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Queer Narratives in Theater for Young Audiences

A Call to Action

An actor on stage
An actor in the Purple Crayons Production of The Transition of Doddle Pequeno. Photo by Rafi Laetzer.

An Open Conversation with playwright Gabriel Jason Dean and Director Lindsay Amer

Gabriel Jason Dean: To my recent delight, Purple Crayon Players (PCP), a fierce and scrappy student group devoted to staging theatre for young audiences at Northwestern University and in the surrounding community of Evanston, Illinois, produced my play, The Transition of Doodle Pequeño. Through the play’s six characters—Doodle, a latchkey fifth grader whose Mexican father has recently been deported; Reno, a fifth-grade boy who loves to rock a ballet tutu; Valencia, an imaginary, sassy, trilingual goat; Baumgartner, Reno’s protective grandfather; Marjoram, a neighborhood bully with a secret of her own; and Toph, Marjoram’s little brother who’s too young to know what he’s saying—The Transition of Doodle Pequeño is a magic-filled comedy about two boys who become friends in spite of their differences. My hope is that the play examines the consequences of misused and misunderstood language and provides some insight into the lives of Mexican immigrant children and the issues of gender identity and homophobic bullying.

After a successful run of performances on campus at Northwestern, PCP toured their production to three local elementary schools. But they ran into problems when a school cancelled one of the scheduled shows. It’s a complex situation to be sure, with multiple points of view, but essentially the cancellation was due to a principal’s concerns about how to handle the conversation the play would create. The cancellation resulted from this administrator’s fear of “risk,” the worry about fielding phone calls from angry parents, and, in my view—after reading the email conversation between the administrator and the production team, accompanied by a negative survey response from a teacher—an unconscious homophobia.

My hope is that the play examines the consequences of misused and misunderstood language and provides some insight into the lives of Mexican immigrant children and the issues of gender identity and homophobic bullying.

The aim of this article is not to point fingers. Though we were both angry at being censored, the director of the PCP production, Lindz Amer, and I decided to catalyze the incident as an opportunity to have a public conversation both for our own development as artists and as a hopeful contribution to the field of theatre for young audiences (TYA). We hope this ignites a broader discussion about the popular and problematic phrase “risky play,” how we can address homophobia in our field, and how we can ally together to be more inclusive of and to generate new stories with queer characters, narratives, and perspectives.

Actors in The Transition of Doodle Pequeno. Photo by the Rafi Laetzer.

Lindz Amer: Before we jump into specifics, if you want to talk about why you wrote Doodle, that would be a nice way to kick us off.

Gabriel: Always happy to talk about the why of this play. First, what is important to say is that I long for the day when Doodle is an irrelevant play. A day, hopefully soon, when the play feels dated and the struggles that Reno, the boy in the tutu, faces seem incomprehensible to audiences. But, until gatekeepers allow the conversation, I think my play will continue to be very necessary.

I wrote Doodle for elementary-aged kids because I know from my own childhood, having been the victim of homophobic bullies and then, in turn, becoming the bully—not unlike the journeys of Doodle and Marjoram in the play—that middle school was essentially too late to have this conversation. But, if we can reach children early enough and plant the seeds of acceptance and humanism early on, then there might be hope. Doodle is fun and mostly lighthearted, but underneath it is a very grim reality.

I wrote this play inspired by my friend, Mark, my own Reno. We attended school in Georgia in one of the school systems recently featured in the documentary film Bully. I grew up with Mark, watching him suffer at the hands of homophobic bullies, and because I was his friend I was bullied too. At one point I even became a bully to Mark because I thought it might simply be easier to hate him than to love him. But I saw the error of my ways pretty quickly. Mark dropped out of school because it was so bad. He got a GED, went on to become an incredible drag performer in Atlanta, and worked to make abortion and birth control an option for women in countries around the world.

Last year, after years of torment, Mark took his own life. I thought he had made it out. I thought he was the story we never hear. But no, he was so consumed with self-hatred that even as a thirty-something-year-old man with significant accomplishments and successful relationships, he still couldn’t see how beautiful he truly was. There were many times I talked Mark out of it growing up and I was devastated that we had lost touch and that he didn’t call me just one more time. So the conversation that my sweet play aims to create is a matter of life and death.

