A Place for Us: Private and Public Expressions of Self
Who is the Be the Street program for? Who are the workshops for? Who is the final performance for? Is Be the Street a public or a private space? These are the questions that are lingering with me as I reflect on the differences between the content of the Library group's public performance and the dominating themes of the stories the participants shared in the workshops.
LGBTQ issues and identity came up in almost every workshop centered around sharing stories. Although the number of participants fluctuated throughout the semester, many afternoons fifty percent or more of the people in the room identified themselves as members of the LGBTQ community. This was a space where "Ugh, that's so gay" was thrown around as a compliment. Yet, those identities and experiences were not directly reflected in the piece the group presented at the public sharing. The only reference was in a story one performer told about a time that a friend trusted her enough to come out to her as bisexual. No mention of how the actor herself identified. This isn't to say that the performance was not reflective of the work we'd been doing all along. It had themes of friendship, loyalty, support, and acceptance weaved throughout. But in the stories the participants elected to tell to the wider community, their queerness was tucked neatly away in the closet.
Peyton and I mentioned relatively early on in the process that we were working on generating material and telling stories that the teens would feel proud to share with an audience. However, for the participants, the workshops seemed to serve a different purpose. I think our "story circles" are a productive site for exploration of what exactly those purposes were.
After a month-long process of ensemble-building and practicing performance skills, we introduced the idea that we were working toward building a performance for a public community sharing. Shortly afterwards, we began including some version of the "story circle" in each of the workshops.
These always began with a prompt or theme intended to help participants tap into meaningful memories and personal narratives. Some included:
"When I was young in... I used to..."
"When I was younger I thought..., Now I know..."
"If there were a recipe to make You, what would the ingredients be?"
"Tell a story about a time when you took a stand: stood up for yourself, stood up for somebody else, stood up for something you believe in."
"Tell a story about a time that you felt accepted for who you are."
"Tell a story about a time when you felt like someone was stereotyping you or your community."
The rules were:
Each person in the circle has the opportunity to tell a story, uninterrupted.
The group listens and holds space for them to share as much or as little as they want.
We respect that space by not asking them to elaborate more when they finish.
The participants listened intently to one another's stories, often vocalizing with "Yeah!" "Grrr..." "Nooo!" or applause when their peers finished their stories. They seemed very eager to show their support for one another despite not being allowed to comment right away. The thematic content of the narratives often intertwined. For example, the prompt about taking a stand generated a story about a transgender teen standing up to his bullies at school. In response, the next story focused on defending a friend who was being talked about behind her back because other kids found out that she like girls. The next was about standing by a gay friend when other students wouldn't. In the prompt about feeling accepted, one teen told a story about how his mother immediately embraced his identity, followed by another who told a story about the first time an adult made them feel safe enough to come out. Another girl in the group took part of her time to explain how she felt she couldn't come out about her own identity to her family, but she was willing to share a story about supporting her LGBTQ friends. More often than not, participants asked if we could go around the circle a second time after the first sharing. They often found connections between their own experiences and those reflected in the stories their peers told, and they were excited to share those with the group.
However, when it came to choosing which of their stories the teens wanted to tell in the public sharing and what they wanted the message of their performance to be, the conversation became much more fraught.
We had a long discussion where the participants were adamant about which stories they did not feel comfortable sharing outside of our group. One participant was concerned about the impact that the elements of her stories surrounding her identity and struggle with her mental health may be inappropriate if there are children in the audience. There was concern about depressing the audience. One of the teens said her discomfort talking about her bisexual identity stemmed from the fact that her family planned to attend the performance and she feared that they wouldn't accept her based on the way that she heard them talk about gay people at home. A couple of other participants shared her concerns about their own narratives that they had previously been excited to share among one another within the context of our workshops.
Overall, the teens seemed to view Be the Street as a space where they could open up, authentically express themselves, and share things that they wouldn't be comfortable sharing in other contexts. All of these aspects of the group seemed particularly salient for our LGBTQ teens. This is great and speaks to the sense of community, ensemble, and safety we created together. However, it adds a layer of complication to moving from gathering materials and building ensemble within the group to preparing for public performance. For several of our participants, the stories they shared within the queer-positive, identity-affirming space we worked to cultivate in our workshops could have major consequences for them if they were to tell them to an audience, depending on their relationships with their families and comfort being open about their identities. Their strong reactions against sharing some stories publicly speaks to the precarious position that many queer teens find themselves in as they come into their identities in fraught spaces at home and at school. Their willingness and enthusiasm to share with one another in the context of the Be the Street workshops, in contrast, reveals how our space functioned as one of affirmation where teens could be certain that they would be accepted. They ultimately seemed to enjoy the public sharing and were proud of what we put together. But the purpose of the Be the Street workshops, for many of the kids, seemed to be much more about finding a supportive community than it was about the final product of the performance.