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Small-town gay refuges feel arts cutbacks

Arts groups in small communities already hurting

TOUGH TIMES AHEAD FOR SMALL-TOWN GAYS. Brian Lawrence and Jon Smith in a scene from Neil Simon's California Suite, put on by the Creston Footlighters Theatre Society in 2008. Credit: Photo courtesy Jennifer Huscroft

Stereotyping aside, it’s arts communities that often provide a place for like-minded queers and their allies to come together in BC’s smaller communities.

And it’s those supportive communities within communities that are in danger of being ripped apart by government cutbacks.

Gay NDP arts and culture critic Spencer Herbert says the impacts on small-town queers would be devastating.

“The possibilities for (queer) interaction dwindle to the local pub, and for a lot of queer folks in small towns, that’s not an option,” he says. “You take away the chance to interact and it leads to lonely, vacant lives.”

In the 5,200-person town of Creston, the local theatre company is feeling the pinch.

While gay amateur thespian Brian Lawrence’s local theatre group wasn’t directly impacted by any arts and culture grant cuts, the Footlights Theatre Society has felt other slashing by the Liberal government.

“The school had their facilities grant cut so they had to jack up the price of the auditorium,” Lawrence says, adding the company must now also bear the costs of the auditorium’s facility coordinator when it uses the space.

What it means is that the costs of the company’s November production has doubled to almost $1,800.

And for a small group, that’s a lot, he says.

What’s more, though, is the impact it has on a group that is one of the town’s gathering points for queers involved in the arts.

In addition to having three gay men on the society board, when Lawrence directed a recent production of South Pacific, the musical director was a lesbian and there were three openly gay men in the show. A fourth came out shortly after.

Lawrence says arts groups play a vital role or queer people in small towns.

“Theatre groups are generally open and accepting of everyone so it’s a very comfortable place to be open. In a small town, it’s always a little scary to be gay because everyone knows, particularly in Creston because it’s such a religious town.”

Indeed, not far from Creston is the polygamous community of Bountiful.

Warren Jeffs, the jailed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has said homosexuality “the worst evil act you can do, next to murder. It is like murder. Whenever people commit that sin, the lord destroys them.”

Further, Lawrence adds, it’s not just the sense of community that the cuts are impacting. He says a group called The GoGo Grannies also uses the auditorium and faces increased costs as a result of government cutbacks. That, he says, is going to impact the Grannies’ ability to fundraise for The Stephen Lewis Foundation and its work to help children infected or orphaned by AIDS in Africa.

It remains to be seen how else the Creston theatre group is affected.

Lawrence says his group receives funding from, among other sources, The Columbia Basin Trust.

The trust receives $2 million a year from the province under the Columbia River Treaty until 2012. The trust funds The Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance, which funds arts, culture and heritage, projects in the province’s southeast.

With more groups looking for money from other than government sources, the alliance is now being pushed to fund more groups in the Columbia-Kootenay region, says spokesperson Lynda Lafleur.

Similar tales are being heard around the province.

The Rossland Light Opera Players was saved from extinction last year through a $5,000 grant. This year, the gaming grant was cut, says president Dawn Graham.

While the decades-old theatre group has only one openly gay member, Graham has no doubt there are others in the 89-member company who are finding a queer community in the group.

Graham says last year’s box office for The Sound of Music has given them a cushion. But, she adds, the company needs equipment that it now won’t be getting.

“It really kind of sucks because we didn’t apply for any other grants,” she says, adding the group pays $4,000 in taxes a year. “The grant process for BC Gaming is so intensive. We didn’t have the manpower to write any other proposals.”

For more info, check out stopbcartscuts.ca.