THEATRE FOSTERS leadership by cultivating empathy. Step into a rehearsal room filled with committed, hardworking Thes-pians and you’re bound to meet dozens of compassionate leaders in the making. Theatre is about setting goals, working together, thinking critically and creatively, and above all, stepping into the shoes of another person. Theatre inspires both artists and audiences to share stories, to care about others, and to strive to make a difference.

Though living in different parts of the country, both Texas Thespian Destiny Sailors and New Jersey Thespian Alyssa Sileo developed a passion for theatre as members of the International Thespian Society. These Thespians have never met, but they have something in common: Both decided to use their passion to improve the lives of others through arts-based advocacy.


Alyssa Sileo

In 2016, early in her junior year of high school at Gloucester County Institute of Technology, Sileo was talking with her troupe director, Kirstin Lynch-Walsh, about their upcoming production of The Laramie Project. Developed by Moisés Kaufman and his company, Tectonic Theater Project, the show is a powerful unpacking of the tragic 1998 death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, and Sileo, who identifies as LGBTQ, felt moved to use their production as a platform to raise even greater awareness about hate crimes. Her troupe director suggested dedicating the production to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. “When I heard that idea, I was immediately struck and I knew that this was something special,” Sileo said.

So, she decided to dream big. Sileo quickly set to work creating an advocacy initiative that she calls The Laramie Project Project. She says that LPP is “an international theatre advocacy network that raises awareness of LGBTQ+ issues by uniting worldwide performances of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play.” In other words, Sileo wants theatres around the world — high school, community, regional, and professional — to produce full-scale productions or simple readings of the play The Laramie Project that also honor or raise awareness about specific hate crimes.

Sileo matches each production with a hate-crime victim, and the production is dedicated to honoring the life and memory of that individual. In the future, she hopes to provide groups with discussion questions as well as an online community space where they can connect with one another. Over the past two years, more than 70 theatre groups from 23 states and four countries have staged or are planning such dedicated productions or readings in coordination with the LPP network.

Still, Sileo knows that it’s sometimes easy for an advocate to get discouraged, to think that all your hard work is not making a difference, but she believes in staying focused, positive, and connected to the reason you became an advocate in the first place. 

Sileo plans to enter Drew University this fall, and advocacy will continue to be part of her artistic process through continued work with LPP. “My whole life, when watching a play or watching a movie or reading a book, my heart has always felt so, so much — too much, I think — for the person who struggles,” she said. “We all have the power to help someone else, and all the tools are at our disposal. Artists should be the caretakers of equality.”

She added, “There’s so much possibility in each artistic process. The arts are advocacy. The idea of expressing something — and inviting others to comment on it and to partake in it — is advocacy itself. There’s a platform inside every artistic work, and I want to liberate each platform and prove that each show has the power to do something. The arts are a perfect space for advocacy, since you already have an audience, passionate people who want to be there, so why not infuse advocacy into it?”


Advocacy is contagious. As a State Thespian Officer from Texas, Sailors decided to follow Thespians in other parts of the country on Twitter and other social media. That’s how she discovered that Thespians in Grinnell, Iowa, worked with their city’s mayor on proclaiming March as Theatre in Our Schools month, as a way to raise awareness about the value of theatre education.

Inspired, Sailors did the same — and more. “I worked with my city. I sent an email to the mayor, talked with him,” she said. “He proclaimed March as Theatre in Our Schools month in Pottsboro. I decided that I would go one step further and do this in all of Texas.” Bolstered by her success at the city level, Sailors emailed Texas Governor George Abbott, detailing the significance of theatre in her own life and capturing the importance of theatre in education. “I grew up in a home of verbal abuse and was bullied at school,” Sailors wrote the governor. “I hated my life — so much so that I felt suicide was my only way out — but God saved me and brought me theatre. Theatre has revitalized my life.”

She didn’t stop there. She went on to explain how theatre energizes and enriches student learning: “Theatre provides benefits for our educational system. It has been proven that students who are involved in theatre have scored higher on the ACT and SAT. Students who participate in theatre acquire the problem-solving skills and adaptability much needed in the professional world. Theatre brings every core and elective subject into one unified art.”

Sailors didn’t get a response for months. As a senior, who planned to attend an out-of-state college, she thought her Thespian troupe would have to try again next year without her. However, she said, “To my surprise, one February morning, I opened the mailbox, and there was an official proclamation from the governor.”

She hopes that officially proclaiming March as Theatre in Our Schools month throughout the entire state will help remind Texans every year about the value of theatre education — that theatre is a safe space for all young people, a space where they can learn, be creative, and be connected with a special community.

After college, Sailors dreams of going abroad and founding a nonprofit theatre for children. “For me, being an advocate means being a voice for others who don’t really have a voice themselves,” she said. “Theatre is one of the most accepting places I’ve ever been a part of. People come from all different backgrounds. They don’t fit in anywhere else. They’re bullied. They don’t feel they have a chance to say what they believe or to create something, because they feel not good enough.”

She continued, “By being an advocate for theatre, I’m able to encourage people through the art to get into this place that’s so loving and accepting, to know they are welcome here.”

This story appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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