Creating a brave space: Trans, nonbinary and gender-expansive youth theatre collective to debut musical


For the Gazette

Published: 06-10-2022 4:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Western Massachusetts’s first trans, nonbinary and gender-expansive youth theater collective, Co-ACT, debuts on stage Wednesday with its initial musical production, breathing life into a scripted retelling of the ensemble’s real experiences as gender-queer young people.

The show, called “What if it’s a Musical,” follows a small community theater troupe navigating familiar circumstances — a pandemic, isolation, and the difficulties of engaging in the creative process remotely — and counts on contributions from local composers and facilitators with Co-ACT’s parent organization, Translate Gender.

Gathering participants to develop the project, said co-facilitator James Shultis, “was a beautiful opportunity to create a brave space, but it was like building something out of nothing.”

“We’ve always been here, our trans-cestors, as we say, have always been here, and historically that queer and trans visibility comes from community,” Shultis says. “Without the support of our community this would’ve been really hard to accomplish, if not impossible.”

To be able to stage the piece at a performance venue, the 90-minute play relied on a subsidy from the Northampton Center for the Arts, and the production also drew on the musical expertise of local jazz musician Red Jasper, who helped young participants compose and transcribe their songs.

Jasper, who teaches voice and piano at The Prindle School in Hadley, also identifies as nonbinary, and reflected on Co-ACT and the “radical act [of] staging trans people’s inner lives,” saying the play was “a beautiful opportunity I couldn’t say no to.”

“Theater is imaginative, there’s no fear or shame, it brings joy to everyone involved, and I really believe that this would’ve been life-changing for me if I had seen this growing up,” they said. “Having spaces that are affirming are life-saving.”

The play, set in a fictionalized Northampton, even momentarily pokes fun at the city’s liberal veneer of inclusion. The scene, which depicts a cisgender individual seeking to join the troupe, attempts to bring levity to the perplexing experience of being on the receiving end of what co-facilitator Shai Kuper calls “well-intentioned indifference.”

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“Part of the healing process is to bring a comedic lens to these everyday occurrences that actually happened and that were maybe traumatic, serious, and sometimes dangerous for queer and trans people and for folks of color,” said Kuper, who is a social work intern with Translate Gender.

“Northampton is a white, upper-class community and maybe it can be very inclusive — whatever that word means, it means different things to different people,” Kuper said. “For me, I’m an immigrant of color with a heavy accent, not to mention trans, so intersectionality and how we treat people with intersectional identities is how I measure inclusivity.”

Kuper works with Translate Gender to provide a host of support services — book clubs, youth and family gatherings, and clinical and nonclinical support — for gender-queer youth and their caregivers in the Pioneer Valley.

“The heart of the program is physical unity,” Kuper said. “Everything that happens at Translate Gender is an effort to help these youth feel seen, celebrated, and respected.”

Two young actors between the ages of 14 and 17 joined the Co-ACT troupe from within the Translate Gender network, having participated in workshops and gatherings at the nonprofit before. Phoenix Scully, a rising freshman at Amherst High School, called joining the group “a leap of faith.”

“But then it started coming naturally, I got bored one night and wrote a song,” they said, with Kuper chiming in to add that the play’s title also inadvertently came from the young thespian.

After the curtains close, this pilot Co-ACT cohort, which banded together in February to prepare for the show, will move on to other programs at Translate Gender, vacating the stage for perhaps a younger group of gender-expansive youth to explore community theater.

Scully said they’re already scripting a new show, something that, as “an actor first” and a playwright second, they thought never would be possible before joining Co-ACT.

“What if it’s a Musical?” opens for one night only at the Northampton Center for the Arts on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door for $10 to $20.

Kuper said the sliding scale was designed as a “beautiful opportunity to not turn anyone away at the door.”