Vancouver may be renowned for having one of the largest, most vibrant queer communities in North America, but one thing it lacks is a theatrical venue devoted exclusively to the presentation of queer-themed plays.
This irks local playwright Jordan Patterson, who thinks there’s definitely room for such a space here. “People will go if it gets the support of the community,” he predicts.
The hole in Vancouver’s queer arts scene wasn’t enough to stop the Winnipeg-born, Ontario-raised-and-educated Patterson from penning The Pitch, his first play after a 12-year hiatus from playwriting. Excerpts from the play will be read at Little Sister’s on May 18.
While it takes most playwrights years to get their first big break, Patterson, now 40, achieved success from the get-go. Fresh from university at age 22 (he graduated from the University of Guelph’s theatre program), he had a play produced at Rhubarb, Buddies in Bad Times’ annual festival of new works.
Renowned playwright Sky Gilbert, founder and then-artistic director of Buddies, was so impressed by Patterson’s work that he asked him to be Buddies’ playwright-in-residence. Armed with reference letters from Gilbert and other theatre luminaries, Patterson then got the Canada Council grant he needed to be a fulltime writer. Thereafter he enjoyed a number of years as a successful working playwright in Toronto, before moving–in an effort to get away from a bad relationship–to Vancouver in 1994.
Patterson is familiar with the fickleness of Toronto’s huge and vibrant theatre scene. “Toronto theatre for me, when I first got into it, was wow, this is really amazing. Everybody’s so supportive. But I had written something that was successful, so I’d go into these Canadian Stage parties where there were 3,000 people, and everybody wanted to talk to me because I was this new playwright who was doing really well. And then the last play I did in Toronto, it got shitty reviews. I’d walk into Canadian Stage parties and everybody avoided me! And it was like, wow, this is fucking awful.
“I was a really, really, really insecure person at the time, being dyslexic, not doing well at school, being really unconfident,” he continues. “As soon as anyone questioned me about anything I would just put my tail between my legs and walk away.”
To his dismay, the Vancouver theatre scene embraced him with less than open arms.
“I think I moved here a year after I was playwright-in-residence at Buddies. Got here, had these scripts that had done really well, I had good reviews, I had letters of recommendation from Sky, saying that artistic companies should produce Jordan’s work and all this kind of stuff–and nothing.
“Nobody was interested in even talking to me. Could not get a single person to read a play of mine, let alone act in it. I approached some actors that I’d heard about and they were just like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ So I was just like, forget it. I have no interest in being here–in terms of being a writer. But I all of a sudden fell in love with Vancouver, because I love to play tennis and baseball and that kind of stuff. And I became a waiter.”
Though he’s somewhat disenchanted with the Vancouver theatre producers now, the yen to create never fully left him. And that, combined with life experiences he felt he needed to put into dramatic form, led him to return to playwriting two years ago.
The result: The Pitch, a Brechtian concoction about the circuit scene, crystal meth, a mother-son relationship, and dyslexia, with special appearances by Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Margaret Cho.
Patterson freely acknowledges that large swaths of the play (with the exception of the stuff about Winfrey, Trump and Cho–he’s never met them) are autobiographical. But unlike disgraced former Oprah Book Club author James Frey, he’s upfront about the fact that things have been altered and exaggerated for dramatic effect.
Patterson was, like the main character in his play, a regular on the circuit scene and experimented with a number of drugs, including crystal meth. “Basically, it’s an uncharted thing,” he says, referring to crystal meth use in the gay community. “When I started writing this play two years ago, I hadn’t heard anyone in theatre, or even in the writing world, really talking about it.”
In one scene in the play, he says, the audience actually gets to experience a circuit party, “so they can see the raw edge and the enticement of being on a dance floor at six o’clock in the morning with your shirt off, surrounded by a bunch of go-go dancers and muscle bodies. I want the music to be so infectious, and just the atmosphere so infectious that, ideally, the entire audience would get up and start dancing. So they can understand why this is turning into pandemic proportions in terms of the gay community.”
So why, according to Patterson, are some gay men turning to drugs? “I think in terms of the gay community, it’s because we lack confidence in ourselves. And [they want to] become somebody else, even for a short period of time.”
As for his own experience, “I didn’t start doing drugs until I was 35. I was living a pretty conservative life. And then all of a sudden somebody invited me to the big Halloween party where everyone takes off their clothes and wears some silly sort of costume where they expose their bodies and stuff like that. I’m like, ‘Holy fuck, this is so much fun.'”
For four years he became entrenched in the drug scene, but when he started writing the play he said, ‘Okay, I can’t do this anymore, because I’m literally not going to have a brain left.'”
So how can the gay community pull itself out of this pandemic? “I think the focus has to be less on sex and more on accountability. People are putting their futures at risk.”
Patterson has sent The Pitch to a select group of theatre and literary luminaries–including his former mentor, Gilbert, who presented a staged reading of it in Toronto–and is now shopping it around the Vancouver theatre community. He’s giving this city six months, he says, after which, if the theatre scene here remains uninterested in his work, he may return to Toronto.
“But it would be hard to move out of Vancouver,” he says, “because I absolutely love the lifestyle here.”