The TransGenerational Theatre Project at SAGE: A Q&A with Christian Hansen Appel – SAGE’s Women’s and Arts and Culture Program Manager
November 2017 | Christian Hansen Appel
Tell us about your background and professional experience.
I am currently the Women’s Program and Arts, Education, and Technology Program Coordinator at the SAGE Center Midtown. I am a trans femme activist, performer, and organizer, originally from New Rochelle, New York. Throughout my childhood, I was an avid theatre-maker and performer, but after college, I choose to focus on social justice movement building, primarily through food justice, youth development, and grassroots community development. I brought together my love of theatre and my social justice organizing skills through the MA in Applied Theatre at the CUNY School for Professional Studies. Applied theatre seeks to bring theatre into non-traditional spaces as a tool for community organizing and justice work for marginalized populations and has been used extensively with LGBT people and with older adults. Through one of my graduate classes, I connected with SAGE to facilitate the creation of a Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony and soon after decided to partner with SAGE on the TransGenerational Theatre Project as well.
What is the TransGenerational Theatre Project?
The TransGenerational Theatre Project is a multigenerational applied theatre project based at SAGE that brings together transgender and gender non-conforming people of all ages to create theatre from their ideas. The project explicitly builds upon the ideas of the participants because there is something quite powerful about seeing one’s ideas brought to life, particularly for a group of people whose voices are often devalued or even silenced.
Over the course of 9 weeks, we meet once a week to build community, explore theatre skills, and devise small pieces of theatre in preparation for the creation of a culminating performance. In its first year, the TransGenerational Theatre project was my thesis project for the MA Applied Theatre program and therefore involved a significant amount of research and evaluation. Along with two of my graduate peers, Lenni Yesner and Amanda Thompson, we worked with over 20 trans/gnc people and created a culminating performance piece that explored the past, present, and future of the trans experience through three scenes interspersed with solo and duet musical and dance pieces. For the second year of the project, we brought on a fourth facilitator, Kai Pelton, and worked with over 35 different trans/gnc people to create a culminating performance called Trans Resistance, which explored the relationship between resistance and family, age, and healing. We performed a version of the piece this summer as part of the NYC Trans Theatre Festival!
What was your inspiration for this project?
As a trans-identified person I was eager to find a way to use the applied theatre skills I was gaining in my graduate program for my community. There are simply not a lot of opportunities, let alone spaces, devoted solely to the wellness of trans/gnc people and the nourishing of trans/gnc community. I attended a trans feminine support group at the NYC LGBT Center to find a group of trans people with whom I could do a small applied theatre project, and I found myself in awe of how multigenerational the group was. After listening to older trans/gnc people talk about their experiences I realized that I had been missing something from my life that I didn’t even realize I was missing; namely, relationships with older trans/gnc people. Once I became connected to SAGE, and I began to deepen my relationship with trans older adults it became clear that I needed to share this experience with as many trans/gnc people as possible!
Interestingly enough, an LGBT intergenerational theatre project called “Bridging the Gap” had been facilitated by one of my graduate professors for five consecutive years in partnership with SAGE. My professor decided not to continue “Bridging the Gap” for another year, leaving the perfect space for the TransGenerational Theatre Project to take root at SAGE.
What type of impact has the project had?
The project has had an impact on everyone involved. Many of our participants have reported that being a part of the project gave them the confidence to pursue other artistic endeavors and seek out participation in other trans groups and communities. The project has also had a profound impact on the culture of SAGE, particularly because it occurred at a time in which SAGE was working had to be a more inclusive place for its trans members. One of the culminating performances is specifically for the larger SAGE community, and many cisgender SAGE members reported having a much better understanding of their trans peer's experiences after seeing the performance. Even more importantly, in the months after the project finished the older trans adults who participated in the project began to report feeling a much stronger sense of belonging and safety at the SAGE Midtown center.
The project has created multi-generational friendships and relationships of support. For example, after the project ended last year, we had an older participant who had shoulder surgery, leaving her unable to do many simple tasks. The younger participants realized they could help and for two weeks they took turns visiting her almost every night, making her dinner, and helping her with whatever she needed until she had more mobility.
For many of our participants, their only access to other trans people has been through support groups. Many of these groups only happen once a month, and there is usually a fairly different group of people each time, so it can be difficult to build relationships. What this project provides is a consistent space to foster relationships over time, a space to learn from each other across age, and space to play and create together. The project, therefore, moves beyond a support group model and fosters something unique, almost akin to a family, which is something that many trans people, unfortunately, don’t have access to.
What tips or advice would you share with other organizations wanting to replicate this project?
- This is challenging work, mostly because transgender people of any age experience marginalization at significantly higher rates than cis people. Many of our participants were experiencing mental health issues as well as food and housing insecurity. If you want people to show up consistently, try to establish a relationship with them quickly and remind them to attend. A weekly phone call and or text encourages active participation. Also, provide built-in support and incentives to ensure that people don’t experience barriers to participation. We provided round-trip MetroCards for any participant in need, we provided free dinner before each session, and we also gave a $50 gift card to every participant who completed the project.
- The more participatory you can make the project, the better. The participants can be involved in a great deal of the decision making, particularly around what they would like a culminating performance to look like (if they even want one!)
- Recruitment for the project is key. Build relationships with LGBT organizations throughout your area and go to as many support groups for trans people as possible. Many of our participants shared that they only came to the project because they had already met one of the facilitators.
- Frame the project as multigenerational rather than intergenerational. This allows for people of all ages to be involved, and it moves away from the binary of young vs. old.
- After each session, we hosted social time for a few hours to give participants the chance to get to know each other more casually while eating snacks and listening to music. This meant that most participants would spend 3 hours a week with each other, rather than only 1.5 and this made a significant difference in the depth of the relationships that formed.
- The facilitators should be trans/gnc identified if possible. There is something magical about creating a space that is only for trans/gnc people!
This sounds like a wonderful project. How can our readers learn more about this project?