Youth group to sing Nat’l Anthem at June 17 Pirates game

Composer Susan Haugh is enjoying a double honor this year: She was named grand marshal of the June 17 Pride Awareness March, and Dreams of Hope, the performing arts group she founded, is scheduled to perform on the main stage during the Pride Festival and will sing the National Anthem at the Pirates baseball game that evening.

        “It’s so touching and such an honor for [Dreams of Hope] to get this kind of recognition from the Pittsburgh community,” said Haugh. “Everyone’s thrilled.”

        Dreams of Hope collects a racially diverse group of local GLBT and straight youth, ages 15 to 21, for a journey that begins with each young performer telling the defining moments of their lives and exploring the issues they faced and overcame. The stories have evolved into a fast-moving program that educates, excites and empowers audiences.

        Now Dreams is gaining national recognition as an effective model for creating dramatic theater events that explore and redefine sexuality and gender identity issues for both performers and audience members.

        Underwritten in part by a fellowship from the McKnight Foundation, an effort to replicate this “first of its kind” program is now under way at District 202, a queer youth center in Minneapolis, Minn.

        Haugh, a 2005 McKnight Visiting Composer with the American Composer’s Forum of the McKnight Foundation in Minnesota, praised Dreams of Hope’s participants.

        “They’re outgoing, hopeful and energetic—even when dealing with difficult issues of young adult sexual relationships, race and gender discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and poverty. This is a generation that is out and they’re amazing,” Haugh said. “They’re hopeful when they talk about their futures. They support their lives and the lives of their friends by telling their stories and creating positive messages.”

        Dreams of Hope has performed at college and university events; at pride celebrations in Philadelphia, Erie and Washington, DC; and at the annual meetings of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. This summer the group will headline the 75th Triennial Conference of the National Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio.

        Initially the group’s young performers were recruited with the help of Pittsburgh’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center. As expectations of the program expanded, more performers were recruited through the Youth Empowerment Program operated by Persad Center and through flyers distributed at community events.

        For Persad’s annual conference, Executive Director Betty Hill combined a Dreams of Hope performance with an overview of the mental health agency’s clinical work. The result: a “merger of heart and data,” Hill said.

        “The program gives our youth the chance to infuse the community with positive, insightful messaging, “ Hill said. “The group is molding the community’s leaders of tomorrow. It’s a breath of fresh air that reflects Susan’s talent and enthusiasm for working with kids and helping them express themselves as advocates.”

        Ben Cook, youth director for the GLCC, said, “The impact [Dreams of Hope] has on other LGBT kids is incredible. The performers become strong, positive role models for the community’s youth. It’s a very positive thing for our youth to see their peers invested in something that they feel strongly about.”

        Membership in the group demands a high level of commitment by youth who are often engaged in a variety of extracurricular school and community activities. The hours are long and the training intense, but, Haugh said: “They are learning how to connect with and emotionally affect the audience by artistic means. This is performance with message, performance with focus, performance with impact, performance as activism… this is performance that changes the way people view the world and each other.”

        Pittsburgh playwright, director and theater critic Ted Hoover is one of a crew of professionals Haugh has recruited to help the students learn how to mold content to form and bring that form to life.

        “I went to see a Dreams of Hope performance and I was totally blown away by it,” Hoover said. “I found myself literally swept away. I started thinking about all of the activism of the 1970s and 1980s… the organizing of marches… and I recognized that these kids are the legacy of men like Jim Huggins and Randy Forrester, the granddaddies of Pittsburgh’s gay activism.”

        Hoover said the performance convinced him to offer to help in any way he could. Hoover provides the performers with what he calls a “crash course” of theater theory 101. “I talk to them about the mosaic of performance, about using many different elements to perform one story. Most of the kids don’t have performing arts in mind as a career, but Susan inspires them to rehearse again and again until they get it right,” he said.

        “The kids have an amazing energy and are simply inspiring,” he said. “I keep imagining what I could have accomplished if I’d have been this out at their age and had someone like Susan to give me the confidence and support to act on my beliefs.”

        Haugh believes it’s important for GLBT youth to get to know, and work with, professional choreographers, playwrights, producers and directors.

        As a composer/director/producer/conductor in her own right, Haugh brings more to the project than her contagious enthusiasm and ability to motivate youth. She brings inspiration by example, and a wealth of skills and talents that she ably passes on to others.

        An ex-New Yorker, Haugh studied composing at Carnegie Mellon University and found a home in Pittsburgh. For a time, she was the assistant conductor of the Westmoreland Youth Symphony Orchestra.

        In 1995, Haugh organized the Renaissance City Women’s Choir with the help of the already established men’s choir, and facilitated an organizational meeting that drew over 60 initial members. She led the choir from 1995 to 2005, during which time the choir recorded a series of CDs, participated in national GALA Choruses concerts and had its Christmas concerts broadcast live on WQED-FM.

        In 2005, Haugh conducted the festival chorus at Equality Forum celebrations in Philadelphia. She recently retired as co-director of the Renaissance City Choirs, the umbrella organization for the city’s male and female choirs, which continue to tour throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.