In the campy parlance of theatre folks, there’s a name for people like Jonathan Wilson – hyphenated queens. The 34-year-old, handsome, gay man who shot to fame with his critically acclaimed, 1996 one-man show, My Own Private Oshawa, has been involved in virtually every aspect of live performance. From stand-up, drama and comic acting, directing and writing, Wilson is a living example of the art-or-bust philosophy.
“It feels like you have eight or nine careers and you’re always juggling,” says Wilson. “I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t even think about it anymore. I’m my own corporation. I’m the product and these are my services.
“I would love to just be a playwright for a couple of months. But inside of that, you have to be many other things to allow that to happen.”
For his own peace of mind, however, and to simplify social introductions, Wilson is sticking with actor. “Sometimes I get funny looks from people. ‘You’re an actor? Oh, really. What have you done?’ Unless you’ve been the lead in something, they don’t really care.”
Introducing himself may get a bit more complicated as of next week when Kilt, his debut full-length, multiple-cast play, premiers at the Tarragon Theatre. This is yet another adventure for Wilson, whose previous writing credits include one-act fringe plays or one-man monologue pieces.
Kilt examines two intertwining relationships set in different times and places. One is between Esther Robertson, an instructor of Scottish highland dance who moved to Canada from Glasgow after the death of her husband, and her only son Tom, a table dancer in a local gay club. During a visit to Glasgow to attend the funeral of Esther’s father – whose kilt Tom uses in his Tartan Tom act – Tom uncovers hidden family secrets about his homosexual grandfather and his soccer hooligan father.
Against this family drama, the grandfather’s story of romance with another man during World War II is slowly re-enacted.
It’s difficult to categorize Kilt neatly. It’s a very funny play that showcases Wilson’s comedic writing talent and observational humour, but it’s an emotionally intense and structurally complex drama.
“I really like the collage aspect of it. I get turned off by theatre that’s so humourless and takes itself so seriously,” says Wilson. “I think you can affect someone through laughter much more than through heartfelt pleas.”
Kilt was partly inspired by an old family photograph of Wilson’s great uncle, taken during the Allies’ 1942 desert campaign in North Africa. “He told me stories about being there from Glasgow, and it seemed like the only time in his life that he was actually free. The picture of him in a loincloth in the desert was such a contrast to what the rest of his life was.”
Wilson took what can be best described as dramatic license in constructing the story behind the photograph: “I have no reason to believe that he was gay other than this photograph of him in the desert with this guy. That was me making a leap of logic. I had a feeling that he might be, but I never really had any confirmation of that. Another time, another place, he might have allowed himself to be.”
The family connection does not end there. There are certain parallels between Wilson’s real life experiences and those of his characters. Like the Robertsons, Wilson’s family moved from Glasgow to Oshawa when he was only five. At 15, Wilson dropped out of school, left home and moved to Toronto. He worked in a mailroom, went back to high school and went to Ryerson to study theatre.
And a similar sense of resilience and rebellion can be found in Tom’s character. Inevitably, 23-year-old Tom comes across as somewhat of a bitter old queen. “Tom has become professionally gay. It’s something that he’s learnt to wear. The bitchiness and bitterness, like many of us, comes as a bit of an armour.”
Tom is played by the talented (but straight) Paul Braunstein. “I felt a political responsibility to hire a gay actor,” admits Wilson. “But Paul was the best choice.”
Wilson has a thing or two to say about typecasting, especially of gay actors. In 1993, he was cast as a gay activist in the Hollywood movie PCU, shot in Toronto and set in a fictional campus university taken over by politically correct zealots. “It was one of those situations where you felt you got cast because you were a gay actor. You’re on the set and they’re going, ‘Gayer, gayer.'”
For Wilson, there’s a subtle distinction between indulging in stereotypes and writing critically about a community. Kilt’s The Ranch, the seedy club where Tom works, is inhabited by a range of broadly sketched characters, from bitchy announcers and dancers on the make to lecherous older gentlemen. Tom’s table dancing offered Wilson a way to explore body image and, as he puts it, “the feeling that we, as gay men, have to communicate sexually, exclusively, as if there were no other dialogue.”
But does Wilson think kilts are sexy? “Oh God, yeah,” he replies. “Ever since I was a kid I felt they were incredibly sexy. Looking back, I think it was the combination of the masculine and the feminine that I found very erotic: a man with his burly legs with a skirt draping across his knees. Also, the idea that there’s something under that skirt – nearby, yet so far.”
In his play, the kilt becomes a powerful symbol of both liberation from and commitment to one’s own heritage. “This is the same thing that I play with with the highland dance,” Wilson elaborates.
“There’s a structure to it and you can’t work outside that structure, otherwise you’re not doing the highland dance. Tom is able to find his own way through the dance and find his own tradition and his own eroticism.”
With Kilt, Wilson continues his investigation of the going-home theme he explored so poignantly and humourously in My Own Private Oshawa; a theme that characterizes much of gay art in the ’90s. “I love going back to a place and realizing that you’re connected to it, no matter how you reject it. As much as people try to reconfigure their lives, there’s no escaping who they are.”
Kilt also revisits older, Freudian equations about homosexuality: Mix in an absent father with a dominating mother and you got yourself a gay son! “When I first started writing Kilt, it was going to be a send up of that,” explains Wilson. As the play developed, a variation of the old cliche shaped up. “She [Esther] is not necessarily dominating, but they are equal sparring partners. Tom gives as good as he gets. I like playing with those archetypes, surely there’s a certain amount of truth in them.” Although Wilson quickly adds: “This is not my mother.”
Another generation game that Kilt lays bare is the often segregated existence between older and younger gay men, something that Wilson says he’s been guilty of. “We tend to isolate ourselves. It was important to connect Tom with that romance in the desert. It might have been buried in the desert years ago, but it’s dug up and enjoyed for what it is.”
Kilt marks a turning point in the development of Jonathan Wilson Inc. He can now be considered a serious playwright. “It’s something I’m really excited about pursuing. I really enjoyed not having the neuroses of being an actor, but play-writing is another kind of neurosis. It’s something I’m going to pursue wholeheartedly.”
Actors turning their hands to play writing is nothing new, especially in Toronto, where this is often a way to create work for themselves. On the whole, the tightly knit world of Toronto’s playwrights has been encouraging. “I have nothing but support,” Wilson insists, listing Jason Sherman and Daniel Brooks, among others, as supporters.
Wilson’s experiences in television, however, have been less positive. “The best thing about TV is hearing you got the job. The rest is hell, especially if it’s a series,” he says of his various appearances on Canadian dramas such as Street Legal, ENG and Wind At My Back. “You arrive, you’re part of the machine and you’re spat out the other end. Creatively, it’s not very satisfying or taxing. You either look right or you don’t.”
One particularly unfortunate experience was the CBC gay comedy showcase In Through The Out Door, broadcast during Pride week last year. If you missed it, consider yourself very lucky. And many of the performers’ opinions were almost as sour as the viewers. “While I was filming, I’d be asking the producer why is this sketch I’m about to perform funny again?” After an awkward silence, Wilson makes his only request during this interview: “Please add: ‘At this point Wilson passes out.'”
Wilson is not going the route of Martin Short, Dan Ackroyd or other Canadian comics who headed to LA to pursue fame and fortune, though patriotism has little to do with his decision to stick it out in his own private Toronto.
“I’m too lazy and I don’t drive,” he confesses. “If my work takes me there, that’s great. I don’t think at my age I’m willing to sell everything and move to LA to get a line at Dharma And Greg.”
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