“My experience as a trans woman,” says Nichola Ward, creator and performer of upcoming Summerworks show Jackie’s Not A Real Girl, “has been one of erasure. My art is a rebellion against that pressure.”
This theme repeats itself when Sunny Drake, creator of the show X, discusses his experience trying to break the silences around addiction and recovery. “Essentially, my aim is to use a beautiful and entertaining piece of theatre to decrease the stigma and shame associated with addictions. Social support is one of the biggest factors is getting through addiction.” To be sure, these two Toronto cultural powerhouses – separately accepted to Summerworks for new productions of their acclaimed shows – have lots to say.
Summerworks, another of Toronto’s many arts and culture festivals, is a disciplinarily sprawling, geographically compact ten days of director Michael Rubenfeld’s favorite things. Favoring the experimental and site-specific, Summerworks often offers homes to work that doesn’t fit easily into other Torontonian cultural extravaganzas – too avant-garde for Fringe, too small for Luminato, too delicate for Nuit Blanche. Last year’s Summerworks contained the contested show “My Pregnant Brother,” a privileged prance that sensationalized the pregnancy experience of a Canadian trans man (and continues despite his expressly stated wish that she stop performing the show). This year, Summerworks has invited some trans-identified artists to tell their own stories.
Ward, a longtime local activist who has worked on a number of Trans Pride marches and events in the last few years, is also a well-known poet and musician. Jackie’s Not A Real Girl, which has had a few short runs locally, branches out for Summerworks with the wind of theatre group Ground Queero under its wings. Ground Queero, an artistic collective founded by Ward, comprises only trans and genderqueer-identified artists; current members include director Gein Wong and musical director Lynn Phillips on this piece as well as designer Sharon DeGenova. This show, lushly lyrical and full of Ward’s trademark genius wordplay, is also a harrowing “what if?” story – what if a trans woman were incarcerated in a men’s prison (as happens frequently) for a crime she didn’t commit? What if her experience profoundly affected her but did not touch in inner sense of justice (not legality, mind you)? What if she then encountered the real criminal, caught unawares?
Ward uses a series of vignettes with a distinct film-noir quality to tell the story, and in doing so airs some of the ongoing, grinding difficulties that she and other trans women face outside the walls of a prison, or a theatre. “To distill the story down to its raw emotional essence, to remove everything else let and the words, music and movement do their work,” says Ward, “is to fight. To fight erasure (and its evil twin sensationalism), onstage and off.”
Also fighting with compassion and grace is theatre-maker and puppeteer Sunny Drake, another immigrant to Canada (Ward is from England) who has brought bags of talent across the borders. Drake, whose work is strongly reminiscent of performances created and performed by Peggy Shaw of Split Britches Theatre, combines a theatrical flair – including music and video elements – with an internal awareness of the show and that frequently gives agency in places where traditional work would not, in this case to the puppets of his Summerworks show, X.
Describing the making his show about addiction as “very difficult but ultimately incredibly liberating,” Drake’s artistic method is also an interesting, community-based process. He did dozens of interviews within the queer and trans community in preparation, as well as saving – and carrying as he went – the container from every alcoholic drink he finished for an entire year, a process he describes as “embarrassing” but instructive. X, as a finished piece of theatre, probes the lines between pleasure and addiction in fascinating ways, looking for where and how we move from casually describing ourselves as “addicted” to the new pumpkin spice latte or rewatching the The West Wing and the silence and shame that gather around us when we struggle with actual addictions. This might indeed be a heavy topic in the gloved hands of a different kind of theatre-maker, but Drake brings his characteristic whimsy and truly gorgeous artistic elements to bear as a way of letting some light and air into the show.
The pieces seem, in some ways, to be drawing in opposite directions – Ward working to make a longtime cheap joke reflect the seriousness of it’s roots and Drake trying to let a solemn and difficult topic lighten up and speak about itself. To be sure, the works are different in both tone and scope. But underneath, it seems, that the efforts of both playwrights are the same: they are trying to stand against a current of silence, and they are bringing their hybrid theatrical styles into the river with them.
Each has certainly grown stronger in the attempt, wrestling with both artistic and personal demons on the road toward making this work. Certainly there is a great deal to admire about artists who bring political values into their shows. In the same of Nichola Ward and Sunny Drake, however, audiences may rest assured that they will not find themselves withering under a didactic onslaught of barely “theatre-ised” words, but instead borne aloft into the nicest kind of theatrical experience – the sort where it’s an even chance whether each audience member will leave the theatre coming out humming a song or considering a question. For the luckiest among us, maybe both.