Leah Brownlee used to be straight “on paper.”
For dances at her parochial high school, she would pretend that her gay pal’s boyfriend was her date, and he would take her girlfriend.
She didn’t like living in the shadows. Then she found a place in the light, onstage at Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre with the teenage actors of Project Pride.
The new troupe was created for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens — but straight, LGBTQ-friendly teen actors are welcome, too.
The group first performed together in March and will perform three times in the next few days during the KC Fringe festival.
The show unfolds as a string of vignettes, rehearsed improvisation that the teens created themselves.
So here, let them introduce you to two new superheroes — Gay Boy and Lez Girl — who rush to the aid of LGBTQ teens dealing with drama in their lives.
And watch the struggle of a young girl trying to tell her older sister that she really, really likes Cap’n Crunch cereal. No, you don’t, her sister admonishes. You like Cheerios like everyone else. You’re too young to know what you really like.
Get the message?
“This was like a godsend,” says Brownlee, 18, who in the fall will be a freshman at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Sometimes, she says, “you feel like nobody’s listening, so it was really, really, really special to get to come here and be like, this is stuff that I’m dealing with, and this is a community where I don’t have to hide anything and they understand and I don’t have to dance around issues.
“I think I’m a lot less bitter now than I was at the beginning of this.”
The Coterie’s education director, Amanda Kibler, brought the concept from her previous job as associate education director at the Rose Theater in Omaha.
She co-directed the annual show by that theater’s LGBTQ youth troupe — the Pride Players — a member of the national Pride Youth Theater Alliance.
From Boston to Los Angeles, 22 organizations in the alliance create and promote theater for LGBTQ youth. The programming tackles heavy-duty topics: bullying, homelessness, suicide, discrimination.
But just as importantly, says Kibler, the troupes give young actors a safe place to tell their stories. Sometimes, she says, it’s hard for them to be heard.
Sometimes, people think being gay is “just a phase” for teens. Sometimes, parents don’t want to deal with or accept that their child is not straight.
“I just got really excited about what everyone was doing and how doing this type of work really gives voice to what is otherwise a pretty largely ignored population,” says Kibler.
The Coterie’s artistic director, Jeff Church, gave her an enthusiastic go-ahead to form a troupe here. She recruited the first members from the Coterie’s master acting classes and through word of mouth.
Her pitch: “This is something for you to create and to get your voice out there, to explore what it’s like to be LGBT in Kansas City. You’re the only ones who know what that’s like.”
Christian Williams was among the first to answer the call. The 17-year-old Center High School senior, an actor since seventh grade, has taken classes at the Coterie for three years.
“I was ready for it,” he says. “I had just learned about my sexuality around that time, and so I was like, this is perfect for me. This is a way for me to meet other queer youth in the city.”
When Brownlee joined the group, she brought her girlfriend, Claire Davis, a Blue Springs South graduate who will start studying engineering in the fall at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Davis likes not having to explain herself to the rest of the cast. “It’s just taken that that’s how we are,” says the 18-year-old.
She also likes that the show handles people’s ignorance with humor, which she thinks reveals the “ridiculousness of situations.”
Like, for instance, how people use the phrase “that’s so gay.”
“It’s something that people throw around all the time that they don’t even think about,” says Davis. “What are you even saying? Why are you saying that? What does that mean?”
The troupe lets the six actors in the show — also including Leanna Varney, Josh Metje and Izze Loos — define themselves, even when that changes from day to day.
Each rehearsal begins with the actors gathered in a circle and proclaiming their “preferred gender pronoun” for the day.
One of the actors prefers the gender neutral “captain.”
“It’s a really good way to say, ‘This is where I’m at in my head today,’” says Williams. “Because that’s what’s most important to me, is your identity. No one can take that away from you. So we give each other a piece of our identity each day.”
He chafes at labeling his sexuality and is even bothered sometimes when people ask him about it. “Now it gets tedious when people are like, ‘Oh, are you gay?’ Yeah, we have established this,” he says.
Being gay “is not really a big part of me,” he says. “It’s an important part, and it’s a part that means a lot to me, and it’s a part that I respect and that I wish other people respected, too. But it’s also just one part of me. I play soccer, and I consider myself a soccer player, too.”
Kibler sees a shift among these young members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom aren’t waiting until later in life, like their elders, to openly talk about their sexuality.
They’re independent thinkers who declare, like Williams, that their sexuality is “just one facet of who I am and I don’t want to be judged by that,” says Kibler. “That seems to be the big prevailing thought with teens right now.
“I think that it’s really exciting and really empowering that they are growing up in a world where they can say, ‘Yeah, I’m gay. So what? Moving on.’”
At the end of shows, Kibler likes to stand among the audience and overhear the chatter. After Project Pride’s first show in March, one woman told her that she wished something like this had existed when she was young.
Said the woman: “It would have made my adult life a lot easier.”
Project Pride will perform during the KC Fringe festival — 5 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m July 25 — at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center. Tickets are $10. Call KC Fringe at 816-359-9195 or visit KCFringe.org.
The festival runs Thursday through July 27 at various venues. Read more about it in Thursday’s Preview section.
Join them onstage
Project Pride meets in November, December and January to create its shows. Auditions are in October. The troupe is open to all LGBTQIA (the I stands for intersex; the A for “allied” or asexual) and straight teens who are supportive of the community, in grades eight-12. No previous theater experience is needed. Interested? Email Amanda Kibler at email@example.com.