|Sky Gilbert as Jane and Greg MacArthur, OUT-STUDIO 303 Factory Project (photo: Pierre Bourque, reprinted with permission)|
The 'Gay Play' - Straight Up
If anyone in Canada has both practical and academic expertise on queer theatre, it is Buddies In Bad Times founder Sky Gilbert. So when Gilbert predicts the death of gay theatre by 2012, one can't help but perk up and listen.
In Playwrights' Canada Press' series Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English (volume 7 entitled "Queer Theatre in Canada"), Gilbert takes aim at the once subversive, now mainstreamed 'gay play' as an endangered species that even queers have abandoned to avoid "the notion of being outsiders and different." While Gilbert continues to suggest that the trans movement is still unexplored stage terrain, he does raise a good point about our Canada's quarter-century old "gay play".
The definition of a 'gay play', or a 'gay' film, is as subjective as terms like 'culture', 'edgy', queer' and 'subversive'. Over-emphasis on the 'gay' subject has led to its misinterpretation as too 'marginalized', not universal enough, or not focused enough on quality or professionalism in production (struggling low-budget and poor production efforts in plays and films have contributed to that hit-and-miss scenario). Queers, who struggled for years to be included as 'same' and not 'other', often manifest that philosophy into both a lack of activism within their own community(ies) and by walking 'straight' past the ticket counters of gay plays that they feel would only mirror the 'marginalized' or 'ghettoized' aspects of their lives.
|Out Productions FACTORY PROJECT, 2008 |
(photo credit: Pierre Bourque, reprinted with permission)
This resistance is not uncommon to any cultural community. Yet unlike Shakespearean theatre, plays by and about women, Yiddish theatre or Black Theatre (Canada has established companies in these and other areas), 'gay theatre' still hangs in a somewhat existential balance, within a society that questions whether or not "gay culture" even exists (in the aforementioned anthology of Gilbert, I explore this idea of the "invisible minority" on stage in the article "Cultivating Queer").
In one sense, any need for gay theatre today depends on where that culture, if it exists, faces an historical void (remote regions and medium-sized cities in Canada, for example, have less exposure to the gay subject than in the land of metropolis). Even in urbania, theatres like Toronto's Buddies In Bad Times or Montreal's Yiddish Theatre have meanwhile, fielded audience phone inquiries in the past as to whether the audience member should be gay or Jewish (respectively) to attend that theatre's production, while the 'gay play', now mainstreamed within the seasons of our largest theatrical institutions, continues to over-rock the boat for some homophobic subscribers. The results reflect both an acceptance and a need for the 'gay play' in cities large and small, but a continued high-risk to ticket sales (based now on either fear or malaise).
Not unlike our theatres who specialize in presenting their "other" cultures on stage, it is impossible to calculate or generalize the spectator as homogenous in interest, action or audience reception. Demographically, socially, economically, and spiritually our tastes vary according to what stimulates and motivates us to get away from our computers and participate in the live performance experience. Setting the term "queer" aside (it has components well beyond gender and sexuality) only one thing is certain when it comes to any good theatre practice: it is universality that connects not only what's happening on stage to the spectator, but how the audience connects to one another in that shared experience.
|Les Walkyries at le Boudoir 2005|
by Victoria Damiano
The 'gay play', at its most dismissed, may no longer stimulate a sophisticated audience with stories about lesbian in-vitro fertilization, gay-bashings and the impact of AIDS on the lives of gay men. Our 2012 'gay' (as Gilbert and several other experts suggest) is no longer truly 'gay', because 'gay' is no longer the 'other'. As others might observe, it is inferior due to its focus on 'gay culture'. Still to others, it never existed in the first place, particularly to those who believe no 'gay culture' exists.
Meanwhile, there are now enough published Canadian gay plays (and critical entries on those plays) to constitute an entire university course on our country's gay theatre in itself, a trophy to the gay play's pursuit of and success with (as in real life) acceptance in the mainstream. Regardless of how antiquated those plays may have become in print, our current taste for a shared connection must remain paramount for the future of any 'gay play' in order to not only mirror our gay culture and heritage, but celebrate that 'otherness' and fulfill our desire for entertainment and the surprises that accompany the excitement of live, sensory stimulation.
Yes, by celebrating 'gay' on stage - and there are many aspects of 'gay', like trans, still unexplored - the collective 'we' can truly rescue the 'gay play' from stigma, invisible minority and poor funding. In the process, as Gilbert concludes, there is hope that his own prediction will become merely an empty palm reading: "... deep down we are all the same," Gilbert observes, "and everyone everywhere knows it. I wish and hope we are living in that world already. But you know what? We're not."