Producer of play about JK Rowling’s trans views targeted with ‘obscene’ online abuse

Barry Church-Woods (L) play about JK Rowling (R) at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe continues to face backlash.

An Edinburgh Fringe play exploring JK Rowling’s views on gender is struggling to finish its casting process due to what the producer has described as a “vocal misinformed backlash.”

The play is called TERF, which stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. The word refers to people who describe themselves as feminists but who exclude the rights of transgender people, particularly trans women, from their women’s rights advocacy.

The term was first coined in 2008 by an activist and writer named Viv Smythe, to – in her words – describe what she saw as a trans-hostile movement that was gaining strength in the British media.

TERF explores how JK Rowling has gone from almost-universally beloved children’s author to one of the most controversial figures in the UK due to her regular comments about trans people. Rowling first came in for criticism on 19 December 2019 when she came out in support of gender critical campaigner Maya Forstater, who was then in a legal battle with her former employer after being fired for expressing anti-trans views.

The date has since been claimed by gender critical activists as Gender Critical Coming Out Day or “TERFmas”.

The play’s synopsis reads: “Jo led a blessed life. Literary phenomenon. Cultural icon. And beloved. Completely beloved… until everything went to hell in a broombasket. Now, Jo’s surrogate children – Daniel, Rupert, and Emma – have had enough. It’s time for an intervention.

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“Except Jo isn’t in the mood for an intervention, especially not one organised by three A-list Judases. But the battle lines have already been drawn. She might not have started this war, but she’ll end it – with a smile. When she learns the cost of victory, though, it could be too high for even her to pay…”

In real life, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have publicly opposed Rowling’s views on trans people. Radcliffe previously published a letter via LGBTQ+ charity The Trevor Project which said: “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I.”

Grint and Watson released similar statements, as did Eddie Redmayne, who stars in the spinoff series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling has suggested that she will never “forgive” the stars for publicly expressing support for trans people.

Over 90 people who submitted expressions of interest to audition later did not submit self tapes when asked to, and its producer suggests this is because people are “scared of the subject”.

Barry Church-Woods, TERF’s creative producer and founder of live arts company We Are Civil Disobedience exclusively told PinkNews: “It’s been very tricky casting this show, I think first in part because they’re actually quite iconic roles to take on, but definitely because there’s been a very vocal misinformed backlash to the project since we announced it early 2024.

“Rowling has also become such a beacon for the issue that we’re dealing daily with the enraged ‘anti-woke’ armies of Breitbart and Fox News. It’s a lot of noise to come up against, and I imagine is quite daunting for anyone who is reading the vitriolic backlash right now.”

Church-Woods, who is gay, also explains that he has been personally targeted online due to his involvement with the project, explaining “just yesterday a Facebook post commemorating the anniversary of my sister’s death was inundated with obscene comments like ‘she’ll be glad she’s dead so she doesn’t have to see your woman hating show’ and ‘I bet your mum wishes it was you instead’ etc. And that’s me. The producer. The cast will be the public faces of this show, so they’ll inevitably have a lot to deal with.”

Actors have already been found to play the male leads in TERF but it is the female leads that the creative team are struggling with.

“I think there may also be a couple of other factors affecting the casting of the roles,” continued Church-Woods. There’s a new Harry Potter TV show in the works and a lot of agents are reluctant to put people forward based on the potential backlash.

“(Litigation) may also be an added anxiety. Thankfully, we know there will be no issues here as we just received the results of our legal read of the final script.”

The writer of TERF, queer-identifying US screenwriter Joshua Kaplan, previously said that the focus of the play “is on relationships and how Rowling’s opinions have evolved” rather than “interrogating the substance of her opinions.”

“I hope the audience will walk out not with a message but a question. I want people to walk out saying, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have put that on Twitter the other day’.”

Church-Woods confirmed that the plot is not necessarily critical of Rowling. “It’s ironic that the reporting of this project so far has focused on how the show is critical of Rowling,” he explained. ” Yet we’ve never actually said it is. No-one has read the script yet apart from us and our legal team, and yet still they all hold strong opinions about it.”

TERF is scheduled to run at the Sir Ian McKellen Theatre in Edinburgh from August 2 to 25.

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