I know I don’t need to tell you that. I’d love to hear why you chose to produce it and direct it.

Lindz: I think this work is important. This work is necessary. And this work is difficult. There will never be enough plays like Doodle. My curiosity surrounding TYA, particularly queer narratives in TYA, piqued in my sophomore year at Northwestern when I took Rives Collins’ TYA class. He was able to get us the unpublished script of Sarah Gubbins’ fml: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life. I read a scene as the “out” character, Jo, while the class sat in a circle surrounding me. I looked up at the end of the scene and Rives’ face was red and streaming with tears.

My life would have been incredibly different had this play been presented to me as a teenager. I made myself invisible for years because I was scared of myself, of what others might think, of my parents, of what would happen to me if I were gay, that I would get bullied or beaten up, or that I would become diminished to the label of “that gay girl.” I never learned to stand up for myself because I never learned that it was okay to just be me. The fact that I grew up in New York City—possibly the most liberal and diverse place where anyone could be raised—and I still had these reservations leads me to believe that there is something profoundly disturbing about how our culture functions. If I had this much trouble, what are young people in the rest of the country dealing with?

Mark is one of the many who have suffered from the genocide of homophobic discourse. You said something in our earlier conversations that resonated with me about how people always thank you for writing a “brave” play and that the word “brave” always rubs you the wrong way.

Gabriel: Yeah, what’s brave about it? It’s an act of activism. Maybe that’s what scares people. You didn’t do this play because you are “brave,” right?

Lindz: No. I don’t think it’s a particularly brave play. It is an honest play. It is so utterly truthful that it is terrifying. Honestly, I was scared to pitch it to PCP. I was scared when I heard I was going to direct it. I was scared reading it over and over again before rehearsals started. Then I brought it to life, and it was exhilarating. I could not be more proud of this production and what we have accomplished, as small as those accomplishments might seem.

Gabriel: It’s not small. If you do this play, it means you don’t want to continue to live in the world you inherited. You want to have the conversation. You want to tell the story. What you said about fml resonates with me too. I wish someone had told me Sarah’s or Doodle’s story, or one like it, when I was a fifth grader. My life would’ve been different. I think Mark’s would’ve been different too.

Your accomplishment with this production is not small or insignificant. I guarantee that there is a Reno out there who saw the show and for the first time in his life saw himself onstage. Saw that he was worthy of friendship. I guarantee that there is a Doodle who will be touched by this play and think about how he can become a better friend and ally. I guarantee there is a Marjoram who was so afraid to be herself that she became the bully in order to be safe. I guarantee there was a Toph who didn’t yet understand the harm he was doing. And I hope, despite their walls, that there was a Baumgartner among the adults, who saw that Reno shouldn’t have to apologize for who he is. Maybe there was even a Valencia, a spirit animal who saw that her magic wasn’t necessary if the true magic of friendship was there.

The only thing and the most powerful thing we can do is simple: continue to tell the story. Have the conversations, and those who want to listen, learn, and take part will show up. We can’t force it.

Lindz: I absolutely agree. I’ve known for some time now that the work I do would not be easy, particularly as a queer person, that people would chase me with pitchforks for corrupting their children or pushing a gay agenda. And maybe I am trying to do those things. I am not above admitting that my ultimate goals align with changing the mentality of the next generation to create a more equal and less bigoted world. But with the inevitability of controversy in mind, I never thought I would face it this early in my career.

First hearing about the cancellation was a shock. I’ve experienced Evanston to be a more progressive school district. I was not prepared for the emotional impact this would have on me. At first I was angry—angry at the schools, angry that I had not done more to make sure this did not happen. But then a profound sadness set in. These gatekeepers have actively kept a room full of students from seeing this story. Because of that, Renos, Doodles, Marjorams, Tophs, Baumgartners, and Valencias suffer.

