Pictured: Susan Dempsey, Kira Pontiff, Ashley Hovell, and Shannon TL Kearns. Photo credit: Joe Edmonds
Pictured: Susan Dempsey, Kira Pontiff, Ashley Hovell, and Shannon TL Kearns. Photo credit: Joe Edmonds

Uprising Theatre Company came onto my radar during Mixed Blood’s run of Hir last year where Artistic Director Shannon TL Kearns spoke about the play we’d just seen and art in general, and spoke of his then upcoming work with Uprising. When the company started producing, I was eager to sit down with Kearns and learn more about the work the company would do — I was struck by their unique mission. In a community where we’re lucky to have several organizations devoted to work of marginalized artists (it’s still not enough though — keep going, y’all!), Kearns realized there was a missing piece to the equation.

Art can inspire to action, and it’s certainly a crucial tool for giving a voice to those who have been silenced, but in a community where those opportunities can be had what was missing was how to go from inspiration to action to, well, action, so he created Uprising to bridge that gap. The company’s goal is to pair with activist organizations to not only bring the audience to want to act, but to put the tools to do so directly in their hands by the affiliations and resources provided by those outside organization. As the company is putting their second show together, Kearns was able to talk to me more about the direction the company is headed.

Hello! Welcome to the Column’s Spotlight on the Arts. To start, can you just introduce yourself and Uprising Theatre Company?
Hello! My name is Shannon TL Kearns. I’m the founder and Artistic Director of Uprising Theatre Company and my pronouns are he/him/his. I currently wear a lot of hats at Uprising: producer, playwright, director, fundraiser, and cat herder and I love all of them!

At Uprising, we believe that stories have the power to change the world. We tell stories that challenge perceptions, bring light to justice issues, and provide new ways forward. We develop new plays as well as produce established works. Here’s how it works: we produce new and established plays that deal with social justice issues in a way that’s evocative and creative (no cheesy topical drama here). Then we partner with organizations who are doing on-the-ground work on those issues. As people watch a play and become emotionally invested, we give them a way to bring about change before they even leave the theatre. Folks can sign up to volunteer, to get involved in advocacy, or to learn more about the issue at hand.

What’s the hardest part of your joint mission to create this really important art but also really empower the audience to move forward into direct action?
There are a couple of challenges. First we want to make sure that any show we produce has a clear ethical question. There are a lot of amazing shows out there, but we want to make sure that we have a show that can invite people into change. Second, as a new theatre company doing premieres of new work it can be a real act of faith for local organizations (who are often stretched thin as it is) to take a leap of faith and be a part of something that is completely new. We do a lot of work to care for our community partners, to promote their work, and to make sure they know what they are getting into. For this show we brought Katie Leverentz on board to serve as our Community Engagement Coordinator and she has been stunning in working with our partners. She’s gotten five amazing organizations to sign up (Couples in Transition, PFLAG Twin Cities, OutFront MN, Transforming Families, and Avenues for Youth (Host Home Program)). They will be there tabling at every performance and inviting people to take a specific action to create change.

We’re still learning about how to make these action steps more effective, but I think we’ve taken a big step forward with this show and our partners and I can’t wait to see what our community does together!

What made you want to use theatre as your venue for pulling people to their feet to act out against oppression? Did you have a theatre background before?
I went to a small, very conservative evangelical college. This was before I realized that I was transgender, but I was definitely gender non-conforming at the time. I kept trying out for the theatre productions but never got cast because I didn’t “fit the look”. So I turned to writing my own shows and while in college wrote and directed two full length productions. In those shows I was interested in talking about the things that I felt no one else was talking about. I wanted to open up conversations and challenge people to think differently. I began to see the power of theatre to create empathy in people and to shift their perceptions.

The idea for Uprising came after I did a production of The Laramie Project with the Eat Street Players company. It was a great production and I loved being a part of it but the responses after the show bothered me. There were two main reactions “Thank goodness this doesn’t happen anymore” (which, as we know, just isn’t true) and “I really want to do something about this!” Then people would leave the theatre and that fired up feeling would fade and nothing changed. I started to wonder if there was a way to marry the power of theatre to spark emotions and empathy with the concrete work for social change. And I wanted to do both while creating powerful and high quality theatre (no cheesy “issue sketches” here).

You come from a world of faith and spirituality. How does that affect your life and your artistic work?
I grew up as a fundamentalist evangelical. I felt both loved and like an outcast. From a young age I started to ask questions about what faith and church were about: who was in and who was out? Who did we welcome? What space was made for people to ask questions and challenge perceptions? I didn’t feel like my church was a place for people to ask questions or for people to struggle. My faith journey has been a winding and wandering one, but I finally found a home in the Old Catholic church as the first openly transgender man ordained to the priesthood. The Old Catholic church is an independent and progressive Catholic group (not in communion with Rome) that ordains and welcomes women, LGBTQ folks, and married/partnered/divorced people. I love the mix of ritual and an emphasis on inclusion and justice work.

