About a month after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the now infamous law banning propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations,” a friend asked Vancouver playwright David Deveau when he would start writing about it.
“Right away,” Deveau thought and went to talk to his husband, Cameron Mackenzie.
Mackenzie, the artistic director of Zee Zee Theatre Company, immediately grabbed an idea popularized by The Wrecking Ball series of political theatre shows: a handful of short plays, each by a different author, snatched from today’s headlines, rehearsed no more than a week before opening, and performed in bare-bones simplicity.
But who would want to write a 10-minute play about the politics of being gay in Russia?
Everybody, it turns out.
Mackenzie and Deveau have put together a program for the show, entitled Nyet: A Cabaret of Concerned Canadians, that will make any Canadian theatre buff spit-take his vodka: Governor General’s Award–winning playwrights Daniel MacIvor (Never Swim Alone, Twitch City), Morris Panych (Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, The Ends of the Earth) and George F Walker (Niagara Motel, This Is Wonderland), as well as Emmy Award–winning puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, comedian Jan Derbyshire and half a dozen others.
Mackenzie hopes the production will jump-start the conversation about Russia’s beleaguered gay community.
“This event, for me and for my husband, is a way for us to fight that apathy and that sense that there’s no hope,” he says. “It’s our contribution to trying to keep the momentum going.”
Mackenzie says he has tried to invite a wide range of playwrights, both queer and allied, to sign on. “I’m interested in creative debate,” he says. “I’m not interested in us all agreeing with one another and clapping our hands and patting ourselves on the back and saying, ‘What a good job, we all believe the same thing.’”
Panych says he is working on a humorous take on the propaganda laws. “I am preaching to the converted, so it needed to be something that was interesting and new to an audience of sympathizers,” he tells Xtra by email.
But what can theatre really do to change the political situation in Russia? Not much, Panych says, but that does not mean we should stop talking about it.
“The audience here is largely aware and on the right side of history,” he says. “But if we can keep our audience aware of the plight of gay people in repressive countries, we can remind them that something similar is always possible here.
“As for changing the minds of the average Russian living in Russia, I don’t see a lot of hope on our own,” he says. “We need to make people here aware so that they can bring pressure to bear on our government to act internationally against homophobia.”
Mackenzie points to the Stolichnaya Vodka boycott as one example of how ordinary people can put pressure on Russia. He hopes a continuing conversation will germinate new, better plans. The Nyet show will end with a panel discussion to hash out new ideas.
Because the production happened so fast, Mackenzie says, he never found any Russian writers for the show. “It was, ‘These are the people we know; these are the people who will jump on board.’”
Asked what he hopes to come out of his work, Mackenzie groans: “Journalists and grant applications always ask me this question. Discussion. Dialogue. Community coming together to hash out some of these issues. Open dialogue about what’s going on and ways in which we can aid.”