At a community building in the small town of Port Townsend, Washington, the cast of “Queer Survival Quest” is gathering before tonight’s play. Mel Edwards, 22, puts on eyeliner. Max Stewart, 14, hands out pretzels. Jax DeLuna, 19, has brought a blanket. He groans and drags himself to a quiet corner. Last night’s performance was three hours long, and tonight’s will be, too.
Seven young people, ages 14 to 23, are all transgender (an “umbrella term,” the program explains, “for any gender identity that differs from the one associated with the sex assigned at birth”). They’re putting on a piece of public interactive theater to immerse the community in the challenges they face as transgender individuals at their schools, at the county hospital, and at home.
In the process, it also allowed others to see the youth actors not just as transgender, but as happy individuals living complex lives that can’t be reduced to a simple label.
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The audience had been told to come prepared to participate, because this isn’t just performing arts: It’s an attempt to engage the community to make concrete policy changes around a community justice issue.
This technique is called legislative theater because the intended audience includes legislators and leaders of local institutions along with the public. They’re decision-makers who are interested in understanding how their policies affect an underrepresented group, in this case, trans youth in Port Townsend.
Led by a trained facilitator, the skits highlighted real-life scenarios of injustice. They were performed twice, but the second time around, audience members yelled “stop!” and stepped onstage, replacing the protagonist and improvising alternate outcomes. Then the audience debated potential policies that could be put into action, ranging from mandatory staff training to asking for a grace period from health insurers and agencies to resolve name and gender marker changes.
After the show and in the following days and weeks, the cast and crew connected with the local leaders who attended the show to make sure they were following up with the policy ideas that were discussed.
Mike Glenn, the CEO of Jefferson Health Center, is commissioning a training video to reaffirm the health center’s commitment to respectful and compassionate care of patients of diverse gender identities. Carrie Ehrhardt, the principal of Port Townsend High School where two of the actors are students, says the school plans to conduct staff training on terminology, pronouns, how to talk about and to transgender students, among other issues.
“I was really moved by the courage and confidence that the students demonstrated during the [performance], and in their interactions with the audience,” Ehrhardt wrote in an e-mail. She invited the two actors who attend PTHS to discuss how the administration could support them.
“For me it is around giving LGBTQ students an environment which helps to free them from some of the stress that they may be experiencing as someone who may not ‘conform to the norm’,” Ehrhardt said.
The play also inspired the students to action. Liv Crecca, 15, a sophomore at PTHS, hopes to be able to pressure administration for trans-inclusive sex ed in the next year, as well as reactivate the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
“I’ve gone through the public-school system my entire life, and I got no education around being queer or around being trans, which is really, really problematic,” Crecca says.
Legislative Theatre is not new in the US, but only two groups regularly bring it before a live audience. One is the Port Townsend-based Mandala Center for Change, which put on this play — it’s their third — and the other is Theatre of the Oppressed NYC in New York. Both groups adapted their methods from Theatre of the Oppressed, a set of techniques developed in the 1960s by the Brazilian actor and politician Augusto Boal, who used them during his term on the Rio de Janeiro city council. Boal envisioned theater as an active part of the democratic process.
“We understand that storytelling is key to helping decision makers understand the humanity and the depth and the nuance of the problem, and that those stories need to be told by people who are experiencing those problems — for accuracy, for ethics,” says Katy Rubin, the executive director of TONYC.
“In a situation when the legislation might be missing some nuance because of the experience of community members, or missing some creative way to solve a problem in the legislation, that’s where this kind of work is really key,” Rubin says.
Both the Mandala Center and TONYC hold workshops and training sessions for advocacy groups that are looking for other ways to help their communities.
Marc Weinblatt, who is the founder of the Mandala Center and directed “Queer Survival Quest,” says that theater lends itself to social change because it’s a useful tool for working with difficult issues. Not only that, but it’s also fun.
“And that’s not to be flippant about it all, that’s just to say: Theater is alive. It’s engaging. You laugh,” Weinblatt says.
In “Queer Survival Quest,” Max Stewart’s character, Kevin, confronts people that have no idea how to interact with a transgender person, and he’s having a really bad day. At school, bullying and sexual harassment sets in after his teacher outs him in front of a class — not all of his classmates know that he’s transgender. Later, at a pharmacy, he can’t get medication because the staff won’t accept his insurance because of his recent name change.
As transgender, gender-fluid, non-binary or questioning youth, the Kevins among us are not alone, but in a town of 10,000, they might feel like they are. “A lot of people don’t think they know any trans people. But they do,” says Beau Ohlgren, who advised the production. The transgender population is under-studied, but an analysis from the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute estimates that one in 137 teenagers identify as trans.
Ohlgren, a youth worker and advocate who also is transgender, said it’s hard for people — all people, even if they’re gay, queer, or transgender themselves — to grasp these issues when they’re only now becoming aware of trans youth and don’t even have the vocabulary to describe their identity and experiences.
“Being non-binary is newer in cultural consciousness of the US and people fight back against it, and it can feel like a really uphill battle for youth that is really just trying to ‘live their bliss’ and get access to things,” Ohlgren says.
Though many Port Townsend school and hospital policies are outwardly accepting, when their individual staff members are ignorant of the experiences and needs of their transgender patients and students, it bars them from actually benefiting from these policies — and can cause harm.
“A lot of our antagonists aren’t inherently antagonistic people, but well-meaning and ignorant,” says Mel Edwards, who played the role of Kevin’s mother.
Eamon Redding, 23, agrees. “All the situations on the on stage could have been avoided if people were educated,” Redding says. “If you aren’t queer, how are you going to put yourself in the position of someone who is queer?”
For these youth, the play’s the thing.