When a man takes the stage to warble out girlie tunes like I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair, he’s frequently propped up by killer stilettos, some serious wig action and enough makeup to spackle even the sturdiest of 5 o’clock shadows. Not so with acclaimed Toronto actor and playwright Damien Atkins, who brings his play Real Live Girl back to the Buddies in Bad Times stage for one night only on Mar 5.
No dress, no heels, no falsies: Atkins eschewed any drag trappings in his show, preferring to sing songs written for women while presenting his audience with the visual cues of an effeminate gay man. The play was a hit, snagging awards and accolades as it minced its way across the North American continent.
“It started with a question,” says Atkins. “How would all these great pieces of music that are written for women come off if they were sung by a man? It’s trying to look at the validity of our gender roles and what we have in common between the genders.”
While it’s no secret that gay men have a long history of embracing great, weepy torch songs, Atkins felt driven to explore his own curiosity about just how much woman lurks in your average ’mo.
“It’s a kind of personal obsession for me in my life,” he says. “We still have confusions about what is an issue of sexuality and what is an issue of gender. Too often we think of gay men as instantly feminine. Gay doesn’t necessarily mean any kind of gender association.”
Atkins does acknowledge that some audience members can be a little mystified by the sight of a man warbling about life as a housewife or homecoming queen.
“It feels like the audience gets over the oddity of a man singing these songs almost instantly,” says Atkins. “I don’t know if they’re receiving the story as a gay man singing or if they forget about me and give over completely to the music, but the experience is gratifying either way because it becomes more about the song instead of about me.”
Things have changed a lot for the actor/playwright in the nearly 10 years since Real Live Girl first premiered on the Buddies stage. His plays Lucy, Miss Chatelaine and The Good Mother have explored issues ranging from autism and family tragedy to a gay boy’s first date. He’s kept up his acting chops with roles in plays like Frost and Nixon, Seven Stories and The Way of the World, and he’s been teaching a course called Vocal Mask this last year at the National Theatre School.
Despite the heavy workload, Atkins is excited to revisit the songs and monologues from Real Live Girl. “The music is so beautiful,” he says. “It’s a real pleasure to get to go back and sing these pieces after so long.”
For new Buddies artistic director Brendan Healy, Atkins was a natural choice for this year’s fundraiser after the overwhelmingly positive response to last year’s remount of Daniel McIvor’s Cul de Sac.
“It’s a chance for our company to reflect on our history,” says Healy. “Buddies has been here for 31 years now, so there’s an incredible history of work. We’re able to invite an artist from our past to come back and present something that has some kind of dialogue with our audience.
“Damien is, for me, exactly the type of artist that Buddies seeks to support. He’s a great writer and a fantastic actor and singer. Real Live Girl is really entertaining but also reflects on a gay male’s connection to the feminine side. It’s a fascinating aspect of gay male culture.”
Healy is optimistic that Atkins’ appearance will be a repeat of last year’s success, putting bums in seats and topping up Buddies’ coffers in these financial difficult times.
“It’s a challenge in the best of times,” he says. “The current economic troubles sent us into a crisis last season. All the companies in the city are really having a hard time. We’re lucky at Buddies because we have the club [Tallulah’s] providing a stable source of income and because we have such a gift of supporters and stakeholders.
“That’s why these fundraisers are so essential. Not just financially, but also as a way for me to connect with our stakeholders. It’s about seeing a great piece of theatre but also talking to each other and fostering those relationships.”
Fortunately, that support – along with some prudent planning – helped the not-for-profit company to emerge relatively unscathed from last year’s crisis. Now on firmer ground, Healy is eager to stretch his wings a little as the company continues to evolve.
“I feel our community is at a crossroads about our identity,” he says. “Are we outside the norm, or are we now just like everyone else? I think our company is reflecting those questions and trying to find some answers.”
“We want to move forward with our idea of what the queer perspective is, but fundraisers like this also allow us to reflect on our legacy.”