Fall is theatre season in the city, and alongside the offerings from the major companies, The Box has launched its annual One More Night Festival. Providing audiences with an opportunity to see popular theatre shows for a single night beyond their initial runs, the festival has attracted a number of established playwrights.
Rob Salerno, whose solo piece First Day Back is in this year’s festival, spoke with Xtra about the play, his inspiration and his experiences with gay bullying.
Xtra: Let’s talk about First Day Back. What was your inspiration for the show?
Rob Salerno: First Day Back is my newest play. It’s a solo show in which I play a group of kids meeting at school on the day after one of their classmates — a flamboyant, vivacious but sometimes dark and lonely, gay ninth-grader named Ollie — has committed suicide. They’ve come to figure out why this happened, who to blame and how to keep it from happening again.
I was inspired to write it back in 2012, in the wake of the Jamie Hubley suicide in Ottawa. Jamie’s death hit me for the same reasons he became such a touchstone for a lot of people . . . but I didn’t want the story to be a simple portrayal of a tragic angel. I don’t think that’s fair or interesting.
Did you ever have to deal with gay bullying in your youth? Did these experiences make their way into the play?
Of course, but it’s more complicated than that, which I think is true for a lot of people who are bullied — and not just gay kids. I wasn’t bullied because I was gay. I was bullied because I was bookish and skipped a grade, so I was younger than everyone in all my classes. I was bullied because I was terrible at sports and didn’t even follow sports. I was bullied for being half-Jewish and not Italian enough in a school that was 90 percent Italian kids. I wanted to present a more nuanced look at bullying as a phenomenon, as something kids learn to do and something they can overcome. In the short term, I think the important thing is to empower youth to solve their own problems, and that’s something I hope this show does.
First Day Back is a departure from some of your previous work. Was it difficult writing with an awareness of content warnings?
Yes and no. The setting made it easy to keep content issues minimal — it takes place in a classroom with a teacher present, so none of the kids are going to use the sort of language that I’m known for in my other plays. The harshest content is simply the subject matter, about a teenager committing suicide. That’s difficult subject matter for a youth audience, but it is absolutely a part of their world, and they’re going to want to have it acknowledged. I did get great responses from teachers and other queer patrons who saw the show in BC. Some would come up to me after the show and tell me that I had to do it in every school.
How do you feel this work lines up thematically with some of your other work?
Telling Stories Polite People Wouldn’t Touch. That’s my company mandate and my personal mandate. Beyond the fact that I tend to write about gay things — which is not how I imagined my career would focus when I started, to be honest — I try to look at difficult subjects through a lens that polite or sensitive people would ignore.
In this case, it’s not just the suicide as a difficult subject, but the show is at various times critical of the sorts of sensitivities that have emerged as the progressive consensus on how to solve the problem of bullying in schools. And while it’s not as funny as some of my other work, it treats its characters with the same compassion and humanity that I hope is my trademark. It’s a play that will make you think as it rips out your emotional guts.