According to Mel Brooks in the 1983 film To Be Or Not To Be, “without Jews, fags, and gypsies, there is no theatre.” It’s a sentiment eagerly shared by Ottawa’s gay and lesbian community theatre, Toto Too. And by the community writ large, which has been thirsting for a queer theatre company since the collapse of Act Out in 2005.
The company’s second production, Theatrelife, written by Toronto über-mo Sky Gilbert, opens Aug 15.
Gilbert is well-known for his work at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, and this play — first performed in 1987 in Toronto — pulls back the curtain on the cast of a theatre troupe performing a dreadful Edwardian melodrama, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course.
Theatrelife is not strictly autobiographical, but the goings-on surrounding the main plot are very close to home for Gilbert. Many of the characters included in the play are exactly the types of people one finds at a theatre festival: the stage director on a power trip (David Ferguson), the clueless ingénue (Payge Mildebrath), the potty-mouthed actress (Hayley MacPhee), and the tetchy male lead (Ryan Browne). The play weaves in important underlying issues, such as the AIDS crisis, which in 1987 was barely being addressed on stage.
Teri Rata Loretto is the director of the Ottawa staging. She teaches theatre at Alqonquin College.
“People were afraid to sit on toilets,” explains Loretto. “But approaching the subject of HIV hasn’t dated the play — it’s never didactic or maudlin. In fact, it’s funny and tender, gripping. There are honest sincere moments. All of us can relate because it is fundamentally human.”
Loretto, who has worked with professional theatre companies including Third Wall Theatre, Vision Theatre, and Repercussion Theatre (in Montreal), was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the enthusiasm and professionalism of the whole group.
“How did I manage to cast the perfect cast?” says Loretto. “This is really the little company that could. The actors are organized and focused. I am having a blast with these guys.”
The cast is made up of six actors at various levels of training. Actor Ferguson has performed with Vintage Stock Theatre and directed Toto Too’s William And James earlier this year. Browne performed in that show and also at this year’s Fringe Festival in Reality Check. MacPhee, a freelance writer for Capital Xtra, has no formal training. She was writing an article about the Theatrelife auditions when she decided to ‘mock-audition’, just to have the same experience as everyone else. When Loretto saw her acting, she “hit the floor” and decided to cast her in the show immediately.
Even though Toto Too is only in its first season, Loretto has high hopes for the new company and believes it is an important staple in the Ottawa theatre community. She has no doubt that queer audiences will swarm to check out this remarkable play, but she insists that the script has enough material to appeal to all types of people.
“You will see two men kissing onstage. This is a ‘target-audience’ theatre company, but above all it is a theatre company first. Its goal is to produce good theatre with gay-positive themes,” says Loretto, who sees the major benefits of minority specific theatre. “It is important as the national capital of Canada for Ottawa to put the arts in the forefront — all types. There is a large population being represented in this company. I believe Toto Too will maintain its place within the theatre community.”