Celebrated film and theatre director John Cameron Mitchell has a mini-crush on Toronto. The Kansas-born, New York-based artist shot the film version of his seminal off-Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch here and imported nearly his entire cast from Hogtown to NYC when he made 2004’s Shortbus.
“I feel very comfortable up there,” he says from Colorado, where he’s visiting his mother. “My mom’s British and my dad was American, and people sort of joke that Canada’s halfway in between. Especially as New York changes, I sometimes wonder where I would live if it wasn’t there, and Toronto is probably first on the list. There’s beautiful livableness to the city. It’s super multicultural and has the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had in my life.”
Mitchell will descend on us later this week for two major events. The first is the Toronto incarnation of his “semi-legendary” New York dance party Mattachine. Launched in 2008 right around the time of the economic crash (“Maybe that’s how we thought we were going to make a living?” he jokes), the event began as an antidote to what he and his pals saw as a failing NYC nightlife. Soaring rents combined with eight years of Giuliani crackdowns on everything fun (strippers, dance clubs, pissing in public, et cetera) had left the once raucous party town in a bit of a slump.
“There was this kind of exhausted feeling around going out,” Mitchell says. “Music had really dried up into predictable pop and dance tracks, even in the alt gay scene, and the internet had really put a dent in people being spontaneous. We wanted to create our own venue in a way that was a sort of pre-digital dance party.”
The event ethos manifests in multiple ways. Six years in, Mattachine still doesn’t have a website or a Facebook page (though out-of-town versions, including the Toronto gig, are listed there). Guests in New York normally need to hear about it from friends or call the bar where it’s hosted for info, something younger partygoers are apparently horrified by. Tag-teaming DJs never play more than one song in a row, meaning occasional pauses and record skips. They don’t beat match, instead playing entire songs with a palette of music eclectic enough to make most alt parties sound like top 40 radio.
“It has a sort of high school dance feel,” Mitchell says. “Playing one song and then another. It’s part of today’s digital culture that people never pause, and that’s not good for things like dancing or sex. You have to go down to go back up, but we live in a time of people fast-forwarding through their music, their sex lives, their lives in general. We wanted to have a place to slow down, put away our phones and dance together.”
Mitchell’s second TO engagement will be to preside over TIFF’s sing-along presentation of Hedwig. Though it’s usually family-friendly fare like The Sound of Music that gets the participatory treatment, Mitchell doesn’t see giving his film a similar twist as that odd.
“It’s a survivor pouring her heart out, singing and dancing and communal catharsis,” he says. “The content, in terms of a character who is, in effect, mutilated to be free, wasn’t the usual Broadway fare at the time it premiered, but neither was Gypsy, which was about a stripper. It was maybe a little different in terms of coded queer content, but it’s definitely still very much a metaphor.”
“Hedwig’s state of being — feeling diminished but finding out that she’s actually super human — that’s kind of the queer experience,” he adds. “You’re told there’s something wrong with you and then you realize through adversity and difference you’ve created something new and beautiful. It’s not always easy, but you end up becoming more satisfied in the end if you can survive it. That’s a very family-friendly message and actually a very traditional Broadway one, too.”
Though similar screenings of his rock musical have played before, the Toronto edition will be the first Mitchell’s attended. While he’s not sure what to expect from the event, he’s clear on one thing.
“I’m not going to be singing along with myself,” he says. “That would be a bit too meta. It happened once in Puerto Rico, but that was a very special occasion, and they got me really, really drunk.”