Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Send in the clowns

Bill Marchant's new play and its coincidental timing

Speaking of elections: 'Clown Elections is not about any love of a man as much as it is about my love of the male,' says its playwright and director, Bill Marchant. Credit: Xtra West Files

Vancouver playwright Bill Marchant gazes down at the city from his office on the fifth floor of the Vancouver Film School.

The lights illuminate his face as he absorbs every passing figure, car and glimmering light. He is not distracted but engrossed in his eclectic surroundings.

He turns from the window to his walls, which are covered by hundreds of photographs. Some of them are casual snapshots; most seem to be publicity shots of aspiring actors. “They are friends, family and students. Mostly students, though,” he says.

When he’s not making films, producing plays or recording albums, Marchant heads up the film and television acting department at the Vancouver Film School.

“I have a profound love of theatre,” he confesses. “But there is not a lot of money in it, so I also do film.”

A recent trip to New York reaffirmed Marchant’s passion for theatre, spurring him to write his current piece, Clown Elections. “I felt a challenge as a writer, actor, artist and director,” he recalls. “I felt I couldn’t deny that challenge to write something provocative, challenging, beautiful and true. Something that challenges the core of being a human being-that is, how do you survive love.”

The name Clown Elections, along with its close timing to the Jan 23 federal elections, might suggest a correlation between the piece and current events, but Marchant will tell you otherwise.

“This play is not at all tied to the elections. I wrote this play before the election was called. But now I feel motivated to write a political play because I am terrified of Stephen Harper,” he adds.

Marchant wrote his first play, about two closeted men in love, in between Cultural Studies classes at Trent University. “This was written in response to the bathhouse raids that took place in Ontario in the early ’80s, where bathhouse patrons were publicly outed in the newspapers,” he explains. “I was outraged by this witch-hunt. It was McCarthyism. It was homophobia.”

Big Block Letters debuted at Trent and subsequently won the university’s award for best play. “I wasn’t out at this time but I felt strongly about it,” Marchant says.

As a playwright, his work often focuses on current events in the gay world. Sometimes that’s deliberate; other times, as in the case of Clown Elections and his feature film Everyone, it’s purely coincidental.

“When I wrote Everyone the issue of same-sex marriage was not even in the headlines. I just struck it lucky.” Everyone is a drama about the trials and tribulations surrounding the wedding of two men, which garnered the award for best picture at the Montreal World Film Festival.

Marchant’s new play is a one-act piece about the complexities and subtle harmony of a relationship.

The play consists of sharp, quick dialogue between its two characters, Billy (played by Shane Twerdun) and Mickey (played by Rob Forbes), broken only by the occasional monologue. The banter plays much like a rock musical, as its characters exchange retorts with cunning and precision.

The curtain rises with Billy and Mickey sitting in their run-down apartment. Billy is allegedly a painter and Mickey a sculptor, though the audience seems to have caught them in a creative lull. Lacking alcohol, drugs, money or inspiration, they are unwittingly enveloped in each other’s headspace.

The two men are obviously in some kind of relationship, but it is left up to the audience to determine its precise nature.

“Whether they are friends or lovers makes no difference to me,” Marchant says. “We too often compartmentalize our intimate sexual relationships as being of greatest value-and I think that is a crock of shit.”

This is not a romantic play, it is not a typical love story. It’s a short, voyeuristic glimpse into a much bigger picture. It’s a story that delves into the murky water that is desire. The desire for love, attention and companionship, which is not always as sweet and harmonious as we would like it to be.

“Mickey and Billy define as different but are the same,” Marchant explains. “They crave and need each other. That’s what they have in common and that’s enough.”

The elections are buried in the discourse between Mickey and Billy. As they banter back and forth, Mickey rates Billy’s “performance” in the polls. Billy, the more talkative of the two, makes a Herculean effort to earn a bit of attention and recognition from Mickey, who appears to be indifferent most of the time but throws Bill the odd crumb to keep him going.

“Clown Elections is not about any love of a man as much as it is about my love of the male. I don’t think it could be performed by women. It’s the love of the male-male unions-whatever they may be. How I express my love with men is different from women.”

Above Marchant’s computer is a small photograph. It’s almost completely black but if you look carefully in the centre you will you see a small screen containing an image of a family.

“That’s me between my great-grandmother and my mother,” says Marchant, who lost his mother to emphysema in 2002. “My mom’s in everything I do-she’s such a huge spirit. As a social worker she cared deeply about the human condition and she passed it on to her sons. One thing I remember is the power of her laughter. We were a witty bunch and it was a great achievement to make Mom laugh. If she saw this she would laugh.”