This was the Peterson-back-to-school-special sort of week. I presented at two Washington DC area schools on LGBT issues and concerns. Tuesday I spent the whole day at the McLean School in Potomac, MD. There I had a 90 minute assembly with the entire high school, then two 45 minute sessions with the high school broken into two smaller groups. After lunch, I had two sessions, first with the 7th and then the 8th graders.
Yesterday I presented at Sidwell Friends School in DC. I offered a 40 minute assembly program to their entire upper school (high school) which is about 460 students.
As I said to the Sidwell students in my introductory statements,
I’ve been to a lot of school assemblies during my time as a student, and most of them can be sumed up in one word–LAME.
My hope was to offer a presentation that was not lame and in fact entertaining as well as informative.
Of all the work I do, the most terrifying is when I go into a school. I mean I know I have maybe five minutes, tops, to win them over. If I don’t, well I don’t want to imagine how awful and difficult that would be. Fortunately in all the schools where I have presented in the US, UK and Europe, I have had success and been able to connect with my audiences. Having acting skills and humor go a L O N G way towards earning some school cred with these students.
With the high school students I typically perform my one-person comedy, Queer 101–Now I Know My gAy,B,C’s. Because of age and developmental issues, I present different material to middle school students appropriate to that audience. With middle school I focus more on identity and bullying. In both cases I try to have the students consider how homophobia and bullying affect both straight and LGBT people in the school community.
Both middle school and high school groups see my Identity Monologue, a short piece where in two minutes through eight characters I tell my life story. I also usually perform my favorite scene in Queer 101, a scene that takes place between my character Chad and the smoldering Federico Garcia Lorca.
During Queer 101 Chad, a highly effeminate gay man (who at some point prior to the play escaped the Homo No Mo Halfway House) serves as the lead character who needs to cover the Queer 101 class because Dr. Eugenes is out, or as Chad adds,
Well, she’s always Out. She the most out transgender woman I have ever met!
The climax of the play is when Chad has a real live date with Tony, a still-closeted gay New Yorker who Chad met on-line. In this scene we witness the skittish and hyper-gendernormative Tony outright reject Chad because of the way Chad presents.
I need to be with someone “normal,” well and you are, well, you are very obvious. You’re very flamboyant. You’re a fag, and I can’t be seen with you.
As an actor I let my body, my face, and my voice register the rejection in what turns out to be a tender and transformational moment for the audience.
During the Q&A session yesterday, one student asked an excellent question,
Your first character, Chad, seems like the stereotypical gay man. Why did you create him that way?
In my response I explained that we have been trained and conditioned to respond to Chad in a certain way. I initially present him as the stock character known as the Pansy. He appeared early on in 1920’s plays and then in films and TV. He comes across as light, silly and serves at best as an accessory to the leading man or woman, aiding them in reaching their dreams of romance and success while offering fashion tips along the way. We have been programmed to Laugh At this character and to view him as ornamental.
I start the play with the Chad character, knowing that my audience will be well conditioned to respond to him with laughter and maybe even derision. I expect some audience members will reject the character out of hand as a fag–one of those guys. The more evolved audience member may not reject the character but may judge me, the playwright and actor, for lowering my performance to a gross stereotype.
Then the play commences and culminates with the rejection scene with Tony. At that moment something happens that perhaps no one in the audience ever witnessed in their lives. The pansy becomes human, fully formed. We see his dreams and his hopes dashed, and suddenly we feel moved to empathy, to compassion. Those folks who initially judged Chad as a fag find themselves in collusion with Tony as they see performed outwardly what they did to Chad inwardly. In that moment I give them a chance to respond in a new way to Chad, and many do. I am not telling them to be nice to gay people; I give them the opportunity to make a shift in their hearts and minds.
At the end of the play Chad reads a poem he wrote called the Activist Poem, thus revealing that he has an insightful and thoughtful mind, again something we have not been taught to expect from him. In the ark of the play I transform Chad from a stereotype of the pansy to the archetype of hero.
Sidwell was my last US performance before I head out to London on April 22nd. The UK schedule is filling up nicely with some university gigs at Cambridge, Bradford and hopefully more. I will also be at some Quaker meeting houses, churches and conferences. Yummy. You can see the whole schedule here. (and I will add more as they get confirmed.)