Religion sometimes shows up in my plays because that is the context I come from and that context has shaped how I view the world. Especially with this current show much of the hatred that comes toward transgender folks has come in the name of religion, so I think you almost have to talk about that in order to understand the deep seated feelings people have about the transgender community. I never want to be preachy and I am uninterested in converting people to a specific way encountering God, but I am interested in showing different sides of faith and creating more space for people to encounter the divine, especially space for people who have felt outcast and rejected from the tradition they were a part of.

Who are artists or what art inspires your own?
I’ve really loved the work of the Tectonic Theatre project, the care they take to give voice to people and the way they remain connected with those communities. Of course I am an admirer of 20% Theatre Company and Gadfly and your missions to create space for women and transgender people.

Honestly I’m inspired by all of the marginalized people who keep fighting to make space for themselves in the arts, who fight to tell their own stories, who continue to create opportunities to embody those stories on stages and screens because there is power there.

Your second show, Who Has Eyes to See, is coming up! You wrote, and directed, yes? What has that process been like?
This is the second show for Uprising that I have written and directed. This time around I am fortunate to have an amazing co-director in Ashley Hovell as well as the world’s best stage manager in Martin Sheeks. The two of them are keeping the wheels on this bus!

My writing process for plays very much depends on getting people in the room to act it out. I don’t have a lot of stage directions in my scripts and don’t envision much blocking beforehand. I concentrate on getting the right words on the page. So the gift of being both a writer and a director is being able to take two very distinct processes and put them together to create a finished product that is powerful and alive.

Tell us all about Who Has Eyes to See!
In Who Has Eyes to See, Jamie, a transgender man, gets called back to his family home after a decade away by his mother, Catherine, with the cryptic message that his sister, Emily, is in trouble. With the support of his loving wife, Alison, Jamie comes home to confront family struggles, a mother that doesn’t recognize him, and a past that he thought he had left behind but that impacts him in ways he can’t even see.

At its heart this is a show about family and how complicated and messy that can be. It’s about what it means to be an adult child and about how hard it can be to be yourself in the face of judgment. It’s the story of a transgender man, for sure, but I think there is a lot of truth in here for people who don’t have a transgender history. I have to say that the thing I am most passionate about with this show is that it tells the story of a transgender man but it’s not a transition story. We know that transgender people have more to their lives than just their experience of transition but we don’t normally see that on stage (or screen). I’m also really excited that (spoiler alert) no one dies. It shouldn’t seem revolutionary that there is a trans story being told without death, but it still really, really is.

The Show is on April 29 (at 7:30pm) and 30 (with a matinee at 1:30pm and an evening show at 7:30pm) and May 6 (at 7:30pm) and 7 (with a matinee at 1:30pm and an evening show at 7:30pm).
Every show will be followed by a facilitated discussion about the themes presented in the show. All performances are at Andrew Riverside Presbyterian Church: 403 SE 8th Avenue, Minneapolis 55414.

General admission tickets are $20, but we have pay what you can level tickets for every show. We also have opportunities for people to sponsor tickets so that transgender youth can see the show for free. If you are an LGBTQ youth (21 and under) and you want to see the show for free, please contact us and we’ll set you up! Tickets can be purchased at UprisingTheatreCo.com.

What’s next for you artistically, or for Uprising?
Our next show is called “Sex in the Dark” and will premiere in the Fall at the Phoenix Theatre. It’s still in development but it’s a show about body image and intimacy and how that plays out in a new relationship. It will feature a transgender man and a plus sized woman.

When you look into either Uprising’s or your own artistic future, where do you see things in five years?
There are so many things! We believe that there is power when marginalized people and groups tell their own stories so we want to produce works by other marginalized communities. We want to be able to throw all of our resources and community behind getting those stories told by the only people who can tell them. We have hopes and plans to launch a summer justice based theatre camp for children and youth where they can learn how to use theatre to tell the stories that matter to them and make change happen in their lives and communities. We want to continue to tell stories that will change the world and partner with local organizations to make sure that people have the opportunity to get involved in concrete action.
For myself I want to continue to push myself to grow as a writer and an artist and I want to keep asking hard questions of myself and my community. Oh, and I also want to learn how to write a kick ass grant application.

If someone wants to support Uprising beyond coming to Who Has Eyes To See, where can we find you to do so?
One really cool initiative we have along with this show is the opportunity for people to send messages of support to transgender youth. We’re going to compile those messages into a printed booklet (and a pdf download) that will be given to all of the youth who come to see the show. We want to change the narrative that youth hear about what it means to be transgender. You can leave a message of support here. To donate, click here.

Anything else you want our readers to know?
It matters that marginalized people be able to tell their own stories and have space and support to do so. I hope that the Minneapolis theatre scene can continue to be a place that encourages that work and that can set an example for the rest of the country and theatre world in general.

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