Arts & Entertainment
3 min

What was Walt Whitman’s secret?

Vancouver’s frank theatre company wants to keep audiences guessing

Kamyar Pazandeh and Tom Pickett (right, playing Walt Whitman) star in the frank theatre’s new production, Walt Whitman’s Secret. Credit: Raymond Shum/frank theatre

With a name like Walt Whitman’s Secret, the title of frank theatre’s latest play may seem a bit devious. If Whitman’s secret was his love of men, it’s been poorly kept.  

“Let’s just say the secret is not the secret that everyone is wont to think it is,” says Chris Gatchalian, the company’s artistic producer. “You have to watch the play to find out exactly what the secret is.”

The show’s opening this month in North Vancouver will mark its world stage premiere.

“It’s a play that is so unlike anything that the frank has ever done before,” Gatchalian says. “It’s a historical costume drama and I think that’s probably the last thing most people who follow the frank would expect from us.

“It’s my job as artistic producer to keep our audiences guessing,” he says, laughing.

Walt Whitman’s Secret explores the life of the iconic poet to find lessons about creativity, sexuality, gender relations and the differences between how love is idealized versus how it actually manifests.

It’s based on the book of the same name by legendary Canadian author and Vancouverite George Fetherling, which is a beautiful piece of writing, Gatchalian says.

“Even though the story itself is set in the late 19th century/early 20th century, I think it still has a lot to say about sexuality that’s relevant to some of the things that we are dealing with today,” Gatchalian says. For instance, he says, a lot of people hold to the notion that sexuality is black or white.

“I think there’s a lot of panphobia and biphobia that’s out there and I think this play addresses just how fluid and grey sexuality really is,” Gatchalian says.

Fetherling says he was intrigued by Whitman’s transformation.

“I was interested to find in the course of doing this how Walter Whitman, as he was earlier, ended up as folksy Walt, with the sweat stains on his big felt hat,” he says. “It was a transformation. He kept his surname, but he became a different person.”

Most notable was an almost instantaneous transformation from an oft-fired journalist to one of the leading figures in American literature.

“In 1854, he was Walter Whitman, who was a newspaper guy, not very successful, who wore his hat in the office and had beers with the boys in Greenwich Village and that sort of thing,” Fetherling says. “And in 1855, he was Walt Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass. How did that happen? It was a toggle switch moment.”

So, what happened? Fetherling can only guess.

“It’s easy to jump to a conclusion that he figured out his orientation,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s that simple, but it does tie up things neatly if true. It’s not really answerable.”

Adele Noronha and Conrad Belau (standing) co-star with Kamyar Pazandeh and Tom Pickett (on the bed) in the historical drama Walt Whitman’s Secret.
Raymond Shum/frank theatre

Sean O’Leary, a Seattle playwright whose work on the British poet Ezra Pound caught Fetherling’s attention, got a call out of the blue from Fetherling, who invited him to adapt the book for the stage. It was “immensely” difficult, he says.

“George’s novel is fairly picaresque,” he says. “It was, in many respects, an exercise in trying to cut to the essence of what George was doing in his book so that it could be rendered on stage.”

O’Leary was drawn to Whitman in part because of the disconnect between Whitman’s writings and his life.

“Whitman was somebody who wrote in about as compelling a fashion as anybody has about love in all of its aspects, from the sensual to the emotional,” O’Leary says. “At the same time, the historical Walt Whitman was somebody who never actually had a fully realized love or a great partnership, at least the kind of great love that most of us aspire to.”

Gatchalian is also proud to reflect the diversity of contemporary Canadian society in the cast.

“It’s a very, very diverse cast culturally,” he says. “This is a play that is set in the late 19th century/early 20th century Camden, New Jersey. But we didn’t want to disguise the fact that it’s also being done by a theatre company that’s based in 2016 Vancouver. And 2016 Vancouver is a very diverse city.”

This is the frank’s first mainstage partnership with North Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre.

“I want to reassure everyone that Presentation House is a very short walk from the Seabus,” he says. “Vancouverites in general have this psychological barrier about going to the suburbs. Honestly, it is easier to get Presentation House than it is to get to Victoria and 49th from downtown Vancouver.”

Gatchalian says he’s proud to be taking works to unexpected places.

“We’ve long been trying to deconstruct this notion that queer theatre, and by extension queer culture, can only happen in the downtown core of cities,” he says. “Queer is everywhere.”