jakub | March 23, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Tomorrow’s Tamoras and Titanias: How to Heal the High School Space

Young artists Alondra Rios, Mariana Reyes Daza, Emefa Dzodzomenyo, Karina Patel, and Gabriela Furtado Coutinho join and dream of healing. Commissioned photography by Joe Mazza with intimacy consultation by Gaby Labotka.

As some kids grow, they shrink. Standing tall and speaking loud can become impossible when every morning you wake for a school theatre curriculum that denies or defiles your existence. Stories, you quickly learn, can harm as easily as they heal. There are stories that crack open a teenager’s mirror with an outreached pale grip binding them to centuries of tropes and words like barbarous, savage, exotic, ethnic, sexy to the white male gaze

In high school, there was a tall swiveling chair, man’s legs opened wide. The gaze scanned, pointed finger cast, eyes morphed.

Histories of power hid behind them. 

Movement, photographed by Joe Mazza.

Long after, the memories would prod, corrupt. If I looked in the mirror, my soul would erupt.

For years, I regarded my body as merely the memory of violence. Playing Titania and Tamora in high school, I had initially trusted that both roles offered magical opportunities to embody power. But a white male director’s increasingly abusive sexualization, racialization, and fetishization withered my hopes. Caved my chest. 

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s common to fuse the casting of Titania and Hippolyta—meaning that the actor’s body may not only be disrespected as Titania by Oberon, but also colonized as Hippolyta by Theseus. Brazilian and femme, my body carries this ancestral memory, and as the director casually demanded Titania and Hippolyta each be assaulted “harder” through the course of the play, I couldn’t help but wonder who that choice was serving. I was told, “Lines are so blurry in the theatre.” 

In Titus Andronicus, once the title character conquers Tamora’s people, a cycle of violence ensues. Throughout rehearsing, the warm expressiveness I had inherited from my foremothers was called “barbaric.” Tamora’s experience unfolding alongside my own made me yearn to erase my very self as I heard, again and again, This is how you are. This is how it is.

I wouldn’t have recognized agency if we had locked eyes on the street.

Speaking with other artists, I’ve learned that my high school experience was not at all unique, but one among many. The reality stands that there is still a deep gap between the culturally responsive theory that now prevails in many academic and professional settings and its application in theatrical secondary education (and that’s all without taking into consideration the current legislative war on teaching from a culturally conscious lens and sharing queer stories with youth). While the industry is seeing more intimacy and diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging (DEIJB) practitioners join work spaces, most high schools haven’t yet implemented such practices, leaving femme and non-binary kids of color in particular at risk of racialized, sexualized tropes like those seared in my memory. Though Shakespeare and other classics are often seen as race-neutral, royalty-free, “safe” options, the bodies cast in them are not always left free from harm.

In a commissioned session with photographer Joe Mazza and intimacy consultant Gaby Labotka, Alondra Rios and Emefa Dzodzomenyo connect.

In the worst case scenario, the identities of femme and non-binary students of color asked to portray these characters are not affirmed but desecrated. Beyond expansive and conscious casting, which opens many roles to young people, we also owe them a deeper, more thoughtful infrastructure that critically considers how and why we tell these stories, and in what ways their bodies exist in space.

In a spirit of communal resistance, I’ve sought the guidance of visionary high school educators, intimacy choreographers, and trauma-informed professionals on building an environment that centers femme and non-binary kids of color. It’s a truism that when we uplift the most vulnerable, we widen the possibility for us all to encounter collective liberation. By equipping our classrooms with actionable tools, we can glimpse a future in which young Tamoras and Titanias can look proudly on their work and their own bodies when coming home to the mirror. I believe in my gut that, in today’s fractured world, only a proactively empowering environment can successfully stage the intimacy, violence, and catharsis inherent in storytelling. By revolutionizing our values systems with young artists early on, we can hope to further unlock this beloved form’s full potential.

A Dreamy Alternative

Enter Pythio.

