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