The simplest message often strikes the most profound chord and rings with the greatest truth. Out author and columnist Dan Savage came upon such a message in 2010 and found a way to spread the word that “it gets better” around the world.
Savage was reading a Facebook account about a bullied gay teen who committed suicide and he thought, “I wish I could have talked to that kid for five minutes and told him that it gets better.”
That was all it took for the author-activist and Terry Miller, his husband, to post the first “It Gets Better” YouTube video. Within a week, 200 more videos were posted and by the end of the second week the YouTube channel had reached its 650-video limit.
The It Gets Better Project — with a mission to stop bullying and reduce suicide among LGBT youth — was born.
The social media campaign has led to a book of essays, school programs and a stage show that arrives on March 2 at Uihlein Hall in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. The show conveys a message of hope to parents and teens through music and stage performance. The Cream City Foundation is sponsoring the joint production by Speak Theater Arts LLC and the It Gets Better Project. Before the stage show, Milwaukee area schools and community groups will host IGB programs.
In an “only-in-the 21st -century kind of way, we took what was an online project and made the Web experience into a live performance and with a face-to-face format,” says Liesel Reinhart, the show’s writer and director. “Our goal is to reduce suicide, self-harm and bullying as well as improve the lives of LGBT kids.”
Reinhart, an Illinois native whose parents now live in Union Grove, also is a longtime board member of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, a group that plays major roles in the It Gets Better show. The 30-year-old chorus, with its 250 voices, helped attract early attention to the project by performing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” in a YouTube video for IGB. The tune has become an anthem of sorts for the project.
For the Uihlein Hall performance, six members of the LA chorus will perform in two numbers sung by a community chorus that includes members of the City of Festivals Men’s Chorus, Women’s Voices Milwaukee, Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus of Madison and local church members.
The chorus singers play an important role, says Reinhart, a communication arts professor at Los Angeles’ Mount San Antonio College.
“We originally decided to use the chorus because it’s full of gay men and helps enhance the theatrical experience,” Reinhart says. “The show really is a jukebox musical with six performers and pianist.”
The narrative is wrapped around a fictional character, CJ, and the challenges he faces as a gay youth. Actors routinely break the theatrical “fourth wall” to speak to the audience.
The show is designed to be entertaining and upbeat, not an after-school special, Reinhart says.
“We sing a lot of familiar pop songs as well as some new ones, with impressive vocal arrangements by the six male singers,” she says. “There is an optimism and forward vision about the show, and there is a drag queen in it!”
Avenue Q creator Jeff Marx and Grammy Award-winner Mervyn Warren wrote the songs for the It Gets Better Project. Their most familiar song, “You Have More Friends Than You Know,” was performed on an episode of Fox TV’s Glee.
Reinhart’s theater experience evolved from her work as a debate and forensics coach. Her most notable experience with readers theater is as one of the cowriters of N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk, a combination of theater, standup comedy, hip-hop, slam poetry and real life stories that deals with racial stereotypes.
Neo-Nazis in Olympia, Wash., threatened performances of the play, and the NAACP has criticized its use of racial slurs. But the piece won the best play award from the American Readers Theater Association.
Reinhart helped shape It Gets Better’s book by incorporating the true-life experiences of cast members.
A 2010 report from the Williams Institute in the UCLA Law School and the National Education Policy Center found that 85 percent of LGBT youth report harassment as a result of their gender or sexual identity, and one in five claims to have been physically attacked. The same study found that the suicide rate for LGBT students is three to four times higher than that of heterosexual students.
“What we’re trying to do with the show and the project is save lives,” Reinhart says. “The It Gets Better Project is not a political organization. Suicide and safety of kids is everybody’s issue.”
It Gets Better takes the stage on March 2 in Uihlein Hall at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For more, go online to www.marcuscenter.org/show/it-gets-better.