How We G.L.O.W.: Unpacking LGBTQ Identities Through Theater
A performance of How We G.L.O.W.Terecille Basa-Ong, Nightingale-Bamford School
By Mackenzie Moore
How We G.L.O.W. is a New York City-based theater initiative that seeks to amplify the voices of LGBTQ youth. The group was founded in 2015, and the cast has performed over a dozen shows across the U.S. NBC Out had the opportunity to view the group's performance first-hand, and then ask its creators -- Emily Schorr Lesnick and Jamila Humphrie -- a few questions about the initiative through email.
Our full title is How We G.L.O.W: Exploring LGBTQ+ Youth Identity Through Interview Theater, which amplifies the voices of LGBTQ+ youth through interview theatre. G.L.O.W. stands for "gay, lesbian or whatever." As the creators, we completed 21 interviews with young people of diverse backgrounds about their identities, the labels they claim or create, and the biggest issues facing their communities. Now, with a cast of five actors playing multiple roles, these stories are coming to life through a script made entirely of the words of the interview participants.
Inspired by "The Laramie Project" and the work of Anna Deavere Smith, this project blurs the line between audience, theater and community. By learning about how these young people G.L.O.W., we hope audiences will leave with a desire to deepen cross-generational dialogue and to work in solidarity with these young people towards structural changes that support their identities. The show runs 40 minutes with a talkback with the actors immediately following. We've also facilitated dialogues and workshops with students in [NYU's] GSAs, with faculty and staff around inclusion, and with theater classes around interview theater.
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How We G.L.O.W. started as an assignment for me [Emily] at NYU in Steinhardt's Educational Theatre Program. Jamila happily reads anything I'm working on. After reading it, she was like "We should do this!" It's so often that work like that is just done to complete the assignment and its creative life ends there. Then, Jamila adapted the project to become part of her master's thesis at NYU. When we performed it in November 2015, again, we were like, "When we're done, that's it." But friends encouraged us to keep performing it, and a couple dozen performances later, we're still going strong.
We've brought more actors into our cast as we've grown in size. We had nine shows booked in January! Over two years into the project, it's really transformed into this piece that can serve as an educational tool to start a conversation about LGBTQ+ youth identity. They [our actors] take on stories that are not their own and they do it with such care. We want to make sure that the show still feels alive and vibrant and urgent as it did when we first had the idea for it. We try to keep ourselves grounded to remember that what we’re doing is important, to hold someone’s words and stories in your body, to put them out into space. It’s an amazing gift to share these stories but it’s also a responsibility we take very seriously.
We looked to the people that we interviewed and the stories they were telling for when they started to think about these things. A lot of times, we’re really afraid to say that young people have a sexuality because we think of it as something that’s meant for older people, or that it means having sex, but middle school is around the age when they start thinking about these things. I think it’s appropriate to bring these stories to middle school and older because they’re experiencing the same things that our interviewees were.
This team works together really well -- that's part of why our performances have gone over so well. They just have really tremendous chemistry on stage. Not all of our actors are full-time performers. Most work full-time jobs and do this on the side. We're so grateful for their commitment to this work and we couldn't do it without them! Everyone is kind of all hands on deck and we don't have a dedicated stage manager -- everyone pitches in where they can. We also partner with Identity Theater Company, a group of differently abled artists devoted to exploring and challenging issues of the human condition. We strive to present work that cultivates understanding, promotes tolerance, and engages its participants in meaningful discussions.
As two queer women, we're grappling with how we can best support others, in the LGBTQ+ community and beyond, to stay safe and to ultimately thrive under this administration. We are so hopeful about the conversations and actions How We G.L.O.W. can help start and facilitate in our schools and communities.
Catch How We G.L.O.W.'s next public performance at The Loft in White Plains, NY. Visit How We G.L.O.W's site for a full list of upcoming shows.
(Editor's Note: Interview has been edited for brevity)