On a chilly Tuesday night, a dozen-plus youth and several adults sit in a circle on the gray-carpeted floor. One by one, the youth state their names, pronouns, and a short story about their day. One tells the group about being asked to her school prom; another talks about grabbing Starbucks with their friends.
This sharing circle is more than just a warm-up exercise – it is an opportunity for the participants to have a short cathartic moment before rehearsing. The group is the Coterie Theatre’s Project Pride, and the participants have done these weekly sharing circles since November. Now in its sixth year, Project Pride gives LGBTQ and straight allied teens a safe artistic space to share personal experiences and navigate society’s attitudes toward queer culture.
“Project Pride gives these young people a voice. This is a voice most adults don’t want to or take time to hear. It gives them a queer voice,” explained Amanda Kibler, Coterie’s education director and the founder of Project Pride. “Adults tend to ignore youth and their voice. Adults think queer youth are just ‘going through a phase.’ Project Pride challenges these assumptions.”
The group is collaborative and it’s driven by the youth. After the early November auditions, participants started meeting weekly to brainstorm and dream. They broke into ensembles to build storylines based on a topic or theme suggested by the adult mentors. The storylines were developed into scenes or vignettes. If the youth liked how the scene turned out, it was considered for inclusion in their public performance.
This year’s Project Pride has had a library book theme. “Each ‘book’ is a different story,” Kibler said. The performance, was held on March 9 and 10, and titled Reading the Rainbow: Come Out and Tell Your Story.
Kibler, who moved to the Kansas City area from Omaha several years ago, modeled Project Pride on an Omaha initiative called Pride Players, which is celebrating its 20th season.
“Project Pride is more than just for entertainment,” said Kibler. “It can be used to make the world a better place. We focus on process over product.”
One teen said their favorite vignette is the “Lasagna” scene, which involves a youth preparing to come out to their parents. They start imagining the worst things that could happen. Maybe their parents will turn into demons the moment they come out to them. Then, the scene flashes back to reality. The youth comes out at the dinner table, and both parents respond with love and support.
The performances also have an effect on the audience. One youth talked about how an older female friend had come to watch them perform last year. This friend was moved to the point of tears because she wished she had been given a similar opportunity.
The current Project Pride collaboration has 14 youth, ranging from 13 to 18 years old. Six of the participants are veterans, having returned for their second or third time. One of these youth first heard about the group several years ago during Synergy Services’ Halloween celebration, Scream Queen. Synergy Services is a Parkville, Mo., organization that works to prevent violence and to treat its effects.
Participating in Project Pride is a commitment. Many of the youth live in suburban parts of the Kansas City metro and have a 30- or 40-minute drive each way to the theater. But these teens say it is worth it.
“This experience has helped me with my confidence,” said another youth.
Other members of the group talked about how Project Pride allows them to improve their acting ability within a safe community. One reason they participate is to help others develop a deeper understanding of the LGBTQ community.
“It can be a struggle to help others become more informed about the community,” one youth said.
Many of the youth also participate in their schools’ gay straight alliances (GSAs), but they said that the Coterie experience had helped them to explore more about themselves.
“This is like a second home to me. It is not just about the content, but about the connection we make with each other,” a 16-year-old said. “I have made so many friends here.”
Several adults are sponsoring this year’s group, including Kibler and Seto Herrera (also known as KC Sunshine). One of Herrera’s favorite vignettes is called “Mom in the Closet.” In this scene, a child is in the closet picking out clothes that the mother would prefer. The child wants to wear a sweater, because it won’t show anything. But the mother would want the child to wear a dress, because it hugs them in all the right places.
“There are a lot of personal stories that are reflected by these vignettes. They talk about some hard times.”
Another adult sponsor is proud of their involvement because the performances will show things that people do not always think about. They enjoy working with the youth, especially because they can serve as a “big brother” to them.
“All I have to do is stay just one lesson ahead in order to show these youth the way,” they joked.
The Coterie And Its Outreach
The Coterie Theatre is celebrating its 40th anniversary season this year. It began in 1979 as a University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) graduate student project by Judith Yeckel and Vicky Lee. Now the Coterie offers six productions per year, year-round theater classes, and several broad-based educational outreach programs.
One of the Coterie’s niches is providing theater for all ages, and it also works to give its productions an educational element. The theater provides lesson plans and other materials for educators on its website. About 60 percent of the Coterie’s audiences come from schools. The theater also provides opportunities for children and youth to interact with the actors.
“Teachers want more than just entertainment,” said David Golston, director of marketing and public relations for the Coterie. “Our productions include elements that allow the audience time for response or processing of the material. They often have uniquely interactive aspects to them.”
Many of the theater’s productions are based on true stories that create opportunities for the audience to consider various issues. Secret Soldiers, for example, one recent production, focused on the women who dressed like men so they could fight in the Civil War. The production had audiences consider what female nurses should have done if they discovered a woman in a male uniform. Should they report the woman, whose punishment could range from ostracizing to imprisonment?
Among the Coterie’s outreach programs is the Dramatic Health Education Project: STDs/HIV (DHEP). It leverages a partnership with the UMKC School of Medicine and the University of Kansas School of Nursing to provide accurate information about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
In presentations, a professional actor portrays the life of an HIV-infected teenager. Then a medical or nursing student breaks down the myths about HIV/AIDS and STIs and provides information about transmission and prevention.
Project Daylight is an outreach program that the Coterie will be introducing in the next few months. This educational program addressing teen mental health issues will be presented in middle schools.
For more information about the Coterie Theatre and Project Pride, visit http://thecoterie.org