“I’ve always loved the possibilities of solo theatre,” says Toronto-based playwright Johnnie Walker.
“I remember being in awe of Daniel MacIvor, Karen Hines and Kristen Thomson, who could create intensely theatrical plays as solo performers. I wanted to try to write one for myself. My hair just felt like the correct demon to exorcise.”
Walker emerged onto Canada’s theatrical landscape in 2010 with Redheaded Stepchild. This month, Redheaded Stepchild achieves a feat reserved for the country’s most successful theatrical works, when it will be published by Playwrights Canada Press.
The not-exactly-autobiographical Redheaded Stepchild follows 12-year-old Nicholas, a carrot-topped kid navigating his father’s remarriage to a chain-smoking ex-Jehovah’s Witness. At the same time, he’s torn between hiding out from bullies and wanting to audition for the school play.
Walker has performed the piece from Halifax to Victoria. It catapulted him from unknown artist to the top of Canada’s queer theatre class.
But it began with humbler aspirations to reposition his pigmental brethren in our cultural consciousness.
“Kids across Canada were being attacked essentially because of a meme,” he says. “I thought about how I would have been one of those kids had there been Facebook when I was school-aged. I thought, what if the redhead wasn’t a punch line? What if he got to be the hero of the story?”
Despite sharing his character’s hair colour, he stresses the story on stage is not his own.
His aim was actually to avoid an autobiography, in part, because of his aversion to theatre-as-therapy.
“I like to say it’s emotionally autobiographical because most of the events and situations never happened to me, but the main character is so much who I was at that age,” he says. “There was something cathartic and rewarding about being able to travel back in time, visit my childhood self and give him a hug.”
Redheaded Stepchild is often branded as a coming-out story, but it cuts off before Nicholas actually exits the closet. But ample evidence is offered for his burgeoning sexuality; his passion for Gilbert and Sullivan, his flamboyant alter ego Rufus Vermilion, dual crushes on his hunky English teacher and a schoolyard bully.
The genre is practically built on furtive kisses and locker room glances. But the aim was actually the opposite.
“I wanted to tell a gay story that wasn’t sexy,” he says. “There were a lot of coming out stories I was seeing that, while enjoyable to watch, felt more like wish-fulfilment than reality, and were just light-years away from my own experience.”
Unlike the lust-laden tales often associates with teenage sexuality, Walker’s piece has more in common with Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign for queer youth that emerged around the same time.
“I’m always pleased when I see younger people in the audience who may be going through some of the things Nicholas is going through, and are hopefully able to find inspiration the same way he does,” he says. “A huge part of the show is the idea that hope for the future is incredibly important, especially if your present is untenable, and I think that’s a message that will always be relevant to a queer audience.”
Putting the show in print opens up the possibility of other performers or companies taking it on, but the deeply personal nature of the character also makes it hard for Walker to hand it off to another actor.
“At a certain point you have to surrender that control, and it would be fascinating, and a bit surreal, to witness someone else’s interpretation,” he says. “I’d be delighted if there were high school or university productions, and nothing pleases me more than the idea of some ginger kid memorizing one of my monologues for a big audition.”
“But to be honest, if anyone gets in touch to produce it, I’d probably suggest they cast me. Frankly, I could use the work.