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Finding Freedom on Stage

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to interview Jessica Craft, founder of Rock to the Future, an organization that serves underprivileged youth in Philadelphia through music. Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Hanks, another Pennsylvania local, who provides a similar service through theater. Rebel Stages is a performing arts organization whose goal is to provide communities with professional-quality theater at an affordable cost and to nurture, support and embrace theater artists of all genders, ages, shapes, sizes, orientations, races and cultures.

A: Brandon, thanks so much for joining me today!

B: Abbey, thank you so much for having me. I'm flattered you asked me to be a part of this!

A: Tell me a little bit more about the mission behind Rebel Stages.

B: The launch of Rebel Stages is a culmination of a bunch of things. It's my way of giving back to the community and opening another window for artists. It also stems from my personal experiences with theatre, auditioning and typecasting. Once you reach a certain point in the industry, you start to realize that your talent becomes relative. It becomes about what you look like and who you know. The entertainment business has a tainted perception of beauty and of what audiences want to see. And I'm here to break that cycle. I often think that I would've started my journey as an artist earlier if I saw someone/something that represented me. So that's the very reason I created Rebel Stages: to cultivate an appreciation of theatre in future generations and to rebel against the traditional and often stagnant box in the performing arts industries. A favorite quote of mine is, "Art is freedom. Being able to bend things that most see as a straight line."

A: Love that quote! You mentioned that you may have gotten started in theater earlier if you’d felt you had more representation in the arts. Tell me a little bit about how you got started in the performing arts.

B: Unfortunately, I didn't start theatre until my freshman year of high school because that's when I finally worked up the courage to try the "un-cool" thing. Keep in mind my high school years were set in a pre-Glee era, so musicals weren't as mainstream as they are now. Times have certainly changed - I personally blame Glee and Hamilton. LOL! Anyway, I finally worked up the courage to audition for our high school’s spring musical production of Seussical. I got cast in the ensemble. And boy oh boy, that opening night performance was probably the best night of my life. We were singing the finale, we had our bows, and I bawled my eyes out at the end of the show. I was on cloud nine! I'd never felt anything like it before; it was almost euphoric in many ways. I felt like life made sense for the first time.

So after that performance, I enrolled myself in acting lessons, dance classes, and voice lessons locally - shout out to The Studio for Singing Actors and Pocono Conservatory for the Arts. I auditioned for local community theaters like Pocono Lively Arts, Black Sheep Productions, and Shawnee Playhouse, and I got involved with any and everything that was related to the fine arts. After I graduated high school, I moved to NYC where I studied acting at Atlantic Acting School and various other programs. And I've been working professionally as an actor, director, choreographer, and producer ever since.

I'm so glad I made the decision to invest my time into theatre arts. Every kid goes through self- discovery, getting bullied, worrying about grades, family trouble, you name it, but having an outlet like theatre really saves lives. I think of it as my religion. It's how I connect to humanity. It’s my spirituality, how I express my opinions on politics, and how I understand others.

A: What a great origin story! I love the tears at the end of your first show—I had a similar experience when I enrolled in my first writing class. A very good (and wise) friend of mine told me to “follow those tears!” It seems they show up when your spirit knows that something is just RIGHT. You mention theater as an outlet—for you and the students that participate in your shows. I’ve written here about how writing has been an important emotional tool for me. Tell me more about how theater has been a “lifeline” for you and others?

B: Theatre keeps me sane. I often encourage the artists I collaborate with to use theatre as their "diary". Life is ROUGH. And it really is a beautiful gift to be able to put on someone else's shoes and escape your personal reality. But the icing on the cake is to also gift that to the audience and perhaps allow them to escape and reflect on their lives. It's the best feeling in the world! If I can change one life and spark one productive conversation that inspires perspective, then I've won. It's such a fulfilling feeling.

A: Where we can find out more about Rebel Stages?

B: People can find out more about Rebel Stages by following us on instagram and/or twitter @rebelstages or and there's a website coming soon! Stay tuned!

A: Thanks so much, Brandon! Best of luck to you--I hope I get to catch a show sometime!

B: Abbey, thank YOU! We actors/artists are nothing without writers. Thank you for sharing your gift with the world!

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