When I was young, fresh out of a small town, just beginning my career in the theatre, being a gay artist meant being gay. Visibly, vocally and sexually.
Who I slept with (or, more often than not, whom I wanted to sleep with) defined my sexuality. My sexuality defined my politics. My politics defined my art. It was all very black and white.
This was probably a reflection of both where I was at in my own maturation as a gay man, and of the nature of the times. I became sexually and artistically active during the heights of AIDS. As a result, my early work had a strong political agenda. I felt a pressure - a responsibility - to align myself with queer (homosexual) work. To identify myself as a queer artist.
I am a gay man.
As a result, the first two plays I wrote were strongly, politically, identifiably queer.
But as I got older, things became more blurry and ambiguous. For both myself, and for the queer community. I found myself moving away from such defined classifications and into foggier territory. I came to have a more flexible view of sex, of individuality, and of art. I realized that a play about fishing could be as queer as a play about fisting. That a play by Thornton Wilder could be as queer as a play by Oscar Wilde.
This evolution happened for me when I first became involved with the Theatre Centre and Buddies In Bad Times Theatre (two alternative, Toronto-based companies) in the early nineties. These joints were full of seedy, ambiguous, astonishing, frightening, attractive folks producing seedy, ambiguous, astonishing, frightening, attractive work. It was an amazing playground to dig around in. And there were some amazing playmates: Darren O'Donnell, Ellen-Ray Snow, David Duclos, Tracey Wright, Paul Bettis, Nadia Ross, Ali Riley, Kirsten Johnson, R.M Vaughan, Death Waits, DNA Theatre. All fearless, ambitious, confusing and more often than not, chemically-altered. And queer. In a very different way than I first imagined.
All of my rigid definitions of what it meant to be queer, to be an artist, were blown apart. The lines between art and life became blurred. Ideas of sexuality became more obscure and more dangerous.
My work became heavily influenced by this time, and by these people. It became less rigid, less didactic. Less structured. I realized it was better to be undefined and messy. My work began to reflect my own confusions, struggles and inconsistencies.
It became more contradictory, unclassifiable, vulnerable, and, as a result, more honest.
My art - my work - became harder to define. It was not queer enough for gay theatre companies; but it was too queer for straight theatre companies.
Falling between (into?) cracks.
There is still a strong homosexual sensibility to my work. There always will be. There are elements in my plays that are clearly gay: themes of identity and escape; characters who exist outside the norms and structures of society and I always manage to find room in my plays for an eighteen year old, attractive, toque-wearing boy of flexible sexual orientation who, more often than not, appears in some state of undress. (I am a big proponent for nudity onstage. That's another article.) So, I suppose, if someone were to uncover my work, with no prior knowledge of me, it would not be too much of a stretch to figure out where I lay, as it were. However, these are elements of my work, not the basis for my work.
I am a theatre artist.
To define my work in a strict sexual context is limiting and ultimately, not all that interesting to me. Theatre is ghettoized enough as it is without more segregation. Art should not polarize. It should not exclude or distance. It should encompass and include. I don't really see how the motivations, objectives and struggles of queer theatre should be any different than the motivations, objectives and struggles of any other kind of theatre.
I was working recently with students at an alternative high school in Montreal. They were coming to see a performance of a play of mine where there was a bit of queer - homosexual - content. A reference to gay porn. Two guys kissing. I was to prepare them. I found the assumption that they would: a) have a problem with queer content, or b) be shocked by it, was insulting to them. It was a non-issue. They were more interested in the construct of theatre. Why is theatre so boring? Why should we spend $25 to see some lame play that has nothing to do with us when we could be out listening to an electronic band in a warehouse with a stocked bar, lots of available drugs, performance artists and sexual possibilities?
The question for me is not if queer theatre
is essential, necessary and vital.
The question is not: where is the dangerous
and erotic queer theatre?
Having said that, I still love that identifiably queer spaces exist. I'm glad that there are some audiences still afraid to go see a play at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre for fear of being squirted with Canola Oil, tied to a jungle gym and fingered by a man in a Harry Potter outfit. So I suppose, as a gay man, that youthful desire, that need to be identifiable, to be part of a defined community, is still lurking somewhere inside me. But as an artist, I feel my motivations, my work, and my politics have become broader and more complex to be simply identified as queer, in a traditional sense.
I think my views on this matter can be summed up best by this wee experience I had recently.
A friend came to see a play of mine in Montreal. He had never been to the theatre before. A 21 year-old, bisexual bus boy - yer typical Montrealer. After the show, he leaned in to me and told me that for almost the entire performance he had an erection.
He could hear the person next to him breathing.
Softly, but audibly.
Queer? Straight? Alternative?
Call it what you will.
Someone breathes in the dark.
That's the kind of theatre I want to align myself with.
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