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Spoken by Heart

Through Theater, Lesbian and Gay Youths Share Their Feelings With the World

January 07, 1998|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The star quarterback of the high school football team enters the coach's office determined to get something off his chest.

"Coach, I really trust you. . . ," the young athlete begins.

"What is it?"

"Coach, I think I'm gay, and I have a crush on you," the young man says, eyes focused on his nervous hands.

The coach leans back in his chair, raises his eyebrows.

"Hey, well, you know . . . I'm OK with that."

Coach gives an understanding smile.

"Great!" interrupts Norma Bowles, the director of this improvised scene.

"Now let's do something new."

Bowles is teaching about a dozen gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender high school students the art of stage improvisation at the Long Beach Eagles Center, a continuation school. She stops her tape recorder.

She steers the group away from the "fantasy world" scenario just enacted to a more realistic situation that displays homophobia.

"Is there something we can do where a woman, a lesbian, may have been accused of not being feminine enough on her high school team?" she says, searching the room for a new pair of volunteers.

Two students raise their hands. She presses the record button. The tape starts rolling.

Norma Bowles has made it a personal mission to save lives with art.

Working with gay and lesbian junior high and high school students who are homeless because they have run away or been kicked out by their parents, Bowles creates an empowering environment through her West Los Angeles-based theater group Fringe Benefits: Queer Youth Theatre.

Bowles, herself a lesbian, has for six years used a professional background in theater to set up stages where her students can express their feelings about a world that is often unkind, a therapeutic process that involves improvisation, writing, storytelling and heated arguments that may turn into artistic revelations onstage.

"My students have the passion and the insight that will help them communicate the ideas that will change people's minds about what it means to be gay, and how gays and lesbians should be treated," says Bowles, a faculty member at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

"One of the greatest joys I get is helping someone do something they didn't believe they could do--those epiphany moments," says Bowles, who has applied her training from Princeton University, where she graduated with a degree in mask performance, and California Institute of the Arts, where she earned a master's in directing and where she also teaches.

She set out on a mission to design ways of communicating between parents and teachers and homosexual youths through discussion and improvisation.

She sits cross-legged on the floor of the Long Beach classroom, the tape player recording the conversation she conducts with the dozen youths.

"You are challenging your inner child in the closet," she says after setting up a new scenario: "What would you like to tell all those people in high school but couldn't?"

"Little by little the youths and I were finding a way to communicate to those who didn't get it," she says after class.

*

Since 1991, Fringe Benefits has worked with more than 200 homeless youths, ages 14 to 24, and has produced three plays that deal with homophobia.

"She has this ability--a talent--to make it easy to talk about things. She's able to bring things out and put it in a play and show everyone the pain you're going through," says Robi Guillen, 24, who was among the first gay youths to work with Bowles six years ago. "It's almost like therapy. I learned so much about myself."

Guillen was in a group of young men and women who wrote and acted in "People Who Live in Glass Houses," a play that explores issues of sexual identity through race, class, gender, religion and family. It was his first theater experience.

"We made people laugh and cry. I could see everyone's emotions in the audience. It made me feel good," says Guillen, who met Bowles at the Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services homeless shelter.

This program "is for people on the fringes, the margins, getting the benefit of making art--and the art they make is of benefit to others," Bowles says.

"Glass Houses" was published by the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects as part of an anthology of three plays for instruction. Each play in the book, "Friendly Fire"--which took its title from one of the plays--was produced.

The book's foreword is by theater and opera director Peter Sellars, and the work contained in the anthology became the subject of an award-winning documentary, "Surviving Friendly Fire," narrated by Ian McKellen.

Bowles, with a team of volunteers throughout the Southland, this winter has run free programs at five sites in Los Angeles County, with an average of 10 students each.

She expects the end result of her workshops will be "Turn It Around!"--a play that will premiere at Santa Monica's Highways Performance Space in March.

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