One of my favorite things about attending national conferences for TYA/USA or AATE is being challenged by passionate graduate students and young professionals. I have attended many sessions and had many conversations with young professionals challenging the field to be more inclusive of LGBTQA issues on our stage. Our established theaters for young audiences need to be challenged to continue to grow as artists to better serve all communities.
For the last fifteen years, the discussion seems to have focused on having queer characters on the stage. Why aren’t there more queer characters and stories on our stages? Our field began to publish plays with queer characters such as The Wrestling Season the award winning play by Laurie Brooks, The Misfits, my adaptation of James Howe’s wonderful novel, Cootie Shots: Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry for Kids, Parents, and Teachers by Norma Bowles, The Transition of Doodle Pequeño by Gabriel Jason Dean, , And Then Came Tango by Emily Freeman, and fml: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life by Sarah Gubbins. After these plays were created and published, the conversation started to change into why TYA companies aren’t producing these plays more often.
Recently the conversation seems to be focusing more often on the representation of queer characters on stage as victims. Anne Giannini’s article “Queer Representations in TYA” points out that many of the gay and lesbian characters on our stages are victimized and bullied because of their sexuality. Ms Giannini argues that this perpetuates the notion that “being gay” puts youth at risk for a plethora of problems. Her article seems to be a rallying point to ask: Where are the positive queer characters on our stage?
Don’t get me wrong. As a queer activist and TYA artist, I would love for our field to produce more plays with queer characters. I would love for our conversation to go beyond the bullying and troubles of being gay to start including more positive representation of queer characters. However, if we want to examine our field, measure the impact we have on queer youth issues, and to increase the influence our field has in fighting homophobia, we need to increase the scope of the conversation. I challenge the researchers, queer activists, and our field to go beyond analyzing the written plays with queer characters. We have to include the impact and influence of queer youth theater projects. We have to challenge our field to look at how we cast our plays. And we also have to include plays that include gender nonconformity in our discussion.
QUEER YOUTH THEATERS
All of the full-time teaching artists at my company direct a teen theater production each year. In 1999, I started Pride Players, a teen devised theater piece exploring queer youth issues such as bullying, homelessness, marriage, job discrimination and more. In 2001, my artistic director explored a grant to develop, produce and tour a professional scripted production inspired by Pride Players. The tour was going to have a professional playwright, a professional director and professional actors to explore these issues. This project was antithetical to the original mission of Pride Players. The power and success of Pride Players is tapping the voices of the young people to create and perform scenes about queer youth issues. The authenticity and immediacy of this project has impacted our audience of teens, teachers and parents. In fifteen years, our teen troupe has reached over 10,000 audience members. We have toured to schools, universities, education conferences, and community groups. We have also collaborated with groups in several other cities to help them start their own queer youth theater.
The Pride Youth Theater Alliance (the North American network of queer youth theaters founded three years ago) now boasts over 15 queer youth theaters all across North America. While a few are housed in professional Theaters for Young Audiences, queer youth theaters are also housed in adult queer theaters and community centers. We have to include the impact of these queer youth theaters in our discussion of the impact of theater for young audiences on queer youth issues.
Many theaters actively use “color-blind” casting when producing theater for young audiences. While Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time or John Arable (Fern’s father) from Charlotte’s Web are Caucasian in their original books, many productions will cast performers of color in such parts. In non-traditional casting, companies hire ethnic minority performers in parts where race or ethnicity are not germane.
I challenge our field to look at gender and sexual orientation when casting our plays. In Ramona Quimby, young Ramona is upset because her Aunt Bea is getting married and is moving away. Why not cast the love interest of Aunt Bea as a woman? The conflict for Ramona stays the same: fear that her aunt is moving away. However, we can represent a same sex marriage (which is legal in over 30 states now!)
When examining the state of queer character representations in our TYA field, one challenge we face is the large number of plays for younger audiences (3rd grade and under). This is a huge part of our audiences for school groups and public performances. In general, these audiences are not interested in romantic stories. They don’t want to see any kissing on stage (straight or queer). Developmentally, romantic love is not part of their world yet.
However, gender expectations and conformity is. One of the main causes of homophobic bullying in schools is when young people don’t conform to “traditional” gender roles. Boys who like pink or act effeminate are bullied (whether they identify as queer or not). Girls who have short hair and like playing sports face bullying too. Queer kids who match gender expectations face much less bullying.
So where are the plays that explore gender non-conformity in our field? They are everywhere. When we did my adaptation of MISS BINDERGARTEN GETS READY FOR KINDERGARTEN, we had a very effeminate boy kindergarten character and a very tough girl kindergarten character. PINKLALICOUS: THE MUSICAL ends with an amazingly positive message about gender non-conformity. The straight father admits that he always loved the color pink as a child, but he was made fun of. The musical embraces the theme that boys and girls can love the color pink (and the gender non-conformity that this theme implies). So when discussing and researching the impact of TYA on queer youth issues, we need to also include the plays and productions that embrace gender non-conformity.
CONCLUSION: Brian will step off his soap box soon.
I remember when I as in graduate school and really questioning where my queer activism would fit into my career in TYA. Would I have to choose between these two passions, or could I find an artistic home that allowed me to both work with young audiences and queer youth? I am thrilled that my professional TYA company allows me to be a queer activist and a TYA artist.
I am also thrilled that so many artists and educators in TYA/USA are trying to teach acceptance and decrease homophobia through our art. Yes, let’s write and produce more plays with queer characters. Let’s show the struggles, challenges, and joy for these characters. Let’s produce plays that explore these issues in developmentally appropriate ways. Let’s produce plays which express the ways children of all ages encounter and experience these issues in their lives. Let’s ALSO include the impact of queer youth theater. Let’s ALSO use non-traditional casting and directing to put queer couples on stage and to help the audience look at a story and our communities in a new way. And let’s ALSO discover, highlight ,and promote all of the plays that teach gender non-conformity.