understand – those issues are not unique to the cisgendered heteronormative community.  We all need to learn how to do better.  We all need to figure out how to encounter and interact with people and ideas that we may not initially understand.  We all need to get over ourselves, and listen more to people who might know more than us – might know more about themselves then we do about ourselves.

I love when limitations create better projects! Are there other limitations that you’ve had on this project that have bred even better ideas than the original?

Other limitations?  You mean, besides money, time, work/life balance, locations, casting, egos, scheduling, and the position of the moon?

A funny one has to do with insurance.  Specifically, what Columbia would and would not insure us to do.  One thing that was vetoed right off the bat was a scene taking place in the subway.  Shooting in public transportation in NYC is a huge hassle, one which the Mayor’s Office tries to make prohibitive.  This is unfortunate, considering how integral public transportation is to the lives of so many New Yorkers.  The scene was altered to one taking place in a bus stop, but even then Columbia’s insurance balked at the difficulty.  But then we had a eureka moment, and we combined the scene with another one, and set it in a playground, and now it really adds a narrative richness to the story.

Check out Biltmore Academy, and if you’ve got it and want to support this film, throw in some cash with this handy indiegogo!


The Biltmore Academy
from top to bottom, left to right: Jeffrey James Keyes, co director Ellie Foumbi, co director Michael Niederman, actresses Carolyn Michelle Smith and Jody Christopherson

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