The New Orleans Queer Youth Theater (NOQYT), part of the national Pride Youth Theater Alliance, was formed in 2013 by three local theatre-makers, Rebecca Mwase, (Antigravity contributor) Rachel Lee, and Evan Spigelman. I spoke with Rebecca and ensemble member L’lerrét Ailith about the need for (and lack of ) spaces for queer youth, the saving power of artistic expression, and whether a queer world might be possible some day.
What is the New Orleans Queer Youth Theater? What is its purpose?
Rebeccca Mwase: New Orleans Queer Youth Theater has yet to define our mission. The directors began with the intention to be a transformative space for young queer and allied youth 14 to 21 to learn theatre techniques, share stories within an ensemble setting, and create a devised piece of theatre. In January, we held auditions after a semester-long open workshop format and now have seven youth ensemble members with three adult co-directors, Rachel Lee and Evan Spigelman, and myself.
L’lerrét Ailith: From my understanding, the Queer Youth Theater is a vehicle where LGBTQ youth in the greater New Orleans area can come together in solidarity and perform pieces that are both social justice-oriented and also personally transformative. The theater allows young queer kids to be themselves and to reach into their creative minds to bring forth artistic expression that has been hidden or invalidated over the years through hetero-cisnormativity.
Why is there a need for a queer youth theater group?
RM: There are very few spaces in New Orleans for queer youth to gather. Schools are highly hostile environments with no more than five public [or] charter schools with GSAs [Gay-Straight Alliances]. Due to loosely enforced LGBT specific anti-bullying policies within the schools, most young people face discrimination at school and in the wider New Orleans community due to their gender expression and sexuality. They have limited access to employment, specialized services and safe spaces. New Orleans Queer Youth Theater is both a job and a learning opportunity. Led by professional and community artists, our young people learn and develop their artistic skills while also earning income. The space we create allows for the full expression of their authentic selves and creates an opening for education, dialogue, mutual support, and accomplishment through the creation and production of original work.
LA: We need a Queer Youth Theatre just like any group of like-minded artistic people needs a space to work together and make things happen. It’s important, especially for people that are highly marginalized and subjugated, to find similar folk and to feel validated while creating art that is not only fun but informed by their own experiences. From a social justice lens, it’s super impactful to have that youth perspective when it comes to trying to express the hardships experienced by normativity and socialization. It’s important to find an identity and create communities and outlets for several like-minded people.
What are some of the things the group does?
RM: We meet weekly and learn theatre games, participate in various devising activities including song and poem creation, viewpoints movement work and improv. We begin and end each session stating our names and preferred gender pronouns. This best practice, learned from the Pride Youth Theatre Alliance, allows each person to recreate and reimagine themselves through the process of naming. It reminds us of the fluidity of gender expression and naming and offers us renewed control over our bodies.
LA: We pretty much share our stories but in creative games. We sometimes do movement activities where we express the same image but in our different variations based on our perspectives. We write about experiences we’ve had. We explore concepts of gender, sexuality, and the intersections. We always check in and out to establish that solidarity we said we needed to and we ensure that we follow the house rules and guidelines to keep this space safe and untriggering.
Are there other similar groups in other cities and are you connected to them?
RM: We began NOQYT through the instigation of Abe Ryebeck, artistic director of the Theatre Offensive and former director of the True Colors youth ensemble, the oldest LGBTQA youth ensemble in the U.S. True Colors and NOQYT are part of a network of queer youth theatres, the Pride Youth Theatre Alliance (PYTA). We connect yearly through a national conference and monthly through newsletters, participation in committees and the PYTA Facebook page. PYTA provided us with our initial incubator funding and a fantastic peer mentor who has supported us with administrative and creative visioning and decision-making from our inception.
LA: This is my first exposure to such a group, actually! We did have an exchange recently with True Colors, which is a similar group in Boston but that is the only one I know of.
The group has a show coming up that you’ve been working on for several months. What is it going to be about?
RM: Beyond Acceptance follows four young people as they navigate their LGBTQ identities in our normative world. It’s about the journey towards authenticity and how LGBTQ – identified young people make their place in an often hostile world. It asks the question: is there a queer world and if so, is it one where the concept of acceptance is no longer necessary?
How did you come up with the idea for Beyond Acceptance?
RM: The ensemble began the Spring semester deciding on our theme and spent a little over a month exploring it through visual art, improvised skits, viewpoints, singing activities and writing. We were aided in our work by an amazing Gender 101 workshop led by BreakOUT!, an organization that seeks to end the criminalization of LGBTQ youth, and a storytelling workshop by our mentor Sara Kerastas, the former director of the Chicago’s About Face Theatre youth ensemble. All this laid the groundwork for a storyboarding session where we discussed gaps in the story and what was needed to fill in the blanks. The last few weeks we’ve been making new scenes, analyzing the cohesiveness of the story, and rehearsing.
LA: I was pretty shocked by the way in which we came up with the play. For more than half of the semester, we had just been playing games and doing creative projects and sharing stories, but I did not know that those shared stories and all the homework we had would become a play. To be honest, I felt a bit violated when I found out that personal stories that I shared only because I was participating in certain activities became scenes and monologues in the final production. But I know that it’s important to share your story and you need to speak out in order to affect change, so I accepted this challenge of being the mouthpiece for this change.
NOQYT’s first production, Beyond Acceptance, debuts on April 18th and 19th (8:00 pm) and April 20th (3:00 pm) at the Dryades Theater (1232 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd). Admission is $5-$10 sliding scale for youth 21 and under, and a sliding scale of $20 and above for anyone over 21.