Getting to ‘Better’: National touring production brings hope to Penn State

A force of nature brought Penn State University senior Chazie Bly to a better place.

The 21-year-old gay theater and women’s studies major was lost and taking it out on others and himself. Last year, he voiced his anger on stage through a monologue during the school’s Cultural Conversations festival. But it wasn’t until after a terrible May storm that Bly could finally let that anger go.

Bly had gone outside to vent in his Treasure Lake home’s backyard when he was struck by lightning.

“It couldn’t [have been] more perfect,” he said. “I was yelling up at the sky, and it just smacked me.”

The jolt entered through his hip and came out his feet, he said. He was in extreme pain and developed a pattern on his skin from broken capillaries, known as Lichtenberg figures.

“It was a reminder of how that kind of anger can be not only dangerous but threatening, frightening and not the best way to go delivering a message,” he said.

Now, Bly is taking part in spreading a different message with another monologue, along with other Penn State students Thursday, through the nationally touring theatrical production of “It Gets Better.”

The show will be at Eisenhower Auditorium.

The It Gets Better Project is a national movement that syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage, and his partner, Terry Miller, created in 2010 with a YouTube video to offer hope to youth who were facing harassment, according to the project website. The movement has welcomed more than 50,000 user-created videos encouraging lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other bullied teens. Celebrities such as singer Lady Gaga and actor Neil Patrick Harris and government leaders such as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made videos.

Writer and director Liesel Reinhart interpreted the movement into the “It Gets Better” stage production.

The show is a collaboration between the It Gets Better Project, six members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Speak Theater Arts, Reinhart’s company. The State College Area High School LBGTA Alliance and the Penn State’s LBGT Resource Center will collaborate with them.

Susan Russell, an assistant professor in Penn State’s School of Theatre and creator of Cultural Conversations, is working with the students who performed at the festival last year on monologues about how their life has gotten better.

“The monologues are about where they are now,” she said. “All of their lives have changed, and all of their lives have gotten better in many respects.”

Also performing in the show are Penn State student dancers, under the direction of associate professor of theatre and dance Kikora Franklin, who will also dance, and the University Choir, conducted by Penn State associate professor of music Tony Leach.

The choir will perform the winning selection of an It Gets Better national songwriting competition, during the show.

“It Gets Better” had its first performance in October 2012 in Iowa.

“The show is really ambitious, and quite entertaining. It has a fictional storyline about a teenager who is pushed to the brink by his school bullies, and then is turned around by a cast of interesting characters who show up in his life,” Reinhart said. “Audiences so far laugh a lot and many are moved by the show, too – especially the part that includes local performers.”

The show also includes cast members’ real-life stories, video and music.

“The 14 songs in the show span over 100 years and include a lot of familiar current songs, as well as a traditional hymn and some original music written just for this performance – including a song by the Tony-winning co-creator of ‘Avenue Q,'” Reinhart said.

Reinhart’s writing and directing of the show came about after a 2009 special performance of “The Laramie Project, An Epilogue,” with live music, involving her company, Speak Theater Arts, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, of which she is a longtime board member, she said.

“The Laramie Project” and “The Laramie Project Epilogue” are plays based on the 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyo., of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

“It was a big success and made us start looking for additional opportunities to collaborate,” she said. “After the chorus got over 700,000 views of their wonderful It Gets Better Project Video, I realized that this should be our next venture together – and the folks at the It Gets Better Project were in from the first meeting.”

Penn State University mechanical engineering senior Jenny Shipley, 21, has been vocal about her life as a lesbian.

Last year, the Maryland native, who is a member of several support and activist groups on campus for LGBTQ students, performed two monologues on gender identity for Penn State’s 2012 Cultural Conversations festival. She said she gets mistaken for a boy.

“I think it is important that those of us who are comfortable speaking do so for those who are less so,” she said. “And it helps remove the stigma.”

Shipley will perform two pieces in “It Gets Better.”

“It’s definitely, definitely necessary and definitely, definitely awesome,” she said of the It Gets Better Project. “The cliche is: ‘If it helps one person, [it’s worth it],’ but really [it is a] good message.”

Reinhart said there are ways to help, such as making “thoughtful language choices, better awareness of warning signs for depression and suicide, sharing of our personal stories, joining support organizations or telling young people that they are loved and respected for who they really are.”

“We hope to remind everyone that those small actions mean so much to young people who don’t yet know there is life after high school,” she said. “Our hope is that anyone who feels afraid or unhappy will hear this positive message – and maybe bring some hope into their hearts. We also hope to activate everyone in the audience to think about how to make things better for LGBTQ kids in their communities right now. The only better message I can imagine than ‘it gets better’ is ‘it is better.'”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.