Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Canadian playwright Brad Fraser tears up the UK

5 @ 50 premieres in Manchester

Canadian playwright Brad Fraser says Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian is responsible for a medocre Toronto theatre scene. Credit: Xtra files
Brad Fraser first gained widespread critical acclaim in 1989 when Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love premiered in Calgary. The play featured an ensemble of characters dealing with intimacy issues as a serial killer proceeded to stalk and murder people in their midst. With productions mounted around the world, the play became a sensation, ultimately named as one of the top 10 plays of 1992 by Time Magazine, and adapted for the big screen by Oscar-winning director Denys Arcand.
 
With its nods to pop culture, a sinister sense of humour and onstage depictions of sex and violence, Unidentified Human Remains set the standard for much of Fraser’s oeuvre. He has gone on to write a numerous stage hits, as well as screenplays, TV shows (including Queer as Folk) and newspaper and magazine columns.
 
This month sees two productions of Fraser plays. In Manchester, England, the Royal Exchange Theatre is mounting the world premiere of 5 @ 50, Fraser’s play about five complicated women facing such mid-life issues as marital woes, substance abuse and menopause. And Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre is mounting its production of True Love Lies, Fraser’s 2009 play, a sequel of sorts to Unidentified Human Remains. Fraser spoke to Xtra from Manchester, where he was preparing for opening night on April 13.
 
Xtra: Your new play, 5 @ 50, marks the first time you’ve written a play with only female characters. You used your Facebook friends for a lot of your research, didn’t you?
 
Brad Fraser: Facebook’s been a boon in so many ways. In this case I put the word out that I needed specific info about menopause – what women were going through, what drugs they were taking, and so on – and let my female friends all know they could email me privately. Most of them were more than happy to discuss such things publicly and I ended up with some very personal, and funny, information being shared on a number of threads. I also wanted some info on same sex attraction and relationships from women who identified as straight, lesbian and everything in between as there’s a very complicated same sex relationship in the play. The women weren’t quite so public with their answers in that case but, in private, were amazingly candid about experiences and feelings. While none of this went into the play verbatim all of the information was crucial to what I was writing and permeates the play throughout. I owe all of those women a very strong thank you.
 
Xtra: You’ve had a number of productions in Manchester. What’s up with you and the Brits?
 
Brad Fraser: I’d probably rather ask what isn’t up between me and the Canadians. I’m not sure what the deal is but my work seems to be accepted and lauded in the UK much more than in my home country. Part of it is the level of critical mediocrity that permeates the Toronto theatre scene, specifically because of the pernicious influence of Richard Ouzounian at the Toronto Star, who really should give up the professional theatre and become the flamboyant high-school drama teacher he was meant to be. And part of it comes from my willingness to be completely candid about my own frustrations with the lack of ambition and commercial savvy with some of the Canadian theatres and the people who run them. Whatever the case, I am extremely grateful for the support of Braham Murray and the Royal Exchange who have given me an artistic home for the last 15 years. There’s a great freedom to being able to open a play and then leave the country, no matter what the reaction is. I suspect that support has a lot to do with why my best work has happened in England.
 
Xtra: How are British men different in bed than Canadian men?
 
Brad Fraser: There is, among certain English men, a strong interest in the more exotic/kinkier side of things and a lot more of them seem to be uncut. But really, once the action starts I’m not thinking, “Hey this is way different than anything I’ve done in North America!” Their sex talk can be a bit harder to understand because of their accents, so I often suggest they just shut up and let our dicks do the talking.
 
Xtra: You told the Globe & Mail that you’ve alienated a lot of people in Toronto. Is Toronto still a small pond, or has it finally busted out into world-class status?
 
Brad Fraser: I suppose it depends whom you’re talking to and what your idea of world class is. If being a pit stop or testing area for large, Broadway-style musicals with no real attention paid to original Canadian theatre is your idea of world class, then some might claim Toronto is indeed world class. However, if, like me, your idea of world class is having strong support for Canadian theatre creators and having a city that celebrates its native artists and exports them proudly to the rest of the world, then I think we still have quite a way to go. And, to be fair, I’ve alienated people in other cities besides Toronto.
 
Xtra: It’s been more than a couple of decades since Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love bust out into a massive international hit. What’s the main way Canadian theatre has changed since then?
 
Brad Fraser: I hate to say it but I think the theatre in Canada has become much more cautious and middle class since then. If Remains were written today I can’t honestly say I know someone who would produce it outside of a fringe festival setting. A lot of artistic directors and dramaturges have taken to hiding their own inhibitions and fears behind the inevitable excuse of “knowing what their audience will and will not accept.” I personally think if this were true they’d all be running financially and artistically successful theatres that are entirely self-supporting. I hope all of our home-grown play-producing institutions will stop using the various fringes and other showcase-style events as ghettos for the work of a challenging nature and start actually developing relationships and scripts with the most interesting and daring young artists. But again, when we’re dealing with a major critic who lauds Rock of Ages as some kind of theatrical brilliance while dismissing anything that aspires to anything beyond aping second rate, commercial American plays, we’re in trouble.
 
Xtra: There is so much bad news out there for writers, given that the internet provides everything for free. Do you see a silver lining anywhere?
 
Brad Fraser: It’s true. It’s all very bad news for journalists, filmmakers, record producers and anyone else working in the electronic media. But live theatre will never be workable on the net, so in terms of my own rather specialized area I have great optimism. In England, at least, the theatre is doing very well despite the endless recessions we’re cycling through, so I suspect live performance of any kind will become even more popular as time goes on.