Lena Dougherty, a junior in Thespian Troupe 8938 at Wildwood Catholic High School in North Wildwood, New Jersey, is the winner of the 2020 Democracyworks competition. Dougherty is a hard-of-hearing actor who launched Project Stage Hands, a directory of sign language interpreters available for local performances and events, which she hopes to expand nationwide.

This year’s essay prompt, “How does theatre help bring diverse communities together?,” was inspired by 2019 Educational Theatre Association National Conference keynote speaker Jane Chu, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, who spoke about how theatre promotes a culture of belonging that honors different perspectives while bringing people together.

IN AMERICA TODAY, we seem to be very good at pointing out differences and isolating ourselves from others. As we move further into the 21st century, humans need to find empathy and understanding. We need to work to celebrate our differences while never forgetting the similarities that unite us. This is the only way for humanity to reach its potential for peace.

Luckily, there is a place where this is already being done, and there are people who have already put inclusion into practice. On stages, behind the scenes, and in audiences across the nation, people are being welcomed regardless of their differences. My story is proof that all people can find a place where they belong in the world of theatre.

Lena Dougherty

Lena Dougherty

Seventeen years ago, I was born with only one ear. Not only do I look different, but I also have hearing difficulties and have used different types of hearing aids throughout my life. Ironically, when I was 8 years old, a dance teacher noticed that I had a knack for music and encouraged my parents to take me to a musical theatre audition with a professional company.

Landing my first role in Annie was nothing short of amazing. The adults and kids in the show asked questions about my missing ear. They were curious and interested and made me feel special. I felt more a part of that cast than I had ever felt a part of anything. For the first time in my life, I was proud to be different. I knew I had found my place in the world and asked my mom when I could audition again.

The kindness I felt in Annie was matched by every director and castmate I encountered in the years that followed. It made me want to reach out to those who were looking for their place and make them feel as welcome as I felt. Soon, I had friends from all over New Jersey. Most were a lot older than I. They were from all faiths, all races, and all economic backgrounds. They had very different talents and abilities.

My young mind was being opened to new situations regularly. At 10 years old, I witnessed my first same-sex marriage when my castmate married his husband in the mezzanine of our community theatre. I learned to recite prayers in Hebrew and attended bar/bat mitzvahs for several of my friends. I performed alongside those on the autism spectrum and with cancer survivors. I met others who had hearing impairments and some with birth defects who could relate to mine. I had opportunities to perform for the visually impaired students at the Helen L. Diller Vacation Home for the Blind. Two of the girls I met when I was young now identify as males. There was never any fuss about anyone I encountered. They were all my castmates, and they remain my friends.

Now, in my 10th year working as a hard-of-hearing actor, I recognize how lucky I am to belong to something so special. Every person from every corner of the world deserves to have a sense of belonging. I want all people of all abilities, creeds, colors, sexes, and sexual orientations to find a place where they feel safe to be exactly who they are. To do my part to ensure that more people witness this and find a home in the theatre community, I am currently working to help theatre companies and schools connect with American Sign Language interpreters so that they may make their shows accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. Friends of mine are adapting their performances to suit audiences with autism spectrum disorders. In addition, I have been given the opportunity to host a workshop for other high school actors, so I may share some of these steps to inclusion with them.

As Thespians, we are paving the road to inclusion. We must continue to act as leaders in a society that can learn so much from our passion and our compassion. By inviting more people into our troupes, our casts, and our audiences, we can truly change the world.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Power of Student Voices

    Power of Student Voices

    We can and should advocate for theatre education

    Jul 09, 2019

    Transformative Theatre

    Transformative Theatre

    Thespians celebrate TIOS with To Kill a Mockingbird performance

    Apr 12, 2019

    Five Questions with <br/>Brannon Evans

    Five Questions with
    Brannon Evans

    Democracyworks winner on the power of student voices

    Apr 05, 2019