Arts & entertainment
3 min

Mormon city in Alberta home to thriving gay theatre group

Theatre Outré brings UNSEX’d to Vancouver audiences

Theatre Outré and its creator Jay Whitehead are turning Lethbridge — a southern Alberta city with a major Mormon population — into an unexpected focus of gay culture on the Prairies.

“The original idea was just to start a small company that would do queer work one or two times a year on a very small scale and hope that some people, a handful of people, would come out to see it,” Whitehead says.

“But what ended up happening is we created a theatre space that has become a de facto queer space and social club and safe space for those in this community who lived on the fringes. Not only gay people but anybody who was, I guess, on the fringes . . . anyone who is not a conservative southern Albertan.”

Whitehead was raised Mormon in Calgary and served his mission in Bordeaux, France.

“I did the whole reparative therapy thing with the church when I was first coming out trying to fix the gay,” he says.

Eventually he left the church, but leaving the past behind can be a challenge, especially when your whole huge family remains in the church.

Mormons made frontpage news in November 2015 after the church announced new policies that punish the children of gay Mormons, effectively ordering them to reject their parents. The new policy pushed hundreds of Mormons to publicly renounce the church in a mass resignation in Salt Lake City Nov 14.

“This one has been especially hard simply because it’s attacking values that Mormons hold dear, like families and children,” Whitehead says. “It feels especially hypocritical. Family is one of the main tenets of the Mormon faith. Gays wanting to get married and have children, you would think that would be a step in the right direction for people who think that way, but it turns out that’s exactly the institution that they want to attack.”

With its commitment to producing original queer theatre, Vancouver’s frank theatre company recently invited Theatre Outré to perform here.

Chris Gatchalian, frank’s artistic producer, says Theatre Outré has gained a rightful reputation for doing “incredible work in an unlikely location.”

Whitehead will join co-star Adam Beauchesne to present UNSEX’d, a bawdy Shakespearean-ish romp about two men fighting tooth and nail for the role of Lady Macbeth.

“Humphrey is kind of a Cockney gutter-rat loaf-boy at the end of his wits and he gets saved by Wilburn Hussey, who is one of Shakespeare’s boy players, and he gets kind of mentored by this older actor/actress because all the actors play female roles,” Beauchesne explains. “He takes him off the streets and starts to mentor him and eventually Humphrey starts to get good at it and he starts to overtake Wilburn . . . The play itself deals a lot with themes of beauty, what it means to be getting older in the public eye.”

Whitehead, who co-wrote the play with Daniel Judes, says it’s drawn from his experience as an acting student at Toronto’s York University.

He says he was often taken to task “for being overly effeminate and for not being butch enough to be marketable as a male actor in the industry. It took its toll on me over those two years I was training there.”

The play launched in Lethbridge in 2013 and has since been performed at Dublin’s International Gay Theatre Festival, during WorldPride at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and at the Atlantic Fringe festival in Halifax.

Beauchesne moved to Vancouver from Lethbridge six years ago and is amazed to see the progress his hometown has made, in large part because of Theatre Outré.

“Theatre Outré has really tapped into this market of young queer people and allies and everybody,” he says. “It’s really brought everybody together in a really amazing way. Going back there, every year, I’m really amazed. They have a Lethbridge Pride now and their chief of police does a flag-raising.”

“I often don’t give the community enough credit,” he says. “And I think it took someone like Jay to be bold enough to do it.”