As a parent, I am a bystander for my children’s astonishing creative journeys. My older son, Griffen, teaches at and directs a kids’ summer theater program. And forgive me as I burst with pride to tell you my younger son Noa was just cast as James in Abington Friends School's spring musical, James and the Giant Peach. This is all the more astonishing since he did not arrive in this world as Noa. He arrived as Ella. Noa is transgender.
If you don’t remember, the story is about an orphan boy taken in by two comically evil aunts who intend to exploit his welfare payments. A mysterious stranger brings James magic green "crocodile tongues"; when he plants them, a magical giant peach appears. James escapes in the peach – which can fly – and discovers his new family among the oversized bugs that inhabit it. Talk about art imitating life. The peach, of course, is an island of misfit toys.
The lonely island
After nine years of being the only child of divorced parents, I became “big brother Ben” for a new family growing up around me, with a stepmother and half siblings. I internalized a sense that I was baggage, just passing through, never sure what or who was secure. Then, at 12, I discovered acting.
For kids like me, being in school plays was like finding the island of misfit toys I unknowingly sought. In those rehearsals I was surrounded by weirdos and oddballs who didn’t quite fit any social groups. We all washed up on the shore of this magical place with other kids who “got” us. And there was a sorceress there: Alice Mamarchev, who directed all the school plays. She led us into a ritual of creative expression, self-discovery, and the safe experience of feeling. When I say acting “saved my life,” I mean it. I am not alone. Acting and creativity save the lives of lost and lonely children every day, everywhere.
Last year, Noa was in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Around that time, he came out as gender fluid and played female reporter Phinea Trout, who interviews the kids with golden tickets. I was astounded. This shy, anxious child strutted round the stage, exuding joy and confidence. As we drove home that evening, we had a breathless conversation about the show. “That was so Noa,” he said. Recently, I asked what he meant. “When I said that, I think I was describing more of the personality I was hiding from everyone, rather than the gender. Ever since I came out, I've been more like ‘Noa’ and that’s how I know this is truly who I am meant to be.”
Noa continued, “I always knew I wasn't comfortable in my own skin, and I never knew why until I first started questioning myself and my identity. My friends introduced me to the LGBTQA+ community, so I knew about sexual orientation and even identified as bisexual for a while. After that, I knew I was getting somewhere, but it wasn't exactly the place I felt I was. My friends opened my eyes to the transgender community and those were the happiest months of my life. Once I felt sure this was the person I had cooped up inside of me all these years, I came out to my school and family.”
I asked Noa if rehearsing James made a difference in his relationship to his gender. “Not really,” he said. “The most my role in the play has made me think about my gender was when people misgender me, but that’s easy to move on from. I came out barely a year ago -- I don't expect people to have it all memorized right now, especially if I knew them before I came out. I also feel really connected to James as a person, so I think that's made this such a special experience as well.”
I have long considered acting an identity laboratory for young people, and Noa is exhibit A. Like me, Noa found a collection of people with whom he identifies. Rather than needing to conform, he is embraced for who he is and he is able to try on a variety of selves within a structured, creative environment, guided by a skilled adult he loves and admires. Like me, and so many others, he has discovered he has a curious skill born from the trauma of feeling “not right.” He learned how to imagine his way into himself, which makes him an actor.
I asked Noa if acting has a benefit to offer young trans people. “Definitely!” he said. “Experimenting is what acting is all about, isn't it? Experimenting is what life is all about, period! Doesn't matter if you're trans, cis, whatever. Even if you are comfortable with who you are, it never hurts to experiment when the time comes! I'm thankful that I had the courage to experiment or I wouldn't be as happy and as ‘me’ as I am.”
I played Otto Frank when I was 12. Ridiculous, right? No. For a confused, nonreligious boy who wasn’t sure he was anyone’s priority, to be engaged in the Frank family’s searing story was life altering. Suddenly there was something so much more important than my anxiety and self-consciousness. We – all of us misfit toys – were on a mission together, just as Noa is. We were bringing the heroism and tragedy of Anne Frank to life. Noa brings an equally powerful story to life, one about deciding you can indeed choose your family; that even when you feel there is no one for you, there is; and that the world, once so oppressive and frightening, is full of wonderful people and extraordinary journeys.
Let me end by praising sorceresses (and sorcerers). I once wrote a book; one of the two main characters is named Alice, in tribute to my first acting teacher. Noa found his sorceress in Mary Carpenter, his play's director. We ought to take a moment to praise teachers of the arts, those who labor at the bottom of the educational food chain. Consider, for a moment, all the children looking for their island but who -- because of intolerance, ignorance, fear, and poverty -- may never find it. We should all try to assist in making that magic happen.