Thunder Bay Theatre and Art in the Loft Tackle Difficult Conversations in Series of Diversity Panels

Written by Kingsli Kraft | June 14, 2019

For fifty-three years, Thunder Bay Theatre has been leading conversations about difficult topics in our community through the shows they perform on the stage at 400 N. Second Avenue. Just last year they performed “Hairspray,” a well-known show that tackles the themes of race and body positivity, and their performance at the bandshell was attended by thousands of community members.

This year, in partnership with Art in the Loft, they have started to lead the conversation in a different and more intentional way with “Let’s Talk”—a series of five panel discussions scattered throughout the year covering the topics of race, gender, mental health, sexuality, and bullying prevention. The panels take place at Art in the Loft. Each panel starts with music that sets the tone for the evening and relates to the topic of discussion and then features four community members with a connection to the theme covered. A moderator facilitates the conversation by setting some expectations to keep the room a safe space and then asking some predetermined questions.

This photo is from the Let’s Talk Black History Month Panel
and was found on Thunder Bay Theatre’s Facebook Page

The idea for the panels started when Adrian Rochelle, one of the Education Coordinators at Thunder Bay Theatre, sat on a Martin Luther King Jr. Panel at ACC in January. During and after the panel, he saw a need for more conversations like the one they had that night. Through conversation with other staff at Thunder Bay Theatre, Art in the Loft and other community members, the “Let’s Talk” diversity series was formed. It has been a group effort to bring these panels to our community in an intentional and thoughtful way.

Art in the Loft was more than happy to offer their space for and promote the series. “I think it’s really great to see these conversations happening, especially from an arts perspective, using an arts voice to tell the story of marginalized groups,” Justin Christensen-Cooper, Executive Director at the Loft, shared.

So far there have been three panels this year—a Black History month panel in February, a Women’s History Month panel in March, and a Mental Health Awareness panel in May. Panelists are found and selected through community recommendation and connections to the theatre. All panelist recommendations are reviewed and interviewed by Theatre staff in an attempt to represent as many perspectives, experiences, and identities as possible.

This photo is from the Let’s Talk Mental Health Awareness Panel
and was found on Thunder Bay Theatre’s Facebook Page

All of the panels have been well attended so far, and the numbers are only growing. I’ve been to all three panels and the first had about forty people in attendance and the last one, close to sixty with some people standing in the back. This overwhelmingly positive response has meant so much to the staff, board and everyone involved at the Theatre.

“It means more than any words could ever say. Ever since college, I’ve become really passionate about social justice and changing the world for the better a little bit at a time. So to see that happening with these panels in front of my eyes is beyond rewarding,” said Adrian.

June is Pride Month and so the fourth panel is a Pride Panel is set to take place later this month on Tuesday, June 25th. Pride Month is a celebration and recognition of all peoples who identify as LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and all others) and the impact they have had on history across the world. It is celebrated specifically in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan. That makes this year the fiftieth anniversary of Pride. Adrian is hoping to plan a full week of events around the panel in collaboration with other local groups to celebrate this milestone.

After the Pride panel this month, a Bullying Prevention panel is planned for the fall. Beyond that, they hope to continue the panels next year. It is a goal of Jeff Mindock, Artistic Director at Thunder Bay Theatre, to hold space for a panel every month in 2020.

“Our hopes are to continue to provide accessible programming that impacts our community in pursuit of our mission. The Let’s Talk Panels are designed to provide an educational opportunity that solidifies the Theatre’s core values of diversity and inclusivity, family, and growth. Although not confirmed, the goal is to host ten to twelve panel discussions in 2020. We hope to continue to develop community involvement and establish the fact that Thunder Bay Theatre is much more than just a live professional theater,” shared Jeff.

Adrian has some ideas of topics he would like to see panels tackle in the future. Specifically he would like to see panels break topics down further into categories, like gender identity and differences in socioeconomic status.  

These conversations are important to our community. Yes they can be, and often are, uncomfortable, and we need to sit in our discomfort and listen to these stories and perspectives in order to move forward and grow as a community.

For more information about the next panels in the Let’s Talk diversity series, follow Thunder Bay Theatre on Facebook here.

Kingsli Kraft wrote this article for Blog Downtown Alpena. Kingsli is and Alpena native and a graduate of the University of Michigan. She now works at the Alpena Downtown Development Authority as the Marketing and Outreach Coordinator. She enjoys reading, writing, yoga, hiking, caring for all of her plants and trying new recipes. You can follow her on Instagram here.

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