Columbus Makes Art Presents Mark Phillips Schwamberger, The Visionary Responsible for Ohio’s Only LGBTQ+ Theater Company
When Executive Artistic Director Mark Phillips Schwamberger envisioned recrafting Evolution Theatre into Central Ohio’s only professional LGBTQ+ theater company in 2015, he did it with the sure knowledge that both the need and the audience existed. He imagined it dedicated exclusively to presenting works that celebrate the community’s past, present and future. And with an indomitable and singular focus, maneuvering many hurdles, he worked tirelessly to make it a reality.
Subsequently, his initial inspiration to present works that strive to bring dignity to, and tolerance and acceptance for, the full spectrum of individuals within the LGBTQ+ community has met with support, success and many awards from the arts and theater-going community.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man.” Mark Phillips Schwamberger is that man for Evolution Theatre Company. The force behind its creation, he is the architect of its success and survival.
David: Please tell us a little about what initially drew you to the medium of the theater.
Mark: I’ve always been a shy person. Growing up I was painfully shy. I found it difficult to talk in any social situation. Consequently, I didn’t have many friends, didn’t join clubs or other activities, and felt like I didn’t fit in. When I found theater, in college, suddenly all that changed. When you’re on stage, you’re not yourself. For a brief time, you’re someone else. You’re an individual whom you, the director and the playwright create.
David: Who was the most influential person in your life, and why
Mark: My mother. In everyone’s life there’s that one person that can make everything right. There’s that one person who understands, who protects, who nurtures – that makes you believe that you are worthy of love and success. That person to me, was my mother. We didn’t always agree. Who does? But she instilled in me the ability not only to survive, but as I grew older, the passion, the courage and the strength to succeed.
David: What were the influences which inspired you to see a need for an LGBTQ+ focused theater company in Columbus?
Mark: Growing up in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and even into the 2000s – for my entire life actually, I have been fighting for the rights and equality that others readily enjoy. You can pass all the laws you what, but you cannot legislate acceptance. As a gay man, I realized that we still had a long way to go. And what is the best weapon to fight intolerance, bigotry and discrimination? Knowledge. People fear the unknown.
Yes, you can lecture, develop training, etc. but it has been proven that entertainment is a powerful tool to elicit social change. Education thru Entertainment… that is what Evolution Theatre Company is all about. Our stories, our joys and sorrows are universal, they are not unique to the LGBTQ+ community.
David: What are the specific factors you look for when choosing plays for Evolution’s season?
Mark: First, they must have an LGBTQ+ theme, or be written by someone from the community, or about us. They must also portray the community positively. However, this doesn’t mean we shy away from controversial or difficult stories, characters or situations. We also strive to present works that present historical stories or figures from the LGBTQ+ community. They have had many accomplishments, have contributed to society in many ways and it is part of our mission to celebrate these individuals. I mean, a gay guy basically saved the world from the Nazis during WWII! (Referring to Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who broke the Nazi codes during WWII and allowed the Allies to win the war. His work is widely acknowledged as the foundational research of computer science and artificial intelligence).
David: What is most challenging about your work?
Mark: Getting people to realize that we are really all the same, we all want the same things out of life. Getting the general public to realize that being LGBTQ doesn’t change that. And also getting people to realize that you do not need to be LGBTQ to be part of the company. You just need to embrace our mission of inclusivity, respect and dignity for all. In fact, in any given season I would estimate that between 80% – 85% of individuals involved are not LGBTQ, but they are the +’s – the allies. You cannot win a war without allies.
David: What is the most exciting?
Mark: Presenting works that have never been seen in the area before. Creating something new, something unique. Also, seeing others accepting who they are, by seeing themselves on stage in a positive manner. I’ve had many emails and letters from audience members and cast members telling me that as the result of seeing a show or being involved in a show they’re now ready to take the steps to become happy and queer.
David: We hear you have recently completed writing a one-person show. Can you tell us something about it?
Mark: Sure. It’s called The Sissy Chronicles. It’s one man’s journey to self-acceptance and happiness. It’s all true and it’s filled with song, humor, sadness, pain, hope and finally joy. It makes you think about what is masculinity, what is femininity. Why must there be only one way to act to be accepted? It takes you on an inspirational journey from childhood to adulthood as a boy/teenager/man endures bullying, intimidation, mental, physical and sexual abuse and was still able to find the end of the rainbow – ultimately realizing that being a ‘sissy’ is not only okay but something to embrace and treasure.
David: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not doing theater?
Mark: I always wanted to be a florist. So, the house is always full of cut flower arrangements. The terrace is full of planting and pots that I’ve been known to change on a monthly basis and of course, seasonally. Guess that really cements my admittance to ‘sissyhood.’
David: What’s the best thing about the Columbus art scene right now in your opinion?
Mark: Now, unfortunately, we are all going through an exceedingly difficult time with this pandemic. If and when we return to live theater… who knows? However, through all of this we, as a community, are sticking together. We are a really small community. Whether professional, community or educational, we are interwoven, and the exchange of talent and ideas will always make us stronger.
When it is deemed safe, once again, for audiences and actors to participate in live theatrical productions, Evolution Theatre Company plans on mounting the world premiere of The Sissy Chronicles, directed by Joe Bishara, at a local Columbus venue. Keep up with Evolution Theatre Company’s latest announcements at evolutiontheatre.org.
Columbus Makes Art Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting and advancing the arts and cultural fabric of Columbus. The column is a project of the Art Makes Columbus campaign, telling the inspiring stories of the people and organizations who create Columbus art. Learn more about local artists, organizations and events at ColumbusMakesArt.com.