This play has enormous potential to change lives. But that will not happen if the story is not seen. We cannot accomplish the important work we hope to do if this play is kept from those who need it.

Actors in The Transiton of Doddle Pequno. Photo by Rafi Laetzer.

Gabriel: Reading the teacher’s comments in the survey responses about inappropriateness and then reading the email trail from the principal was disturbing for me. While the teacher, with anonymity, felt very comfortable—probably because he or she was unaware of it—with his or her own homophobia, the principal, through the email chain and with no anonymity, was very circumspect in the way she addressed what was ultimately homophobia.

Claiming that it is disrespectful to present a play that challenges children’s false definitions of the word “gay” is parallel, in my book, to an administrator in 1950s Alabama saying that a play that examined the Black experience and pejorative terms around that experience is disrespectful to students. Disrespectful to whom? Bottom line is that the conversation the play demands makes some people uncomfortable and that discomfort can only occur in a culture plagued by homophobia.

Lindz: The mentality that pervades here is: “We must protect young people from LGBTQ narratives.” The fact that the principal at that school later told me, “We don’t even teach them about reproduction until the seventh grade,” indicates that a corrupting influence is being projected onto plays like Doodle. We as artists are classified as corrupters, as an entity to guard against. I wonder how we might address this phobia within discourses between administrators and theatremakers? Administrators and artists should be allies in these endeavors, not enemies.

Claiming that it is disrespectful to present a play that challenges children’s false definitions of the word “gay” is parallel, in my book, to an administrator in 1950s Alabama saying that a play that examined the Black experience and pejorative terms around that experience is disrespectful to students. Disrespectful to whom?

Gabriel: Exactly. While I’m not surprised, it doesn’t make it less heartbreaking. I have had similar conversations with producer types all around the country about this play. Many say, “We love your play, but unfortunately our audience isn’t ready for it. We wish they were.” Programming from a place of fear will perpetuate fear and, in the case of Doodle, not telling the story perpetuates a culture of homophobia. So is the solution to simply not put on plays that might provoke someone to rethink their ideals? Is that what we’re left with?

In my experience workshopping this play and in production at UT Austin, the kids are very eager and equipped to have a conversation about acceptance and friendship. And a small—but viciously vocal—number of adults are terrified by it. And who is this play for? Children or their adult gatekeepers? My answer is both. This is our reality. What do we do? We continue to tell the story. Continue to make the story available to students whose gatekeepers say it is disrespectful or its content is not for children. Above our own politics, tell the story. The powers of fiction, myth, laughter, and imagination can transcend narrow-mindedness. They always do.

Like you said, this isn’t an easy play. It demands a lot of everyone involved. Did you do any pre- or post-show discussions, contextualization?

Lindz: Yes! When a touring show begins in the fall, PCP sends information out to the drama teachers and PTA contacts. They were given the script and our production study guide, along with an email that, quite transparently, gave a description of the play.

When we got to the schools, we started with a twenty-minute workshop that the cast, our PCP tour managers, and I developed over the course of a month or so. The workshop dealt directly with the use of “gay” in the context of bullying. After the show we would do a short talkback. There were some lovely responses, particularly from the fourth and fifth graders at the first school. When we asked them what they thought the play was about we heard responses like, “friendship,” “standing up for people,” and “loving others for their differences.” I don’t think there’s anything risky about that.

Gabriel: Let’s talk about the word “risky.”

Lindz: I actually tend to use the word “radical” more often than “risky.” I like that word because of its political connotations and the notion of continual progress. “Risky,” especially around kids, can be a scary word. I don’t know what people think about “radical” though.

Gabriel: “Radical” is better, I guess, but still it’s a term in opposition to something else. It boils down to “risky” as opposed to what? “Risky” as opposed to whose system of values? With that moniker there’s always some privileged system in place. You also don’t want to say “controversial.” That’s barring you from ever being produced as far as TYA goes.

Lindz: It’s a cautious mentality. Highly protective.

Gabriel: What I can’t understand is how telling a story about two boys who see each other’s differences and choose friendship is controversial. Is it a risk because the word “gay” is openly examined in a childlike way in the play? If the word “gay” scares you, I don’t want my children being taught by you or coming to your theatre.

