Photo By Robert Kelsey
“We didn’t know if we’d be alive or dead tomorrow.”
Executive Artistic Director Abe Rybeck is on the phone and he is recounting the early days of the Theater Offensive. Before they were the formally organized Offensive, the company began as a gay guerrilla theater troupe and made their mark as AIDS activists, promoting awareness of safe sex, putting on skits in the dunes of Provincetown and the cruising areas in the Fens. Rybeck and his fellow performers were passing the hat to collect funds to keep the street act going, unsure whether each performance would be their last. But quite literally, for some of the members, each performance could be their last as the AIDS crisis was very much a reality.
“When the Theater Offensive was officially founded in 1989, we had lost a couple of our troupe members,” says Rybeck. “Our energy, and creativity, and determination were also really related to depair—to desperation.”
In the wake of tragedy, the group forged ahead, establishing themselves as a premiere LGBTQ theater company and earning a reputation for being on the forefront of arts activism. Now in its 25th year, the company continues to push boundaries with its work, adapting to the demands of our society. Perhaps their most notabe program is True Colors: Out Youth Theater, which provides year-round theater programming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth and their straight allies (LGBTQQA) between the formative ages of 14 to 22. Rybeck himself takes a jab at the lengthy all-inclusive acronym, LGBTQQA , laughing and calling it an “alphabet sandwich,” but it’s an important signifier of their community-oriented mission.
“Our work is to inspire outness in people for the benefit of all,” says Rybeck. “And the way we define “outness” is people being real with themselves about who they are—including their sexuality—and sharing that with the people they care about. We also think that when people do that that also includes understanding the power structures and circles your working with and being real with how you fit into those systems and what you want to do about it. So it means if you’re a white person, like I am, it means taking a look at racism in Boston and thinking ‘Well, what do I want to do about that?’ ”
In light of being “25-years bold,” the Theater Offensive is taking over the Wilbur Theatre for ClimACTS! BOLD, a night of food, booze, and raucous entertainment featuring Tony Award-winner Billy Porter from Kinky Boots and burlesque dancer La Chica Boom, and this June the theater’s OUT in Your Neighborhood! program launches the Neighborhood Pride Tour. Part indoor cabaret, part street theater, OUT aims to “provoke vibrant discussions about the LGBTQ community and create a culturally competent LGBTQ presence.”
Rybeck’s hope, and by extension the Theater Offensive’s, is that no one will have to feel like they can’t be themselves in their own skin and their own neighborhood. Rybeck remembers a young woman on stage at rehearsal for True Colors whose haunting question resonates through the company’s mission and ethos to this day: “Why should I have to take two trains and a bus just to be who I really am?”
ClimACTS! BOLD W/ BILLY PORTER. THE WILBUR THEATRE, 246 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. MON 5.19 AT 6PM/$100, VIP $175. THEWILBUR.COM
FOR OUT! IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD TOUR DATES AND LOCATIONS VISIT THETHEATEROFFENSIVE.ORG