Things on the burners
Queer View Mirror: My Gay Grandpas
My article from BeatRoute’s November issue.
Though scientists and academics have pondered the notion of a gay bloodline for almost as long as gays have walked this mighty Earth, the findings still feel hazy, or at least my limited-at-best research has come up with more questions than answers. In traditional families, these stories trickle down the family tree to give us a sense of who we are and where we’re from: of the bigger picture. But without some kind of bloodline, how are the stories of our queer ancestors passed on? Where do young queers get a concrete sense of what came before? The Internet and popular culture do not legacy make.
I’m not saying life revolves around our queer experience, but we can’t deny that our experiences are shaped by our queerness. If we want to learn from our community’s rich history and get a sense of where we fit in the landscape of queer activism and social understanding of queer issues, it’s pivotal for us to make contact. So what can we do? To start, we can say hi. Just hi. Our queer elders are all around us — At the bar, in Jim Deva plaza, at Pride. But we need to be willing to connect. We have to be open to the possibility that we want to share our stories and that we’re not hitting on each other, but just trying to genuinely connect. (Though by all means, hit on each other if that’s your jam.)
When I lived in Toronto ten years ago I had gay grandpas. These were men who I’d seen at the bars so many times that I thought I should at least say hello. One was a drag queen, decked out in heels, even at 76; the other was his partner of 50 years. I found that inspiring, both the heels and the longevity of their relationship. I didn’t know them well. We never spent time together outside of the bars, but I also spent a hell of a lot of time in the bars, so it felt like quality time. As a bright-eyed little homo, these men opened my gay eyes. Hearing about the early years of their relationship, about their unwillingness to actually admit to one another that they were in a relationship together as a result of the turbulent world around them, made me deeply grateful for how far queer rights have come.
Through the work my husband and I do through his company Zee Zee Theatre, we have been fortunate enough to meet a huge spectrum of queers from various generations, and we’ve been welcomed into the fold of many a dinner party where we were the youngest by 30 or, at times, 45 years. What a gift. Through these dinner parties we were able to meet two gentlemen who we consider some of our dearest friends. There are decades that divide us and we have had very different life experiences, and we take the time we have together to share these untold stories from our gay lineage. These incredible men, at 65 and 85, have become our gay grandparents, though they would kill us if we ever said that in front of them. They’re dear friends, but the notion applies. It’s through them that we get a better understanding of our queer selves and certainly of the great strides that have been made in queer liberation, and the luxuries and privilege that our generation holds.
Let me be clear: These men are not our daddies. They are not picking up the cheque. They are beautiful and kind men who have a wealth of life experience that they’re willing to share over a glass of wine and a lot of belly laughs.
A few years ago we asked our gay grandparents if they’d allow me to write a play about them, and we were thrilled when they said yes. They were very candid in what they shared and I’m so proud to be able to share their life story, of sorts, in the form of a Technicolor gay musical at The Cultch’s York Theatre this March. It’s called Elbow Room Café: The Musical and it’s about their legacy, about the stamp we want to leave on this community, this world once we’re gone. How people will tell the story of who we were.
Lucky me to have found gay grandparents whose story I can help tell.
-November 13, 2016
A little bit more Elbow Room
I am writing real people.
Scarier still, I am writing my friends.
I am in the thick of the first draft of my new musical Elbow Room Cafe, written with brilliant composer-lyricist Anton Lipovetsky, who I’ve had the honour of working with before when he starred in the Firehall remount of my play My Funny Valentine. Working with someone like Anton is continuously inspiring because he bleeds and sweats creativity. Gross.
For those who have never been to Vancouver’s iconic Elbow Room Cafe (560 Davie Street – for the love of God stop by!), you know the kind of brilliant chaos you can encounter during the weekend rush. The wondrous Acadian sounds of Patrice calling you “Princess” and telling you get your own damn coffee while his partner in life and crime, the ever-British Bryan tells Patrice where to shove it. It gives me hope that I’ll have thirty-something years with my husband yelling at each other to the general amusement of the public as we’ve done as our drag personas Isolde & Peach for the past few years. Being entrusted to write the voices and lives of dear friends who are also dear to the rest of the community is rather terrifying. What if I get it wrong? (I might.) What if it isn’t true to life? (It’s definitely not.) What if they don’t like it? (They’ll have to, won’t they? WON’T THEY?!) In March, Studio 58 and Zee Zee Theatre will be presenting the first public presentations of the piece in what we’re calling Phase One. Phase One of how many? Three at least I would say. You can’t rush a good musical. You can definitely rush a bad one (see my previous musical Homecoming King). So what can audiences (and Patrice and Bryan) expect to see? A story of love, legacy, gigantic pancakes and mayhem. It’s a rare treat for any playwright (especially Canadian playwright) to get to write for a huge cast so I’m going all out. Bachelorette party? Sure. Drag queen? Why not? Awkward exes on a brunch date? Definitely. The Elbow Room is such a part of the fabric of gay Vancouver society (and even mores in Tourist Vancouver), that anything is possible.
