They say art often imitates life and for Michele Riml’s latest play, Poster Boys, the similarity is anything but coincidental.
Riml drew her inspiration from the Catholic Church’s objection to Vancity’s gay ad campaign in 2003. The Church withdrew its schools from Vancity programs in protest.
Riml says the Church’s outcry shocked and angered her, but she also found herself seeking a deeper understanding of the entire situation.
So she channeled her energies into writing Poster Boys, a thoughtful and humorous reflection on authenticity, love, acceptance and the advertisers’ quest for the pink dollar.
“In advertising, it’s about using whatever you’ve got,” says Riml. “It’s hard to believe in an ad. I’m not sure that’s where we should be looking for our philosophy or our politics.”
Poster Boys traces the journey of aging creative director Caroline Larion, who casts her ex-fiancé Jack and his Catholic boyfriend, Carson, in her latest advertising campaign for Clearwater Credit Union.
Caroline, who is struggling with dwindling creativity, lingering feelings for Jack and unresolved emotions from being left at the altar, throws all her energy into this make-it-or-break-it campaign that will brand Clearwater as a credit union that “values equal partnerships” and “embraces cultural diversity.”
When the ad receives controversial press, Caroline decides to exploit Jack and Carson to her utmost advantage, insisting that they get married on top of a pink cake on a float sponsored by Clearwater during the Pride parade.
Jack, and especially Carson, are horrified, and things go from bad to worse as the three of them break into an explosive argument in front of Clearwater executives.
Poster Boys examines how advertising pierces our lives and categorizes us into a fixed identity. Riml, who has a background in marketing, says that advertising often doesn’t take people into consideration as individuals, and tries to paint them all with the same brushstroke.
“When we start thinking about people like that, there’s a huge disconnection,” she says.
This detachment is explored throughout the play with Caroline’s obsession with ‘branding’ the Clearwater campaign. She is so focused on using Jack and Carson to manufacture a brand identity that she fails to see who they really are — and can’t understand when Carson tells her, “I don’t want my wedding invitation stamped with a corporate logo.”
Andrew McIlroy, the play’s director, got involved with the project not only because of his longtime friendship with Riml, but also out of his obsession with the media.
“I’m a media slut,” he reveals. “I’m fascinated and very respectful of media and advertising.”
McIlroy, who is gay, recalls seeing the first ad for Absolut Vodka that had a gay theme. “When mainstream media embraced who I am, I felt welcomed, I needed that,” he says.
On the other hand, McIlroy also points to advertising that makes him feel down on himself — like the Calvin Klein ads of the early ’80s that featured gorgeous, buff men in tight underwear.
“I’m often made insecure by ads,” he says. “Sometimes the gay community advertising to itself makes me feel at odds. I feel like I’m never going to be that guy.”
In the play, Jack and Carson are asked to become poster boys for an entire movement. During a focus group discussing the ad, a participant cynically pipes up, “They’ve finally realized how much money we have to spend.”
McIlroy echoes the comment. “Sometimes I think that’s all they [advertisers] see us as — the disposable income market,” he says. “There’s something so clinical about advertising sometimes. I don’t think that pigeonholing me with hardwood floors is going to help my mother understand me.”
Despite the play’s often cynical take on the advertising world, neither Riml nor McIlroy feel their fictional credit union (or its real-life inspiration) simply used their poster boys for financial gain.
“I think that some people get on a bandwagon and try to cash in on something,” Riml says, “and there are some organizations that have a philosophy that trickles throughout their whole operation.
“I think Vancity definitely has that,” she adds.
“I don’t think the credit union was using the client,” McIlroy says. “You can tell who is just doing a shout out to get the buck. The organizations that genuinely care survive.”
Yet Poster Boys is about so much more than the advertising world’s desire to conquer the gay market. Adding to the complexity is Carson’s Catholic identity, which prevents him from condemning the actions of the Catholic Church outright. And in a twist on the conventional, Caroline’s ideal of a perfect life is the relationship of love, support and compassion between two gay men.
But at its heart, Poster Boys is about coming out — whether you’re gay or straight. From Caroline’s emergence from despair and desperation, to Carson’s coming out to society as a gay man, the play is filled with coming out stories.
“My belief is that we all come out in some way or another,” Riml says. “Coming out is a spiritual experience. When you come out, you become more of who you are.”
Riml hopes that audiences are entertained by the play, but that it also invites them to think.
“I’m not trying to teach anybody anything,” she says. “I hope that it makes an impact, that people come away with questions about their own lives.”