A very wise man once wrote, “There's no phrase I can come up with that will encapsulate in a winning sound bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life. Yet I can't help wondering if it's a bit like being a Wagnerite; you just have to get used to the fact that some people are never going to listen.” The Gay Heritage Project exemplifies this idea of trying to plot a history that’s slippery, elusive, essential, imperfect and, most challengingly, happening at this very moment.
I found a seat beside two friends and fellow artists for opening night of the play, and as the audience filed in, The Gay Heritage Project actors — Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir, each a Toronto-based artist as lovely and talented as the last — emerged from backstage and began to flit about the theatre, introducing themselves, chatting, dancing. Appropriately gay dancey music was playing, giving the pre-show a refreshing, laid-back air of festivity. (My friends and I threw ourselves without hesitation into a Bette Midler versus Andrews Sisters “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” discussion.) This kind of energy carried over into the show, and with very little fanfare the handsome threesome jumped right into the gay heritage they had uncovered.
The greatest strength of The Gay Heritage Project is that it strikes a perfect balance between reverence and complete, wonderful silliness. If you’ve ever seen something like The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), you’ll understand the delightful, manic energy that’s required to carry a show between three actors and very little else over an hour and a half. The vocal masque element of the show is almost always entrancing to experience; each actor presents solo scenes, sometimes with up to half a dozen characters at once. Kushnir, especially, is a joy to watch, as with each new section he takes charge of, he brings the necessary high-octane energy, and it’s easy to imagine he’s having a great time doing it. Atkins, as well, has some wonderful moments and monologues, and throughout the show there is some consistent, amazing character work.
The biggest hurdle of the show, the big white elephant in the room if you will, comes when the actors address the fact that they are three white, fairly well off, gay, 30-somethings speaking to as much gay heritage as they can fit into the show. This element of self-awareness would be impossible to simply ignore, but even the act of addressing it presents challenges. The result is a cautious balancing act; through stories or made-up scenes they reflect critically on their own privilege, both in their lives and the creation of The Gay Heritage Project, though this sometimes leans on the self-indulgent side. It’s tough; there’s really no easy way to address the politics of privilege in relation to a wildly divergent global summation of sexual and gender experiences. While the sentiments they bring to the table don’t always hit the mark, I’m happy they addressed them in the production.
This is an hour and a half that simply flies by, because The Gay Heritage Project is, at once, incredibly fun and so smart. The fact that they’ve been working on this show for, I believe, three years, does not surprise me at all, because that work and passion shows in almost every moment of the production. They tackle the fun, fabulous stuff, then, without missing a beat, address something dark or hard to talk about. Atkins, Dunn and Kushnir show that heritage is as much routed in a long history as it is a total fantasy, three friends “playing” in the most literal sense of the word. I quoted the lovely Stephen Fry earlier, inspired by their missive to create your own gay heritage. Luckily, unlike Wagner, it’d be a challenge not to listen to the Gay Heritage guys.