Arts & Entertainment
1 min

Politics of the toilet

Queer Bathroom Stories explores gay experiences in public toilets

Tyson James, Chy Ryan Spain and Hallie Burt, in Queer Bathroom Stories. Credit: Drasko Bogdanovic

If Sheila Cavanagh had had her way, she would have spent the day discussing Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The York University professor was in her Critical Sexualities seminar, trying to focus her students on the assigned reading. But all they wanted to talk about was the john. Initially, she was frustrated by their inability to stay on topic, but as the discussion progressed something clicked.

“It occurred to me that the politics of the toilet was something we actually should be discussing,” she recalls. “Historically speaking, the bedroom was a taboo area. But today it’s the bathroom. Given they’re the last formally gender-segregated spaces, we know little about them apart from our own experiences.”

One class discussion catalyzed a two-year research project. Cavanagh interviewed nearly 100 LGBT folks from across the continent on their experiences with public toilets. In 2010, she published Queering Bathrooms, a scholarly look at the subject. That was supposed to be the end of the line. But she didn’t feel quite finished. Despite having zero theatre experience, she entered the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival lottery.

Two months after her show was put on the waiting list, she was told that another company had dropped out, clearing the way for her production. “It wasn’t until I put the phone down I realized I had no director, actors or any technical knowledge of theatre,” she says. “I’d never produced a play in my life. It was an outlandish gut response to accept. But I’ve always loved theatre and believed stories needed to be seen onstage.”

Cavanagh’s shoot-first, ask-questions-later response was ultimately the right one. The production was a success, snagging the festival’s Audience Pick Award. Now she’s bringing the piece to Buddies for Queer Pride. Her returning team of three actors play 72 characters struggling with everything from deciding which door to go through to how to hook up once inside.

“There’s something so inherently erotic and traumatic about bathrooms,” she says. “I really think people will be moved to the edge of their seats.”