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A life-size pink phone, a sleepover and a script: my year at the Rhubarb Festival

Rhubarb has always been the place for controlled theatrical chaos — that’s why we knew our play would fit right in

(Left to right) Jordan Tannahill, Johnnie Walker and Adam Bourret performed in their play, Who Who Who’s Got a Crush on You? at the Rhubarb Festival in 2011. Credit: Courtesy Greg Wong

Our friend Anton was moving to China. A fan of whimsical camp and ’80s nostalgia, Anton rather notably had a collection of all the best “just for girls” board games — Girl Talk, Perfect Wedding, and, most importantly, Dream Phone, the game with a real, talking phone. 

Before leaving, Anton bequeathed his collection to me and my friend Morgan Norwich, for safekeeping. We were thrilled. Morgan had fond memories of playing the games as a little girl, and I had frustrating memories of wanting to play them as a gay little boy, and so we had a series of parties where friends would come over and we’d pour some drinks, put on our Teen Witch DVD, and break out what we came to call “the heteronormative reification games.” We revelled in their depressing gender politics and their hot pink colour schemes and it wasn’t too long before we decided to make a play about them.

We wrote an application to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s 2011 Rhubarb Festival because we knew our play was going to be weird. Our submission package was brief; we didn’t even have a script yet, just a Rhubarb-ish idea we were excited about. We called it Who Who Who’s Got a Crush on You? as an homage to the jingle from the Dream Phone commercial that had been such a persistent earworm when we were growing up. 

The idea was that we would throw a retro “girly” sleepover — complete with pink popcorn, MASH notes, coordinated pajamas, and practise kissing — for the gays who missed out on those parties as children. Rhubarb seemed like such a perfect fit that I don’t think we even considered submitting the project anywhere else. When we we were programmed by then-festival director Laura Nanni, I remember being pleased, but not altogether surprised. Now it was time to find the collaborators we needed to create the show.

Jordan Tannahill, Adam Bourret, Mike Lorsch, Mark Aikman and myself played the other boys at the sleepover. Mark Shyzer played a terrifying drag version of my mother, who kept telling us to “keep the noise down, boys!” And I eventually strong-armed Morgan into agreeing to play a giant, sentient, incredibly mean-spirited Dream Phone in a glorious full-body costume designed by Stephanie Avery.

The cast of Who Who Who’s Got a Crush on You?: (Back row, left to right) Jordan Tannahill, Morgan Norwich and Adam Bourret; (front row) Mike Lorsch and Johnnie Walker.
Supplied by Johnnie Walker

Dream Phone and its fellow “heteronormative reification games” are designed for little girls to play at being teenagers and dream about their futures. Our play allowed us to basically do the opposite of that; we took a look back, indulging our most childish fantasies and making our weirdest dreams come true.

The script was created collaboratively with the cast, and one of the rules was that everyone would get the opportunity to do something that they really wanted to do. And so, I did a karaoke rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You;” Adam performed a choreographed dance number to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” joined by surprise backup dancers who were actual 12-year-old girls; Mark Shyzer did an Exorcist-style, upside-down-and-backwards crab-walk down the stairs of the Buddies cabaret; Mike performed an ode to Cavalier King Charles Spaniels; Mark Aikman just read Goosebumps all night; Jordan got to kiss everyone; and Morgan explored the dark side of the Dream Phone, leaning into the toxic and oppressive worldview lurking in its hot pink plastic heart.

Rhubarb has always been the place for controlled theatrical chaos. I’ll never forget seeing Ulysses Castellanos re-enact The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with teddy bears and real chainsaws, or Andrya Duff and Shane MacKinnon chanting “Juice Bubleę!” while fucking a giant pair of lips with an anaconda. I like to think Who Who Who contributed to that tradition in its own way. We got in trouble for making our audience get out of their seats and join us in a circle on the floor; we didn’t want them watching us from a distance, we wanted them right in the thick of things, reading our Tiger Beat magazines and sharing our stale popcorn. We broke the rules and ruffled some feathers, but I like to think that by the time we burst into a wistful, four-part a cappella rendition of the Dream Phone jingle, all was forgiven.

NBTheatre/YouTube

I have a kind of mantra about the kind of theatre I want to make that’s stuck with me through the years: fun to create, fun to perform, fun to watch. Over time, my definition of “fun” has stretched and transformed, but the heart of that philosophy remains intact and it’s never steered me wrong. I can’t remember exactly when I hit on the mantra of fun, but Who Who Who is perhaps the Platonic ideal of the concept. If you’re having a good time, there’s a strong possibility that the audience is having a good time. And if the audience is having a good time, you can take them so many more places and tell them so many more things.

Since that Rhubarb Festival back in 2011, I’ve built on my relationship with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, where I’m currently developing a new play as an artist-in-residence. And this month, I’m returning to Rhubarb as a producer for a show called He’s Built a Fucking Time Machine by AnimalParts, a company I’ve been working with since 2013. Producing shows for AnimalParts in the past has meant sourcing everything from a dead octopus to a live poodle, washing glitter off a performer’s ass, and letting the whole company sleepover at my apartment. I can’t think of a group of artists who better embody Rhubarb’s controlled chaos, or my own personal mantra of fun.

Photos from Who Who Who’s Got a Crush on You?
Courtesy Emily Gove

For years, people would stop Morgan and ask: “Weren’t you that phone?” Which drove her crazy, but delighted me. The cast and creative team of Who Who Who’s Got a Crush on You? represents a cross-section of friends, family and esteemed colleagues, many of whom I still see all the time. 

In 2011, Adam and I had been dating for a couple of years — now it’s been eight and a half. Last November, I spent a week in Edmonton helping out with Morgan and her husband’s new baby, Ronan. And just last week, I was crashing with Jordan in Vancouver, where we were both working on shows at the PuSh Festival

Anton eventually returned from China, but he’s never asked for his games back, so I’ve still got them. I’ve even added to the collection, which now includes The Sweet Valley High Game and Mall Madness (if anyone has a lead on a copy of Mystery Date, let me know). And every so often, they’ll come out at a party, and maybe we’ll get Teen Witch going on Netflix, and without fail someone will eventually say: “Hey, remember that crazy show?”