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About Face turns 25 by nurturing the next generation of LGBTQ+ artists

Read from the scroll of off-Loop theaters making headlines and winning acclaim 25 years ago, and you’ll find precious few that remain today. About Face sits in the pantheon of exceptions; the one-in-countless companies that have both the business acumen and artistic passion to sustain their idealism and their theater over the long, long haul. 

Founders Kyle Hall and Eric Rosen had a radical-for-its-time mission of telling stories by, about, and for the LGBTQ+ community. The “G” part of that mission dominated for years. But as About Face celebrates 25 years and combs through its archives, its evolution toward telling stories of the entire alphabet rainbow is unmistakable. 

This month, About Face launches the Green Room Collective, a program aimed at nurturing the next generation of artists. Inaugural Green Room cohorts Sharon Pasia and Kirsten Baity will be spending 20 hours a week for 20 weeks this summer working (at $15 an hour) with About Face artists on everything from grant-writing to press-release writing to marketing to programming and casting a season.

“I feel like the Green Room levels the playing field by getting rid of some of those gatekeeping issues that young artists so often face, especially those that can’t afford to take unpaid internships,” says artistic director Megan Carney. “There has been this really important cracking open of the arts sector since the pandemic. The importance of social justice, pay equity, diversity is something we’ve been thinking a lot about.

“Clearly we need to be much further along than we are. And as we all think about what we want to look like in the future, well, maybe those of us who have been doing this for a while might not be the people who should still be out in front all the time. With the Collective, we wanted to create a space where the next generation of leaders can learn,” she says.

About Face associate artistic director Mikael Burke intends to upend the ways of old-school internships. 

“It was really important to me that the Green Room be different from the internship I had, which was basically a really, really low-paid staff position without a lot of feedback. One of those you-go-get-the-coffee internships,” he says.

“One of the big issues we’re dealing with institutionally is having a real, thorough discussion about pay equity,” he adds. “Paying a living wage, not just a stipend for a product. And trying to put people as opposed to product first.”

Baity graduated this year with a degree in theater from Columbia College. “I feel like oftentimes that my knowledge of theater is incredibly white-straight-washed,” says Baity. “As a young, Black, queer creator, I think it’s important for queer people and global majority folk to start their own stuff—not wait for a seat at someone else’s table, but make our own,” they say. 

In school, Baity says, they grew tired of being asked to justify the queer characters in their plays. “I had a professor who would ask, ‘Well, why are they queer?’ Didn’t ask why any character was straight,” they say.

“That’s one of the reasons the Collective is important. It’s our space,” Baity says. “And another part of this Collective that’s so important is that it’s one of the best-paid programs I’ve been a part of—it busts down the old-boys’-club model where only people who can afford to work for free can work full-time internships without having to also work another job to live.” 

Pasia and Baity were selected for the program in part because of both artists’ work with About Face Youth Theatre, which students age out of in their early 20s. That, too, has been under scrutiny this year, Carney says.

“You participate in the youth ensemble and then what happens after you age out? You’ve gotten leadership development opportunities with ABYT, but where can you practice them, take the next steps? That was very much on our mind when we created the concept for the Green Room Collective,” she says. 

A key part of the GRC’s work this summer is centered on About Face’s voluminous archive of ephemera—production glossies from the days before digital cameras, marketing postcards from the days before e-mail, and reviews and features and photos from long-gone publications among its treasures. 

Cataloguing the material and exploring the history is something both Pasia and Baity will work on in the first half of the Collective before branching into specific areas of their choosing for the latter half. “Documenting and celebrating how far we’ve come will help us figure out where we go next,” Baity says. 

Carney has big plans for archives, including launching an interactive website this summer that contains both the history of About Face, and serves as a place for collecting stories from Chicago’s queer community. 

For Burke, overseeing the Collective is part of a summer that also has another first for About Face: the Youth Theatre’s (gently) interactive murder mystery Whodunnit? A Groovy Queer Murder Mystery at Camp Forest Woods.

The fully-devised youth show, set in 1971, was born of quarantine, when lead teaching artists Breon Arzell and Lisa Siciliano began Zoom-meeting with About Face Youth Theatre in an attempt to connect over the long lockdown. Also on board: Spencer T. Olson, a therapist available to help young artists get through the galvanic upheavals of 2020. 

“The world was very black back in December,” Burke recalls. “Everyone was coming off a full semester of online learning. Everyone hates Zoom. There’s no sugarcoating that. So we were like, if we’re going to ask these young artists to spend more time online, let’s do something low-impact and escapist because the stakes of the world are so high right now. Let’s build a world that lets us just get away for a few hours.”  v

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