These are the words used by actress Kelli Simpkins during a phone interview with yours truly describing her latest project, Teddy Ferrara.
Teddy Ferrara is a play about the queer college experience. A tragedy on campus thrusts the university into the national headlines, but ultimately Teddy Ferrara is about people and relationships, and how tragedy and the changing of social norms impacts the characters’ lives and perceptions. Playwright Christopher Shinn was partially inspired by the Tyler Clementi story and the prevalence of bullying on college campuses to create this provocative world premiere.
Simpkins, Shinn and the rest of the cast reflected their own lives throughout the creative process, particularly the college experience and how technology has altered queer culture. The advent of social media has provided access, community, and anonymity among LGBTs, especially for young people living in rural or suburban communities. In or out, gay or straight or undecided, queer culture is now literally at our fingertips.
“It’s such a different world,” said Simpkins. “You actually get to be more authentic.”
Growing up in Evansville, IN playing basketball, Simpkins knew that something was different, but didn’t have the language to articulate it. “I knew from an early age that there was some deep attraction to girls… but I didn’t see examples of it.” She was introduced to acting in middle school, through the influence of a homeroom teacher who encouraged her to audition for a Vaudeville review about the Marx Brothers. “That fueled a love for me of performing and specifically playing that kind of real life character.”
After passing up a basketball scholarship, Simpkins acted in the Repertory People of Evansville prior to spending a few semesters in the Theatre Department at Indiana University. She left college early for a fortuitous opportunity to return home for a part in A League of Their Own, which was partially filmed at the now legendary Bosse Field in Evansville.
It wasn’t until moving to New York that she began to witness and understand the gay community and, as a result, better understand herself. When she came out, she “literally came out to… everyone. It felt like a really radical act,” but also one in which she felt “right for the very first time in [her] life.”
Simpkins’ story may be, in part, why Teddy Ferrara (showing February 2 – March 3 at the Goodman Theatre) is so important. For her, growing up before the age of social media and Internet access to, well, everything, it wasn’t until age 24 after moving to an urban metropolis that she began to see examples of LGBT culture such to better understand her own feelings. She shudders to think that her coming out may not have happened had she remained in Evansville.
“I’m openly gay and it’s really meaningful to me to see these kinds of characters on stage, which we don’t really get to see a lot of. Particularly at [the college] age.”
Simpkins’ character, Ellen, is a gender studies professor who is blazing a trail for policy change surrounding the LGBT atmosphere on campus.
When asked if she could relate to Ellen, Simpkins sees her character as a woman who’s strength surpasses her own. But she’s an activist in her own right. Having worked on a number of projects surrounding LGBT issues, most notably The Laramie Project (a film version of the play set in the town of Laramie, WY in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder) Simpkins is creating the visible examples of authentic gay characters in the media that she lacked growing up. She and Ellen are certainly allies, if not confidants.
For Kelli Simpkins, acting is a way to reach out to other kids growing up in small towns. Teddy Ferrara accompanies a season of Tennessee Williams and The Jungle Book in a venue that isn’t notorious for pushing the edge, and Simpkins admires the Goodman for having the guts to present such an important project – one that could potentially have a positive impact on the lives of LGBT people – and she confidently stands by the work the cast and crew has created. When asked if she had anything else to add, she simply encouraged Chicagoans to attend the show. Even with the media and Internet providing increasing access to gay teens and young adults, bullying remains a serious problem that is part of our present, not our past. Teddy Ferrara starts a conversation about the very real issues we face as a community, and the importance of advocating for LGBTs who don’t yet have the language to articulate the struggles they face.
Teddy Ferrara premieres February 2 and runs until March 3 at the Goodman Theatre. For tickets or more information, visit: http://www.goodmantheatre.org/season/teddy-ferrara/
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About Lauren W
Lauren Warnecke is a Chicago-based dance writer, educator, and freelance dance professional. She holds degrees in Dance (BA, ’03) and Kinesiology (MS, ’09) and is currently a full-time Clinical Instructor for the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at UIC. Created in 2009 as a platform for dance-based discourse, Lauren owns and operates Art Intercepts, a dance blog and online resource actively promoting the use of evidence-based practices in dance training and performance with the goal to improve and elevate artistry, dance education, and dancer health. She is a contributing author/blogger at Dance Advantage, 4dancers, and the Huffington Post, and an arts contributor at The L Stop. Lauren freelances as a production/stage manager, choreographer, media relations specialist, and grant writer, for small arts organizations and is a Certified Personal Trainer. She is a master composter who likes to dig in the dirt and bake scones.