STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS — hearts and minds expand onstage

Director Ronn Smith works with actors Deb Watassek and Kirsten D'Aurelio during the rehearsal for STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS.

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.

The audience at Center on Halsted's theater before lights up on STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS
Stefanie Clark: "Hearing my written words presented dramatically is an emotional experience resulting in tears of joy. "
Ella Nelson: "I met lots of people at the program, and I loved hearing their stories. Throughout my time there I felt a profound sense of community and belonging."
Caren Evans: "STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT has been a tremendous boost to me, enabling me to start writing the stories I have told verbally, and more that I need to tell."
Kerstin Broockmann, who ran the tech booth for STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS, confers with Center on Halsted's Levi Jenkins

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.

STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS
Jessica Kirschner: "I loved being able to write and share my story with the STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT group. It was a safe space where I could express feelings that I have otherwise been unable to share."
Eva Skye: (above) "Stories told are a looking glass into the soul." Zuzanna W (right): "It feels so great to have my story travel from the pencil in my fingers, to a stage, and then spoken aloud."
STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS
STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS
Renee James -- transgender author of the Bobbi Logan mystery series -- was a guest speaker and mentor: "Self-expression is the oxygen of a transgender person's life."
STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS
Deb Watassek
STORIES IN THE SPOTLIGHT: TRANSGENDER JOURNEYS
Kirsten D'Aurelio

“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.]

Jeannie Eden (back row, second from left, in light blue hat): "Being with other transgender people was like being with friends. That’s what made it meaningful for me."

Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *