The Theater Offensive: Can A Continent Be Our Neighborhood?

Introduction Process Impact


We are pleased to present our new publication, Innovation In Action: Three Case Studies from the Intersection of Arts & Social Justice in EmcArts’ Innovation Labs. In this blog post, we will explore the innovation story of The Theater Offensive (TTO), one of the three organizations profiled in the publication. You can download their case study here.

TTO was accepted into Round 8 of EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts in February 2013. In 1989, TTO was born out of a small guerrilla street theater in Boston called The United Fruit Company. Its mission was to represent the diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer lives through art and build a nurturing community. Throughout it’s history, TTO focused on creating programs that educated youth and developed their leadership skills. Over the years, and specifically after the financial crisis of 2009, TTO made several adaptive changes–its programs became more local and collaborations with other community groups and neighborhood residents increased. In this case study, we will explore how TTO hosted the Pride Youth Theater Alliance (PYTA) and navigated the complex challenge of hosting a national network while simultaneously sustaining both local, community-based theater programs.

The Theater Offensive’s Neighborhood Pride Tour at Haley House. Photo courtesy: Ivy Maiorino.

Launched in 2008 with a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts helps organizations design and prototype new ideas and launch real-life projects that address major challenges facing the arts and culture sector today. To learn more about the frameworks of the Lab, click here.

Download the Theater Offensive case study here. 

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In 2010, with the help of funding from the Mukti Fund, a private Key West-based foundation, TTO and nine other queer theater groups convened over a three-day period. With these groups often feeling isolated, this convening helped with valuable knowledge and resource sharing. The Pride Youth Theater Alliance (PYTA) was a part of this network gathering. By 2012, PYTA had grown to 20 member organizations, complete with officers and committees.

It was at this point of PYTA’s national growth that Abe Rybeck, Executive Director decided to enter TTO into the Innovation Lab, as TTO was getting ready to host the national network within it’s offices in Boston. The complex challenge of the Lab focused on how to successfully nest the national network within TTO, which was historically a local organization that prioritized place-based community interventions.

With an Innovation Team of 10 people across 4 states, TTO began it’s journey in the Lab by conducting a field survey, focus groups and interviews.  The overwhelming response from PYTA member organizations was that they wanted stronger peer support and netwroks, and grants for their work. The next step was for the Innovation Team to enter into the retreat phase of the Lab, where they were aided by EmcArts’ facilitator John Shibley. In order to help the team better understand their dynamics, Shibley administered the Belbin Team Roles Analysis, which helps team members identify which of 9 key team roles they prefer to play.

Following this intensive retreat, the team was able to draw up a prototype plan that described a strategic partnership with 26 PYTA sites, in keeping with TTO’s fundamental values of shared leadership, transparency and collaboration. Another aspect of the plan included the formation of a Youth Leadership Committee and the hiring of a Youth Organizer to promote professional development and peer leadership in PYTA. Some of the main challenges TTO faced through this process of growing a national presence was making sure local programs did not languish, and diversifying its funding streams. Since there were so many voices involved from diverse groups across the country, decision making also proved to be difficult.

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Through the Innovation Lab process, TTO learned the importance of having a carefully curated team of stakeholders and planning to have the right amount of time, space and facilitation if they wanted to engage in real change. Rybeck said, “Perhaps the most profound change in our behavior is greater conscientiousness about bringing the right team together when we want to engage in real change.”

A major outcome of the Lab is that TTO is now much more visible on a national scale as a leader in the field of queer youth theater. This increased visibility has also increased TTO’s ability to attract funds from outside of their home base of New England. With this increased funding they have been able to instate The Incubation Project, which awards small grants and a mentor to emerging queer youth theaters.

Download the full Theater Offensive case study here. 

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