For more than 25 years, The Theater Offensive has amplified lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender storytelling and leveraged performance as response to current events. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the Boston-based group was one of the first theater companies to answer with a safe and cathartic space through performance for LGBTQ people of color (named "Feeling Our Pulse"). Currently, they’re working on a response to President Trump’s announcement that transgender people will be banned from military service.
Not to mention, former First Lady Michelle Obama presented them with the National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award — the first LGBTQ organization to receive the honor — last year. But The Theater Offensive is not content to rest on its laurels.
This fall, TTO is kicking off a new residency program focused on uplifting the work of local emerging artists of color, as part of its Out in Your Neighborhood (or OUT'hood) programming. The OUT'hood Residency Program provides tiered levels of financial support for emerging LGBTQ artists with intersectional identities. That allows for endeavors of all sizes -- from performance-based projects and individual disciplines (such as a drag performer needing funds for makeup and costume materials) to individual artists or artist groups organizing public actions in response to current events that affect the LGBTQ community.
“We’ve been able to help 12 artists at this moment, and for us, this is huge,” says TTO community programs manager Joseán Ortiz. Since the residency was announced, he says, his office received more than 30 applications from young artists all over the Boston area.
One such artist, playwright Tatiana Gil, has just finished her final year as an undergraduate at Boston University’s School of Theatre — and will see her first full-length work produced as a staged reading through the OUT’hood residency.
“When in this society, with the arts funding that exists in Boston specifically, would I ever get a chance to fail? To take such a beautiful risk?” Gil says of the opportunity. “It is a dream come true.”
Gil holds a deep admiration for the work that the Theater Offensive does for LGBTQ artists of color in the Boston area, and credits much of her recent artistic development to her involvement with the company.
“I experienced a queer community, and my queer identity, in a way that I hadn’t before, which was very empowering,” she says, speaking of her first internship with TTO in the summer of 2016. “Before then, I really didn't have any queer community. I realized that it was necessary.”
Gil’s work, “Lithosphere Heart,” is a semi-autobiographical “queer girl coming of age story,” in the playwright’s words. The work explores themes of intersectionality and ownership of identity, as the work’s central character, Alejandra, comes to grips with the many facets of herself as queer, Latina and Catholic. (The free staged reading is on Friday, Aug. 18 and Saturday, Aug. 19, at the Boston Center for the Arts.)
While she has big dreams for the play, like a stint on Broadway, for now Gil is eager to do what thrums at the heart of every other TTO production: bringing diversity to Boston’s LGBTQ community.
“My target audience is two vastly different groups,” Gil explains. “First is queer youth; so they can see themselves on stage, see their stories and own themselves and own their power. The second is everybody who has no idea what this experience is. So that I can humanize myself, and I can humanize the queer Latinx experience to others.”
The OUT'hood program — helmed by Ortiz, a longtime colleague of the group's founder and artistic director Abe Rybeck -- specifically caters to the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and the South End.
“We concentrate our work [in these areas] because it’s where we think that, socially, we need to have more presence, and that have a big concentration of LGBTQ people of color,” Ortiz says. “It is also unfortunately where the gentrification process is taking over big parts at this moment, so we need to have presence in those four neighborhoods and to stand for the communities there.”
It was founded back in 2010 after a member of TTO's youth theater group said: "I should not have to take two buses and a train to be myself; I just want to be out in my own neighborhood.” Today, the program seeks to create safer, more vibrant environments for LGBTQ children and adults through interactive performances, engaging dialogue and the amplification of voices belonging to queer- and trans-identifying people of color.
From social change-oriented workshops led by youth and adult activists to original community performances led by local residents, Ortiz ensures that the OUT’hood series is continually, as he says, “working with the whole spectrum that is representative of the many different artists within the LGBTQ community here in Boston.”
Currently, the Theater Offensive is a finalist for ArtPlace America’s 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund — one of just 70 organizations chosen from an applicant pool of close to 1,000. If TTO’s proposal is chosen, Ortiz intends to use the funding to help the Roxbury LQBTQ community build closer relationships with local businesses through theater. If TTO is chosen, Ortiz sees this residency program as just the beginning of the work that the organization would do in the neighborhood for the next two years with the grant.
Despite its strong presence in the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain, the Theater Offensive’s studio and main office remain at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End, and on Boylston Street adjacent to Copley Square, respectively.
“In each of the neighborhoods we have spaces that we work with,” Ortiz explains, naming Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury Community College, among others. “But that is something we talk about. If we get this project approved, that probably will be something that we can explore.”
While a new venue in a new neighborhood is nothing more than a pipe dream for Ortiz at this point, he’s certain of what he wants his work with TTO to focus on in the present. “We can help artists to use their voice to show the world that we are not disconnected from reality, and that we can give the community a message of hope, a message of change. [If we can do that], we will be very happy. I think that’s the main purpose of supporting this kind of work,” he says.
For Gil, her time with the OUT’hood Residency has done much to define her as a young artist, and she’s hungry to see more programs funding “risky art” — risky, she says, because of the inherent gamble that comes with funding and producing diverse work that differs from what’s seen on mainstream stages.
“Quite frankly, I think every theater company in Boston should have residencies for artists of color to create. So many companies are so concerned with this idea that it needs to be ‘good art’ first. No. If you just give [LGBTQ artists of color] the opportunity to just do something, and see if it works, and see if it sticks, you're already going in the right direction.”
The Theater Offensive's OUT'hood Residency Program presents a (free) staged reading of Tatiana Gil's "Lithosphere Heart" on Friday, Aug. 18 and Saturday, Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Boston Center for the Arts. The residency culminates with the OUT'hood Festival from Oct. 22 to 31 at Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square.