Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

Memphian Returns, Helps LGBTQ and Allied Teens Find Their Voices

Photo: Jeff Riddle
Carly Crawford by John Moore.

Carly Crawford by John Moore

When Carly Crawford graduated from high school, the last thing she wanted was to stay in Memphis. “I was like, ‘I need to leave. I don’t ever want to live here again. I want to get out.’” But a lot happened to both Carly and Memphis in the eight years she was away. Now she’s the Assistant Director of Theatre Education at Playhouse on the Square — an educator, activist and actor who is creating space for LGBTQ+Allied youth to explore and express their identities at the very theater where she grew up. She also serves on the board of the Pride Youth Theater Alliance, a North American network of arts and community organizations with programs focused on Queer Youth Theater. We talked to Carly about what it’s like to go from lukewarm to leader, and what makes Memphis fertile ground for theater for social justice.

When did you become part of the Memphis theater community?

I started doing theater in Memphis when I was four, in community theaters. My first show was “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at Germantown Community Theatre. Then I just sort of got bitten by the bug and wanted to do it all the time. My first show at Playhouse on the Square was “Peter Pan” in 1994, and after that I did “Peter Pan” two more times as a kid. I started doing the Summer Youth Theatre Conservatory and when I got old enough, I auditioned for Teens in Theatre (TNT). So I grew up around POTS, and then I left. I went to school at UNC Asheville, and then I worked in Cincinnati for a year, and I worked in Kentucky with Lexington Children’s Theatre for three years. And then the timing was just right for me to come back.

What brought you back to Memphis?  

I knew it was time to leave Lexington. I knew I needed a change, but I wasn’t really sure what that was. My family’s here and so I thought I’d come back to Memphis, at least for the summer. I’d taught during Conservatory through the summers when I was in college, so I called to see if I could teach again. That’s when I heard that the position for an Assistant Director of Theatre Education was open, so I applied and also got to audition for Peter Pan in a very whirlwind experience. I found out that I got the job and was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m moving back to Memphis long-term. That’s cool!’ Everything sort of fell into place very serendipitously. I got to marry all the things that I learned that I like with a place and programs that I already had a connection to.

What made you want to move to Midtown? How had the city changed since you were here as a kid?

I wanted to live in Midtown because I’ve always liked it, but I also came back in 2013 which is right when Overton Square started popping again and everything started moving in. And so I was like, ‘Yep, that’s where I need to be, right around Overton Square. I want to be there when it keeps growing. I want to see what happens and I want to be a part of it.’

When I was in high school, I was ready to leave. And then I left and after eight years I thought, ‘You know, it could be time to go back now.’ Parents get mad at me all the time because when the high schoolers ask me for advice on college, my advice is to leave and that they can always come back. It’s nice to leave for a little while. You can appreciate Memphis more and you can give more to Memphis if you go away for a little while and then you come back. Go away and then come back and bring something new. I got to see Memphis in completely new eyes when I moved back.

What specifically do you feel you got to bring back out of all of your experiences?

A different level of teaching. I learned a lot, especially when I was in Kentucky, about theater education and theater for young audiences. When I’m talking to parents and kids about Conservatory, I’m talking to them theoretically about the things that I know about theater education based on my own education, based on the work that I’ve done elsewhere, but also based on the fact that I did it. I was there. I already knew the programs had value because I had done them!

At what point did it occur to you that a Queer Youth Theater group needed to be established in Memphis?

It kind of occurred to me before I moved back. The Mukti Fund who funds our group, Q&A, had an incubator fund to create new queer youth theater groups. When I was in Lexington, some of my friends started one and I was around for the first year of it. When I told them I was moving back to Memphis, my friend Theo who runs the program in Kentucky said, “We really need more Southern groups. You should start one.” I said, “Let me work at Playhouse for six months first and figure out what I’m doing with my life before I attempt this.” I sat down with Jackie Nichols, our founder and executive director, and told him, ‘Listen, we have a lot of performing opportunities for young people. We have a lot of classes, but we don’t have a lot of opportunities for them to create their own work and really devise and playwrite, and that’s what this would be. It gives young people a safe place to explore who they are, who their friends are, and what their lives are like and what life could be like.’ He said, “Great! Go for it!”

Q&A did our first show in May of 2015 called “Queerly Ever After” based on fairytales. Then in April of 2016, we did our second show, “Pass the Peas” based on family. We’re in talks with some local churches and schools about possibly bringing that play to them in some way, shape or form so that’s really exciting. We’re going to see if we can get this program more widespread, even just from an audience perspective so that more people are seeing it and thinking about the themes.

How has community response been?

