This June, queer youth are challenging audiences on what it means to be active in environmental justice and to participate in mutual aid activism.
About Face Youth Theatre, founded in 1999, offers annual workshop sessions where LGBTQ+ youth and their allies ages 13 to 24 can participate in activist theater that supports learning in safe and nurturing environments.
Sat 6/18, 7:30 PM, Sun 6/19, 3 PM, Wed 6/22, 7:30 PM, and Fri 6/24, 7:30 PM; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, aboutfacetheatre.com, $5-$35.
This month, from June 18-24, AFYT will perform an ensemble-devised piece written by Kirsten Baity called Gayme Changers. Directed by Vic Wynter, the show’s premise is that it’s the final season of a hit reality television show where teams compete for a $4 million prize and the title of America’s next Social Justice Superstars. It’s an immersive comedy about climate change activism that functions as a call to action.
The inspiration came from discussions Baity had with another producer about what they thought was important to be talking about with the current cohort of youth, and what they wanted to leave the young artists with as they finish the program.
“As much as this program is about creating a show at the end, we also want to create good humans who are taking care of each other,” Baity says. “What we decided was not only something we wanted to teach people, but was also in our wheelhouses, which was discussing environmental justice as well as mutual aid.”
The path to the show started last fall when the ensemble created an audio drama of a turf war between Chicago rats, pigeons, and fairies. They wanted to keep that sort of magic and foolishness without having to come up with costumes that would look kitschy.
“We needed the people to be people,” Baity says. “But we wanted to keep the drama.”
As an exercise to explore social justice, they had sessions where they played Monopoly, except the rules reflected the real world. Not everyone started with $200. Some started with $1,000 and some with $40. Some people were not allowed to buy certain properties as a re-creation of redlining. It began introducing ideas of capitalism and mutual aid.
Then they invited the youth to brainstorm.
“We talked about some things that we want to see in this play and they were like, ‘We want something that’s very queer—that’s a given,’” Baity said. “’We want something with a lot of fun, a lot of drama. We want to see friendships. We want to see different kinds of relationships.’”
The idea of a reality show encompassed all of the participants’ ideas.
They began to discuss the challenges nonprofits and activist organizations face and the hoops they have to jump through. They then set out to portray how foolish those things are through the game show/reality TV framework.
Two teams compete in the season finale of the reality show, Gayme Changers: Team H2Aid, an environmental justice organization, and 4 the Kidz, a mutual aid group. The mutual aid group centers getting trans-affirming clothing and other supplies to those who need it and helping people legally change their names.
“The reason we created that team was because we wanted to talk about how it can be really easy to be defeatist and feel like there’s nothing we can do because we aren’t legislators, and phone banking and petitions only do so much,” Baity says. “But even when we can’t stop the Greg Abbotts of the world, we can definitely say, ‘You can have that haircut that you want, you can have your name legally changed, and you can get your gender marker changed. So even if the country is not with you, we are with you.’”
About Face Youth Theatre operates under a consent-based model where no one is touched without permission and the ensemble abides by community agreements they develop. The consent-based model extends to the audience, an important factor as immersive theater relies on audience participation. They will not, Baity says, be like the circus where someone comes up and starts touching you or messing with your hair.
Gayme Changers will have, Baity says, very specific containers of how they want the audience to participate. They will ask specific questions related to the theme of the show. The audience will be invited to brainstorm with those around them.
They also want to make sure the audience knows they are in a space where consent matters.
“One thing that was a big deal was letting the audience know that there was going to be participation,” Baity notes. “So, if you’re like, ‘That’s going to give me way too much anxiety, I’m not going,’ or, ‘OK, I’m going to brace myself because the actors may ask me to do something’— keep in mind, they don’t have to. It’s not required. . . . At most, we’re asking people to talk. And we have community agreements that will be set up and will say, ‘This is a safe space to be wrong. This is a place where we center queer people and people of the global majority. So don’t come in here with your racist-ness or your transphobic whatevers—keep that to yourself.’”
They also note that audience participation includes just coming and watching.
While the ensembles start with a baseline of community agreements, each one is customized to the group. Their very first workshop with each new ensemble is spent talking about what participants need to feel safe, to feel affirmed, and to be able to do their best work.
For example, artists are told that their boundaries are perfect where they are and they don’t have to explain them. If they say, “Don’t touch my elbows,” they don’t have to give a reason why. They also teach that artists can say no—to anyone, regardless of whether they are a fellow cast member, a director, a group leader, or the artistic director.
“Everybody is like, ‘We’re down for a no and for letting the no be as celebrated as the yes,’” Baity says. “It’s important to be like, ‘Thank you for telling me, thank you for setting that boundary.’”
They engage artists about their boundaries and whether they are comfortable with an alternative or whether they have an option within their boundaries that will help tell the story.
Baity says About Face Youth Theatre works hard to get youth in the room and help them to launch careers in theater if that is what they want—to provide them with a place of support and the network of connections that they need.
As for this production, they want the audience to know that it is very campy and designed to have a fun time without preaching.
“As much as we love the messiness of being human, of reality television, at the end of the day, we still care for each other,” Baity says. “Even when everything is a mess, we can still do something. We’re not pushing green capitalism; we’re not pushing this idea that you have to donate all your money to various organizations. We’re saying that even if all you’ve got is groceries for one person, that is doing the work.”