3 min

Tapping the rural mentality

Dear Mr Klein lays claim to the world around it

Credit: Xtra West files

Often the political events of our day seem distant and surreal. Yet sometimes they interact with us directly and become the fodder for contemporary theatre. Case in point is the new play Dear Mr Klein by Alberta writer Bruce Chambers.

In 1998, Chambers wrote a protest letter to Alberta’s premier. At the time, Ralph Klein was threatening to use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to overturn the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark gay rights decision in the Delwin Vriend case. (The Vriend case paved the way towards protecting individual gays and lesbians from homophobic discrimination in Alberta-one of the last Canadian provinces still holding out at the time.)

Chambers received a letter of response from the premier’s office. But he was in for a surprise-someone else’s letter was in the envelope.

“The government sent me a letter addressed to someone in rural Alberta,” Chamber recalls. “They somehow mixed up the letters and the envelopes.”

Perhaps even more disconcerting was the fact that Mr Rural Alberta had obviously written to shore up government resolve to keep gay people in their place.

“Understandably, I was really concerned-this other person had my address, and knew I was gay. The government had put my security at risk. And when I called to register a complaint, the government was incredibly unconcerned,” Chambers says. Mr Rural Alberta did forward Chambers the letter that he should have received with a note saying, “looks like we wrote about the same issue.”

That note was the seed of the play: What would happen if those two letter writers could meet? What if Mr Rural Alberta came and sought you out, looked like a gay icon, and was a sexually confused redneck?

Enter Steve Gin, theatre dynamo, who founded Teatro Berdache in 2000. The feisty, grassroots company exists to reflect the history, current realities and aspirations of Calgary’s gay, lesbian and two-spirited community.

“When I first saw the play being workshopped in 2001, I was impressed,” Gin says. “The play speaks volumes to how we treat each other. Kindness and cruelty are a reality in the gay world. There are marks homophobia leaves on us, even if we are well-adjusted.”

As in many bohemian theatre companies, Gin wears a number of hats: producer, publicist and, this time around, actor. “I play Christopher, the urban, self-righteous, gay-ghettoized character with low-self esteem,” he says.

Christopher’s foil is the character of Roy. As Mr Rural Alberta, Roy is a salt-of-the-earth type, with crippling doubts about his own sexual orientation. Roy comes to Calgary specifically to meet a gay man.

Chambers, who grew up in Sundre, a town of 2000 people northwest of Calgary, is familiar with the rural mindset, where homosexuality “does not exist.” He says, “coming out in a small town was pretty much impossible; you never see any gay people and there is a lot of fear of the unknown. I even had Myron Thompson [an outspoken, homophobic member of Parliament] as a teacher-a man who said that there were no gay people in his riding!”

Dear Mr Klein premieres in Calgary on Nov 3, just weeks before Alberta’s upcoming, incredibly unexciting yet relevant provincial election. The timing works well for Teatro Berdache. “It was a complete fluke,” Gin laughs. “We had our theatre space booked in February.”

Coincidence or not, there is great resonance for the play to be happening now, when Klein again is huffily tossing around his notwithstanding clause options with respect to the nationally hot topic of same-sex marriage.

“I called this play Dear Mr Klein because homophobia in Alberta largely hinges around [the Premier’s] behaviour,” Chambers explains. “By making the threats he does, he gives everyone permission to think that there is something wrong [with gay rights]. He causes a huge hate dialogue, especially on radio talk shows-and ultimately he is hypocritical because in the end he went along with the Supreme Court ruling on the Vriend case. Why put everyone through the hell?”

Although dramatic, Alberta’s polarization along rural/urban lines does not make it to stages very often. Dear Mr Klein personifies this polarization in its characters. Christopher and Roy both struggle for power as they navigate the unknown psychology of the other.

“Bruce has written two characters who are really rooted in their environment,” Gin explains. “Too often, urban homosexuals run to enclaves, band together, and lay no claim to the world outside of themselves. As a theatre company, we are interested in claiming that outer space. Roy loves his farm; why should he give that up? We have a claim on the rest of the world, too.”

Dear Mr Klein’s correspondence fantasy is a political play within a political reality-but at its core it is an emotional drama. “Everybody at an inner level is pretty much the same. They want to be loved, no matter what their external differences are,” Chambers concludes.