Youths raise the curtain – Chicago’s About Face Theater – Brief Article
Gay teen actor-writers in Chicago’s About Face Theater take their show to area high schools and tell it like it is
The phone in Brian Goodman’s half of the tiny, cluttered office keeps beeping. “Sorry, I’m all flustered ’cause I just got a call from somebody and there’s a controversy brewing,” he says wearily. As the educational-programs director at About Face, Chicago’s gay theater, Goodman spends a lot of time defusing controversies. The company regularly presents its company-written play, First Breath, at Chicago-area schools and youth groups, and sometimes that can provoke tension.
“When you start talking about youth and start talking about sexuality, there are issues,” Goodman says. Today, for instance, he’s learned that a faculty member at the next school on About Face’s roster is planning to speak out against the group’s visit at a board meeting. “I have no doubt that this person has the right to speak their mind–that’s their prerogative, obviously–but stuff like this makes us a little wary and concerned,” he says.
So far, though, things have gone almost too well for About Face. The company itself is only five years old and the youth program, called the Youth Theatre Project, is just in its second year, but About Face has managed to achieve remarkable things in its short span. The theater just received a $50,000 grant from the National Theatre Artist Residency Program, administered by Theatre Communications Group. About Face is one of only 17 theaters in the United States to receive awards this year.
First Breath, the show that came out of last year’s series of youth workshops, was featured on PBS’s In the Life after receiving rave reviews and selling out its monthlong nm. A truncated version of the show has become a key feature of About Face’s outreach efforts, through which representatives from the theater–including youth program performers–educate teachers, administrators, and kids about the lives of gay teens.
“I think the program’s success is really a testament to the power of performance to provoke issues in a safe way,” says Eric Rosen, who shares the company’s artistic-director duties with Kyle Hall. “It’s kids telling kids, `Look, I’m a human being, this is my personal story, it’s a lot like your personal story.'”
First Breath’s remarkable honesty derives from the method of its creation. Meeting once a week in the sunny top floor gym of About Face’s old brick building, teenagers–most gay, a few straight–shared stories and practiced shaping them into a coherent whole. About Face staffers invited any Chicago-area teens to participate; many of them heard of the program through the local gay community center or their school’s gay-straight alliances. Any program participants who had the time and inclination were welcome to perform in First Breath. Even for those who didn’t perform, the workshop provided a unique opportunity to write and think about their lives or just be around other kids like themselves.
“I was really pleased with it–I was very excited when I first saw [the script] because I was like, `I can’t believe that I have stories in here,'” says Sean Slive, 19, one of four performers who appeared last year in First Breath. “You know, that my stories have been incorporated into this piece. It made me ecstatic, actually.”
Now this year’s 20 or so program participants are putting the finishing touches on Raising Voices, a new play focusing on gay history. Premiering June 22 and running through July 23, it will be performed by many of the kids from the program. Some of these amateur actors may go on to tour with the About Face outreach team, presenting their experiences to roomfuls of curious kids.
One program participant, 17-year-old Elisa Harkness, had the unique experience of introducing First Breath to an assembly of 200 kids at her high school. It gave her a new image of the friends she’d gone to school with.
“I didn’t necessarily expect people to be throwing things or booing or something, but I guess I expected more jocks to be covering their eyes during the kiss scene,” she says. “There were some people who totally surprised me by covering their eyes, and others who totally surprised me because they didn’t blink.”
Find links to sites related to the About Face and Bailiwick theater companies at www.advocate.com
Lehoczky writes regularly for the Chicago Tribune.
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