In terms of Doodle, more than the story it’s the conversation that is seen as the risk. But the conversation the play creates is just as important as the play itself. It’s act 2. In the published version of the play, Abra Chusid, my dramaturg, and I spent a lot of time crafting engaging pre- and post-show questions for teachers and parents, and the work you did pre and post show to help contextualize what was onstage… What more can we do?

It seems to me like we are handing folks a story, the study guide, and conversation with the artists on a silver platter. So, I keep coming back to my feeling that it is an unconscious—and in some cases conscious—homophobia that is causing the controversy.

Lindz: I wonder about a parent or teacher who doesn’t want to have the conversation yet or might feel like this play takes that option away from them. The play forces them to explain something to their child.

Gabriel: Looking at it from a parent’s perspective—and I’m starting to have a little bit more of that nowadays as I’m going to be a dad in November… If anything, the incoming little Dean has actually made me more, to use your word, radical. This is a conversation I want to have with my child when he or she is ready to have it. What is “gay”? What is “transgender”? Why does this conversation have to be so terrifying?

Lindz: There really isn’t a structured understanding about how to talk about these issues with kids. It’s been such a quick movement that’s happened within the last couple years. Maybe rhetoric hasn’t caught up. Especially parents who are heterosexual and of the normative culture. These weren’t questions they had when they were kids because it wasn’t in the popular discourse. Maybe providing that rhetoric would be helpful. It’s in your play. It’s a question of language.

Gabriel: It’s the central conflict in the play. The play itself grapples with how to talk about these things. To me, the play is not about pushing sexual-identity politics or anything like that. It really is about creating this conversation early on so that the bullying and resistance doesn’t happen later.

Lindz: I keep coming back to when the principal told me that they don’t even teach the kids about the reproductive system until seventh grade. It’s that kind of logic jump that happens when an adult hears the word “gay” said in front of kids. That automatic leap to having to talk about sex. It’s not even a question of, “I don’t know how to talk about this,” it’s more, “I don’t want to have that conversation about sex yet with my kids because they are not old enough.” It’s hard for parents to separate those two conversations, one being age appropriate and one not. Doodle doesn’t talk about sexuality. It talks about gender identity, the contemporary immigrant experience, and the isolation that comes with those experiences.

Gabriel: If you had a child and she or he asks, “What is gay?” How would you answer that question?

Lindz: We did this in our workshop that preceded our touring performances. We defined “gay” as when someone falls in love with someone of the same gender, so when a man falls in love with a man or a woman falls in love with a woman. That’s the answer that a kid at our first school tour said to us. Kids get that. Most kids, at that age, don’t know what sex is just yet. They don’t understand that connotative connection.

Gabriel: Honestly, that was hard for me at first too. Separating sexuality from identity in my child characters. In the early first drafts, I was putting my adult mind onto these characters. There was a moment where Doodle and Reno kissed. It was a sweet moment and I loved it. But it wasn’t the right choice for this play and ultimately was a result of my own adult connotations being placed on top of my child characters. That play was about sexuality.

Lindz: That would have been a very different play.

Gabriel: We would be having a very different conversation. That play was not for elementary-aged kids. Late middle school, high school maybe. During Doodle’s development, we had discussions about the words “tolerance” and “acceptance.” I have a strong reaction to the word “tolerance” as well. You’re pushing your own views aside and tolerating something else. “Acceptance” is better, but again that is a heteronormative perspective—I have to accept you, it’s on my terms.

What I kept coming back to is very simple. How do we become friends? How can we be each other’s allies? It goes beyond gender and sexuality. It’s friendship. It’s about empathy and humanity.

Lindz: The play centralizes the ally’s story, establishing Doodle as an ally for Reno. The version of the play where Doodle and Reno kiss would certainly centralize the queer themes. I wonder how a play would be able to centralize a queer storyline for young kids and make it not about sexuality.

