One look at Westboro Baptist Church picket signs or these DOMA defenders, and a sad truth becomes clear: in our world, who you love can cause a whole lot of hate.
The young members of True Colors: OUT Youth Theater don’t let this knowledge get to them. The award-winning theater troupe, made up of LGBT youth and their allies, travels throughout New England to combat ignorance- and fear-fueled homophobia with self-penned productions that reflect the reality of being young and out. This year, troupe members have written a show about love — “romantic love, love of family, love of God, and perhaps the toughest, self love” — and filmmaker Ellen Brodsky wants make their voices echo beyond the stage with the OUT Youth Theater Film Project.
It's easy to get bogged down with the litany of depressing statistics frequently presented in conjunction with news about LGBT youth — 9 out of 10 report being harassed because of their sexual orientation, and they are 2-3 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers, for example — but Brodsky's film takes a positive approach as it follows the lives of fifteen 14 to 22-year-old troupe members over the course of one school year. By documenting True Colors’ process of mounting theatrical productions that are “changing hearts and minds,” the film seeks to capture the inspiring courage of “a remarkable group of young people who are passionate about being queer, creative, and committed to justice.”
Though True Colors provides a space for LGBT youth to become more comfortable with themselves and their identities through writing and performance, these young artists are more than theater makers. In a phone interview Brodsky said, “[What] I love about True Colors is how they’re focused on the youth, and not just as actors and performers but as decision makers, and leaders, and activists.” Through their commitment to spreading a message of love and acceptance beyond confines of the rehearsal room, they have become their own agents of change.
In addition to the empowerment and healing that the theater provides its players, the shows that True Colors perform have a profound affect on those who watch them. One “gray-haired man” told Brodsky that he invited the troupe to his office to educate his social work colleagues “because many of the children in foster care are LGBT, and a lot of us don’t have knowledge of what that’s like.” After a separate performance at a high school, a trans student expressed how much it meant to him to see a trans character in a scene for the first time in his life. The moment “felt like an incredible validation,” Brodsky said.
True Colors has also proved a steppingstone for many of its participants. Alumna Melissa Li went on to win the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award for musical theater. Others have found work in activism focused on HIV prevention and queer rights. One young man even organized a fundraiser for an LGBT center in Haiti. “When he came to the troupe four years ago he was wearing a hoodie and baggy clothes and basically trying to be invisible,” said Brodsky.
“His boyfriend had been murdered ... and he just thought, ‘I better be invisible.’ But if you see [the Kickstarter trailer] he’s not invisible. He’s clear spoken, passionate, hysterically funny, and a gentle leader who the young people in the troupe look up to.”
Brodsky herself has been part of the LGBTQ conversation for years. Before deciding to make this documentary about True Colors, she made a short film for the Human Rights Campaign (the organization behind the omnipresent pink equal signs on Facebook) called What Do You Know. In the film, she interviewed 6-12 year-olds about their knowledge of gays and lesbians. The footage was made in order “to show to teachers, to say, ‘Don’t worry elementary school teachers, you won’t be the first to introduce all this.’”
As the sister-in-law of True Colors’ founder Abe Rybeck (also the founding Artistic Director of True Colors’ big sibling The Theater Offensive), Brodsky has watched True Colors grow since its birth. “Abe would come home and tell me amazing stories about what would happen in rehearsals ... and I said Abe, you’ve got to capture the process, make a film!” Abe said he was too busy running his theater company, so after 12 years of working as a filmmaker Brodsky took it upon herself.
She has no doubt that the OUT Youth Theater Film Project will become another invaluable teaching tool. “We already have professors who’ve asked to use it in their classrooms, and they’re going to have to wait two years ... We’d love to have a national broadcast, we’d love to have it travel the world in festivals, we’d love to have it in the educational market, so that high schools and colleges and universities can show this film.”
A Message of Love
Despite their activism, spurred by the tribulations of being an LGTBQ youth searching for community and acceptance, it’s important remember that these are still young people subject to the roller-coaster emotions of adolescence like everyone else. Brodsky commented, “[True Colors’ director] Nick Bazo says that a lot of times we only talk about bullying and suicide and homelessness — but what about love?”
It was the stories of first love, in fact, that proved the most impactful for Brodsky. “I did a bunch of interviews of the first moments of love … and there was just lots of vulnerability about what it means to dare to flirt and touch and fall in love.” Although the confusion that surrounds young love may be amplified for LGBT youth (depending upon their comfort and openness with themselves and those around them), the joy of finding it — and the agony of its loss — remains the same. And the documentary's realistic portrayal of the lives of True Colors troupe members seeks to spur compassion from those who would look upon their love with hatred.
Brodsky further believes that hearing from these young people can teach us not just about acceptance of one another, but also of ourselves. “I’ve read often in The Theater Offensive’s writing that perhaps gay liberation’s gift to the entire nation is the importance of being out and being true to yourself, whether you’re queer or not. And whatever you are, what does it mean to bring that to the forefront? And what does that mean to be fully you? If that comes out in the film I’d be very happy.”
OUT Youth Theater Film Project Needs Your Support!
Brodsky, Associate Producer Pam Chamberlain, and the rest of the crew have filmed 80 hours of footage since September, but this project is far from complete. Brodsky has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $55,000 to finish filming through June (it has successfully reached its goal) and capture True Colors taking its finished theatrical production on the road. This money will be directed towards their cinematographer, sound professionals, production assistant, and transcribers.
Brodsky wants people to know that every little bit of help with the campaign counts. “Who decides what films get made and what films get broadcast? The power of that decision is in a small group of hands. There are only a few major foundations that can give you enough money to make a film. Kickstarter democratizes that process.”