With their latest play, The Theater Bug is starting important conversations with children on trans rights & changing lives.
Theatre has always been important to me, as working on the tech crew for multiple productions through high school, college, and into my adult years is one of the few places where I found that I truly felt I belonged. Because of this, I was ecstatic to be given the gift of tickets to see The Lion King at the end of 2018. As the Circle of Life played, both as the curtains rose and then fell again, I was teary eyed from the powerfully nostalgic and stunningly beautiful production. I didn’t expect to find myself so moved by a play after that — much less one put on by a children’s program. And yet, this past Sunday, I found myself applauding along with the rest of the audience for Secondhand Wings, sobbing myself hoarse throughout the standing ovation.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I assure you there wasn’t a dry eye in that audience as the final scene drew to a close — not to mention most of the cast, from four year olds to older teens, who were also wiping away genuine tears during the curtain call. Everyone involved in the production had been affected by the importance of telling this story — which has become a trademark for The Theater Bug since it’s creation in 2010.
As a young child, Robby is eager to learn the words and meanings for things discovered in the world around them. “Run” and “Sky” and “Fast” all felt just like they should, but when Robby is called “boy” something doesn’t feel right, and Robby yearns to find the word that matches their heart. One day in the park Robby sees a robin in a tree and struggles to explain to friends and family the pain of being born a bird without wings. Confiding in Astrid, a young girl in the same class, Robby tells her about being a bird and wanting to be called Robin instead of Robby. In a kind moment, Astrid offers her own dress up wings. Robin searches for a way to fly, while the community discovers the power behind the words, “I believe and I love you.”
--Synopsis of Secondhand Wings, a new play by Cori Anne Laemmel
Everyone wants to fly. We all want to feel successful and happy and free, all of these words that we associate with flight. When somebody tells you that you can’t fly enough times… it’s hard. So I had this idea that we could use this allegory of what it’s like to be a bird without wings.” Cori tells me as we sit across from each other in a Starbucks a week before Secondhand Wings was to open.
The decision to write a play about the transgender experience was something that she hesitated over for quite a while, recognizing that she was a cisgender woman who hadn’t experienced it herself. Even after having started rehearsals, she became worried that the chosen metaphor of being a bird without wings would be contributing to the dehumanizing comments that often make up the hate speech heard by trans people. But the members of the trans community who were involved in the production felt that it was a beautiful representation, and things moved forward.
“I thought, we’ve gotta find a way to tell this story that’s going to be accessible and that will maybe, for somebody who feels like they can’t relate to the trans experience, crack the door open so that they can say, ‘I can relate to this feeling of everyone-told-me-I-was-this-when-I-knew-I-was-this.’” The entire process, from writing to conscious LGBTQ+ representation to production, was done in association with The Rainbow Squad, East Nashville’s first middle school LGBTQ+ group, as well as mentorship from adults in the trans community — and the result is something everyone can be proud of.
The growth of inclusion and representation for LGBTQ+ people has been frustratingly slow, and I’ve not yet seen anything that so beautifully and accessibly shares the story of a trans person as Secondhand Wings. The professionalism of the production, including the 43 young cast members, were beyond anyone’s expectations for a children’s program — and the emotions portrayed came from a very genuine place for the students. I highly recommend taking your chance to see this show if you are in Middle Tennessee. You won’t regret it, as the quality of the production and depth of the story will blow you away.
Cori Anne was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California. Her involvement in theatre started at a young age, as her creative inclinations became clear to the adults in her life.
“I used to rewrite Buddy Holly songs and sing them for my cat,” she tells me, laughing. After suggestions from teachers, her parents enrolled her in local theatre programs.
Once she was out of school, she wanted to become a recording artist, and signed a management deal in Los Angeles. Something about it didn’t feel right, and she eventually made the decision to move to Nashville in 2006. “My heart had been broken by being in LA for many, many reasons, and it’s been very healing being here for some reason,” Cori explains. “Nashville is very different now than it was 13 years ago, but I still feel that it is that same sweet, kind place to me.”
After teaching theatre classes in the area for a while, something still didn’t fit quite right, and with the encouragement of her husband, Tyson, she decided to start her own non-profit children’s theatre program, The Theater Bug. Children’s theatre was something that wasn’t very accessible at that time in Nashville, and the response was immediate. For their first auditions they expected maybe ten children to show up, but when it came down to it, more than 40 children showed up.
After being confronted by the cost of licensing plays to produce, Cori Anne’s husband suggested that she write a play herself. After producing two musicals for The Theater Bug, she had the idea for a play that would help children understand how to deal with having a friend or family member who has a long-term illness. She introduced the idea of “The Barefoot Children in the City of Ward” to the program’s board, and one of the members got in touch to tell her what a terrible idea it was. “This will be too upsetting for the children.” Cori then considered pulling the idea, but the rest of the responses were great, and they moved forward with production. Since then, the plays produced by The Theater Bug have been socially conscious, focused on a wide range of issues facing people in the world today and starting serious conversations in an accessible way, no matter what age you may be.
“It’s always a learning process, even with that first play.” Parents and students alike feel comfortable enough to speak with Cori about concerns they have on how things are worded or portrayed. Participants come from all backgrounds and have a wide variety of interests and personality quirks, but The Theater Bug is a space where everyone feels safe and included.
Much of that is helped along by the fact that because these are all original plays, most of the characters are written for the children who participate. After sitting through auditions where she was concerned that some extremely talented kids wouldn’t have roles that fit them, she realized she could write a role into the story that would fit. “I can write something specifically for this brand of weird that just walked through the door,” Cori exclaimed, beaming fondly.
The Theater Bug is still small, but programs in other states have taken notice and reached out to license some of the plays, and the impact this program is making for young people in Nashville is enormous.
In a scene featuring “City of Boxes”, an original song written by Laura Matula and Cori Anne, Secondhand Wings main character Robin sings about her struggle to find a place where she truly fits. After speaking with Cori and seeing the way this one play impacted so many people, I believe I can honestly say that The Theater Bug has achieved Robin’s goal for an entire growing community here in Nashville — the ability to feel supported, loved, and free to fly as you please.
“Maybe if I could stack them tall, maybe my heart won’t feel so small. Maybe if I could build something so high, I’d finally reach the sky.”
Catch a showing of Secondhand Wings at The Theater Bug, now until Sunday, February 10th. Performances will be located at 4809 Gallatin Pike in the back building of New Life Baptist Church. Tickets online are $10 for adults & $5 for children under 12. Tickets can also be purchased at the door for $12 & $7, respectively.
Also be sure to grab a ticket to their production of Much Ado About Nothing this March, & stay tuned for information on future shows by visiting TheTheaterBug.org & liking their Facebook page!
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