Theatre-in-Action for LGBT Youth | Kim Jordan

In 2011 I founded Theatre-in-Action, an applied theatre project for bullying prevention, conflict transformation, social justice, and community engagement.  My most poignant work as a theatre teaching artist has been with marginalized youth. I am an advocate for equal rights and social justice within and outside of the queer community and see theatre as a way to help youth explore identity, internalized homophobia, and find empowerment around issues and challenges they face. This past summer I was a volunteer Drama Specialist at Camp Outright, a residential summer camp program of Outright Vermont for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, questioning, and allied youth aged 13-22. I led campers in theatre and improv games and social change-based activities culled from Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques.

The title of “Drama Specialist” seems ironic at a camp for queer youth. LGBTQ youth often find themselves in survival or self-protection mode in their everyday lives; school, community, and family might not be a safe space. As a result, many queer youth wear protective “diva” or “butch” masks rather than risk further stigmatization of themselves as “different” or “unacceptable.” To help them move beyond these masks, I wanted to provide a fun forum for exploring character, story, collaboration, and creative risk-taking, while simultaneously exploring the concepts of oppression and social injustice.

For Camp Outright’s drama workshop, I prepared a mix-and match list of introductory/warm-up games, improvisation exercises, and TO-inspired activities. I brought a stack of dialogue starters – open-ended mini-scripts that participants could use to build scenes about stigmatization, exclusion, and othering[i]. As the workshops evolved, participants invented bizarre and brilliant uses for common props, created characters out of simple costume pieces, generated story-scenes with games like Word-At-A-Time Story and “Yes, and…”, and explored body language and status with Complete the Image.

The most poignant workshop happened toward the end of camp, when I felt I had exhausted most of my theatre game ideas. Ready for something new, I pulled out a stack of mini-scripts entitled, “All You People Are the Same” (proudly stolen from one of my bibles, Theatre For Conflict Resolution by Patricia Sternberg).  I introduced the activity as we sat in a circle. This is the dialogue:

#1: All you people are the same.
#2: What’s that supposed to mean?
#1: You’re all alike.
#2: Like what?
#1: You know what I mean.
#2: No, I don’t know what you mean.
#1: You’re like all the rest of them.
#2: The rest of who? What are you talking about?”
#1: ____________________________
#2: ____________________________

Campers volunteered to stand in the playing area and read through the scene out loud.

In one pair’s improvised scene, “all you people” referred to girls who wear cut-off jean shorts. Another volunteer pair improvised that “all you people” are kids who dye their hair. After each improvisation, I asked the rest of the group who the characters were. What was the scene about? Where did it take place? Who had the higher status in the scene? Did the conflict escalate or de-escalate? I encouraged the group to dig below superficial differences, hoping to pave the way for further discoveries. Who else could “all you people” be? The audience had enlightened responses that surprised the actors, who did not initially recognize their brilliant, creative impulses.

I broke the whole group into pairs and asked them to devise a scene from this starter dialogue.  After about 10 minutes, they performed their scenes for each other. One male-identified pair’s rehearsed scene blew us all away:  Actor #1 stood tall with his chest puffed out, while Actor #2 stood with his weight on his right hip and his right hand on his waist. The scene went as follows:

#1: All you people are the same.
#2: What’s that supposed to mean?
#1: You’re all alike.
#2: Like what?
#1: You know what I mean.
#2: No, I don’t know what you mean.
#1: You’re like all the rest of them.
#2: The rest of who? What are you talking about?”
#1: All you queers with your rainbows and sparkles and unicorns. You’re all the same.
#2: What’s wrong with sparkles and rainbows? Sparkles make me happy. So what?
#1: Why do you have to draw so much attention to yourself? Why do you have to flaunt how gay you are?
#2: I’m proud of who I am. Why should I be quiet about it?
#1: I am an upstanding homosexual man. I exercise, I try to look good, and I keep to myself. You’re making the rest of us look bad by being so loud. Why can’t you just keep your gayness quiet?

The scene continued with no resolution. Each character stood his ground. Afterward, the actors looked at the audience as we stared back, mouths agape. Then we applauded wildly.

As a facilitator, how could I communicate the poignancy of the topic they had just performed? Internalized homophobia among gay, lesbian, and transgender folks is real. These fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds just used improvised theatre to give voice to real-life “othering” within the gay community, whether they were closeted or out.  Their scene gave way to an intense and cathartic dialogue among the campers about stigmatization within their own communities. They talked about their school GSTAs (gay, straight, trans, ally clubs) and the paradox of acting “too gay” for flamboyant students and the pressure to be  “out, loud, and proud” for shyer ones.  When we have a hard time accepting ourselves, we may act out against those who remind us of us.

At Camp Outright, theatre created change and built awareness of our common plights, onstage and off — not only for the audience, but for the actors too. We are all spect-actors[ii] when it comes to social justice, even the Drama Specialists.


[i] Othering is a mode of thinking that leads to regarding people as different and inferior. It is a key element in the work of Foucault on those excluded from power, including gay people, prisoners, and the mentally ill.
[ii]
Spect-actor is a TO term that means spectator-actor; we both witness and are involved in the action, and have a stake in its outcome.