Gabriel: I would love to take my child to see that play. I would love to write that play someday. Doodle was the boy in the tutu in the first draft. It absolutely centralized the queer narrative. But over the course of developing the play, I found that I wanted to write a queer character, but also to create a story about the journey to becoming an ally. Making Reno the boy in the tutu versus Doodle allowed me to do that. The potential allies see themselves onstage through Doodle, and the queer kids in the audience see themselves onstage through Reno and Marjoram, which is a massive thing.

Lindz: It’s a huge thing.

Gabriel: Just to see yourself onstage. Seeing yourself as you really are. To get anecdotal for a second, during the rehearsal process for Doodle at UT, directed by the rock star Steven Wilson, the cast was invited to do a music-stand reading for a large crowd of high school–aged theatre students. The theatre was packed with more than four hundred kids. I sat in the midst of them, hoping to eavesdrop on their conversations. At the end, a group of Latino and Latina students approached the actor who played Baumgartner, the inimitable Rudy Ramirez. A male-presenting student with vibrant purple streaks in their hair said to the actor, “I am queer. I am Latina. This is the first time I’ve ever seen myself onstage. Thank you.” I still get chills thinking about it.

Lindz: That is amazing. So how do we ensure kids see this play?

Gabriel: It’s up to the gatekeepers to do it. To have the courage to change the conversation. Not to talk about it, but to actually do it. You and I can fight the good fight all day long, bang our drums loudly and proudly, but until we have allies in the gatekeepers, we’re going to keep beating our head against a wall. We need them to be willing to start the conversation.

If we continue to relegate stories like Doodle to universities, then what we are saying, ultimately, as a field, is that those stories do not belong in the popular discourse. That is profoundly sad and simply not true. To be clear, I’m not making this argument because I’m an ego-driven writer who wants to see his play get on bigger stages. I’m making it because I believe theatre has the power to change lives. To save lives. Because it did mine.

TYA, American theatre: I dare you to commission playwrights to write plays for kids with queer narratives and queer characters. Or do the ones that exist.

It’s the theatre companies that have to do it. The onus is on them to say, “We want this work. We want to tell these stories.” Let’s show the children of today the world we want to see tomorrow.

Lindz: Let’s tell the stories that need telling.

The cast of The Transition of Doddle Pequeno. Photo by Rafi Laetzer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi Sarah! Thanks for bringing up this great point. I absolutely agree that the young audience member should be autonomous. And specific to Doodle, as you witnessed in Texas, this play is very meaningful to all audiences, especially younger ones. They want the story. Your idea of re-framing the conversation to be less about gatekeepers (you, me, and Lindsay are ultimately gatekeepers) and to be more about our actual audience is so on point. How do we get rid of this protective notion of gatekeeping in producers? How can we help them trust their younger audiences and not continually fall back on conservative programming that "works?" How can we embolden them to make choices for plays like Doodle and others that seek to create a conversation among young people and their parents rather than plays that passively divert?

Sarah, I totally agree! In addition, the separation between the greater field of theatre and TYA speaks to an other-ing of this work. Theatre for young audiences must be thought of as theatre for ALL audiences.

Gabe! & Linsday. Thanks for sharing this conversation. I believe very strongly in TYA as a space and place for young people to gain access to stories that reflect who they are and open up new worlds. Doodle does both. And, I'm thinking a lot about the word "gatekeepers." I believe that the challenges of access that TYA face are closely tied to the way we (adults and "gatekeepers") perceive childhood. There is a systemic belief that young people (children) need to be protected, that they aren't equipped to handle certain types of ideas, conversations, etc. Therefore, as a field (and by field I mean everyone in theatre, not just TYA) we also need to consider how we treat, respect and include young people. We have to advocate that they can and should be in that room, because they are autonomous individuals that can make choices, participate in conversations and form their own opinions. I know you both believe that, I just want to point out that the advocacy for this type of TYA work isn't just about getting past "gatekeepers". It's a systemic issue that we need to advocate for across all interactions between theater and young people.

Thank you for sharing the conversation with the national theatre community. Glad to see that PCP is continuing to grow and explore the definitions of what TYA can be and bringing that theatre to the students in your community.