The Philadelphia theater scene is about to get even more queer with the introduction of a new nonprofit theater company, The Strides Collective. The collective produces queer-themed plays by local queer playwrights, with a mission of “normalizing the conversation about queer identity,” fostering a “safe haven” for new playwrights to tell their stories, and providing a judgement-free space where freedom of expression can thrive. The 11 members of the collective, who reside in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware, run the whole show — including fundraising, producing, directing and acting.
Director and playwright Jonathan V. Edmondson and some theatrical collaborators founded The Strides Collective in late 2020, on the heels of producing a virtual audio play called “Ignite.”
“I was very inspired by the talents of a lot of young emerging artists,” Edmondson said. “And just knowing how hard it is to break into the theater scene in the city as an actor, designer, or especially as a playwright – so hard to get your work produced or developed. I decided that I wanted to be a little more legitimate in producing.”
The collective is proud to premiere the play “the pigeon.” this October, their first in-person production.
Written by Edmondson and directed by Kyle Metzger, “the pigeon.” follows Adam as he investigates the disappearance of his brother in Denver. During his search Adam finds Nate, who claims he hardly knows Declan, but thanks to a mysterious building manager, an inquisitive roommate and a bird on the fire escape, Nate has no choice but to face what he was trying to evade.
“It’s really a piece about finding community or lack thereof for queer people,” Edmondson said. “And acknowledging that in a lot of areas, not everywhere in the world, things are much better for queer people than they used to be, but it’s still not great. It’s still not super inclusive and comfortable for queer people to live their authentic selves.”
The theme of young queer people having to cope with feeling cut out of a largely heteronormative world runs throughout show.
“It became a play about growing up,” Edmondson said. “A lot of people maybe come out in late high school, they have college experiences and really come into their queerness. Then they get spit out of college and they’re in their late twenties and think, ‘I don’t know what to do now; all of my straight friends are getting married and having babies, and that’s not happening to me.’ At least that’s how I felt. [The show] explores those themes of community and safety, and puts into question – what if there was a world where queer people maybe were the majority of people instead of a minority?”
While there are other queer theater initiatives in Philadelphia, like ON THE ROCKS and The Hum’n’bards Theater Troupe, Edmondson commented on how good it feels to work on a show with mostly queer folks, as well as the need for a space like The Strides Collective in Philly.
“This space really doesn’t exist in this particular way in theater in Philadelphia,” Edmondson said. “There are so many queer artists, but to have this common denominator is really powerful. I think it’s made the rehearsal process pretty smooth in terms of being able to voice concerns, emotions or feelings.”
Every character in “the pigeon.” is queer in some respect, and most of the people working on the show are queer, Edmondson said.
“The first day when we read through this play, it was so nice to just talk freely without any fear or judgment or lack of understanding. We all come at this from different perspectives, but the feeling of being in a room where people understood the baseline was just so nice.”
Not only do Edmondson and his colleagues want to center queer stories, they strive to estrange themselves from stereotypical themes that portray the LGBTQ community through a narrow lens, like plays based on traumatic coming out experiences or the HIV crisis.
“If you have any sort of [queer] theater knowledge at all, you probably think of ‘Angels in America,’ you might think of ‘Rent,’” Edmondson said. “They are seminal works and have influenced literally everything after them and we love them, but that’s not the only facet of the queer experience. We think it’s really important to emphasize queer joy and queer normalcy. It’s kind of a two-fold mission of putting queer people on display and saying we exist, but also that our sexuality doesn’t define every facet of our being, and it shouldn’t in theater either.”
The Strides Collective offers an Emerging Playwrights Program, which provides the opportunity for a cohort of burgeoning queer playwrights to collaboratively develop their work with other queer playwrights and dramaturges. The 2022 cohort spent five months, from May to October, developing their individual plays. Their stint in the program will end up with a cast of actors reading a section of their work in front of a live audience in mid October.
“We don’t choose period pieces or historical fiction, we try to focus it on ‘modern’ work that speaks to right now,” Edmondson said about the collective’s approach to producing new plays. “This is a huge lofty goal, but we want to help build the canon of American theater queer stories, so that in 10 or 20 years someone doesn’t search for queer plays produced in college and still sees only ‘Angels in America.’ That’s the sort of expansive work that we want to get to. That they’re being told by queer people – I think that authenticity is of the utmost importance.”
“the pigeon.” will run from Oct. 6-16 at Christ Church Neighborhood House. For more information about The Strides Collective and to buy tickets, visit https://www.stridescollective.com/.