Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Rebels with a cause

How four artistic directors created Canada’s most challenging and vibrant queer theatre company

XXXX Credit: Tanja-Tiziana

Ideally, a theatre’s artistic director strives always to strike a balance of risk and reward, challenge and celebration, prudence and provocation. It is the artistic director’s duty to keep the financial wolves from the door, certainly, but also to be the artistic, philosophic and political engine that drives an institution forward. In the case of Buddies in Bad Times, four extraordinary minds have stewarded the company throughout its 35-year history, navigating political scandals, financial crises, sociocultural shifts and the occasional court order.

For Sky Gilbert, Sarah Garton Stanley, David Oiye and Brendan Healy, the marking of 35 years of Buddies rewards each with an opportunity to take stock, to look back on their tours of duty, and to consider Buddies’ contemporary resonance as both artistic institution and seminal queer cultural hub.

Sky Gilbert — who describes himself these days as “an unrepentant, sex-positive, lefty, shit-kicker, drag queen” — founded Buddies with a mandate that was not expressly LGBT focused, but rather to perform “poetry onstage.” “The first Buddies production,” Gilbert explains, “was Angels in Underwear,” a piece based on the Beat poets that Gilbert wrote and directed. He continued to create pieces that combined his own original writing with existing poetry, and it wasn’t until 1980’s Art/Rat — which used the poetry of Patti Smith — that the company made its first foray into queer subject matter.

In 1981, Gilbert directed a piece based on the poetry of Frank O’Hara, and Buddies’ identity as a gay theatre took shape. “The big turning point in terms of public perception,” Gilbert says, “was that I put ‘based on the work of gay poet Frank O’Hara’ on the poster for that show. Basically, from that point on, I was out and gay and I wanted to do gay work.”

During Gilbert’s time as artistic director, he introduced many voices to Toronto audiences — including Darren O’Donnell, Daniel MacIvor, Edward Roy and Sonja Mills — and several other of Toronto’s brightest theatrical lights created early work at Buddies — Ann-Marie MacDonald, Daniel Brooks, Tracy Wright, Hillar Liitoja, Moynan King, Ellen-Ray Hennessey and Don McKellar, to name only a few. For Gilbert, Buddies’ most revolutionary — and under-reported — importance lies in its radical politics. “Theatre in general,” he says, “has always been a place for gay men to hide, be closeted, express themselves without owning up to being gay.” Even now, he says, Buddies “threatens the closet that ‘straight’ theatre is. A ‘gay theatre’ always remains outside.”

At the end of Gilbert’s stint as artistic director, the company had moved into its current home on Alexander Street, and the institutional challenges left the company in desperate financial times. “The company almost folded just before I left,” Gilbert says. “I went through some personal changes that made me realize I wasn’t happy being the artistic director of a big theatre any more. I did my best to make sure the company would not fold after I left, then I left. It was the best decision I ever made.”

Director, dramaturge and theatre maker Sarah Garton Stanley — currently associate artistic director of English theatre at the National Arts Centre — was tasked with taking over when Gilbert stepped aside, and she quickly realized her main task was to keep the doors open. Stanley felt the intense pressure of community scrutiny and the crush of an uncertain time in the history of Toronto theatre. “The rest of the Toronto theatre community was kind of under attack because of the change in the economic landscape,” she says, “and the city wasn’t in great shape, so a lot of the institutions were really struggling.”

Although she would lead the company for only two seasons, Stanley’s efforts not only saved Buddies, but also saw the initial creation of the Youth Program and the thriving of the Rhubarb and Strange Sisters festivals. Under Stanley’s guidance, Tallulah’s Cabaret — Buddies’ popular bar and nightclub — was restructured to become a more potent money generator. Stanley also directed several productions, instigated Sonja Mills’s legendary Dyke City cycle and presented Quentin Crisp on the Buddies stage.

Stanley quickly grew frustrated by the bureaucratic side of her duties and decided to leave to pursue her own theatrical activities. She says she “hadn’t ever considered becoming an artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times, so once it felt secure, I didn’t know what my task was anymore and I felt confused as an artist . . . once it was stable I thought now was the time to bring someone in.”

Former Ryerson film student David Oiye had gained experience as the leader of Toronto’s Cahoots theatre. Oiye initially saw his task as artistic director of Buddies as building on the financial and institutional stability his predecessor had begun. “Sarah had put the company in order, so the books were balanced, the company was solid, it could produce, it had a reputation that was building,” he says.

In the middle of his decade as artistic director, with Buddies on firm footing, Oiye realized the folly in the company following a traditional subscription-based model. “It’s the dilemma of a company that’s trying to be — or is perceived to be — all things to all people . . . so trying to say that this theatre company is the be-all-and-end-all of all things LGBT is impossible to attain, and Sky clearly didn’t have that in mind.” Spurred on by then–Rhubarb Festival director Erika Hennebury and producer Jim LeFrancois, Oiye began to shift the focus toward supporting Toronto’s thriving alternative and experimental theatre artists, expanding Buddies’ mandate to incorporate queer aesthetics, as well as strictly LGBT work. Under Oiye’s tenure, not only were successful plays such as Salvatore Antonio’s In Gabriel’s Kitchen and Greg MacArthur’s Snowman mounted, but alternative companies were also showcased, including Small Wooden Shoe and The Scandelles.

Although his time at Buddies would end in another financial crisis that nearly shuttered the doors — brought on by factors beyond his control — Oiye’s shift in programming toward a more performance-art-based practice continues to bear fruit in Toronto’s theatrical ecology. “I still think it was one of the more exciting elements of my time there,” Oiye says. “It made Buddies a relevant company.”

Brendan Healy’s route to the artistic helm of Buddies began when director and playwright Peter Hinton suggested he contact Oiye. Buddies had previously existed in Healy’s mind as “kind of a mythical El Dorado,” and with Oiye’s encouragement, he began directing projects at Rhubarb and eventually on the mainstage. Much like Stanley and Oiye, Healy never imagined himself running a company like Buddies, but — on the urging of colleagues — he responded to the call for submissions after Oiye stepped down. “I wanted to stay true to [Buddies’] understanding of queer as not only being about LGBT-specific stories — although that’s a big part of it — but also the experimental and avant garde.”

Healy’s personal politics share the iconoclasm and pro-sexual stance on which Sky Gilbert founded Buddies. Queer people, Healy asserts, “sit outside so many of the boxes that society imposes on people . . . and that outsider perspective allows us to be really critical, observant, creative,” he says. “Equal rights doesn’t mean sameness.”

For Healy — who not only put the company back on stable financial ground but also established a thriving residency program for the development of new work — the role of artistic director of a company with such a complex legacy is an all-consuming gig, a lifestyle more than a job. Despite the long hours, he has a passion for the company, a deep respect for his predecessors, and a vision for the future that all flow from his belief in the liberating rebellious nature of queerness itself. “The thing I love the most about the company,” he says, “is freedom . . . around having ownership over my body, over my soul, my story. That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s what I believe in, and that’s what I wish for everybody.”

“If you distill everything down,” he adds, “it’s freedom for all people to just be who they feel they need to be at the moment, [and] freedom and pleasure are inexorably linked.”

With the artistry and ferocity of Gilbert, Stanley, Oiye and Healy to draw on, Buddies in Bad Times is sure to continue to blaze a trail for many decades to come.