There’s so many ways to be you and me. But sometimes the me’s and you’s out there can be confusing, especially for a child trying to equate behavior with a gender. Writers can write and celebrities can preach about anti-bullying, but what lessons are changing the way younger generations approach gender binaries? Enter “Sez Me,” a revolutionary video web series aimed to educate children and create a dialogue about the LGBTQ community. Created by Mor Erlich, “Sez Me’s” episodic format has a unique and fun way to approach these often heavy and personal topics. Colorful animations, Pee Wee-like sound effects — created by Lee Free, and camera-ready silliness enables the “Sez Me” format to be welcomed into classrooms. “Think of it as the queer Schoolhouse Rock,” says Charmin Ultra, “Sez Me’s” host and local Bushwick drag queen.
WATCH “Sez Me’s” latest episode here:
An unscripted interview between a child and an adult is “Sez Me’s” teaching tool and core lesson. The children (one per episode and chosen by Mor Erlich) come from diverse family units (single parent, gay parent, lesbian parent, inter-racial, hetero-normative/non-normative, etc). The adults represent non-traditional gender expressions (self-identified drag queens, masculine women, feminine men, gender queers, and trans people). Charmin Ultra/Jeff Marras is “Sez Me’s” on-camera anchor. In prior episodes, the audience sees Charmin as both a drag queen and a man, as well as the transition into costume and makeup. He/She is often the comedic relief driving the episodes theme.
The interviews result in a variety of topics given that they are unscripted and the kids are in the position of being interviewer and interviewee. “‘Sez Me’ empowers them to talk frankly about their personal experiences and opens the door for them to ask frank questions of their subject as well,” say Erlich.
The interpersonal communications “Sez Me” captures on camera is educational because it stimulates conversation. Trying to pull away from binary gender options, “Sez Me” allows for a young audience, either informed of the LGBTQ community or not, to ask questions and encourages curiosity. The resulting videos need to be seen in health classrooms and children’s museums everywhere. “Sez Me” is a step forward in the anti-bullying movement, and the creators are working on spreading their message, starting right here in NYC.
“We would want to create an upbeat, educational performance that could be enjoyed by young people,” says Charmin. No stranger live performance, Charmin is an anomaly of the Brooklyn drag scene. Her eclectic style has been seen at St Ann’s Warehouse, Bushwig, Locally Grown at Tandem bar, Bushwick Open Studios, among others.
Bushwick Daily interviewed Mor Erlich and Charmin Ultra about life in the “Sez Me” world. Read on to find out about their long-term goals, funniest moments on set, and more!
Bushwick Daily: How did you come up with the idea for “Sez Me”?
Mor Erlich: My friend gave me production equipment he no longer had room for and dared me to do something with it. I grew up completely unaware of ‘gender fluidity’, had no LGBT people in site and was often ridiculed for being ‘unique’ or ‘special’ rather than encouraged to embrace those qualities. I decided to make a queer children show for myself when I was 7– hoping to create a project that will help questioning young people to spark a healthy conversation with their elders about individuality and ask for the support they need. As well as give adults like me the queer children show they never got to grow up with.
BD: How is “Sez Me” for children? How is it for adults?
Charmin Ultra: “Sez Me” is for parrots!
Mor: “Sez Me’s” innocence, humor and vibrance can be very entertaining for children. When I was a child I loved seeing other kids on TV having fun. I wanted to be like them. Adults are hopefully entertained by the same elements, but also inspired by “Sez Me” to have a mature dialogue about subjects they don’t always discuss with kids, and avoid ‘baby terminology’ when they do so.
BD: Can “Sez Me” be a performance too?
Mor: Absolutely. Its a variety show. We can create panels and collaborative performances with adult role models and young people. How amazing will it be to watch a child and adult let their alter egos/drag personas loose together on stage in real time?
BD: How do you cast an episode?
Mor: Casting is easy because the show’s motto is “There’s so many ways to be, there’s so many you’s and me’s”…the only requirement is to be human I guess. Basically if your parents are awesome enough to let you hang out at a studio with us for a day, you are in. There is no script, we do a little ‘ice breaking’ with the child…bond, and then let the chemistry happen naturally on camera.
BD: Of all the drag personas you know, why did you want to work with Charmin Ultra?
Mor: Charmin is an amazing improviser, immensely talented, relatable and warm. She has not one ‘bitchy’ bone in her body unlike a lot of drag queen’s who rely on insults and condescending behavior to be funny or charismatic. She is a true role model for kids. Kids can be challenging. Choosing Charmin was a no brainer, people love her.
BD: What is your approach to filming children?
Charmin: Lots of deodorant, I was sweating like it was my first day in school. These kids are powerful energies, and full of more intellect than most adults I know. That being said, respecting them as peers is the best way to approach filming. Young people can easily catch on to someone “babying” them, and I feel that speaking to them as an equal gives them the space to really open up and allows us to learn from each other.
Mor: Trust and respect. I believe in them, pay them, feed them, we do our best to make them feel comfortable and equal. The child is our guest star and we treat them as such.
BD: How do the kids take to being filmed?
Mor: It’s amazing what happens when you give a child a microphone. They can be a little shy and nervous in the beginning, especially if a parent is on set. But as soon as they hold the microphone in their hand, they go all ‘Barbara Walters’ on us.
BD: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened on set?
Mor: Our shoots are always funny, the kids amaze us with their genius. The funniest for me, would have to be the ‘paranormal’ moment when we filmed Duy [“Sez Me’s” first episode]. At one point his eyes suddenly glazed over as if he was possessed by a ghost– out of nowhere he looked straight at the camera and asked me- “How did your dog die?” then fell off the bench with a very surprised look on his face. We have that blooper up on the website.
Charmin: I have to agree with Mor on this one. When Duy asked “How did your dog die?” I knew we were on to something. Mor had previously told me that Duy was curious, but had not really opened up about the passing of Mor’s dog. I feel like putting Duy in this setting and empowering him to ask questions and be curious gave him a space to ask a sensitive question that he was genuinely wondering about. We must have replayed that moment 1,000 times.
BD: What are your long term goals for “Sez Me”?
Mor: It would be great to reach families in rural areas where they may not be exposed to diversity or appreciate it. I want all young people to know they have options to be who they feel they are inside, and make sure parents are sensitive to that. There are some really open minded supportive parents out there, but when I work with young homeless LGBTQ people at the Ali Forney Center, I am always reminded how much more outreach work still has to be done. It would also be great to get on board with children advocates such as Alice Cahn, who do great social responsibility work. Jeff, Lee and I recently got invited to conduct talks and workshops with students in schools, I would love to do more of that.
Charmin: My goal is simple. I want to give the younger generation something that I did not have growing up. A reference. When I started coming into my own and realizing I was gay, I did not really have a reference to look at that said, “Hey this is OK! You can be gay and that is who you are, go with it!” I want to give young people positive reinforcement. By introducing LGBTQ concepts at a young age, perhaps as this generation grows up they will have a better space to figure out who they are and accept that the people around them are individuals, as well.