Meet the Artist
James Lecesne Joins Project: Transform
By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
“I’m sure the kids at Project: Transform will have their own personal stories about these issues, and I’m fairly certain that they won’t have a problem sharing them. The question is – Will we listen?”
Academy Award-winning writer/actor/storyteller James Lecesne will join Project: Transform this spring as guest artist. In its sixth year, Project: Transform, a partnership between Hartford Stage and the Capitol Region Education Council, is a free program providing Connecticut high school students with the opportunity to speak out about the change they would like to see in their neighborhoods, community, and world. Previous guest artists have included Janine Nabers, Matthew Lopez, and Giovanna Sardelli.
Under the tutelage of Lecesne and Hartford Stage teaching artist Natalie Pertz, 12 to 15 students selected from urban and suburban school districts throughout Connecticut will collaboratively create a devised piece of theatre exploring the idea of transformation while giving a voice to the change they’d like to witness in their own lives and the world around them. Project: Transform culminates with a public performance of the completed original play, which will be open to families, friends, and the community.
The theme of this year’s Project: Transform – safe schools and acceptance – is a natural fit for Lecesne, who is a co-founder of The Trevor Project, the only national crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBT and questioning youth. A storyteller for over 25 years, he wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning short film Trevor, which inspired the founding of the organization. Lecesne created The Road Home: Stories of Children of War, which was presented at the Asia Society in New York City and the International Peace Initiative at The Hague, and founded the After the Storm Foundation, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to offering assistance to New Orleans youth in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He also served as executive producer of the documentary film After the Storm. Lecesne’s television credits include adapting Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City and writing for Will & Grace. He is also the author of three young adult novels, including Absolute Brightness, and edited The Letter Q – Queer Writer’s Notes to Their Younger Selves.
Lecesne is no stranger to Hartford Stage, having performed in The Mystery of Irma Vep, Motherhood Out Loud, and I Am My Own Wife. His other acting credits include his one-man shows Word of Mouth and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey; The Best Man on Broadway; The Boys in the Band; and Cloud 9. Currently, Lecesne is the story consultant for the British sitcom Vicious, starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, and he teaches story and structure at the New York Film Academy.
Lecesne was invited to participate in Project: Transform because of his powerful work with The Trevor Project and his revered storytelling abilities. Lecesne recently spoke about his ties to Hartford Stage, his enthusiasm for working with youth, his excitement for Project: Transform, and the power of stories to change the world.
What do you find most appealing about Project: Transform?
I’m excited about Project: Transform’s ability to bring together young people from various backgrounds and neighborhoods throughout the state and to provide them with the opportunity to create something new. This opportunity will allow the young participants to engage with other kids outside their usual sphere, expose them to a variety of racial, gender and socio-economic differences and expand their world view. Suddenly, they’ll have the opportunity to be involved with kids who they might not ordinarily come in contact with; and hopefully, they’ll come to understand that they’re all dealing with the same challenge – how to be fully and uniquely themselves in a world that’s trying to get them to be like everybody else.
You’ve collaborated with high school students in the past. Why is a program like Project: Transform particularly significant for this age group?
Theatre saved my life. I was lucky enough as a young adult to find the means to express my true self in a supportive environment. It happened at a small summer-stock theatre on the Jersey shore not far from where I grew up. There, I discovered and developed my talents, met people who encouraged in me a desire to become an artist, and learned firsthand just how difficult it is to create anything in this world. So many young people are hungry for similar opportunities to explore and express who they are. And yet, more and more we see how the arts are getting pushed to the margins. Music, dance, theatre, and painting are being considered expendable when it comes to the education of our young people, and as a result, are being dropped from many school curriculums. We all know from personal experience, however, that art has a unique ability to enhance and expand our sense of ourselves; it carries us out beyond the limitations of the self where we can begin to consider and empathize with others. Put quite simply, art makes us more human, more ourselves. On a more practical level, recent studies of brain functionality have proved that an interest in the performing arts in young people leads to a high state of motivation which in turn produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance in all other areas and leads to improvement in other domains of cognition. In other words, art isn’t just a fun, feel-good experience; it’s also good for you.
The theme for this year is safe schools and acceptance. How personally connected do you feel to this? How difficult do you think it will be for the students participating in Project: Transform to share their own life experiences?
Through my work with The Trevor Project, I’ve seen first-hand the negative effect that un-safe schools have on our young people. And not just LGBT kids – any environment where one group of kids is targeted or picked-on or made to feel less-than will create an environment in which everyone is at risk. The Trevor Project has been working for the past few years in Washington to create safer-school legislation, but it’s a difficult fight. The determination to change a system that allows for bullying and discrimination in the schools must start with adults; and, sadly, there is not yet enough support to make this happen. I’m sure the kids at Project: Transform will have their own personal stories about these issues, and I’m fairly certain that they won’t have a problem sharing them. The question is – Will we listen?
Can you tell us a little about your own personal history with Hartford Stage?
Michael Wilson invited me to star in a production of The Mystery of Irma Vep in 2002. This was such a great collaboration between me and Michael as director, my co-star Jeffrey Robson (aka Varla Jean Merman), and Hartford Stage. The production later went on to wow audiences at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and then in Provincetown at The Provincetown Theatre, as well. A couple of years later, I returned to star in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning solo play, I am My Own Wife. With the help of an amazing creative team, including director Jeremy Cohen (former Associate Artistic Director at Hartford Stage), I was awarded the Best Actor award in Connecticut. And then a couple of years later, I returned again to Hartford to be part of the creation of Motherhood Out Loud, an original ensemble piece about motherhood directed by Lisa Peterson. Over the years, Hartford Stage has provided me with some of the most exciting and interesting creative experiences of my performing career.
What are some of the challenges of performing a one-man show, such as The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey?
Well, remembering all the words –that’s always a challenge. But the real challenge starts before anything is written. I always begin by asking myself, “Why does this story have to be told by a single actor?” There has to be a reason that a single actor (me) is playing all the characters –
a reason beyond just vanity or a desire to demonstrate my range as an actor. For me, that’s key. Then, once the show is completed, the next challenge is getting the audience to suspend their disbelief and see me as someone entirely different from the person who appears before them. Without costume, make-up or anything at all, I have to get them to see someone other than myself. In order to do that, I have to be more than just myself. That’s the challenge every night – to create more life.
What words of encouragement are you hoping to share with the students participating in this year’s Project: Transform?
As always, I want to encourage young people to be totally themselves, to accept themselves, and to love themselves just as they are.
How vital is it for storytellers of all kinds to continue to share personal stories of survival and the will to overcome?
I’m a big believer in the power of stories to transform the world; and for me, theatre is the place where transformation seems most accessible, most exciting. Theatre experiences like Angels in America, The Laramie Project, The Vagina Monologues, and even Trevor – which began in the theatre and then went on to inspire the founding of The Trevor Project, the only national 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis intervention Lifeline for LGBT and Questioning Youth – are all proof that theatre can not only transform the attitudes and opinions of an audience but can also change the conversation and inspire change in a generation. Who wouldn’t want to do that – or at least try?
To learn more about James Lecesne and his work, visit http://www.jameslecesne.com/.