Or at least I hope so. I hope I can even begin to capture the magic and heart and love that exists between those four walls. I’ve learned that if I’m terrified of a project it’s a good thing. If the writing is a struggle, it means we’re onto something. So stay tuned – Phase One is coming soon to a Studio 58 near you.
-September 3, 2014
An Open Letter to my hero Dolly Parton
Dear Ms. Parton-
I would like to start by saying that I will probably gush if I spend too long talking about the impact you’ve had on my work and life (see www.peachcobblah.com). I think you are heroic for so many reasons that I won’t even begin to get into here…. Instead I will tell you a story…
For my 30th birthday my husband surprised me with a trip to Dollywood. Yes, Dollywood, your Tennessee-themed amusement park in luxurious Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I had talked about going there for my thirtieth birthday since I was 20 and he pulled it off. I was so very excited to finally experience this place that you have so beautifully and viscerally described in song and get a sense of a part of the world I’d never visited. Mostly I was thrilled to get an inside track into a woman I deeply admire who has championed the queer community and has found an amazing balance between her religion/faith and human kindness. And so we spent two glorious days in the land you created, that seems to keep the entire county employed. A true “if you build it, they will come”. God knows these two wayward Canadians did. What you’ve accomplished for that community is truly incredible. Here I was in Parton mecca wanting to fully experience and love every moment of it, the same way I do when I put on one of your records…
On our way out of the park on our second day I noticed a woman taking a photograph of her husband and kids in front of the Dollywood sign. Being the friendly Canadian I am, I offered to take the photo so she could be in the frame with her entire family. She declined and gave me a questionable look. This was the moment when I realized that my husband and I were holding hands. This is not something I normally notice because holding his hand is as natural to me as breathing. It’s a given. That’s just who we are and how our lives work. As we continued exiting the park we heard the woman’s 10-11 year old son cry out “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”. I was puzzled, not fully realizing he was talking to us because A) what a tired old cliche, B) I’d never met such a young man who would cry out at strangers in front of his family. It was uncomfortable certainly, not the cap I wanted on a glorious visit… But what happened next was what sounded the alarm for me. The patriarch of this Southern family then congratulated his son for yelling at us. And then the mother, yes, the woman who I had offered to take a photo for, announced that she and her family were off to church. And this is where I became irate. Because you, Dolly, have worked so hard to create a bridge between the church and people like me who are so violently opposed to organized religion as it spews so much hatred. And in that moment all of the work you’d done as an ambassador for two communities who don’t really see eye to eye disappeared. All of a sudden I wanted nothing more than to flee Tennessee and never return. Certainly walking down the main strip of Pigeon Forge and having cars slow down to scream anti-gay slurs didn’t help either. But somehow they were less memorable than this.
Dolly (can I call you Dolly?), I adore you, and so wanted to find the beauty and earnest down-home love in your home. I wanted nothing more than to fall in love with your Tennessee. And maybe someday your Tennessee will be a Tennessee where I can hold hands with my husband in, let’s be real, a pretty gay place (Dolly Parton theme park… hello?). But that day isn’t now. And that’s too bad…. So I will continue swooning over a different Tennessee, the one you describe on your new album (which I love, by the way). A Tennessee with a lot more of the rainbows you seem to have always chased.
Sincerely, one of your biggest fans.
-May 28, 2014
The big 3-0
I just turned thirty. I thought this day would never come. Not because I dreaded it. Quite the opposite, I’ve felt like I was in my 30s for a long time. Thirty isn’t scary but rather it’s a moment when you get to settle into the adult you’ve been trying to be through your twenties but haven’t been taken seriously. Though I’m lucky. I exist in a multitude of communities where I get to play different roles: I teach (somewhat serious I’d say), I’m a drag queen (quite the opposite), I work in theatre in a number of capacities and I socialize with a lot of people who are completely outside of any of those worlds. And that affords me a certain freedom to be a lot of people in a lot of circumstances. And to vascillate between those different roles.
Thirty is about letting those different roles exist together.
