Fear is powerful.
In 2017, I sat in a room of community members who were enthusiastic about organizing an LGBTQ pride float for the Sheridan WYO Rodeo Parade. Then one of the people cautiously raised her hand to say that she was feeling uneasy about the float. It could, she explained, create an opportunity for violence.
The space available to hope and optimism amid divisive tensions is tenuous. A seed of fear planted there can wipe out brave ideas and suffocate change. In the end, the whole idea of a pride float was canceled.
Two months ago, I sat in an administrative office waiting to discuss the play I had selected to produce at a local public high school. I was nervous even though I felt optimistic about the selection.
The play I wanted to do would give teenagers a chance to play characters their own age and to express some of the challenges of being a young person today. But it wasn’t exactly “Our Town.”
Before I made the play selection, I asked students what mattered to them. Some answers included “supporting people,” “mental health” and “destigmatizing having conversations about taboo subjects.” When I asked what stories they wanted to explore on stage, they responded: “something whimsical and fantastical,” “different types of beauty,” “normalcy into magic,” and “important, relevant stories that really mean something and have people leave the theater thinking.”
So, as I sat in the office waiting to hear if my selection — “She Kills Monsters: Young Adventurers Edition” by Qui Nguyen — would be approved, I was worried the administration might think this play would be too much of a risk. I also knew, however, that the input from my students told me it was a risk worth taking.
Fortunately, “She Kills Monsters” was approved. Because of that, over the last two months, I have been able to dive into meaningful discussions with my cast and crew about their experiences as young people in this world. We’ve talked about what brings them joy and sadness. We’ve hashed out the ways protagonist Agnes expresses grief over losing her little sister, Tilly. And we’ve examined what it means when Agnes discovers Tilly was bullied for being gay — or at least for being friends with someone who is.
Whispers, landmines and ‘The Laramie Project’
When I was a teenager, I gathered some friends to produce “The Laramie Project,” by Moisés Kaufman and members of the The Tectonic Theater Project, at the Carriage House Theater in Sheridan. The friends were also teenagers — from Idaho, Colorado, Minnesota, West Virginia and Sheridan.
I had discovered while traveling outside of the state that the most common thing people associated with Wyoming was the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder. Yet I noticed the play was treated like a landmine within Wyoming borders.
As a 19 year old, I relished the opportunity to make theater that some people regarded as controversial. But it wasn’t the shock value that I was after. It felt more like an exciting opportunity to try something new, to carve out space in a small town for people who sometimes had to whisper their affiliations in public places.
I had the sense that most people would claim to be tolerant of people who identify as LGBTQ, but I also knew there were a lot of people in Wyoming who would rather not talk about the issue. The adults around us at the time seemed a little wary, but we weren’t afraid. We saw “The Laramie Project” as a compassionate story, and it felt natural to take a stance in support of acceptance.
I have been trying to call upon the courage I felt that summer over the last two months. I need it. I have been feeling that creeping fear I used to hear about — that special kind of anxiety adults experience. When I was the young person pushing the envelope, I was responsible for myself. Now I am the adult behind the scenes, watching the young people put themselves out there as they take the stage.
For the sake of getting along
Small towns tend to breed cultures that are averse to disagreement. It’s easy enough to see why: The desire to get along and spend time among people with whom we agree spans across ideological divisions. It’s easier to feel you are being true to your own values when you can be certain those around you share those values. This is especially true in smaller, more connected communities.
Two years ago, there was a lot of tension surrounding a push for the Sheridan City Council to pass a non-discrimination resolution that included LGBTQ people. Many community members advocated passionately for the adoption of a value statement, which they said could make more people feel welcome in the community. On the other side, some argued that such a value statement discriminated against their religious rights, that it was a slippery slope toward having to be inclusive to other (yet-unknown) kinds of people and that it might even put children in danger.
Claire Schnatterbeck, a senior at Sheridan High School who plays the lead role in “She Kills Monsters,” recalled witnessing her peers get up and speak to the council in support of the non-discrimination resolution.
“The most powerful thing for me was watching two students get up and say, ‘Look, I’m a high schooler, I’m a young person. This affects me. This affects my classmates. We are young people — listen to us!’” Shnatterbeck said.
“There is a ‘You’re young people, you don’t know what you’re talking about’ kind of mindset. But, it’s like, we do. Please, just listen,” added Gigi Miller, another cast member of “She Kills Monsters.”
Ultimately the debate over the non-discrimination resolution was marred by confusion. The council voted to pass the resolution — but only after the LGBTQ-specific language was removed.
Many who had supported the resolution saw it as a victory without understanding the compromise that had been made. In the end, the whole effort turned out to be a performance — a kind of inclusivity-theater — that attempted to signal acceptance without backing it up.
The risk of vulnerability
Taking artistic risk requires an acceptance that you may present something to an audience that is not uniformly loved — it might even be vilified. That can be scary, especially in places where people pride themselves on getting along and thus, fall in line to avoid conflict and uncertainty.
A hallmark of being young, however, is an intimate acquaintance with uncertainty. Every day can feel like a risk — just to try to be yourself and to figure out what that really means. Imagine layering onto that the gamble of auditioning for a play — trying on different characters while you are still working on defining your own. That takes courage and vulnerability.
When my friends and I put on “The Laramie Project” in 2007, we were met with incredible community support. There were plenty of people willing to donate time and money, and our seats were full. We were rewarded for taking a risk, and our audiences seemed to be curious and grateful for a space to discuss a topic that is too often kept under wraps by a culture of silence.
During the following school year, a Gay-Straight Alliance was formed at the high school. A space seemed to be opening up for people who wanted to support and explore LGBTQ issues.
But the GSA has since disbanded, and recent efforts to start a new one have fizzled.
Truth and courage
As I look ahead to the actual performances of “She Kills Monsters” on Nov. 21-23, I am reflecting — on my responsibility as an educator; on the reasons we are taking an artistic risk in a small town even though it means my students and I might take some heat.
I do not know what the audience response will be to our play, but I do know that the experience of bringing this play to life has been profoundly rewarding. Our rehearsal room has been filled with playfulness, connection, creativity and thoughtfulness.
Making art that is truthful, courageous and affecting is inherently risky, regardless of the cultural context. These young people are doing just that. And while I don’t know how it’ll be received, I do know this: putting on this play has been worth the risk.
The best outcome
Two years after an LGBTQ Pride float in the parade felt too risky, nearly 500 people showed up to participate in Sheridan’s first annual Pride Parade. My friends and family members who were there described an air of surprise, excitement and joy as more and more people showed up. There was a collective pride in each other and Sheridan as a whole. It was the kind of moment when people could feel history being written — and this time, for the better.
It’s difficult to measure rate of change when it comes to social issues, but nothing changes without people who are willing to put themselves on the line.
As we witness shifts toward more inclusivity in our small towns, it is important to assess what is surface-level inclusivity — or “inclusivity-theater” — and what is deep acceptance backed by behavior.
As the play’s lead Schnatterbeck said, “People are still scared. Bigotry is more subtle and put together now, and that’s honestly sometimes more scary. We are starting to see a little bit of a change here, but some people are still scared.”
Taking risks is worth it if it means helping people move out from behind their fear. And the best outcome is to discover it wasn’t such a big risk, after all.