Interview by Jennifer Vande Zande

Playwright Jennifer Sikora’s first full-length play, Paid Programming, is set to debut this month at U of M Flint’s Black Box Theatre. Sikora, a Flint native who considers herself a survivor, is not afraid to take on America’s often misguided social constructs about what defines a person’s gender. Paid Programming, a social satire, presents the story of Max, a 20-something transgendered man, struggling to find his own identity in the face of an overbearing mother as well as the gender-imposed roles reinforced in the media and advertising.

Jennifer Vande Zande: Please talk a bit about what it was like for you growing up in Flint.

Jennifer Sikora: I really loved growing up in Flint. You can't beat being raised in a community where you knew your neighbors, where the corner store's owner gave you affectionate nicknames, and where the nearby restaurant didn't mind if the local kids came in and paid for a meal in quarters. At the time, I'm not sure I realized how much I loved it. It was the only thing I knew.

JV: I know that you consider yourself a social activist. Were there any particular experiences in your life that you feel directed you toward action?

JS: I honestly can't think of any particular situation.  In many ways, I've never quite fit into most of society's boxes. If I had to pinpoint a particular issue that impacted my desire to speak out against social injustice, that issue would be gay rights. I found someone I love deeply, to whom I've pledged my life as a partner, but we are considered substandard citizens when it comes to marriage.

JV: How did the idea for this play develop?

JS: This play developed while I was working toward my graduate degree at U of M-Flint. During these studies, I began to more deeply explore gender. Once these explorations married with my theatrical pursuits, Paid Programming was born.

JV: The subject matter of Paid Programming is serious and complex. Anti-discrimination laws in most U.S. cities do not currently protect transgendered people from discrimination, and the transgendered community is often misunderstood. How did you come to find balance between comedy, satire and drama when writing Paid Programming?

JS: Honestly, that balance was found by embracing the absurdity of so-called gender norms. I really exploit the idea that gender is a socially constructed institution through the use of satirical infomercials, as an idea that America is selling. While the lead character of the play is transgendered, Paid Programming mostly deals with everyone as people who do or do not fit into these gendered molds—and as people who either are willing or are unwilling to change themselves or others to make everything fit.

JV: Do you identify with any of the characters?

JS: I identify the most with Max, the lead transgendered character. I'm not sure I consider myself transgendered, specifically, but I have experienced the trial of trying to understand where I personally fit in, in that regard.

JV: Was there a particular scene that you found more difficult to write than others?

JS: Not particularly. This play began as a one-act. The difficulty was in expanding the script to a full-length play, and in making more complex the relationship between Max and his girlfriend Sally.

JV: What is it like to hand your script over to a director and actors… in essence, relinquishing control over something that was such a personal endeavor?

JS: It is a terrifying experience. At first, as a playwright, you internally cringe a little when people begin making your words their own. With this particular group, I really found relinquishing directorial control a great relief. Courtney Hatcher has been doing a great job.

JV: What do you hope that the audience will gain from seeing Paid Programming?

JS: I hope that the audience will relate to these characters and, perhaps, get a new perspective on what sorts of issues members of the LGBT community go through.

JV: Please tell us what your short- and long-term plans are.

JS: Within the next year, I hope to revise Paid Programming and send it out to theaters across the country. I'm also making it a goal to get another full-length play down on paper, despite that working as the gallery manager at Buckham Gallery is really a time-consuming job.

With regard to long-term plans: I'm eventually going to be continuing my education in playwriting or gender studies by achieving a terminal degree. I'd ultimately like to teach playwriting or classes about gender in the theater at a university. Because my partner is an artist also, some of these long-term plans definitely focus on supporting her as she strives to achieve her MFA in painting.

Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 to Sept. 11 and at 2 p.m. Sept. 12. Celebrated playwright Holly Hughes will facilitate a talk-back catered by The Lunch Studio following the Sept. 12 matinee. The UM-Flint's Black Box Theater is located at 303 E. Kearsley St.

Another weekend of performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17 to Sept. 18 and 2 p.m. Sept. 19 at Buckham Gallery, 134 1/2 W. Second St. Admission is $5. A portion of proceeds will be used to create an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) theater scholarship at UM-Flint.

For further information please visit the "Paid Programming: A Play by Jen Sikora" page on Facebook. You may also contact the U of M-Flint's Black Box or Buckham Gallery.

© Jennifer Vande Zande, 2010