Dylan Yellowlees is creating an LGBT arts festival for everyone in Akron

Dylan Yellowlees moved to Akron two years ago to work at the Akron Civic Theatre. Having come from Atlanta, where there is a strong LGBT presence with a huge pride festival, an LGBT film festival, and regular community events, she felt something was missing in Akron.

“There was always something going on in that realm in Atlanta,” says Yellowlees. “In Akron there was not really a lot of that.”

The city successfully hosted the 2014 Gay Games along with Cleveland, for which Yellowlees managed to get the Indigo Girls to play the Akron Civic Center. There were also smaller events like the annual Flair Fest, as well as larger pride events in Cleveland some 45 minutes away. But Akron itself was noticeably missing a culturally visible LGBT community.

“Since the Gay Games I have wanted to do something to bring people out, including straight folks,” says Yellowlees. “In Atlanta there’s not a lot of difference – there are gay events and straight events but everyone goes to all of them. Pride has half a million people attend, gay and straight. There is a lot of crossover. I wanted to see if I could make that happen here.”

Yellowlees was recently named a Knight Arts Challenge winner for the LGBT Film, Music, and Arts Festival. With a background in tour booking and talent management, she understands the ins and outs of festival production. This all-encompassing arts fest is meant to bring the LGBT voice to the community of Akron in a way that is welcoming to all.

“There is no other festival that here that includes all the arts,” she says. “My goal is to make sure there really is something for everyone. We want to produce some free events, some charged events, and maybe people can get something special with a VIP pass. I know some people are just interested in art, or are students who maybe don’t have a lot of money. I still want them to be able to come out. We also want to have a family-friendly event for the LGBT community because many have kids too.”

- Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com
Akron Civc Theatre – Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com

Some of the events currently in the works include a musical theatre performance with either LGBT content or nontraditional casting along with a film festival and art show at the Civic, and some live performances – whether music, comedy, or drag – at Akron’s popular Jilly’s Music Room.

She says she has already had people come up to her on the street and express interest in what she’s trying to do, as well as offering input.

“I’m seeing more LGBT people coming out of the woodwork,” she says. “I didn’t’ know the community was so big here, but it seems a little disjointed. Not only is this festival going to be entertaining, but also people didn’t even know that community was here. Coming from Atlanta or Chicago you forget that not everyone has an LGBT film festival or a huge pride celebration. There’s an audience for that here, and we’re looking to see how big of an audience.”

It was also important to Yellowlees to offer an alternative to the bar scene.

“Not everyone wants to go to a bar to interact,” she states. “But if you don’t go to a bar, where do you find other gay people? This is something that isn’t an app or alcohol-focused, it’s focused on an experience of entertainment and I think that’s important.”

But in light of the recent election, those who identify with a liberal ethos and the emphasis on social justice and equality espoused by the Left – not to mention any minority group that has at any point in our nation’s history been treated as second-class citizens with policies in place to ensure they stayed that way – are feeling particularly apprehensive at the thought of what might happen over the next several years.

“A big part of the gay community is getting to know your friends and in light of the election, I think it’s only going to bring people more together. They’re going to want to be in a place they feel safe. Places where they used to feel safe they now don’t anymore.”

While dates and events aren’t yet finalized, the festival will be held in the summer of 2017.

Yellowlees has another project also launching this coming summer: Akron’s first Girls Rock Camp. Also a winner of the Knight Arts Challenge, Girls Rock Camp is for girls aged 10-16. During the week-long program, 25 participating students will learn how to play an instrument – bass, drums, guitar, keyboards – or sing. They will form five bands each with five girls, and at the end of the week they will showcase all of the bands performing the songs they wrote together.

“Ten to sixteen years is the age when girls start hearing, ‘Well, girls don’t do that,'” explains Yellowlees. She remembers talking to a 15-year-old girl who told her first she wants to be a doctor and after that, an astronaut. “It’s a real difference at that age when girls will hear, ‘If you do all that how are you going to get married and have kids?’ These girls will go back to school and hear, ‘Girls can’t play guitar.’ ‘Well, I do play guitar.’ It’s exciting to see what they come up with when they aren’t told what they can’t do.”

Yellowlees plans on running Girls Rock every year with proceeds from posters and T-shirts sold at the showcase going to support the next year in addition to the support from Knight and regular tuition, though about twenty percent of the girls will attend on a fully subsidized scholarship. “I want to make sure everyone can come.”

CEX 5 Qs
(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I like to talk to people from all different backgrounds and find perspectives that I don’t normally see from. I think by trying to get a 360-degree view of a project in the beginning you can find out potential problems before they happen.

(2) How do you a start a project?
I’m a dive right in kind of person. I try to take an idea as far as it will go.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I think that people need to be their own biggest fans because others get their impressions from how you present yourself. I think confidence in your own value leads to others having confidence in you as well. It is sometimes a fine line between confident and cocky so I always try to throw a little humor in there.

(4) How do you define/feel success?
Being happy with the results of what I am working on.

(5) How do you fund your work?
I use a combination of approaches. I like crowd sourcing because I think people feel more invested in the project that way, but I also look to grants and in-kind trades and sponsorships.

CEX FOUNDATIONS NARROW