An enemy is a friend whose story I haven’t heard.
The author of this adage is disputed. But its truth is not.
On an icy February night in Chicago, curious listeners gathered at Center on Halsted’s third floor theater for Stories in the Spotlight: Transgender Journeys. Directed by Ronn Smith and performed script-in-hand by Deb Watassek and Kirsten D’Aurelio, the show brought the autobiographical anecdotes of seven transgender writers to life.
The writers -- along with friends, relatives, colleagues and the general public -- heard their own complex personal experiences interpreted by these two professional actors.
“Once we hear each other’s stories, our relationship to each other changes,” observed audience member Deb Hawkins. That, in fact, is the point of Stories in the Spotlight – giving voice to often misunderstood individuals and expanding the hearts and minds of those who hear them.
Stories in the Spotlight is a six-week workshop that allows writers from a specific population to write about significant moments their lives. During the weekly hour-long sessions, participants shape their stories into 5-10 minute pieces and hand them over to a director and two actors. They then invite others to the rehearsed final presentation.
Stories in the Spotlight leader Susan Lieberman first worked with Latino middle-schoolers at Chicago’s Centro Romero as part of a summer literacy program. Lieberman coaxed the shy students to interview their immigrant parents and then craft the transcripts into effective narratives. A Latino director and actors presented the pieces in Centro Romero’s basement community room.
Seeking to serve older adults, Lieberman approached the staff at Center on Addison (Center on Halsted’s senior facility) about a workshop for its clients. The result was a standing-room-only presentation of stories from LGBTQ adults aged 59 to 78.
Stefanie Clark -- a trans woman who wrote autobiographically for the first time at age 73 -- encouraged Lieberman to devise a workshop for the transgender community. Frustrated that “the conversation in America has fixated on who gets to use which bathroom,” Lieberman organized a workshop at Center on Halsted.
Around a conference table, rich narratives unfolded. Ella Nelson wrote about finding friendship in middle school; Jeannie Eden -- surviving parental abuse; Stefanie Clark – re-defining the bond with her son; Caren Evans – two transformative hotel room stays; Jessica Kirschner – childhood bullying; Eva Skye – an uplifting elevator conversation; Zuzanna W – writing a fictional character to discover herself.
“The format creates a comfortable space for people to write about themselves,” says Smith, a Boston-based director who has made multiple trips to Chicago to work with Lieberman on Stories in the Spotlight. “The actors' ability in giving voice to those stories astonishes me."
Hawkins, a writer and veteran of other storytelling programs, remarked that Stories in the Spotlight’s public presentation “takes these narratives beyond a ‘group’ sharing whose main mission is therapy.”
Chicago attorney Deborah Ebner described the one-hour show as moving and enlightening. But she and her husband had recently returned from a trip to North and South Carolina. “We live in our own little bubble here. I wonder how these folks would fare in the small Carolina towns that we just left.”
It might be a rougher ride than the northern urban landscape of Chicago. But if an enemy is a friend whose story has not yet been heard, perhaps putting a spotlight on each other’s lives would make hearts and minds expand a bit.
[Editor’s Note: Susan Lieberman, creator of Stories in the Spotlight, is the Assignments Editor for Picture This Post.]