Like many people, Donato Fatuesi doesn’t look at Harry Potter the same way these days. That’s due in large part to author J.K. Rowling’s series of statements last year employing common anti-transgender tropes, beginning with tweets and progressing to a lengthy essay on her website where she warns readers about the “new trans activism.”
Growing up in American Samoa, Fatuesi did a lot of reading, and the Harry Potter books told a story she followed from a young age.
“[I was] hugely upset to learn about how this author who built this magical world could have such harmful views,” Fatuesi said. “Her views seemed to single out and attack trans women, like myself, and it was really hurtful. It really has harmed my relationship to how I view these stories.”
That made the prospect of participating in “Lego Harry Potter and the Transgender Witch,” a stop-motion animation project from Kent-based Theatre Battery, all the more enticing. Fatuesi voices Quincy Blueburger, a trans girl with a mop of hot pink hair who’s thrilled to receive an invitation to Hogwarts but finds the environment less than welcoming, particularly from the characters we’re used to viewing as the heroes of this story. Theatre Battery is making all 10 episodes available for free on YouTube, with new episodes posted most Mondays.
Founded in 2011, Theatre Battery produces mostly contemporary plays, with a “radical hospitality” model that allows audience members to pay what they want or nothing at all to attend. Or at least it did, in pre-COVID times. A year ago, an explanation would have been required for why a theater pivoted to making animated short films. Now, we all know why.
Logan Ellis, producing artistic director of Theatre Battery, said the company considered a variety of forms of alternate programming this past year, including an outdoor concert and that now-ubiquitous facsimile: the Zoom play.
“So many people expressed fatigue about the prospect of a Zoom play,” Ellis said. “There’s something kind of demoralizing about that. And on top of that, there were just many people having greater reservations about the choice to have a life in theater to begin with. The reward everyone is so passionate about — being able to have live performance and have that amazing, infectious interaction — that has been gone for a really long time, or feels like a long time now. And all that’s left is that crushing economic reality of, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a really fragile life.’ ”
A video project felt like the right move, both because it allowed cast and crew members to pick up some film skills and because the dual worlds of Harry Potter and Lego occupy that realm of childhood-era comfort food that many people are craving to escape the pressures of isolation, Ellis said.
The project’s genesis came in the early days of the pandemic. Ellis was studying for an MFA in directing at the Yale School of Drama, and longtime Theatre Battery collaborator Kait Mahoney was working on an MFA in stage management at Columbia. When in-person learning was shuttered, the two met up in Connecticut and road-tripped back to Washington in three days, listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks the whole way. The pair’s “completely different notions” of the series were altered further by Rowling’s subsequent comments, Mahoney said.
“Everyone had this question of what their place in fandom was,” she said. “Are you allowed to still like this thing that had such a profound impact on your life? Is it OK to still connect with these characters, because they had felt so human and so real?
“That’s a huge part of what makes fanfiction so enticing in general, is that even when you don’t see yourself necessarily represented in a particular piece of media, the humanity is still there, the story line is still interesting. So you can just twist that a little bit, and insert another aspect of it, and be like, ‘OK, we’ve got 90 percent of the pieces there. What happens if I add my idea of what the other 10 percent should be?’ ”
“Harry Potter and the Transgender Witch” follows a long tradition of fanfiction that recontextualizes and transforms popular works, often from an LGBT perspective, Ellis said. For Mahoney, her experience with fanfiction dates back to middle school, when students would pass a notebook around the classroom, each one adding a piece to the story.
Theatre Battery’s production process has been similarly collaborative, with a Google Drive document collecting plotlines and character questions from a writing staff spread across the country, assembled from Ellis’ connections from working in Kent, studying at Yale and directing in San Francisco. After an episode is written and storyboarded, the voice cast records their lines remotely and then Ellis and team animate frame-by-frame in a makeshift studio in his attic. Each minute of the finished product requires about five hours of photography.
As for the legal implications of the project? Ellis isn’t worried, with the team having done a fair amount of research around parody and fair use, and given the not-for-profit status of the work. Lego Harry Potter parodies, some with millions of views, proliferate on YouTube.
“If there was a legal conflict that were to arise because of this, my curiosity would be to find out what distinguishes our project from the myriad other similar parodies that exist,” Ellis said.
For Fatuesi, voicing Quincy has resonated with her personal life repeatedly, taking her back to key moments. A recent episode features a ball where “folks see Quincy as Quincy sees herself,” which brought back many memories of her own high school prom, Fatuesi said.
And since episodes have been airing, she’s heard from a childhood friend who said she realized in a new way the struggles Fatuesi faced from watching the series.
“Being involved in this project that helps to combat [transphobic] views in a fun way can also help to change people’s ideas,” she said. “[It gives] people a moment to pause about what that means and what that means for the stories that we hold dear.”