Hallways full of high schoolers lift their heads as Head Over Heels posters decorate the School of the Arts within Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville, Ga. Whispers become proclamations around the show’s outrageously joyful queer love story, which uplifts its performers at intersections of sexuality, race, disability, and gender. A revolution of eye-sparkling and heartbeat-skipping begins.

The polychromatic musical uses several tunes by The Go-Go’s to trace the unveiling of people’s true selves from beneath fearful disguises in the fictional kingdom Arcadia, and their revolutionary guide is a genderqueer/non-binary oracle named Pythio. Teacher and director Emily McClain saw the transformative potential in producing the show—if done within an empowering environment. To offer real belonging, McClain communicated extensively with every student actor, especially those involved in intimate scenes. A young student playing one of two femme characters in love, Pamela and Mopsa, shared that the show’s onstage kiss would be her first in real life.

Photographed by Joe Mazza with intimacy consultation offered by Gaby Labotka, artists Mariana Reyes Daza and Karina Patel embrace.

“We sat with just those students, asking what they were comfortable with and what direction would convey the characters’ journey,” McClain said. “Was it hands on the face? A peck on the cheek? The hand? There are many ways to tell the story. What are the possible points of contact and levels of physical closeness? We’re not bubble-wrapping them—they are teenagers who express themselves and take part in love, in this valuable human experience. But there are lines and boundaries, especially in high school, and it’s important to consider both physical and emotional safety.”

The kiss between Mopsa and Pamela ended up being very romantic—and the first time, too, that a queer couple kissed onstage at the school. McClain said, “The actors told me they were excited to cross this milestone for our school.” She paused as hope caught in her throat. McClain and her theatre department chair, Lilliangina Quiñones, laughed together as tears introduced themselves. Unifying art, Quiñones recognized, had taken the place of divisive historical harm. 

“It would have been really empowering for 16-year-old me to get to see this story,” McClain reflected. “And it was impactful for a student who wasn’t even playing those characters. It made the uphill battle for this show worth it.”

Values and Agreements

In 2016, a harrowing history of abuse at Off-Loop company Profiles Theatre surfaced in an exhaustive Chicago Reader report. The city held its breath, considering the systems that had enabled this violence and reinforced power imbalances.

Operating with Not In Our House, Lori Myers and Laura T. Fisher assembled theatre practitioners and lawyers in an extended partnership that would lead to the Chicago Theatre Standards (CTS). Myers and Fisher recalled how activists around this issue would previously be labeled as “difficult to work with,” blacklisted for even attempting to initiate the conversation. 

The teenage girl in my mirror knew this—she’d been warned not to speak up. I wish she could have known about the comprehensive tools that Not In Our House created for self-governance designed to prevent, reduce, and repair harm. CTS outlines cost-free practices, including a reporting concern/resolution pathway template; the employment of a non-Equity deputy; basic health and safety around hours and physically intensive work; and each collaborator’s role in upholding standards and implementation. CTS also acknowledges its own positionality and blind spots, reading, “This document is a non-binding set of principles. It reflects the current state of a continually evolving interest to establish standards in theatre spaces.”

The first time I saw CTS was on my first day rehearsing as a Northwestern University student. The director passed around printed copies, pencils, and highlighters for us to annotate what especially resonated. Fingerprints brushed against each page, taking in the document’s sheer length, depth, and accessibility. I wasn’t the only freshman who saw ink bleed when tears greeted the page. It told us there might be space for us, with kinder cultures of accountability.

Back in high school, the power imbalances felt even more jarring to me than they would in college or the professional world, with daily reminders to address teacher-directors as “Mr.,” “Ms.” or “Dr.” and the regular lobbying for grades and college recommendation letters. Added layers—going to school on scholarship, say—can reinforce a sense of dependence and deference.

When you’re young, you sincerely believe, This is how it is in the professional world. You have to do it this way.

Photographed by Joe Mazza, artists Emefa Dzodzomenyo and Alondra Rios move and reflect.

Magic Spaces

But it doesn’t have to be this way. At Miami Country Day School, Cristina Pla-Guzman finds tremendous hope in taking both everyday and long-term actions, even considering the state’s increasingly draconian legislature. Bright with student-made art, the air feels lighter in her classroom, a hub of student laughter and imagination some call “my Disney World.” Pla-Guzman curates the very antithesis of my past, a futurism I didn’t think possible.

