In 2012, teens attending a 14-year-old girl's birthday party in North Laurel were stunned when they learned that her best friend's neighbor — a racially mixed and overweight teen who was into art, theater and music — had committed suicide.
According to Grant Myers, president of How Do You Like Me Now Productions, the Howard County youth had been relentlessly bullied at school over his weight and perceived sexual orientation.
"The poor kid went to school with a target on his back," Myers said. "He was 14 years old and probably didn't know for sure himself [whether he was gay]."
Myers was hosting the birthday party for his daughter, he said, when the bad news struck.
"Everybody's cellphone went crazy," he said. "I had a dozen kids in my house and the kids looked at me like, 'What do we do?' and I said, 'Kids, I've got nothing for you; I don't know.'"
The anger and frustration Myers said he felt in that moment prompted him to reach out to fellow performance artists Robert Neal Marshall, of Columbia, and Ed Higgins, of Eldersburg, with whom he'd been brainstorming theater projects.
The trio of friends responded to the close-hitting tragedy by conceiving a not-for-profit organization to combat bullying and raise awareness about hate crimes through theater and fine art.
It took about two years to fully organize, Myers said, but in February 2014, How Do You Like Me Now Productions Inc. came to be.
Aiming to spark inclusive dialogue between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities and everyone else, the organization launched the Erase Hate Through Art campaign in the fall of 2014.
On Aug. 21, actors ranging in age from 15 to 63 auditioned for a role in the group's production of Richard O'Brien's "Rocky Horror Show." Directed by Higgins, who is vice president of Erase Hate, the show will open on Oct. 28 at Chesapeake Arts Center.
"The Rocky Horror Show embraces life and differences and has fun poking fun at itself," Higgins said. "It's fun, but it still has all of our messages; like every show we've done, it's going to start the conversation."
Christian Gonzalez, of Annapolis, said the show drew him to Columbia to audition.
"It's a great show; I definitely think 'Rocky Horror Show' has a cult following," he said.
John D'Amato, 63, of Ellicott City, has worked with members of the Erase Hate Through Art's board, including Kay Sweitzer, who is the current treasurer.
"If Ben Vereen can do Rocky Horror on the new Fox show, I can do Dr. Scott [a character in the show]," he said. "He's older than I am."
Jessica Balick Goodman, 15, of Catonsville, said her mom sent her the script because the show suits her vocal range — she is a mezzo-soprano.
"And I read about the organization and this is something I'd like to support," her mom, Lyssa Balick, said.
Erase Hate Through Art's first production in 2014 was Moisés Kaufman's "The Laramie Project."
"We'd read 'The Laramie Project' and decided it was what we wanted to perform to start getting the word out," Higgins said. "And we had no intention of being a one-hit wonder."
"The Laramie Project," under Myer's direction, was performed at the Howard County Arts Center in Ellicott City in October 2014. A portion of the show's proceeds went to support the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity through outreach, advocacy and resource programs, according to its website.
"Matthew was attacked on Oct. 8 and passed away Oct. 12," Myers said, of the 21-year-old Shepard, who died from his injuries in 1998. "October is Gay History Month and we are committed to the month of October."
The group also held a poetry reading entitled "Erasing Hate Through Art, Creativity Takes Courage" at the opening of the Columbia Art Center in Long Reach in September 2014, where the campaign's first exhibit, featuring 30 works by local artists, ran until Oct. 12.
Higgins directed four performances of Diana Son's "Stop Kiss," a play about two women attacked after sharing a kiss, at the Howard County Arts Center, in October 2015. The second "Erase Hate Through Art" exhibit featured 103 works by 43 national artists at the Columbia Art Center that same month.
And although the campaign's theatrical productions have been edgy and intended for adult audiences, Myers and Higgins "had something" for more than 30 kids ages 5 through 12 last July, when the campaign held a drama camp at the Columbia Art Center. Campers included a special-needs kid who volunteered to role-play being bullied,.
For the camp, Higgins wrote "Meetse" ("esteem" spelled backward), a Harry Potter-based script where everyone had speaking roles and flew on brooms. The kids coined a phrase to tell their teachers they were being bullied ("moo" means someone is being mean on purpose over and over). The camp may return next year.
Erase Hate Through Art is revving up to enter its third season of presenting local performance and fine arts events this fall.
Myers said 80 artists, including his mother and his junior high teacher, have submitted work for the exhibit, which will run Oct. 1 through 30, at the Columbia Art Center. Works can be submitted until Sept. 1. A Gala Celebration hosted by Anita Minnet, a drag performer, will be on Oct. 2. Proceeds will be shared equally with the artists and PFLAG of Howard County.
Another audition is scheduled for Aug. 27 at 2 p.m. For more information about the audition, email email@example.com. Fine artists can submit art for the Columbia Art Center exhibit until Sept. 1 at erasehatethroughart.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets to "Rocky Horror Show" will be available through eventbrite.com.