This past Thursday, the Binghamton University Distinguished Speakers Series hosted Emmy-award-winning alumnus Steven Canals, ’08, at the Anderson Center. Returning to his alma mater after receiving six Emmy nominations for his show “Pose,” Canals took the stage to a resounding standing ovation for his talk about breaking down barriers and posing, quite literally, a remarkable challenge to the status quo with his show.
The talk was hosted by Desborne Villaruel, ’18, and Amiya Castro, president of the Latin American Student Union (LASU) and a sophomore majoring in biochemistry. Before attendees asked Canals any questions, the audience learned about Canals’ beginnings growing up in the Bronx and his life as a student at BU. Canals was a transfer student to BU in 2003, prior to the renovations of the University’s residence halls and before Mountainview College even existed. He jokingly described himself as the kind of student who would go around knocking on doors, asking people to be quiet at 2 a.m. It was partially from this that he was encouraged by his peers to be a resident assistant on campus, an experience that ended up defining his time on campus.
Posing a question for himself, Canals asked if everything everyone says about being an RA is true, and if he actually learned valuable skills in his time as one. He said, “it is absolutely the truth,” stating that the skills of being flexible and thinking on your feet that he learned as an RA have been transferable in every aspect of his life. Even more importantly, he began to discover his voice. At a time where he felt people “told him to tone his voice down,” he was now asked to turn it up and use it for the betterment of his community. Inspired, he turned up the volume and helped others find their voices as well.
Reflecting back on his time at BU, Canals set the scene for the day of the inception of “Pose.” He was a cinema major, but he wanted to learn more about traditional film and television rather than the experimental work his courses were rooted in. He remembered a professor who he jokingly claimed to have “somehow sneaked in” a lecture on more traditional film. She showed the documentary “Paris Is Burning,” directed by Jennie Livingston. This documentary opened Canals’ mind to a world of drag queens and ballroom culture that he had no idea had existed just a few subway stations away from where he grew up.
Walking out of Lecture Hall 6 to his first floor RA room in Onondaga Hall of College-in-the-Woods, ideas swirled around his mind about a story of a young man who ends up being taken in by members of the ballroom community. Sitting on his bed, he thought that it would be a great idea for a show that he might someday love to watch.
Concluding his reflection, he added, “I never imagined that I would be the one to tell it.”
Ryan Murphy, a renowned screenwriter who helped create shows such as “American Horror Story” and “Glee,” partnered with him on the project once it got rolling. After communicating with more than 100 people, the show finally sold. When it came time for casting, it was crucial to Canals that actual members of the transgender community, especially those of color, were represented on the show, and that meant casting real, untapped talent in the acting and writing communities. When asked who would take the lead roles, Canals answered, “I don’t know because we haven’t met them yet.” He didn’t want to default back to Hollywood’s standard of casting already famous actors and actresses. Instead, he wanted to meet new people and tell their stories. In fact, Canals and his team were so impressed by the auditions that they hired two more actresses than they intended and wrote in two new characters for them to fill.
“Pose” broke through barriers and challenged the lack of queer and transgender representation in the Hollywood industry with five transgender women as series regulars. Billy Porter, who plays Pray Tell on the show, won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series at this year’s Emmys. The show was nominated for five other Emmy awards.
Canals said the entertainment industry still has a long way to go. Out of around 500 current shows in the United States, only 15 have representation of transgender people, and of those 15, only two have transgender series regulars: “Pose” and the show “Transparent,” which just finished filming. Turning to the crowd directly, Canals asked, “Where are the other ‘Pose’s?’”
He said one of the major reasons he created the show was to instigate a real change in the industry and inspire others to be more inclusive in their casting and story lines. Despite not seeing this shift, he remains optimistic that there will be more inclusivity down the line. In the meantime, he plans to create more himself.