Optimistic and relentless, she meets every Monday with a student board of directors to discuss their departmental “state of the union,” from figuring out who will source snacks for rehearsal to discussing trauma-informed approaches. And every summer she travels for professional development to stay up to date. One tool from a recent workshop with Actor Therapy, she shared, was the crafting of a written classroom agreement asking for honest dialogue. 

Recognizing her own blind spots (even as a femme of color), her document promises she will do her best to support every student, prevent harm, and repair when needed. 

“There’s no reason why you can’t apologize to a student,” she said. “Ask what they think you could have done better, and then go find it and do it.”

On the first day of every course, she reviews the document with students, asking for their suggestions and hopes. After they sign the document along with parents, Pla-Guzman reinforces the culture with consent-based exercises to embrace the word “no.”

When any major shift occurs or cast lists go up, she asks students to consider planning a meeting with her to ensure open communication and trust. “You have to be intentional,” she said. “You can’t just say you’re going to do it once and then not follow up again.”

After all, kids’ bodies will know their own limits before educators’ minds; they just need the space to notice and speak. Lilliangina Quiñones at School of the Arts described the ways she decenters herself to uplift students at each moment, emphasizing the importance of classroom culture.

“So much of the theatre education conversation surrounds production, casting, and rehearsal, but what happens inside the classroom day to day really informs what ends up onstage,” Quiñones said. “The affirming of identity and the empathy practice happen inside the classroom.”

Before introducing techniques or terminology, she grounds the room in seeing that, as she puts it, “The core of everything is humans. Our program is primarily composed of students of color, and they live at various intersections of identity. Our interactions with them have to be with the person who’s in front of us now. If that person had a different name or pronoun last year, or if they were unpacking a part of their racial identity last year, those are last year’s things. Right now, today, who are they? And how are we willing to see them, converse with them, teach them, grow with them here and now?”

Quiñones’s values manifest in front-loading her own preparation to enter the classroom with both a primary lesson plan and backups. “It is a sign of respect to them to hold a schedule and do things in some sensible fashion,” she said. “It should be a given, but a lot of high school environments don’t have that.” In balance with her rigorous planning, she also builds open time into the schedule so that students can meditate, process, or simply do nothing. She calls them “magic spaces…an intentional disruption to the pace and expectations that school and career can have on us all.” In a world fixated on production and perfection over the human, Quiñones strives for opportunities “to truly access the humanity we need to become new characters and build new worlds together.” 

She concluded, “I think those ‘little big things’ we do day to day set us up for belonging and beautiful storytelling, because we practice when nobody’s watching.”

Photographed by Joe Mazza, young actors follow intimacy consultation offered by Gaby Labotka (off-camera). Said Labotka, “(Healing work and best practices) come down to how big collaborators’ imaginations are. The root of many oppressive issues is people lacking imagination, who can’t consider there are more answers.”

Culturally Responsive Intimacy in Practice

Teaching at Georgia’s Brenau University and intimacy directing frequently in Chicago, Greg Geffrard differentiates between discomfort and pain, and further breaks down the latter into kinds of trauma: resolved, digestible, or unresolved. In this work, he’s concerned with what is actually sustainable for a young person to tackle while their brains are still developing and their bodies are caught in busy schedules, which too often exclude therapy.

When offering performance and spoken word as a valuable outlet to young people, he said he reminds himself, “We are asking these young people who are traumatized to tell that story, and they don’t necessarily have the resources to be able to process it. They are essentially finding their way to a stage and asking an audience to hear them. Heal them. But all they’re getting is adjudication on their experience. They’re putting their humanity out there for applause. This can be therapeutic, but it can’t be therapy because you’re hoping people who are here to be entertained will give you what they’re not here to give you. This is a very specific forum.”

Further engagement we recommend.

As Nicole Brewer puts it in her anti-racist theatre training, we need to understand the physical, spiritual, and emotional exhaustion involved in this work. In her workshops, she discusses developing a “mixed fluency,” an awareness around the nuanced daily impact of oppression on the body.