People have been very receptive and very open. We always do talkbacks after the shows and a lot of our audiences have said things like, “I wish there had been something like this when I was in high school. I would have figured out who I was and been a lot happier a lot sooner.” And then there’s also comments from young people who say, “I didn’t know some of these things were as big an issue as they are and I didn’t know how much my life can impact someone else’s.”

Getting people to think about their place in Memphis — because it’s all about where we are — getting people to think about their place in their community and how we can all be a better community is exciting.

Tell me about your work with the Pride Youth Theater Alliance and the conference that’s coming in August. 

The Pride Youth Theater Alliance is a network of queer youth theaters in the US and Canada, and as part of the original grant for Q&A, I got to go to the annual conference in Orlando in 2014. Last year, I was on the conference committee. When it came time to figure out who would host the 2016 conference, I went back to Jackie and Karin Barile, the director of Theatre Education at POTS, and told them we should do it and they said, “Great! Go for it!” 

Last year, the conference was in Lexington, and it was the first time it had ever been in the South and a lot of people were kind of trepidatious, I think. A lot of the Pride Youth Theater Alliance community comes from places like Boston, San Francisco and New York, and so their experiences are different, and a lot of them have never been to the South, period. So they were like, “We’re going to do a queer conference in the South? I don’t know if that’s gonna be okay.” Some people had a lot of fear about what it was going to be like. Then everybody came to Lexington and they were like, “It’s so lovely down here!” And we said, “We know!!! That’s what we’ve been trying to say to you!”

What was it like selling Memphis to them this year?

It wasn’t hard to sell Memphis to the committee. Selling Memphis to other people has been interesting because a lot of people have never been here. And so they say, “Graceland!” And I say, “Yes, but there’s a lot more.” They’re still like, “Graceland!” And I’m like, “Yes, but the National Civil Rights Museum.” And they’re like, “Oh, you have what?!” We’re doing theater for social justice, so this is where we need to be. This city is so culturally rich.

We want to do an anti-racism institute as part of the conference this year. In addition to talking just about queer issues, there’s so much more to talk about and there’s so much intersectionality within that, especially within oppressed groups of people, that it’s important to acknowledge it all at the same time. I think Memphis is the perfect place for that.

And the fact that Playhouse has this beautiful giant facility — we don’t have to rent conference space. We can have our sessions here. At lunch time, people can walk to Overton Square or to Cooper Young. They can feel like they’re part of the city, which isn’t the case in every city. Not every city, not every organization, has facilities like that. People are really excited now.

As a young woman who identifies as queer, when did you find the space to confidently identify the way that you do? Have you always felt free to do so?

It was right before college. My first real experience with the word “queer” was with Morgan Jon Fox during the Love in Action protests in 2005. I was there everyday during those. If you watch the documentary “This Is What Love in Action Looks Like,” there’s one clip of me with a rainbow flag as a cape, flying through, which is typical Carly. The day that Love In Action decided they were going to hold a press conference the next day, we all went over to Morgan’s house and we realized that if they’re going to have a press conference, the press is going to have to go through us first because we’re going to be outside, so we need to shape up, basically, and designate specific people to talk to the press and be organized. The name of the group that got created was the Queer Action Coalition. That was probably my first real positive interaction with the word “queer” where I was like, oh, this can be a thing that everybody can identify as.

Personally, I went through a lot of identifying as this or that, and then finding that didn’t actually fit very well for me. Finally, I realized a few years ago, I don’t have to pick a different one. I can use “queer” and it can be fine. And that confuses people sometimes. They say, “Okay, you’re queer so you’re a lesbian.” And I’m like, “No.” And they’re like, “You’re queer, so you’re bisexual.” And I’ll be like, “No.” And then they’re like, “I don’t get it!” I’m just queer! It’s literally anything but straight. And you don’t have to get it — you don’t. But that’s it, there’s nothing more to it. That’s how I came to claim it as my own.     

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Carly Crawford is the Assistant Director of Theatre Education at Playhouse on the Square. You might’ve seen her onstage this year flying into Neverland as Peter Pan, navigating first grade as Junie B. Jones, devouring cupcakes as Pinkalicious, or dying dramatically as Frieda in Carrie the Musical. Carly loves books, the color yellow, crime dramas, cross stitching, and crocheting. Life is an adventure. You can email carly@playhouseonthesquare.org or follow her on Instagram

Q&A is an Education Program of Playhouse on the Square and a theatre troupe for LGBTQ and straight allied youth ages 14-21 using theatre to explore and express what life is like as an LGBTQ or straight allied youth in Memphis and the surrounding area. Participation is open to students ages 14-21. No prior theatrical experience is necessary. Learn more about Q&A and other education programs at Playhouse on the Square

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