“This Haunting Red” explores a transgender man’s experience navigating his relationship with the ghost of his former self.
Mitchell Hartcroft (they/them pronouns) wrote their first play in one sitting—after a particularly frustrating day working at Office Depot.
“I had a rough interaction with a customer at the store,” Mitch recalls. “I had my pronouns on my employee badge and she started asking questions about my name, and then threw a fit because I didn’t want to tell them a lot of personal information about my gender. She even called my manager.”
It was still early in their gender transition, but this wasn’t the first time that Mitch—who identifies as trans-masculine and non-binary—had dealt with a perfect stranger asking these types of personal questions. They went home pretty fed up that night.
“Writing My Feelings”
“So when I got home, I took the current emotions I was feeling and combined them with a topic I know a lot about—an interest in horror and the paranormal,” they remember. “And I put that all into my draft for a classroom assignment.”
Mitch was in a playwriting class at FRCC’s Larimer Campus, and that night they wrote the first draft of “This Haunting Red.” The 10-minute play has just won two regional playwriting awards at the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival in Spokane.
Haunted by the Past
“This brilliant play is about a transgender man haunted by his past,” says FRCC theatre instructor and playwright Dana Formby. “The female identity he tried to be when he was young—to appease his family (and society)—is a literal ghost that haunts him. It is spectacular.”
In the play, our hero Luke Ramirez is haunted by a powerful poltergeist—so he enlists the help of two paranormal experts. When they refuse to take Luke’s word for what he’s experiencing, he starts to realize that there “may just be things scarier than his past self.”
What It’s Like to Be Trans
The story of Luke’s haunting is not specifically autobiographical for Mitch. But it does include the “general ins and outs, broad strokes of what it’s like to be trans,” they say. “There are elements in the play of what we have to deal with when we experience body dysphoria, or when we have physical changes that don’t mesh with what’s in our mind.”
Still, Mitch says, “I want people to get that it’s not all misery. It’s hard, it’s difficult at times—but at the end of day, we have ourselves and our community. Some of us are OK, some are happy, some of us don’t deal with dysphoria at all. I want people to see that not all trans stories have to be deeply sad.”
A Play with “Legs”
Mitch loves writing, but hates the process of editing and rewriting. Even so, they decided to keep working on the play. They remember thinking, “The fact that I feel like this is definitely worth cleaning up, that says something. I might have something here.”
Indeed they did. “This Haunting Red” was first produced in the blackbox theatre on campus as part of FRCC’s 10-minute play festival last fall. The reaction Mitch got was unmistakable.
Audience members found the play incredibly powerful. Mitch heard from quite a few people who said the story really helped them understand the transgender experience better. “They felt bad for Luke,” Mitch remembers. “So it worked. The story was able to come across.”
Producing the play for a public audience was “definitely a life-changing experience” for Mitch. “Being there with other writers and students—having something so personal to me and not a traditional narrative—and getting the feedback I did, it made me want to do it again.”
Mitch’s play even got featured by public radio station KUNC. At the time, Dana told people, “I’m sure you’ll see more of [this play]. It has real legs,” (a theatre colloquialism that means other theatres will produce it).
Less than two months later, she was proven right.
Taking the Show On the Road
Around the holidays, Mitch found out that their play had been chosen as a semi-finalist for the Kennedy Center’s college festival. When they opened the email, they thought, “This can’t be right.”
But it was no mistake. Mitch’s theatre instructor Dana told them, “I don’t know how, but we’re going to get you there.” Along with Mitch’s friends, she helped them raise enough money for the trip.
Mitch says they wouldn’t have made it to the festival without Dana’s support. “Words cannot describe how grateful I am to her. She’s a force of nature artistically, educationally and emotionally. She’s just an amazing person, teacher and mentor.”
Mitch would get to travel to Spokane for a week in February to work with other theatre students to produce their play. In the audience would be experienced theatre professionals who work in the field—they watch the performances and give the playwrights feedback. So no pressure.
A Lone Wolf
Most of the students participating in the festival were with a group from their college, but Mitch was on their own. Luckily they got to work with another student who directed the play—and Mitch says they were a perfect match.
Day 1 was spent doing auditions and casting the show. After that, the week was kind of a whirlwind. Mitch got to meet with a lot of other college playwrights, directors and actors from schools all around the western region.
Every day, they took classes, attended workshops and watched shows in order to learn from the other playwrights. Mitch and the director got to meet with the new cast of “This Haunting Red” just a couple of times for readings and rehearsals. They were so busy, they did not get a lot of prep time for the show.
On Day 5, when Mitch finally got to see their play performed, they were completely blown away. “It was so much more than I thought it was going to be. It surpassed all of my expectations.”
“My director went above and beyond,” Mitch gushes. “Even though the ghost is not a speaking role, he found a way to have her onstage while [the actor playing Luke] delivered his lines.”
In the script, there are some very physical movements, like when the ghost will grab Luke. “Seeing the ghost manifested on stage made me feel a pressure in my chest,” Mitch recalls. “It was very unsettling. I got goose bumps.”
And, Mitch says, the actors all brought their A game. “They did not hold back. They were really able to breathe their own life into these characters.”
That night after all the performances, it was time for the festival award ceremony—a nerve-wracking experience for the students involved. Having seen many of the other plays, Mitch knew how good they were. “I was thinking ‘there’s no way I’ll win.’”
But sitting on their own in the back of a massive hotel conference room, Mitch heard “FRCC,” come through the sound system. Then, “Mitchell Hartcroft.”
“I was blindsided. It took me a couple of seconds to realize I had heard it correctly. But my name isn’t a common one.” So they went up to stage, absolutely stunned, to receive hugs from the presenters and the Trans-for-Trans Playwriting Award.
In the excitement, it was all a bit of a blur. Mitch left the stage and was directed to an area for the winners to have their photos taken.
Then, still reeling from the shock of winning, their name got called again for the LatinX Playwriting Award. “Oh, you can win more than one?” Mitch thought. “It was surprise on top of surprise.”
A New Home
While that night was a thrill, there’s much more that Mitch is taking away from that week in Spokane. “It’s very cool that I won the awards, but in the end it’s the love of the art. I love writing.”
Mitch says they learned a lot throughout the whole experience. “The entire process, from having first written Haunting up to the festival, has altered my writing practices, and I can see it continuing to do so.”
As a writer, Mitch was never really focused on the theatre before—but now it sounds like we can expect to see more plays from them. “Writing is my thing, regardless of what form it takes, and while I had grown used to narrative prose, playwriting presented itself as this new and exciting sandbox I didn’t even think I could explore. Already I’ve found myself thinking if and how I can adapt some ideas I’ve had simmering in the backburner for the stage.”
And further developing their playwriting isn’t the only thing Mitch is taking away from the experience. “I made such strong connections with these people through this work. Theatre accidentally became my home when I didn’t expect it to.”