The queer community has a lot to thank the Beats for. Beat luminaries like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg saw America filtered through the eyes of it’s victims: the shamed and denounced queer community, the persecuted and segregated African-Americans. The Beats came to celebration of each other’s sexualities, and resisted conformity with society’s norms. They also believed in artistic innovation and multiculturalism, thoughts that gratefully percolated through our own modern, Canadian thought.
The Dream Machine, a musical presented at the NAC until Oct 28, is an upbeat, hallucinogenic, almost gothic look at 1950s Beat generation innovators. It centres on William S Burroughs and his Canadian mentor, Brion Gysin. The two worked to devise a machine through which flashing light would cause the user to enter a lucid, waking dream state by replicating relaxing alpha wave patterns in the brain. The dream machine user would then be free from the effects of mass cultural assimilation and the brainwashing effects of advertising.
Denise Clark, stage manager and actor in the Dream Machine, really hopes that the queer community will take an active interest in the play.
“We hope that it would appeal to the queer community because it is about pioneers in the queer community,” says Clark. “I would say [the Beats] definitely opened more doors for queer men, so I think the general notions of “queer” and the general placement of the outsiders in the piece, as well as the dramatic courage of the outsiders who lived their lives the way they wanted to live, is important for everybody who has a different lifestyle and an alternative psyche.”
This musical, co-written by Blake Brooker and David Rhymer, and directed by Brooker, is an unconventional, rampaging combination of dance and song, interspliced with Beat-luminary-inspired monologue.
“Ginsberg and Burroughs are our touch men; we are playing around with Burroughs and his wife — at the time in Mexico they were doing a lot of speed and drinking; during that journey Burroughs shot his wife, it became the strongest theme in his work forever. The beats were so ahead of themselves and ahead of the times and they weren’t simple creatures — they were way ahead of their times when in the ’40s and ’50s in America you basically had to tow the line and do what you were told,” says Clark.
One Yellow Rabbit, the theatre company presenting the piece, is also excited to include information about Canada’s own Bryon Gysin, a gay man from Edmonton who was integral to the Beat movement.
“He was living in Tangiers and Paris at the time in the ‘Beat hotel’ as they used to call it. Gysin was a visual artist and a painter and an experimental poet. He and Burroughs were cutting on a newspaper and they came up with the cut-up poetry technique — randomly putting phrases together. They came up with very trippy poetry, and some of them even wrote novels like this. The novels are almost unreadable at times, but what they leave you as an artist is you are moving away from fear and writers block to a more transcendent place as an artist.”
The Dream Machine is not a linear musical with a plot or characters, nor is it absurd. It aptly reflects the Beat generation unsystematically through peculiar lyrics and dance choreography.
“It’s like an oratorio. It is a concept album, a kind of healing, soothing synthesis, melding physicality and grotesqueness that swirls around with beautiful, strange imagery. The performances are highly crafted, and the choreography is detailed and subtle and very emotional. But it’s not all about oppression. There is a lot of comedy in the play, too. Some of the tunes are quite joyful. There are serious aspects and very dramatic themes, the emotional landscape, and we are creating that in the room. We were not going for oppression but a sense of released emotionality.”
The play is fairly accessible, but to get the most out of it, a little knowledge about the Beats can go a long way. Clark suggests searching for information on the Beat generation before coming to the play.
“I wish I could say, ‘Nah, we’ll teach you everything to know in the show,’ but it would be cool to get some information, the creative and artistic information that’s on the table for the Beats-such as the pioneer, Kerouac and the ‘whatever-happens-happens’ road trip that he took. The strange courage of this group is good to know.”
And, she adds, “Bring your sexiest friend and hold hands. Before going to this, you could smoke a great big fat joint and say, ‘Ohhh what a trip’ — it is a gift for those who want to sit back and watch something unfold.”