My own experiences inspired me to become trained in culturally responsive intimacy, a common value among educators I interviewed. Brewer and Kaja Dunn, an intimacy professional, equity arts consultant, and Carnegie Mellon professor, have both trained me in this more sensitive awareness of the body’s relationship to forces both within and outside the rehearsal room. As suggested by its name, culturally responsive intimacy encompasses more than just choreographing physical touch. Geffrard said he resonates with Theatrical Intimacy Education’s (TIE) expanded definition of intimacy, which reminds us to consider emotional safety.

“If any parts of your intersecting identity—race, gender, sex, age, ability, religion—are levied in the story, then it is very likely that there will be a moment of intimacy,” he explained. “That’s because what we’re asking for is not only what lives in the professional or with the character, but is part of your identity when you’re no longer in the space.”

Dunn mentioned one fruitful tool: TIE’s “button,” wherein artists are invited to say the neutral, “de-loaded” term “button” when a boundary has been crossed or a pause is needed. Once “button” has been called, the facilitator or partner in the room asks what the person needs, hears and affirms the need, fulfills it, and asks how the person who called it wishes to proceed. 

When I’ve offered this tool to high school theatremakers and watched them practice it, they smile and glance around the room at one another. The camaraderie of simply breaking down the exercise together helps alleviate the pain around why it’s needed in the first place. Once implemented out of necessity in real time, students have told me, this practice becomes one of many sustainable, approachable ways to consistently engage with a traumatic activation. When it’s easier to ask for more breath, agility, and accommodation, we can share processing and healing.

Counting on Community

Early in her tenure at Miami Country Day School, Pla-Guzman geared up to produce Rent. Having put on an expansive In the Heights at a previous school that included panel events around gentrification and identity, she knew it would take a village to tell a story truly representative of the student body. 

For Rent, she connected with school advisors specialized in socio-emotional work to prep the school for both moderated and informal dialogues. She carefully considered how the show would impact each child’s life and how the school could offer necessary resources. Wanting to set the scene for Angel, a genderqueer character who battles HIV/AIDS, to be embraced by the community, Pla-Guzman looped in parents and counselors. It was important for both the actor playing Angel and students who identified with the story to experience love, not fear or trauma.

“The role of Angel could be so hard for someone to play in high school,” Pla-Guzman said. “And the student told me, ‘This is the most transformative thing that has ever happened to me.’” She was relieved, but added, “When you do shows with difficult conversations, I think we need to know the student doesn’t exist in a silo. How does this affect their life? We really combed through the script looking at terms that were used and what they meant to every student. By the end, our school as a community had never been so united.” By building culturally responsive conversations around each show into the curriculum, Pla-Guzman activates an opportunity for artistic leadership on campus and deeper integration of arts into the school’s culture. She said that high schoolers tell her, “We’re rock stars to the lower school kids when we walk around campus.” By centering her students’ agency, she’s not only helping to build young artists, but energized humans who feel seen enough to speak loud and proud.

Walking in the South Florida sun after visiting her class, our shadows stretched as tall as trees.

Approaching my mirror later that day, the girl didn’t look as small as I had remembered. 

I imagine the effects rippling, with more and more young people repairing their mirrors. Standing taller than they ever imagined. It’s not too late, I hope, for bodies to shed history and memory and layered trauma—transforming into something more like being.

Photographed by Joe Mazza, young artists Emefa Dzodzomenyo, Gabriela Furtado Coutinho, Alondra Rios, Mariana Reyes Daza, and Karina Patel hold light.

“The way that I have hope is this,” Pla-Guzman’s offering echoes in mind. “I know that I have my little candle here. You think, ‘It’s only this little light. What could this little light do?’ Then when you look around you realize, ‘Wow. My little light just helped light all of these candles.’ We turn around and we realize years and years and years upon years have gone by wherein every single time somebody else dipped their wick into our candle, we have flooded with light.”

Gabriela Furtado Coutinho (she/her) is the Chicago associate editor of American Theatre

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