Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Scene maker: Shane MacKinnon

Fresh from the farm & into some jam

FINDING COMMUNITY WITH A BUNCH OF FRUITS. Fleeing rural Ontario for the hardscrabble life of an artist in Toronto, multitasking Shane MacKinnon radiates an irresistible DYI spirit. Credit: Paula Wilson

If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Shane MacKinnon these days, don’t be surprised if he looks a little tired. The poor boy’s totally overworked, what with DJing, burlesque performances and playing with his band Kelly And The Kellygirls. On top of that he’s running off to auditions, getting headshots done, slinging drinks a few days a week to make ends meet and trying to find time for the two special girls in his life, his cats Tex and Parker.

Indeed, this is a guy with a finger in just about every pie. So much so, I’m a bit perplexed as to what to call him. “In slashes, I think of myself as an actor/musician/DJ/performer,” says the 26-year-old. “I still consider myself an actor first, but I’ve always liked being involved in lots of different things.”

Originally hailing from a cattle farm in Holyrood, in southwestern Ontario, MacKinnon has not always found his niche so naturally. Realizing early on that the local baseball and hockey leagues were not the place for him, he knew he was looking at a pretty bleak future. “All I’d ever known was farming, fall fairs and sports,” he says. “I remember thinking if this was all life had to offer, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.”

His world changed dramatically the day that his mom heard about the Blyth Young Company on a local radio station, a program that brought youth from the area in contact with theatre professionals at the Blyth Festival to develop their skills and create work.

MacKinnon joined the company the summer after the eighth grade. “It quite fucking seriously saved my life,” he laughs. “I needed a way to express something creatively because school was boring as hell and my teachers were totally uninspired.”

MacKinnon indeed found a place to shine at Blyth, meeting other like-minded youth from the area as well as theatre professionals from Toronto who had come to the festival to work for the summer. It was there that he also first heard tell of the magical fairyland known as Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.

After graduating from high school, Mac-Kinnon debated continuing to post-secondary, but decided he wanted to make his way to the Big Smoke as soon as possible. So he packed his belongings in the back of a pickup truck, took the $300 he’d saved up from working at the local video store and bait shop, and left Holyrood in his dust. Everything was going swimmingly, until the truck broke down halfway to TO and he had to call the CAA to hitch him back to the farm.

A week later, MacKinnon gave it another try, only to have the truck break down again, this time just outside of Etobicoke. “I remember thinking it was a sign that I was just not destined to leave the farm,” he says. But he managed to hitch a ride the rest of the way, settled into his new pad, ponyed up the $300 he had for first month’s rent and set about finding a job.

Employment didn’t come easily at first and MacKinnon soon found himself at the end of his first month with not a cent in sight; he had to move from his bedroom into the hallway of the same apartment.

“It was a bit odd for sure,” he laughs. “I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor and we had to hide it every time the landlord came over.”

After a few months of surfing from couch to couch and job to job, MacKinnon finally landed a solid place to live and a job as a box office assistant at Buddies. Moving quickly up the ranks through various admin positions, he eventually ended up working at Tallulah’s Cabaret, finding himself more interested in the nightlife than the admin side of things.

“Buddies was the first queer bar I ever went to,” he says. “Most queer people my age have a special spot in their heart for that place. Everyone’s had sex in the washrooms, smoked joints in the park, gotten a little crazy.”

Ironically, getting away from the theatre side of the place got MacKinnon closer to performing, making a number of appearances in various cabaret events and eventually netting roles in a few Rhubarb shows.

One of his early projects, the Beefcake Boys, was born at Buddies one drunken Saturday evening, when Sasha Van Bon Bon and The Scandelles were performing. Though he was enjoying the show, MacKinnon was a little frustrated that there was no male equivalent. “I was standing next to [Buddies producer] Jim LeFrançois and I said, ‘This is great and all, but we’re just watching boobs. When do the cocks come out?'” Being the get-things-happening kind of guy that he is, LeFrançois replied, “Why don’t you do it, Shane?”

While never the gymnophobic type, himself, MacKinnon had a tough time finding other guys willing to bare all for the sake of art. “A lot of people were intrigued by the idea of an all-boy burlesque group,” he says. “But when it came time to perform they always backed out.” He finally located a couple of naked allies in John Caffery and Mike EB (who later started Kids On TV) and the Beefcake Boys were born.

Playing with The Kellygirls was also born from Buddies. It was there that MacKinnon first met fabulous front man R Kelly Clipperton who also did his tour of duty behind the box-office counter. When Clipperton left Buddies to pursue music full time they kept in touch and when he got word of their first show, MacKinnon dropped him an e-mail to ask if he could play sax. The rest is history. “It’s been a great experience,” he says. “I’ve become a much better sax player. I’ve gotten to travel a lot. Music is something I’ve always done but it was just a hobby. Now I’m making money doing it.”

DJing was a natural evolution from making music and MacKinnon now has a handful of regular slots each month, including a bunch of gigs over Pride.

His wildly successful Foxhole parties at the Gladstone Hotel offer west-end queers both an alternative to the village and the standard house music. The monthly party inspired by high school dances of yore has been kickin’ it old school for more than a year now. The Pride version drops Fri, Jun 23.

More recently, MacKinnon started the Trash parties at Buddies, another monthly that picks up where Will Munro’s Vazaleen left off. “A lot of the cool stuff has moved to the west end of the city,” he says. “But I thought it was worth trying to bring something interesting back to the village, too.”

You’ll also spot MacKinnon at Pride this year, performing with Skin Tight Outta Sight on the Wellesley stage Saturday night, doing his infamous Marlene Dietrich-inspired gorilla suit burlesque number. As well, he’s reviving his redneck chanteur supreme character, Billy May Mullet, to sing a couple of numbers at the same event.

When I pop the often-asked question in urban queer circles today, “Is Pride still necessary?” MacKinnon is aghast. “Of course it is,” he says rather indignantly. “I know it’s turned into a party, but it’s also still about making our presence as queers known to the world.

“When I was growing up on the farm, Toronto Pride made the front page of the local paper every year. Just seeing that had a huge impact on me. It made me aware that there was a place in the world for people like me. I think a lot of other people have that same story.”