“Tapette, pédé, fif,” they cry as they close in on their prey, some poor faggot somewhere beyond the audience.
“Embrasse-moi ça, tapette,” yells one, slapping his thighs and thrusting his pelvis, the French equivalent of “suck this, faggot.”
The audience of high school students sits forward in their seats, engrossed, charged, engaged.
It’s Feb 22 and the students have come from Kitsilano Secondary’s French program, Grades 8-12. Fifteen minutes earlier, they were a bunch of teenagers filing into Studio 16, slipping off heavy backpacks, talking and laughing among themselves while their teacher took attendance and chastised them to be quiet.
Now they are voyeurs to a vicious gaybashing.
They’re here to see a presentation of De l’autre côté du placard (The Other Side of the Closet) by Montreal’s Youtheatre troupe. Their host, Vancouver’s French theatre group, Théâtre la Seizième, arranged the two-week tour and invited BC’s French and French-immersion school programs to attend. Today, the troupe is in Vancouver. Monday they were in Port Alberni and Comox. Next Monday they’ll be in Quesnel.
La Seizième’s artistic director, Craig Holzschuh, says he wishes the troupe could stay for a month, but they’ve only got two weeks.
I ask him why the play is worth presenting. He tells me about a conversation he just had with the actors over lunch. They told him about a school they offered to perform for in Montreal, whose teachers turned them down. The teachers said they had no gay kids at their school, Holzschuh relates. So the actors approached the principal.
The principal said yes. But don’t perform it for the students, he said-perform it for the teachers.
On stage, Rick, Carl and Justin rush to tell their friends about their conquest. Excited, the words tumble out. It’s tapette this and pervert that. Until Paulette has had enough.
She has a gay uncle, she announces.
The guys are taken aback.
Carl has not yet been outed.
“I think everybody should see this show,” says Youtheatre’s artistic director, Michel Lefebvre. He’s in Montreal filling out grant applications and can’t come on tour. But he still feels passionately about the show.
Originally performed in English in 1997, The Other Side of the Closet proved “volatile” from its inception, Lefebvre recalls. It premiered in Montreal and Toronto, then “exploded” when it got to Winnipeg, where a school board refused to show it.
“Winnipeg was really not ready for this,” Lefebvre says. Somebody leaked the refusal to the media and it was all over the headlines, as people debated whether or not their students needed any anti-homophobia education. “It literally shook Winnipeg to its very soul.”
A few years later, the play made the rounds again and returned to Winnipeg. “And things had obviously advanced there,” Lefebvre continues. Some schools had even incorporated mandatory anti-homophobia components into their curricula.
It’s extraordinary to be part of a show that can change the world, he says.
On stage, Rick and Justin are suddenly shocked to discover Carl in Montreal’s gay village. The next day at school, the rumours swirl. Carl’s closet door has been flung wide, without his consent.
Carl confides to Paulette, the only one of his friends still speaking to him, that he used to pray for his feelings for guys to go away. And what happened? Paulette asks. I got a big headache, Carl replies.
There is a smattering of soft laughter through the audience. The Kits youth are focused on the actors on stage. Not a chair creaks.
When Rick beats Carl up at a school dance, Carl comes out to his mother. She fumbles and sniffles and asks inappropriate questions, but soon offers to accompany him to school to seek help from the administration.
It doesn’t work. The principal says he’s not responsible for what happens off school property. Carl’s father stops speaking to him.
“I think it’s crucial” to reach youth, says Lefebvre. “This is the moment. There’s still time when you’re young to alter the way you see the world and change the way you act.
“And theatre can be an important force for change,” he continues. Seeing a play can give kids a chance to talk about things they wouldn’t otherwise tackle, he explains.
Carl switches to a special school for gay kids and immediately feels threatened by Anthony, the flaming, self-confident young queen.
As Anthony flounces onto the stage, I hear a few snickers behind me. Carl, surely reflecting at least some of the views in the audience, turns on Anthony. If queers acted more normal, maybe the Nazis wouldn’t have put you in concentration camps, he says.
Anthony has heard it before. “I’m happy the way I am,” he says. “I don’t want to act straight.”
Rick comes back to pick one last fight. “This young man has some personal issues to resolve,” Anthony announces. And the young people around me-the young people who snickered not moments before-clap.
They clap! For Anthony.
Then Carl finally snaps and beats Rick up-and the audience claps again!
The tables have turned and they have turned with them.
One hour is all it took.
“I think it’s my job to expand people’s horizons,” Holzschuh says.
As the students file out to return to their classes, I ask a few what they thought of the play.
“It’s important to show, especially high school students, that it’s totally okay,” says Leila Pilliard, Grade 8. “I think the play opened some minds for some people.”
“It made me realize how hard it is to be gay,” says Tony Giroux, Grade 10. “I didn’t think it was that hard to be accepted.”
I ask if anyone is out at their school. One kid, they say, but no one thinks it’s bad. Well, he gets teased a lot, they quickly amend. And a lot of students say, ‘that’s so gay,’ they add. “Everyone uses that as an insult,” says Lucie Swan, Grade 9.
“Something I don’t understand: how can a family member be so heartbroken” just because their kid comes out as gay? asks Cecilia Wang, Grade 9.
“Exactly. You’re still you,” says Megan Lemaire, Grade 9.
“So I-love-you-no-matter-what doesn’t really apply for being gay?” asks Wang.
“People should see these kinds of things more often, ” concludes Michelle Ghoussoub, Grade 8.