Perhaps it’s the unending lines, the strict no-latecomers policy or the occasionally unbearable July heat, but Toronto’s Fringe Festival has long been a place where audiences need a good laugh. While the annual summer event is home to all manner of works, it’s truly a place where comedy shines. The 2014 edition finds two queer theatre artists asking us to laugh at unlikely subjects.
In This Ain’t the Yellow Brick Road, writer/performer Jake Steele aims to find hilarity in his almost lifelong history in the medical system. When he contracted HIV in 1981 from a blood transfusion, the disease didn’t even have a name. Fearing the stigma that went along with the disorder seemingly relegated to homos and heroin users, he hid his diagnosis from his family until 1994, when the illness really kicked in. His immune system barely existent, he then spent the next two and a half years bedridden in a bleach-soaked apartment, fighting for his life.
“Somehow I survived, and I always get asked how,” Steele says. “I don’t know, except that I’m tenacious and a pain in the ass.”
Largely recovered by 1997, Steele thought he was mostly in the clear. But in 2010, doctors found a mass growing on his brain that paralyzed him and sapped nearly every memory he had.
“Everything was gone,” he says. “It took my parents a few months to convince me who they were. I had to relearn how to brush my teeth, how to process emotions. If I was having a face-to-face conversation with someone and looked away, I would forget who I was talking to.”
Building the show formed part of Steele’s recovery from his most recent brush with death.
“It’s a dark standup comedy where I poke fun at all the shit I’ve been through,” he says. “I have to laugh at it for people to accept it. Somehow, the more fun I poke at these things the easier it is for people to deal with the illness.”
Writer/director Ken McNeilly’s The Common Ground gives an entirely different though equally serious subject a comedic twist: his PhD research saw the University of Toronto graduate examine the lives of children raised by queer parents.
“I realized how many advantages kids see about having lesbian or gay parents,” he says. “The teens I interviewed talked about how authentic their parents are and how brave they were to come out. They felt like they’d learned so much from their strength. Most of the teens I interviewed were straight, and a lot of them feel like they are ambassadors of the queer community. They’re in a really unique position to be a voice for social justice. That can be a huge pressure, but it can also be a rewarding privilege.”
Though McNeilly found the material he gathered extremely compelling, he realized that isolating it in academia meant dramatically limiting its audience.
“Every single interview with these kids I did was amazing, but who’s going to actually read a 400-page dissertation?” he says. “Originally, when we decided to turn it into a musical, we weren’t going to reference the dissertation at all, but then at some point we decided we had to make fun of it.”
The show itself is a bit like a version of the process McNeilly and his team went through. Four “queerspawn” teens are set to give a presentation on what it’s like to grow up in an LGBT family, but realizing it’s going to be mind-blowingly boring, they opt to turn it into a musical. Aiming to keep things real, McNeilly cast four teenaged actors who could keep him on point about whether anything sounded boring or fake. Weaving its way through McNeilly’s research, the piece puts a humorous twist on the lived experience of the kids in his study.
Lest his description sound overly dry, he’s quick to point out his company’s talents.
“Collectively, this is one of the funniest casts I’ve ever seen, so nobody needs to worry about this being too academic,” he says. “Far from it. This show is ridiculously funny.”