Transcript – Episode 70

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Evelyn Francis: “That is what’s happening with me or my friend,” or “I don’t know how I can support them, but here’s a performance telling me how I can support them.” I really feel like it’s this revelatory experience for audiences and for the performers who say, “Wow, I see the difference I’m making in my own community.”

Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Evelyn Francis, who is the Director of Programs at the Theater Offensive here in Boston. Welcome to our program.

Evelyn Francis: Thank you, Anita.

Anita Walker: Now, Theater Offensive has been a long, long-time partner with Mass Cultural Council, more than 20 years I’m thinking.

Evelyn Francis: Yes, we were one of the first organizations that was funded by the YouthReach Program.

Anita Walker: And you are one of our exemplars in this field of practice that we call Creative Youth Development, and it really demonstrates the transformative power of the arts with some of our more vulnerable young people. Your focus is on the queer culture.

Evelyn Francis: That’s right.

Anita Walker: And some people might be thinking, “Well, haven’t we- haven’t we gotten past that? Is there still a problem here?”

Evelyn Francis: Yes, I understand that, in fact, we did an interview with someone just yesterday, a discussion with a funder, and they said, “Aren’t we past this already? Why should I be funding specifically LGBTQ Community? It feels like, you know, we have marriage and this is done with.” And I think it’s important to know that marriage is not something that a 14 year old is necessarily thinking about, right? And the young people in the LGBTQ Community, if you look at homeless rates for young people, 40% of homeless youth in this country are LGBTQ. So, marriage doesn’t solve that for those young people, and 2016 was the deadliest year ever for trans-women. So, this is not over people. This is not over. We have lots of work to do in order to continue to support LGBTQ young people and adults. I know when I first came to Boston– I am native of Cincinnati, Ohio– I went to a southern Baptist college in the heart of Kentucky, where I discovered that I was a lesbian, which is not a great place to discover that, but moving from central Kentucky to Boston, Massachusetts, was as if I leapt forward 10 to 15 years in time. What is happening all over the country in rural areas for LGBTQ people, is devastating to their lives. There were people when marriage equality passed and folks were going in parts of the country to get married, they were coming to work on Monday and being fired, because you can fire people who are LGBTQ in some parts of this country. So, we have a lot of work to do, and I feel like the Theater Offensive are really trying to do work locally, and we’re also trying to connect that work to a national movement.

Anita Walker: Well you are a national model. In fact, all over the country, cities and towns and organizations are looking to you and your success. So, Theater Offensive, and True Colors, two different programs?

Evelyn Francis: Well the Theater Offensive is the organization, and so that’s the– everything lives under that, and True Colors: Out Youth Theater is our youth program, and we have several different components of True Colors, but we started in 1994. True Colors was founded by our fearless leader Abe Rybeck in 1994, and it has since grown into several different components of work that we do. But the heart of our programming is really about young people creating original work, and then sharing that back in the community. So that takes place with our True Colors Troupe, which a lot of folks have known for many, many years. That’s where True Colors really started. It serves young people ages 14-22. They write original plays about their lives and the lives of their peers, and then tour that work all through the community. And through the years, young people were advocating for other levels of responsibilities, so we added a production team, we added a peer leader program, and the young people really shaped what those programs would look like within the troupe. And then young people were saying, “Okay, I’ve gotten everything that I want out of the troupe, I want another opportunity.” So, the young people modeled the Leadership and Inclusion Counsel in order to be a youth advisory board to the Theater Offensive. We also– they shaped a workshop studio series called The Studio, and so workshops happen throughout the year, and visits to shows all over the city happen through that program. And then we have an advanced performance group called The Creative Action Crew, and they are looking at how to advance their work artistically, and it’s folks who have gone to other programs and feel like they have a great skill-set in order to take the work even further into the community. So over the years, the young people have been a core part of building every element of these programs, and our job was to just listen- listen to what their needs are and try to figure out how we find the funds and the resources to get them what they needed in any situation.

Anita Walker: So really sort of the platform on which all of our creative youth development programs sit, is a platform of social justice.

Evelyn Francis: True.

Anita Walker: And it’s not just about a young person becoming a better actor, or a better dramatist, or a better play-writer. It’s about, “Do I matter, and can I make a difference?” And what you’re talking about is the difference. These young people, they’re looking beyond themselves.

