For LGBTQ youth, it can be a challenge to find a place that accepts and encourages them to express their identity. Luckily, member organizations of the Pride Youth Theater Alliance (a cohort of organizations across the United States and Canada) provide opportunities for self-expression through theater. This year, Boston’s Theater Offensive is hosting the group’s annual conference, Thursday through Sunday in Cambridge. It features workshops, conversations, and activities at Harvard’s Farkas Hall, covering everything from “Theatre of the Oppressed” to theater marketing strategy. Workshops are exclusive to conference attendees, but special performances, open to the public, take place Friday and Saturday evening at American Repertory Theater’s Oberon stage. On Saturday, the True Colors Creative Action Crew, sponsored by the Theater Offensive, will present a performance of “[love girls].”
The Globe spoke with Abe Rybeck, founder and artistic director of the Theater Offensive, to discuss conference objectives and the value of queer youth theater.
Q. The slogan for this year’s conference is “United Against Oppression: creating diverse community through queer youth art.” What are some of the conference’s objectives?
A. What is true universally among the young people and adults that work in the field is that our LGBTQ experience is not the only part of our lives that we bring to this. Everybody has intersecting identities and intersecting things that they care about. We are trying to say, “Unite together.” We are not creating new pockets of oppression, but rather joining together [at the conference] to make sure that we’re addressing these issues on the whole.
If you’re coming to this conference because you want to know how to do queer theater for young people, you’re going to get that. But it’s also true that if you come to this conference because you want to enrich your understanding of the diverse needs of queer and trans youth, and you really want to be able to do a better job of understanding the texture of those needs, it’s also going to help you. What I’m excited about for this conference is that those two things are woven together, the why and the how.
Q. What is the value and importance of theater for LGBTQ youth?
A. There’s this idea that youth theater programs are liberating for LGBTQ youth — but having surveyed and served many young people over time, the sad news is that that’s not true. In many cases, they experience conventional theater programs for young people as gender enforcement programs [in which gender roles are reinforced]. It’s incredibly conventional and limited in scope. It’s really exciting and important that the queer youth theater programs have instead reshaped it to ask the questions of the young people: What is your story that you want to tell, and how can we help you tell it? That’s a remarkable difference.
Theater itself is really powerful. It’s people’s stories and their experience; it also involves their bodies and their minds. There’s movement; you are dealing with issues in your real body. I think for young people whose bodies are growing and changing, taking ownership of that — claiming your own body and claiming what you want to do with it, and claiming how you want to tell your story is tremendously powerful.
Q. How do you distinguish and balance theater as an art form from theater as a platform for activism?
A. I don’t buy that distinction. I think every piece of art has a point of view, and that point of view can either overtly own those political ramifications, or it can choose to not overtly own those political ramifications — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have those political ramifications.Every piece of art, I think, has happened in a political context and has meaning that reverberates politically to people. Works can be both tremendously personal, artistically profound, and politically compelling at the same time.
Q. How will the conference address theater as a mode of communication for those personal and political stories?
A. There are workshops on that. There is also space for affinity groups for people who are going to be identified. We want to be able to get together to scheme about our special interests or our special concerns or the fun that we have with that, and how we can do that from our point of view. There are definitely practical workshops on how to tell your story, and then there’s also about a dozen different gatherings where [personal stories] are the subtext of what’s happening.
2018 PRIDE YOUTH THEATER ALLIANCE CONFERENCE
Presented by The Theater Alliance. At Oberon, Cambridge, July 26-29. Tickets from $1. 617-547-8300, americanrepertorytheater.orgInterview was edited and condensed. Kaya Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Kaya_Noelle.