6 min

Keeping it queer

“What is queer theatre? I really don’t know. It changes possibly with the same degree that sex changes. I wouldn’t begin to know how to define good sex but can, at the same time, remember having it. I do think that sex is a common thread running through all of it. Anything that keeps the dramatic action close to the fluid exchange of love and hate keeps it queer. Anything that contains the eternal rage and pleasure of ‘difference’ keeps it queer. Many women would I think disagree with this, but for me as a 40-year-old who at present makes no priority of sex, the word queer resonates but does not necessarily reverberate. But when I first came to the word, it was through the belief that queer could and would envelop all of the people who could or would not subscribe to an accepted sexual order. And I suspect the same is true today. At least I hope so.”

* Former artistic director of Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, Sarah Stanley


In my teens, and earlier, I always expected my father to say something queer. But I didn’t know it was “queer” at the time. For example: “It isn’t the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in;” or, “Get your hair cut. You’re startin’ to look like a fruit;” or, “He’s as queer as a four dollar bill.” Now we have loonies and twoonies. They still seem a bit queer to me.

Queer is a queer word. It changes with the times. What was queer in the 1980s doesn’t necessarily remain queer at the beginning of the 21st century. The things that are not queer now may seem very queer to us in 25 years. As Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, one of North America’s largest queer theatres, prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary it seems fitting to take a retrospective look at the concept of queer theatre, as seen through the eyes of Buddies’ three artistic directors.

Sky Gilbert, the first and perhaps most infamous artistic director of Buddies, who ran the company for 17 years, began his queer career as a somewhat closeted bisexual male fresh out of university and eager to theatricalize the poetry of queer artists such as Frank O’Hara and the beat poets of the 1950s. In 1985 his work turned toward the dramatization of gay love, as seen in Radiguet, a play that represented parts of Jean Cocteau’s life.

Having come out as gay in 1980, Gilbert says he sees queer theatre as something that is “somehow grounded in the realities and details of gay life.” He makes a distinction between “details” and the over-simplified representation of recent mainstream television shows such as Will And Grace or Queer As Folk. Although he admits that the latter does reveal certain details, he feels that some of the specifics of gay life are judiciously left out. Sex becomes too pretty and too compartmentalized. Not everyone identifies with Queer As Folk, yet its continued late night success in parts of Canada certainly attest to its popularity among heterosexuals and homosexuals.

Just before leaving Buddies, Gilbert had to make a decision about a new queer script. Damien Atkins’ Miss Chatelaine, a memoir about growing up gay in Alberta that later had an acclaimed run at Theatre Passe Muraille’s backspace, was not produced by Buddies at the time partly because Gilbert felt the piece was not really very gay due to its mainstream appeal. Gilbert considers Atkins an enormously talented artist. And current artistic director David Oiye has repeatedly programmed Atkins’ work, including a remount of Real Live Girl during the 25th anniversary season.

Artistic directors have to make these kinds of difficult decisions on a regular basis – decisions that rely upon a complex relationship between their specific views on theatre and the community they serve. Atkins work did not fit Gilbert’s definition of queer theatre at the time.

Atkins has gone on to receive national attention and, as recently as last spring, he has performed brilliantly in productions such as CanStage’s Sweeney Todd. He represents a queer presence outside of the margins and his career points toward the difficulty in restricting queerness to a single aesthetic principle.

Gilbert began as AD at the smaller George St space where the mandate did not have to consider its relationship to the community and funders in the same way that the Alexander St venue now does – it’s a much larger and more expensive space to maintain. This was part of the reason Gilbert left in 1993. He was determined to focus on his own work and his own particular aesthetic view.

Sarah Stanley took over at this point and now, as a dramaturge in residence for the Magnetic North Theatre Festival at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, she looks back on her years at Buddies as a time that has, and perhaps always will, reverberate with the initial influence Gilbert provided. When asked about her four years at the Alexander St space she responded by saying: “Sky – he is the reason for Buddies, he is the reason for me coming to Buddies. Many, many people have contributed to the company’s illustrious past, but Sky is the centre from which, I would argue, the very discussion of queer theatre [at Buddies] flows so freely.”

Stanley goes on to describe the pride she feels at being involved with scripts such as Dyke City by Sonja Mills (now a TV sitcom), Franco Boni’s contribution to the new works festival Rhubarb, Ed Roy’s work on the Ante Chamber Series, and Buddies’ past connection with the annual Pride Week cabaret Cheap Queers. She is especially excited by the introduction of a new generation of queer youth who have come of age in a radically different time than the three ADs who led the company through a difficult yet extremely diverse and successful aesthetic journey.

David Oiye began his tenure at Buddies five years ago after acting as AD for Cahoots Theatre Projects. Oiye acknowledges the company’s debt to Gilbert, but admits that he is a very different queer individual and AD. Although his experience has aligned him with more linear, traditional narrative drama, he is also interested in seeing Buddies continue to explore multi-disciplinary work that embraces film, video and movement.

Oiye feels that it has been too easy to dismiss Gilbert’s work in the past due to the tumultuous relationship between Gilbert’s plays and the mainstream press. In retrospect, Oiye sees in Sky’s body of work an incredible through-line. His work is more about the idiosyncratic paradoxes of gay and lesbian life and sexuality that reside individually and collectively within many of us. Oiye, on the other hand, must submit to the demands of a large expensive space that must consider a more inclusive spectatorship than the early years afforded. Buddies needs to keep plenty of bums in seats.

Oiye is thrilled to be able to present a re-mount of Gilbert’s script Play Murder this month, as well as a new drag play, Suzie Goo For Prime Minister, next spring. With the help of many others Oiye has worked hard to ensure that the entire anniversary season reflects the past, present and future in as inclusive a way as possible.

As for queer theatre and its connection to Toronto homos, both Oiye and Gilbert seem to feel that it is difficult to gauge a relationship between a broad sensibility, a centralized yet amorphous geographic locale (Church and Wellesley), and an artistic institution that has been periodically challenged by the notions of representation and community.

Needless to say, creating art is not always about inclusive expression. Nor should it be. Nevertheless, Buddies currently hosts club nights primarily for teens and 20-somethings, Half Cocked trans nights and, although the fabulous dungeons seem to have disappeared, leather folk still make their way into the space from time to time. Buddies continues to develop queer youth programs that include summer workshop sessions where a group of young artists is able to express themselves with theatre as a social tool. A past summer youth group decided that they didn’t want to be called queer, that gay was the word they identified with.

Although concerned with broad community appeal that may require the odd splashy gay musical replete with nudity and bourgeois sensibility, the company remains dedicated to also serving identifiable groups that have always been a part of Church and Wellesley. Buddies now plays both sides of the issue by giving people what they want as well as challenging their expectations about queer theatre and theatre in general.

So we go full circle, from queer to gay and back again, only to realize that the terms can be interchangeable, that three dollars bills may one day be called loonie twoons, and that being as queer as a four dollar bill may be theatrical but not very queer at all.

The one thing we must count on however is the presence of a strong, constantly struggling, constantly in flux, gay and lesbian theatre community in and around Buddies and Toronto that continues to challenge, diversify and fight for the right to remain as queer as folk, as Will, and as Grace – and all that falls through the cracks and in between.

* Queer performance artist David Bateman, who regularly reviews theate forXtra and whose work has been seen at Buddies many times, has also socialized with at least one of the three artistic directors named in this article in a sleazy local hotspot on more than one occasion but cannot name the party involved because it was very dark and everyone was wearing designer towels. He was removed from the Alexander St premises once for falling off of his high heels on Pride Day due to mild-to-medium intoxication and great frivolity.