Evelyn Francis: Absolutely, and I think the important thing– you know, the personal identity outcomes, and those are really strong, so understanding, “Who I am, and what place I have in the world, or what place I can make in the world.” And then artistic practice, so learning basics, fundamental skills of theater and social justice, and leadership, and then connection to community, and that doesn’t just mean, for us anyway, for True Colors– it doesn’t just mean community in that rehearsal room, or in that artistic space. We really try to push outside of that room, because it helps young people understand their value to a community, which a lot of young people, particularly LGBTQ young people, and young people of color don’t see that represented in the world, the value that they add, the asset that they are to their community, and so it’s so important to push beyond the walls of the rehearsal room and take that work into the community, so someone in an audience of a school, whose never met a trans-young person, or never met a gay person, which it feels mysterious that that would happen nowadays, but it is happening, right? People are not coming out. Young people don’t feel safe to come out in certain situations in certain communities, and you meet someone for the first time, and your world opens up. You realize, “That is what’s happening with me or my friend”, or “I don’t know how I can support them, but here is a performance telling me how I can support them.” So, I really feel like it’s this revelatory experience for audiences and for the performers who say, “Wow, I see the difference I’m making in my own community.”

Anita Walker: I mean when you think about the pathway, a young person, 14, homeless…

Evelyn Francis: Oh…

Anita Walker: …into True Colors, into discovering themselves through performance, through writing their own story and then taking that into a school in front of an auditorium of kids. What must that be like?

Evelyn Francis: Well there is a– we have a film. We had a documentary film maker, Ellen Brotsky who’s is an award-winning film-maker. She made a film about true colors, which we feel so blessed that that happened, but in the film they go tour with the young people, and you can see the audience’s reactions to what is happening, and this particular play that’s in the film is talking about love, and so the director made– that’s Nick Bozzo– made a bold decision to say, “Okay, we’re talking about love, we need to have same sex kisses on stage, what do you think?” And the young people are like, “We can’t talk about love without kissing!” You know? “How could we?” And so in this film, you see audience reactions to seeing a first-time– the first time they’ve ever seen a same-sex kiss on stage, and its high schoolers who are like, “I like you.” “I like you, too.” And then they, like, peck real quick, but in the end, you hear people ask questions that have come up from those interactions. So one of the audience members says, “What’s it like to kiss someone of the same sex?” as if it’s different than kissing someone of the opposite sex, and for me that feels ludicrous. For straight folks it may not feel so ludicrous of a question, but it’s the same, right? The same feelings are happening in our bodies as are happening in your bodies when you’re kissing folks. So, I think that…

Anita Walker: It’s demystifying.

Evelyn Francis: Yeah, it’s demystifying, right. It’s demystifying this experience as if it’s something far, far away from you, when in fact you’ve felt it, it’s just for a different kind of person, right?

Anita Walker: Why do you think that the arts are so powerful in transforming the lives of young people who are struggling? What is it about the arts? What is it about coming to True Colors and writing your story or being in a play? What is it about that that works so well?

Evelyn Francis: Well it’s interesting because I think that there’s so many elements to art that really– I was thinking of this on the way here. There are so many different levels in which it works. It’s not linear, it’s not chronological, it’s this kind of 3, 4D experience. There are things happening all together. There’s collaboration, there’s story-telling, so there’s some sort of catharsis that can happen. There’s a way in which art helps us communicate differently than just using words or paragraphs or essays. There’s a way in which the arts communicates the things that you’re not able to regularly communicate. They’re feelings, so words don’t always do well, so a piece of visual art can give you this very complex experience just with a glance, right? And theater, it doesn’t have to be your voice that’s expressing something. It’s bodies in space in relationship to each other, its movement, its music, its sound, it’s all of these different elements. One costume piece can say loads and loads. I remember in one True Colors performance, they had a black hoodie that they passed from one person to next, and that was an effort to show solidarity with Trayvon Martin, and to also show solidarity in the Black Lives Matter movement, but they didn’t have to say a word, just that black hoodie said everything that they needed to say. So I believe the arts can tap into these parts of us that we don’t everyday get to express or get to see.

Anita Walker: Evelyn Francis, Director of Programs at the Theater Offensive, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Evelyn Francis: Thank you, Anita.

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