ARP Grant Spotlight: The Theater Offensive (Boston, MA)

By Mary Lieb
a single actor on stage is photographed against a dark house

The Theater Offensive presented Queer Purgatory at the Liberty Hotel for Fashionably LATE Thursdays in October 2021.

Thirty-three years ago, The Theater Offensive (TTO), was formed in Boston, Massachusetts, to expand on the success of the gay men’s guerrilla theater troupe, United Fruit Company. From 1989 to 2009, the troupe created edgy art and theater festivals, and brought well-known queer theater artists to Boston. The organization then initiated programming to support queer youth, an artists-in-residency program, and workshops for queer artists and playwrights. Their mission was to celebrate the queer community—in Boston and beyond—and create a space for queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) to create their own art, push artistic boundaries, and dismantle oppression.

“TTO uses creative arts and practices to build supportive environments for queer and trans people of color to actually be able to create whatever they want to create, and ultimately create the world that they want to live in and thrive,” described Director of Institutional Advancement Cheyenne Myrie. We’re dismantling oppression through celebration, through joy, through just unapologetic love and acceptance of people.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it had a disproportionate impact on QTPOC, who already faced hurdles to accessing healthcare, financial stability, food security, and housing. TTO’s already established role as a resource for connection, healing, and mutual aid in the Boston community has been especially important throughout the pandemic.

Despite pandemic-related challenges, TTO continues to provide resources that help its community achieve economic, educational, social, and emotional stability. For example, the company offers wellness programming for all ages, relief funding for youth and artists, specialized learning plans, and support services connections in the True Colors: OUT Youth Theater Program.

Like many other arts organizations, The Theater Offensive reimagined their approach to theater during the pandemic, learning from collaborators in television and digital media how to bring technology into the homes of youth and artists so they could continue their work. The company also started a family series, continued virtual True Colors programming, and expanded their reach on social platforms.

The NEA helped support these recovery efforts through a $100,000 American Rescue Plan grant, which the organization will use to support staff salaries and artist stipends. The organization is committed to equity and TTO Executive Director, Harold Steward, has capped his own salary to ensure staff at all levels receive a living wage.

“This work requires not just a lot of physical labor, but emotional labor. It can be draining and so we’re making sure that we're taking care of our people,” said Myrie.  

As TTO looks to the future, the organization has launched a capital campaign to build a new home where they can better serve the community. Excitement is bubbling, and TTO has already received reservation requests for rental and gallery space for a space that is still under construction.

Until the space is finalized, however, TTO will continue to empower artists to create work that is true to themselves. Recently, The Theater Offensive was also recommended for a NEA Grants for Art Projects grant to support the world premiere production of Fly, an original play adapted from the poetry of Marvin K. White that explores a gay Black man’s experience with mental health, death, and liberation.

“Historically, spaces catering towards queer communities and BIPOC communities have faced extraordinary challenges making it difficult for works like Fly to be presented. That history has everything to do with ownership,” said Myrie. “I think that the more we can offer space that we own, the more we can really hold the community and be a beacon for queer arts and artists in Boston.”

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