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Transition from artist to activist

Actor, writer and producer James Lecesne discusses his many talents and work

Published: February 1, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


dc02010801.jpgIt was hard not to be entertained watching James Lecesne perform in Spingold Wednesday night, as he seamlessly transitioned between an array of characters during an excerpt from his one-person show, “Word of Mouth.”

Lecesne portrayed a Brooklynite who still lives with his mother and mentally handicapped uncle; a saucy elderly British ex-patriot living in Africa; an Irishman whose wife dies of cancer and now works in the hospital she went to for chemotherapy; and Shirley, a Midwestern woman who traverses the country in pursuit of sightings of the Virgin Mary, which she believes will save her terminally ill daughter.

Despite this quirky collection of personalities, the viewer cannot avoid being impressed with the importance of Lecesne’s themes of the passage of time, memory and hanging onto the dead or dying. Given his career though, this is just what Lecesne does. He uses his experiences and knowledge as an actor, writer and producer to promote a meaningful message and encourage social change.

One of Lecesne’s greatest successes was the creation of a live action short film, Trevor, which is based on a character from Lecesne’s “Word of Mouth” show, a 13-year-old homosexual boy who discovers that he is gay. Released in 1994, Trevor won an Oscar the following year for Best Live Action Short Film.

Four years later, as HBO was preparing to premiere the film on its network, Lecesne realized that there was no phone number to include at the end of the film for teens that might be seeking help. To fill this gap, Lecesne founded The Trevor Project, a 24/7 crisis and suicide prevention hotline for gay and lesbian teens. The hotline, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, receives 1,500 calls a month to its call centers in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

“The whole Trevor thing led me into a world of activism where I realized that art could actually have some kind of an effect on the world beyond just my own gratification or getting paid,” Lecesne said. “It could actually do some good in the world.”

Lecesne also gave the first public reading of an excerpt from his new book, Absolute Brightness. The novel is told through the viewpoint of a 15-year-old girl, whose flamboyant 14-year-old orphaned cousin comes to visit her family on the Jersey Shore for the summer and then suddenly disappears.

His connections with the teen world via Trevor and his book, coupled with a trip to New Orleans a year after the hurricane, prompted Lecesne to raise the money to open a community center in the still suffering city.

“I went down there and I saw that a year later nothing had been done, really, nothing. It was so startling and it sort of made me crazy in the same way that I got crazy when I heard the suicide rates for gay teens 10 years earlier,” he said.

“I thought ‘this is insane that this is allowed to exist like this,’ because you could see that there were people living there and nothing was happening.”

Lecesne transformed a community center into a theater and cast local kids, ranging in age from 8 to 18 to perform Once on this Island, a musical about a mythological Caribbean island that is hit by a hurricane. In conjunction with the production of the play, Lecesne produced a documentary about the cast members, their lives and how they are coping in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The documentary, After the Storm, will be released later this year and will be “used as a springboard to encourage high school drama clubs, regional theatre groups and community theatres to do the musical and raise money for the young people in New Orleans who are working in these community centers.”

When asked how he found the motivation to take concrete action in the face of resistance and complications, Lecesne replied, “in order to be an effective artist, you have to actually follow your passion and you have to be able to recognize when something comes that it’s what you have to do. Once I actually came up with the idea…there’s was no question about doing it.”