A Talk with Christian Appel and Renée Imperato of the TransGenerational Theatre Project
In the children’s book Amy and the Cloud Basket (written by Ellen Pratt, illustrations by Lisa Russell, published by radical feminist press Lollipop Power), night comes only when children cover the sun with clouds. The roles are thus: boys hold baskets full of fluffy white air, girls spoon them in front of the sun. The world carries out this ritual until Amy expresses her interest in baskets, upending the gender divide. By imagining a future in which she plays a different role, Amy alters an entire way of life. Day still becomes night, but differently.
When I saw the TransGenerational Theatre Project’s performance at this year’s Trans Theatre Festival (held at The Brick Theatre in New York City), I watched thirty-four trans non-actors, including Renée Imperato, perform fictions based in their personal experience: an all trans basketball team, a benevolent trans taxi driver, a trans child who leaves home and finds solace with gender nonconforming parents on a unicorn farm—all devised and co-authored by the participants. Christian Appel and her fellow facilitators (Lenni Yesner, Kai Pelton, and Amanda Thompson) founded the project two years ago, culling members from trans and queer groups and organizations throughout the city. The TransGenerational Theatre Project (TGTP) met for weekly rehearsals, featuring applied theatre activities and techniques that generated content and solidified community.
Near the end of Amy and the Cloud Basket, Amy meets an old man who always wanted to spoon clouds. Inspired by her example, he picks up a spoon for the first time. Amy’s action is echoed backwards and forwards, rewriting old gender fictions, creating new. When I told my parents I identified as gender nonconforming, they asked “What about you will change? How much will change?” What they didn’t ask was, “How much will it change us?”
Appel stresses that TGTP is a “multigenerational”—a blend of all generations—and “anti-oppressive space that centers trans people of color and trans people with disabilities.” I sat down with Appel and Imperato at the SAGE (Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders) offices in Manhattan. Appel told me Imperato was her “trans mom,” and when Imperato joined us, she talked about how her friend, trans luminary Marsha P. Johnson, had referred to herself as a drag queen because the term “trans person” wasn’t yet part of the vernacular. We were already living in a future beyond her imagination.
Patrick: The goal of the group seems to be affirming trans experience and allowing multiple generations to influence each other. Can you talk about how applied theatre moves past what a support group can do?
Christian: We specifically don’t ask people to share their stories, mostly because the retelling of events can be retraumatizing for people. Also, when theatre projects are based on personal narratives, the more traumatic monologues rise to the top. They’re what an audience wants. Oftentimes, for the person who went through the trauma, making fiction is more helpful than dredging up the past.
Patrick: I hadn’t thought of that. For a cisgender audience to understand the pain, the performer becomes a victim all over again. But to heal, everyone has to look forward.
Renée: A couple of months ago, I walked out of a Target, and some charity had a table set up there. It’s the last time I wore my Vietnam Veterans hat. I always have anti-racist stuff on too, so you know I’m not coming out of some right-wing bag. A young guy said to me, “How many confirmed kills do you have?” I started trembling and other vets who overheard it interceded and told this guy, “You don’t fucking ask veterans questions like that.” Don’t tell me “Thank you for your service.” To me, it’s the same thing as being misgendered. I channeled everything I had into the anti-war movement, so don’t blame me for getting angry—you don’t get to tell me what I should or should not be proud of.
I think visibility can be problematic on a larger media platform, but our production is for our community. If cis people see it, great! But this is for us.
Christian: You see why she’s my trans mom?
Patrick: This year’s theme was “Resistance,” right?
Renée: And survival. That’s how you survive: by resisting.
Christian: Last season, the theme was “The Past, Present, and Future of the Trans Experience.” A few scenes did some future imagining.
Patrick: As in trans utopia?
Christian: Yeah! One group came up with this skit called “Trans Pizza,” which was a trans pizza parlor owned and operated by trans girls.
Patrick: I would totally eat at Trans Pizza!
Christian: Right? And that idea, which was in the second session, made it all the way through to the performance. Pearl was their celebrity spokeswoman. In the ad for Trans Pizza, she took a slice out from her boob and said something like, “We have every variety of pizza for whatever gender you want to be. You take a bite and you can become a different gender.” Beautiful stuff. I mean, also capitalism—but whatever.
Patrick: I like that magic pizza is full-on utopian, but the restaurant concept seems completely reasonable. Someone should start on that business plan. It’s not a fairy tale at all.
Christian: You’ll like this one. My group’s future scene took place in a stadium at the 50th anniversary of the TransGenerational Theatre Project, a massive trans social: the first trans robot was there, the first trans government official…And I thought about the effects of so many trans people in one place. Thousands of trans people getting to hang out and be together? That’s magic. I think visibility can be problematic on a larger media platform, but our production is for our community. If cis people see it, great! But this is for us. We reserved lots of free tickets for trans people.
Before we started the project, SAGE struggled to be a safe space for trans people. Four months after The TransGenerational Theatre Project ended, the person at SAGE who helped us get the project going came to me and said we’d permanently changed the culture here. It empowered the trans people, and also raised the level of empathy for the people who witnessed the show.
Renée: I think this project has chinked the armor of transphobia. It’s almost like no other love I’ve felt before. It’s limitless. Everyone in the project has been fighting the same struggle. It’s not a generic theatre group.
Christian: And I should say we incorporate a personal story if someone wants to share. We try very hard as facilitators to take every single suggestion or idea and find a way to make it work, which is difficult, but so important because many people in the group are used to being shut down and silenced.
Renée: I contributed one scene, the one about the taxi, but did I create that on my own? No fucking way. Jennifer said to me, “I thought what you wrote was great.” And I said, “What we wrote.” And Jennifer said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “You didn’t tell me what to write, but you contributed to how I wrote it: therefore, you are a co-creator.” I could have said that to anybody in the project, even people not in the scene. I think this project does something I’ve always wanted to do: get people out of their closet. That’s the most important thing.
Christian: At the beginning of the project, we had four people who didn’t want to be photographed or videoed at all. Then they performed in a public theatre festival. Who knows what happened between then to now, but it can only be something good.
Renée: We can be the most inhibited people, and then that door opens, and we rush in. What more could you really ask for?
Patrick: Are you going to continue the project?
Renée: I’m driven to. This work is revolutionary. I’ve told people in the project, “You’re a revolutionary” and they’re like, “What do you mean?” And I say, “Are you kidding me? What you face every fucking day? If that’s not revolutionary, there’s nothing revolutionary.”
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Need to share and work on projects like these to shift the culture dynamics we continue to struggle with understanding all varieties of this new reality. Thank you for bringing this work forward.