Queer theatre and activism often go hand-in-hand. From Larry Kramer documenting the early days of the AIDS epidemic in The Normal Heart to Taylor Mac putting the outsiders of U.S. history centerstage in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, there are countless examples of work in the queer theatre tradition that strive to, as Mac says, “dream the culture forward.”
While the more well-known artists/activists doing this work run the gamut from Yale professors to emerging rock stars, there’s one group of queer theatre activists that may be flying under the radar: teenagers. Across the country, theatre groups are working with queer youth and their allies to promote self-expression, engage communities, and inspire change through theatre.
“Our youth programming is over 50 percent of what we do on a daily basis,” says Evelyn Francis, director of programs for The Theater Offensive in Boston, whose True Colors: Out Youth Theater program is the longest-running queer youth program in the country. “We’re working with young people all over the community, and we provide training in performing arts and social justice as well as leadership. We were founded in 1994, so we have a long history of building this work.”
TTO’s True Colors offers a variety of performance and training opportunities, and, like most queer youth theatre groups, employs devised theatre techniques. “The model is based on youth coming together for community, creating an original work about their lives and the lives of their peers in relationship to what’s happening in the nation at the time,” explains Francis.
Pride Players, the queer youth program of the Rose Theater in Omaha, Neb., has a similar approach, using improvisation to create songs, poetry, monologues, and skits that speak to issues of identity and social justice. “It’s really about young people finding their voice and empowering them,” says Brian Guehring, education director of the Rose. “All of our teen theatre productions are created by the teens themselves.”
Now in their 16th year, Pride Players aims to be an arts training ground as well as a catalyst for social change. “I tell my cast that the whole point is to entertain the audience, to educate them, and to inspire them to activism,” says Guehring, “whether it’s one of their friends who comes to the show and says, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t say “that’s so gay” anymore,’ or the full-time activist who comes to the show to remember why they’re fighting.”
Most queer theatre groups are programs housed at larger organizations, either theatres for young audiences (TYA) like the Rose, queer theatres that also produce for adults like The Theater Offensive, or social justice groups. There are also some that operate on their own.
“We exist as our own company, dedicated solely to queer youth arts,” says Ali Hoefnagel, artistic program director of Dreams of Hope in Pittsburgh. “The teens have loads of creative freedom to do what speaks to them, from creating music videos to spending a few nights away together at a camp. We listen to their needs and ask ourselves how we can best facilitate the response to those needs. Often those needs are emotional as well.”
Hoefnagel recently joined Dreams of Hope after serving as the education and outreach director at About Face Theatre in Chicago, and notes the disparity between programs at larger institutions versus those with more limited means.
“Most queer youth theatres face challenges of isolation based on the region they are in,” notes Hoefnagel. “Some companies have access to a multitude of resources and partners, like About Face, but many others are the only queer beacon in miles and miles for youth. A goal and a challenge we face within Dreams of Hope is capacity—there are more teens who need this programming than we have capacity to serve.”
Regardless of the size or location of the organization, homophobia remains a challenge. Guehring recalls how when Pride Players began, several schools cancelled their field trips to see TYA shows in the Rose’s mainstage season. “Schools wrote letters saying, ‘Because you’re doing Pride Players, we’re cancelling our field trip to see Where the Red Fern Grows,’” says Guehring. “That was hard on me, because I didn’t want to cost the theatre business. But luckily our management was 100 percent behind us.”
Homophobia from parents can be just as insidious.
“We have a 16-year-old young woman who’s part of an immigrant family, and her U.S. residency was dependent on her mother’s visa,” Francis says. “When her mother found out that she was in love with another girl at school, she called immigration on her daughter. She was being threatened with losing her home and her country. It’s a serious thing that young people are going through.”
According to the Center for American Progress, 20-40 percent of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ, and many queer youth theatre groups see these statistics play out firsthand.
