Web Exclusives:Features

April 24, 2002:

Alumni Spotlight:
Ending "cooties"
Theater director Norma Bowles '84 sows tolerance, reaches out to gay youth

Caption:Bowles just published an anthology of plays from her theater group, made up of disenfranchised teens. Shown from left are Bob Stern, designer; Norma Bowles '84, editor; and Adina Avery Grossman '83, supporter

Ask any elementary school student what "cooties" are, and you'll likely be met with a look of disgust. If theater director Norma Bowles '84 has her way, that reaction will soon become a thing of the past.

Editor of Cootie Shots: Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry for Kids, Parents and Teachers, Bowles is on a mission to make tolerance a top priority for educators. The book, which encourages readers to accept themselves and others, is a compilation of 500 songs, skits, and poems written by participants in Bowles' nonprofit theater company, Fringe Benefits.

Bowles formed the Los Angeles-based troupe for teenagers in 1991 as a way of reaching out to gay youth. Her goal was twofold: to help gay teens find peace with their sexuality by telling their stories, and to combat the societal stigma of being gay.

She found her artistic collaborators on the streets, working with homeless kids who'd been turned away by their families because of their sexual orientation. Together, they developed a series of performance pieces addressing issues of identity and homophobia that went on to tour high schools across California.

Bowles has since developed shows for middle- and elementary-school children. In the fall of 2000, she and a team of 20 workshop leaders collaborated with kids in homeless shelters, upper-middle-class schools, and teen-parent programs. The result was "Clothes Minded?" a multilayered look at the ways in which kids are judged — and judge each other — based on appearances. Performance pieces ranged from a humorous take on the fashion police to a more serious look at the discriminatory behavior and attitudes that factored into the school shootings at Columbine and Santee high schools.

In Bowles' view, theater is an ideal format for exploring issues of tolerance and diversity with children. "Theater can take you on an emotional journey," says Bowles, who earned a M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts in 1990. "You can start to care about somebody that in real life you may not take the time to get to know."

"One of the things that really appealed to me about doing theater with gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender youths is that I get to take something that I received — [her education and theater training] — and give it back to the community," Bowles says. "I'm passing on the torch in that way."

Bowles, an independent concentrator at Princeon who studied masked performance, kept her own sexual orientation under wraps until her senior year. "In my experience, you couldn't let anyone know you were gay because you'd be ostracized. It was just too dangerous to say anything."

"Kids today are coming out a lot younger, and are being pegged as gay earlier," Bowles says. "In some instances it leads to much more harassment, and in some instances it leads to the ability to form allies and get the support of both the gay and straight communities and community organizations."

Over the years, several Princetonians have joined the Fringe Benefits team. Among them are Cootie Shots book designer Bob Stern '82, Cootie Shots contributors Billy Aronson '79 and Pamela Weymouth '90, and Fringe Benefits founding board member and former director of development Laura Salvato '84. Additional supporters who help in a variety of ways include: Lauren Weingarten Bon '84, Loring McAlpin '83, Jane Abernethy '79, Susan Jonas '81, Howard Gordon '84, Rob Greenberg '84, Jennifer Scott Clarvoe '83, and Alison Graham '84, Ricardo Hunter Garcia '79, Molly Hickok '82, Harman Avery Grossman '81, and Adina M. Avery '83.

By Tamar Laddy '94

Tamar Laddy is a film student at the University of Southern California.

Norma Bowles email: normabowles@earthlink.net