Spreading Tolerance Through Theater

This past summer, The Chandler Music Hall in Randolph, Vermont held its 5th Annual Gay Pride Theater Festival. A press release this summer explained that in 2000, Central Vermont was a “hotbed of anti-civil union sentiment during Vermont’s difficult debate about civil unions,” and that attitudes “had not changed much” when same-sex marriage was legalized in Vermont in 2009.

Sharon Rives, the producer of the festival, said that Central Vermont in 2011 was “still the area most in need of activities that presented the concerns and issues of LGBT Vermonters in an open and honest way… Burlington and Brattleboro have large LGBT populations, so do not need a pride theater festival to change attitudes there.” Because of Randolph’s need for a push towards tolerance, the festival was created in 2011 to bring awareness to the specific triumphs and struggles of the gay community with the aim of “building bridges of understanding among them, their families and friends, and the broader community” through moving works of theater.

Actors, designers, and directors from across the state came together in June to start planning for and rehearsing the plays — all of which were written by gay playwrights — to be performed in the following month.

This year, four plays were performed, and I had the privilege of stage managing “Beautiful Thing,” a story set in Southeast London, focusing on teenage love. Jamie, a sixteen year old played by U-32’s Orlando Whitcomb-Worden, discovers an attraction to his neighbor, Ste, played by U-32’s Altan Cross, who feels mutually, but is hesitant of being open about his sexuality due to his abusive, homophobic family.
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When I asked Altan why he made the decision to participate in the festival, he said, “I decided to be part of the festival for a couple reasons, the first of which is because I love what they stand for. Not only are they exposing theater-goers to themes constantly avoided in conversation but they are giving a majority of the proceeds to LGBTQ groups across the state.”

Cher Laston, the director of “Beautiful Thing,” was first approached by Chandler to direct a play for their Issue Play Series, and after having seen her fantastic theatrical work with young actors, was asked by VT Pride to direct an all-youth play for the Festival, for which she was “really honored.” She said: “I was hooked — working with young people on plays relevant to their lives and the current times!”

But creating a play with such an important message was no easy task. When asked the kinds of struggles involved with the production process, Cher responded: “My biggest challenge (as a director) was the fact that I am not a member of the LGBTQ community. I have to walk carefully and work to bring my theatre expertise to my work but be very reverent about my limitations. I listen to this community and work to expose their stories in the most appropriate way. In addition, I am often working with youngsters who also have no real-life experience with these issues. For example, in ‘Beautiful Thing,’ the script calls for a youth actor to represent an ‘acid trip’. Guiding young people through an experience like that is tricky.”

Altan explained the process of understanding his very genuine character: “The characters in the show were so real. They didn’t seem like they were in a story — they seemed as though they were real people you would pass on the street. I played Ste and he and I had a lot in common, which almost made him harder to convey. As an actor it’s your job to not be yourself, and with a character so real and true to myself, I really needed to focus on the differences.”

The journey wasn’t always easy for the student actors, who faced some criticism for their involvement in the festival, as Cher explained: “Dealing with the local community’s response to our work was a real challenge — my actors were often the brunt of some awfully negative language while waiting for rides after rehearsal — terrible thoughts shouted at them from passing cars!”

Every night after evening rehearsals, “like clock-work” as Altan described, a man in a large truck would gun his engine and shout out of the window at the actors waiting for their rides outside on Chandler’s front steps. The three student actors’ response: “It was kind of silly and funny that he was wasting so much time and gas money on us.”

Though the festival did face moments of opposition, it drew better ticket sales than previous years, and the audiences were receptive and interested. Sharon added, “(r)ecently a key community leader told me that the festival made it possible for everyone with a gay or lesbian cousin, sister, aunt, brother, etc. to ‘bring them out of the closet’ and start speaking about them! That’s its impact.” The cast and crew hope for an even more promising future for the festival, and to continue to spread the word of tolerance, as Cher said: “I hope the world grows up and we no longer have to single out a ‘group’ for recognition, because they will be seen by all.”