“Because we are often working with youth who are disproportionately more likely to have trouble finding work and stable housing, they often have a hard time making it to rehearsals,” Hoefnagel says. “We try our best to make things easier, providing meals and bus tickets to all participants, but the world they live in can still get in the way.”
Despite the challenges, queer youth theatres have countless success stories. “I had never written a play before or been a part of that process, and it opened a whole new window of opportunity for me,” says Elliott, a young person who Hoefnagel worked with at About Face. “It also allowed me to open up about myself and share my story in a way that could help others. I found that my voice and my story matter so much in the world.”
At TTO’s True Colors, Francis recounts the story of an audience member at one of the program’s school touring shows. “After the show, a student kept asking questions, and confessed that he had recently started to transition,” she says. “As the event came to a close, he ran up to the performers to talk to them. At that moment, one of the teachers tapped the director on the shoulder, and said, in tears, ‘That young man hasn’t spoken in school in six months.’ They were all just in shock that he was speaking because he had found himself in this group of performers.”
Queer youth theatres rely heavily on each other for sharing resources and best practices. Currently 26 theatres are members of the Pride Youth Theatre Alliance (PYTA), which describes itself as “a growing network that advances the practice of Queer Youth Theatre by providing emerging and established leaders in the field with resources and opportunities to exchange, collaborate, and learn.” PYTA hosts an annual conference, and has provided seed funding for several new queer youth theatres.
“Doing this type of work can be very isolating; it is a niche profession, one that is growing but is still quite lonely,” says Hoefnagel. “PYTA brings us together to share stories, resources and grow together as opposed to alone.”
Francis has shared True Colors’s evaluation and assessment tools with other queer youth theatres in an effort to help them all acquire more funding. “What I have dedicated myself to is being sure that folks in my field can jump through that hoop,” she says. “A lot of funders say, ‘Here’s what you need to do in order to get money from us,’ and I want to make sure that folks in my field are able to access funds in order to do this very important work.”
Her efforts also include a study conducted with the Boston Children’s Hospital, which found that young people in queer youth theatre programs, many of whom were at-risk, felt a higher sense of self-worth and self-esteem, as well as lower rates of depression, than members of other youth theatre programs in Boston.
Francis also emphasizes how, without this type of data, funders have a ready excuse to reject a proposal. “I set out to build a really strong program where I’m measuring the impact every single step of the way,” she explains, “so that if funders say, ‘We cannot support your work,’ it isn’t because they’re pointing to some flaw in the system or the programmatic development or the evaluation—they have to say that they’re homophobic. And some have.”
While queer youth theatre groups work to provide, as Hoefnagel says, “safe and brave spaces,” systemic oppression of LBGTQ people persists. “While perceived social and political gains continue for the queer community, we are far from liberated,” they say. “There is no safe space in this country for trans and gender-non-conforming people, especially those of color.”
Francis echoes these sentiments. “In September, the young people started to write a play about a dystopian future, and in the play, the police were coming for them and arresting LGBTQ people. They were creating a space ship to go to another planet because they could no longer be safe on earth. That was before the election—they were already feeling under attack,” she says. “And while I personally and people I love have benefited from marriage equality, young people have not.”
“My kids were terrified,” says Guehring, recalling a rehearsal the day after the 2016 election. “Bullies have been so emboldened by the election. That night, though, we created art, we created scenes about what they were feeling, and it made a huge difference to everyone. It felt like in a small way, we were able to do something.”
Working from the fringes or outside the mainstream still seems to be an essential element of most queer activist theatre, and this is still the case for many queer young people whose families or schools don’t accept them. Queer youth theatres are working to give their members a spotlight, which teens can use in turn to connect with audiences, communities, and other budding activists.
While artists like Larry Kramer and Taylor Mac have had to serve as queer representatives for entire generations, queer youth theatres create the potential for a chorus of queer voices, creating a generation of artist/activists who are all able to tell their stories centerstage.