This Saturday is National Coming Out Day, and in celebration, local writer and theater artist Donna Ison has developed Out, a "theatrical celebration" to be performed at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.
The show features a cast of 12 people ranging in age from 16 to older than 50, all of whom tell their stories about coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
Dozens of people have chosen Ison as the first person to come out to, and she has long been an ally to the LGBTQ community, Ison says.
"I have called myself 'the closet door' because so many people came out to me or through me, and I was fascinated that there wasn't a show about coming out," Ison says. "I have realized that, in theater, my favorite thing to do is to bring people together who are not necessarily actors or writers but have really great stories to tell."
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Ison has a history of collecting stories from people who might not consider themselves writers or actors and shepherding those stories to an audience of supportive listeners. She previously led the Sisters Provocateur, a collective of women who performed or read their own stories about various aspects of women's experiences.
Ison strives to meet participants at their comfort levels, she says. Some cast members are keen to perform but not write their own pieces. Some can write but are nervous on stage. Ison works with each to develop their stories, and then she creates a non-traditional theatrical format for all of the stories to be presented in a cohesive way.
"The people who are comfortable writing their own pieces, write them and send them to me, and I just work on editing them," Ison says. "The ones who are not comfortable writing them but are comfortable performing them, we spend sessions with me just listening to them, and then I will write their story in whatever format works and send them back to them and we work together. I help develop their stories into a dramatic format that will work for them"
Ison first got the idea for the project in August, and noting the approaching date of coming-out day in October, quickly went to work securing participants, allies, and partners, she says.
Ison contacted LGBTQ-connected organizations — the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, Lexington Fairness, The Girl Project and others — to deliver her call for participants. The Carnegie Center and Lexington Fairness became community partners, and The Plantory and Lexington United provided in-kind sponsorships.
Ison says the quick pace of the project from beginning to end is an important part of the experience for newcomers to the stage.
"You get them in, you get them excited and you get them onstage quick," Ison says. "Don't give anybody time to think too much. If the process is too long, it's almost detrimental to the spontaneity. They can't over-think it, because these are stories that are from the heart."
Ison already knew a few members of the cast of 12 featured in the show, but she also met many new people. One of those was a 50-something transgender woman named Tuesday Meadows, who didn't come out until after retirement and more than 35 years of marriage.
Meadows wrote her own story for Out, which is in the final scene. She says that coming out isn't something that happens one time; it's a process.
In her scene, she is at a restaurant with a friend, explaining what it means to be transgender. Tuesday has rehearsed this scene in her own life countless times as she has come out to friends and family.
"I just did it like a week and a half ago," Meadows says. "We went to the restaurant at 11 a.m., and it seemed like a minute later, it was 2. I think taking time to explain, and them knowing what kind of person I am and always have been and will be in the future, I think that's important for them to understand that. I'm very lucky: I haven't lost a single friend yet."
The one thing all coming-out stories have in common is fear of how the news will be received, she says. Even though things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, coming out remains a stressful, emotional experience.
"It is never easy, even if the result turns out to be amazing," Ison says. "That's definitely not how it was 20 years ago, when you really had to worry about losing your job, your family, being excommunicated from your church. And in reality it is still difficult for people."