When the New Conservatory Theatre Center's YouthAware Educational Theatre program began touring Ed Roy's The Other Side of the Closet in 2000, the play - with its gritty and direct handling of homophobia and youth violence - was welcomed by many Northern California middle schools and high schools. After all, the piece provided talking points that seemed to be a perfect complement to the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which aims to protect students, faculty, and staff at public schools from harassment and discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation.
However, the theater had trouble trying to book the production at more conservative schools, where nervous administrators and fearful parents were concerned about exposing students to a play that overtly deals with homosexuality.
Disturbed by such reports as a 2004 study by the California Safe Schools Coalition that revealed that 91% of California students reported hearing other students make negative comments based on sexual orientation in school (and 44% reported hearing teachers and staff make the same negative comments!), the YouthAware program was determined to find a way to bring its messages of diversity, acceptance, and respect to as many students as possible, particularly those at schools that shunned the theater.
This is where I come in.
The YouthAware program and I began developing OutSpoken, a play that explores the many reasons young people feel ostracized in school, at home, and in their communities. Sure, the piece deals with important issues of race, religion, body type, and socioeconomic background in an intelligent way (in my writing, I refuse to force-feed messages or offer pat resolutions because students can sniff didacticism a mile away), but it also looks at sexuality from several different angles.
I remember when I was younger and unable to swallow pills - they had to be hidden in brownies in order for me to consume them. OutSpoken is sort of like that. We found a way to deal with homophobia without scaring off those who might not have been quite ready to deal with it themselves. And schools that wouldn't give us the time of day before finally started to let us in.
And guess what happened? Students had been ready and willing to discuss these big issues all along. All it took was administrators and parents to get out of the way.
The New Conservatory's Rights of Passage blog details how OutSpoken broke into California's traditionally conservative Central Valley a couple months ago:
After two years of back and forth emails, phone calls, weak excuses and dead ends, it all came down to just knowing the right person at the right school.... YouthAware Educational touring program performed for the first time in the Central Valley at Rivera Middle School in Merced, California. Two performances of Outspoken, by Prince Gomolvilas, a play that deals with diversity and stereotyping around several issues including race, religion, body type and yes, sexual orientation, were presented to 600 7th and 8th grade students....
The real story that came out of our experience at Rivera was what a non-issue all the controversy and fear from some parents and administrators in Merced and surrounding districts really is. With support from staff and the diverse student body at Rivera, it was an ideal setting to get students engaged in recognizing that pre-conceived judgments, labels and stereotypes only serve to build walls and create conflict and bullying among peers. Students were able to identify easily that even using a seemingly non-confrontational, but commonly and casually uttered slur like "That's so gay!," where gay is equal to "stupid" or "abnormal," is not acceptable in creating a campus environment that is safe and accepting for all.
Another one down. Thousands more to go.
[More information, supplemental materials, and full script are available here.]