Rainbow Connection Camp Brings Together LGBTQ+ Youth and Elders

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On the nights of Friday, Aug. 11 and Saturday, Aug. 12, campers attending the Rainbow Connection LGBTQ+ theater camp presented their show “Cherry Groves” at the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater. The theater production combined music, dance, drag, acting, spoken word poetry, video, and other performance art to explore the LGBTQ+ experience through an intergenerational lens.

The performances were the finale of a two-week theater camp program called Rainbow Connection, funded by the Arts Project of Cherry Grove. The Arts Project is the oldest LGBTQ+ theater company in America and runs the oldest continuously operating LGBTQ+ theater in the country. The “queer intergenerational summer camp” was aimed at LGBTQ+ young adults ages 15-21 and up, as well as LGBTQ+ older adults ages 55 and up. Sheila Morgan, executive producer for Rainbow Connection and director of development for the Arts Project, explained that the camp and the performances were developed in this way to bridge the gap between LGBTQ+ youth and elders.

Camp participants like Jack Lada, a 22-year-old transgender man, echoed these sentiments saying it was important for LGBTQ+ youth and elders to build connections and collaborate so they could learn from one another. Lada also said that “I have nothing but respect for all of them” in regards to his older camp mates and their ability to survive and come of age in a time when it was more difficult to be an LGBTQ+ person in the U.S. than it is today. Older Rainbow Connection campers like Michael Butler also praised the camp for fostering “emotional healing and understanding between its participants” and called the opportunity to learn from LGBTQ+ youths “immensely rewarding.”

Morgan explained that The Rainbow Connection program relied upon “devise theater,” a technique utilizing improv, writing exercises, personal sharing, and other creative prompts to help participants develop scenes based on their lives and in this case their LGBTQ+ identity. The camp was divided into two weeks with the first week focused on creating the show’s many performance pieces through devise theater and the second week being dedicated to rehearsals. Lada explained one example of a first week writing exercise was called bathroom graffiti, in which participants had to write and doodle on a giant piece of paper about issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. Lada’s musical spoken word poetry piece “We’re not going back” presented during the show was inspired by something he wrote during the activity. Campers were able to attend the camp for free and were reimbursed for ferry tickets and provided lunch by the Arts Project every day.

Other examples of performance pieces presented during “Cherry Groves” include a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” performed by Lada, a short film explaining what Rainbow Connection is, and a monologue called “I saw Queer Heaven” by Sophie Kim that presents a vision of heaven as a sanctuary for queer people, among other pieces. All of the performance pieces presented during “Cherry Groves” by the Rainbow Connection campers explored themes like empowerment, identity, resilience, and generational trauma in the LGBTQ+ community. The first night of the show was a free pay what you will preview and the second night was a fundraiser for the Arts Project with tickets costing $45 for members and $50 for non-members and also providing access to a gala after party.

Morgan was originally inspired to create the Rainbow Connection program by an annual foster youth field trip to Cherry Grove and its historic theater organized by Sandra Davidson and Todd Alessandro founded in the late 2010s. Rainbow Connection 2023 is the third iteration of the intergenerational LGBTQ+ theater camp since the program’s inaugural summer in 2021. Past Rainbow Connection shows have included focuses on the evolution of the pride flag and a musical reenactment of the Stonewall Riot as elements.

Morgan explained that she created the program to bring together LGBTQ+ elders and youth so that the participants could communicate and learn from one another and to express themselves creatively. The camp gives youth an opportunity to become invested in the Arts Program and the Cherry Grove community and LGBTQ+ elders a chance to share their stories and have them celebrated. Morgan also said that the performances act as something of a coming out party for campers who may have recently transitioned or come out and are presenting as their new self for the first time. Morgan had a message for LGBTQ+ Fire Islanders who missed the chance to participate in the camp saying: “We’re looking to build enrollment and so it would be wonderful to have more Fire Island residents from other communities to come” enroll next year.