Derek Herman (BFA in acting, ’13) is artistic director and co-founder of Fearless Theatre, a Chicago-based company that features young actors in plays that explore youth, identity and sexuality. Each play raises awareness and/or funds for a selected charitable organization. Herman founded the company with fellow Roosevelt graduate Hillary Horvath (BFA in acting, ‘13), who has since moved on to other opportunities. He works closely with alumna Charlotte Cannon (BFA in acting, ‘13), the company’s finance manager.
Outside of Fearless, Herman, 24, is a teacher’s assistant at Chicago High School for the Arts. He answered our questions about theatre as social justice and the importance of teenage expression.
Q. What is Fearless Theatre?
A. Our mission is “risk-taking theatre that highlights the perils and joys of the teenage odyssey.” We’re a platform for young people’s voices to be heard.
Q. How did Fearless come to be?
A. We founded it right at the end of my senior year at Roosevelt. There’s a show that’s been on my heart since high school called Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. It’s a parody of the Peanuts gang in high school, and it’s kind of outlandish. The Lucy character—the play uses different names—is in jail for lighting the little red-haired girl on fire. CB, who is Charlie Brown, is trying to figure out his sexuality and is in love with Beethoven, who is supposed to be Schroeder. It has a lot to do with finding yourself, finding your sexuality, finding your spot in high school. It’s kind of a dark comedy and I fell in love with it growing up. We did the show two summers ago with a bunch of Roosevelt actors and raised $1,000 for the Tyler Clementi Foundation. He was the college student who was filmed by his roommate (being intimate) with a man, a video that was posted online. Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge because he was so distraught. We got to talk to his parents via email, which was really cool. They were glad we were supporting the foundation, which fights bullying.
Q. How did you get the idea to raise money, rather than just awareness?
A. In high school, I directed The Laramie Project at my school and raised money for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. That idea and feeling stuck with me. I want to do theatre for a purpose and for a cause, not just as spectacle. I want to do something good, and I think this is my contribution.
Q. What other shows have you done at Fearless?
A. Last summer we did a show called The Stonewater Rapture, and it was a Chicago premiere, which was pretty cool. It was directed by Ray Frewen, who teaches theatre at Roosevelt. The show had to do with religion and sexuality and rape. It’s about two kids in a rural town who were taught fundamentalist views on sexuality and don’t understand consent. I was in it with Hillary (Horvath), and we did it to promote awareness of Rape Victim Advocates. That time, we weren’t able to donate money, but we put information and resources in the program about how to respond to sexual assault.
This April, we did a new adaptation of the play version of Spring Awakening. We got people from all over Chicago involved. We had students from Columbia and Northwestern and Loyola and people who went to school in Ohio; the director went to Skidmore College. It was kind of the first time we had a whole team involved and not just our Roosevelt community.
Q. Why Spring Awakening?
A. I have always been kind of confused by Spring Awakening. I saw the play version at Roosevelt for the first time, and it’s so weird and so abstract. And I loved the musical, so I was trying to find a way it could speak to audiences today. We set it in 2015 at a club where students hang out, and it was this cyclical, almost dreamlike play where the beginning became the end. We tried to show that if parents and older people don’t show kids how to use their bodies and what’s right and what’s wrong, they’ll continue this cycle over and over again, of sexual abuse and other bad consequences.
Q. What charity did that performance support?
A. We raised $750 for the Youth Empowerment Performance Project, called YEPP, which gives LGBTQ youth who are homeless a chance to turn their stories into performance pieces. Our cast and crew went to see them perform, and then they came to see us perform. After a couple of our shows, we gave them the floor to talk to the audience about YEPP. And we did (acting) workshops with them as a cast. I was just blown away. I’d never experienced people like that before. Some of them were couch-hopping every night and some were sleeping on the streets or had been assaulted because they were transsexual. A lot of them were thrown out of their homes.
Q. What’s next for Fearless?
A. I got a lot of proposals after Spring Awakening, which is really neat. I think we’ll be working with an alum of CCPA named Derek Van Barham (MFA in acting, ‘11), who is a director, for a show next summer. We’ve got to do a lot of fundraising.
I also want to get younger people involved. We’ve had college students, 18- and 20-year-olds as actors, but I’d like to get high school students involved. Again, the mission is to explore the teenage experience.
Q. Why focus on teenagers?
A. I find teenage years to be so pivotal. I grew up in the theatre scene back home in Portland, Ore., and I just found that to be so helpful in my development as a person. I want to share that with other teenagers. I want to empower the next generation. It’s such a cool experience for a teenager to collaborate with people they’ve never met before and bring a story to life. You dig down to things you don’t get to talk about or feel, and you do it on stage, which is really freeing. Being a teenager can be so stifling.
Q. A lot of your themes are about sex. Why is that?
A. Reading plays for young people, I’ve found that a lot of these playwrights are really focusing on sexuality. It’s a huge thing developmentally for teenagers. And I had no outlet for talking about it in high school. It was very taboo. I mean, I didn’t even know what a transsexual person was in high school. I had no idea what that meant. But I think, slowly, there’s a lot we’re learning.
There was that string of suicides of young gay people in the news, Tyler Clementi and others. I think that was because they were unable to speak about it. It’s important there is a forum, and theatre is a safe place.
Q. Did your experience at Roosevelt have any effect on your current work?
A. Yes. I took a class senior year called “Social Justice in Theatre,” taught by Steve Scott of the Goodman Theatre. He got me thinking about theatre on a different level. Playwrights aren’t just writing a play. They want to create a change in the audience, they want something to happen. They want to create a buzz. That got my gears turning. How can I do the same thing?