I recently came across my old five year plans (yup, I used to make ‘em) and was astounded to discover that I’ve actually achieved all the things I had hoped for, so it makes me wonder what my next move is? I’m deeply grateful to be doing what I do and want to continue doing so and building and growing and writing better plays and producing better events. Though I never, never, never want Peach Cobblah to look better – I like her odd “Ronald McDonald’s prison wife” aesthetic. But the next five years I want to fill with doing things that maybe I’m not so good at.
Two years ago I started playing soccer in a local gay soccer league, mostly because I wanted to try something that I didn’t think I’d be good at. And I was fairly right. I’m not completely incompotent, but I’m by no means a good player. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for the old ego to do things that we’re not dynamite at. It keeps us human.
One of those things is becoming a parent. People often say to Cameron and I that we would be amazing parents. And that might be the case, but who knows, I might be really terrible at it. I don’t know how to properly hold a baby, I’ve never changed a diaper, but damnit, the next five years will find us as fathers and we will take it from there. What am I ultimately saying? That being a dad is the new gay soccer? Maybe. You’ll just have to stay tuned and see.
So for the time being, here are some hilarious things that will find their way into my next five year plan:
-Lose some weight, then put it back on and realize I don’t care all that much
-See my play Tiny Replicas finally become a feature film (yup, that’s happening in 2014)
-Start my new big gay dance party called The Gay Agenda
-Try playing a new position in soccer
-Realize that new positions do not, in fact, make me a better soccer player.
-Realize I also don’t care that I’m not a good soccer player as long as there’s booze at the field. Unless you’re a cop or parks board member in which case there isn’t booze at the field ever, I promise.
-Travel more within North America – not every trip needs to be huge.
-Finally shoot Peach Cobblah’s music video
-Capitalize on the fact that I have dental – maybe get a grill.
-Write those plays that I’ve been talking about writing for years but have never finished. Even if they’re bad. Just get ‘em done.
-Make a baby. Which involves finding a womb. But making it no matter the challenges and being a dad and letting all the other things I do fall apart if they need to in order to make it happen.
Happy 2014 – let’s go big.
-January 2, 2014
Just Say NYET
It started with one small comment as I was hopping in my car.
We’d just had a lovely coffee date, just me and a colleague who had recently joined the board of Zee Zee Theatre, the theatre my husband Cameron Mackenzie and I run. She’d shared how much my play My Funny Valentine had affected her and she casually said “Your next play should be about Russia”. And in a way she was right. The insane antigay legislation that President Putin had brought in last May was making Russia a hotbed of homophobia and of course I was following the developments – the pathetic responce of the International Olympic Committee, the devastated young queer Russians reaching out to the rest of the world… But with so many projects on the go, and knowing that it takes a couple years for me to fully develop and realize a play, it felt like it would be too little too late.
Until I thought about an amazing political theatre model that I’d experienced in Toronto. Wrecking Ball was started 10 years ago as a politlcal cabaret to talk about urgent matters coming up in the news – playwrights wrote, actors rehearsed for a couple days and then it was read in front of an audience. The key was immediacy. And so Cameron and I went about asking playwright friends and writers we admired from a distance to participate.
The response was overwhelming. Ten playwrights, among them Canada’s crown jewels all writing about Putin’s new legislation, all from very different perspectives. Emails from top actors came pouring in – “how can I be involved?” “what do you need?” “I’m here, I’m available just say the word”. No one wanting anything in return, everyone volunteering their time so that the money we raised at the door could be sent to Russia to help cover legal fees for those affected by the new legislation.
And so NYET: a cabaret of concerned Canadians came to life. And the energy in the theatre was palpable – we came together as a community of concerned artists, concerned queers, concerned citizens – for those few hours we were all one. With the help of Qmunity, BC’s queer resource centre a panel spoke afterwards including a new refugee from Russia who spoke first hand about the insanity happening back home. I always love to assume that as a writer my mind exaggerates everything, that surely the reality of Russia couldn’t be as devastating as what I was imagining. But his stories showed me how very wrong I was.
NYET was a huge success. And started a conversation that we will be continuing. And hopefully two years from now, when that original play I might have written would be finished, events like NYET won’t be necessary.
But do I believe that for a moment?
(Maybe there’s a Russian play in me yet)
-October 31, 2013
Pay It Forward
From an outside eye it was a cheesy film from 2000 with Kevin Spacey and Haley “I see dead people” Osment that caught my attention because I’m one of those people that likes to cry in a movie theatre and this movie had “weeps” written all over it. And boy did it deliver. But what the movie introduced me to in a more concrete way than I’d previously thought about, was the notion of paying forward the good fortune and opportunity which you had been paid by someone else. It reminded me that not only are we all in this together, but we need to encourage the next generation to ensure that whatever we work we do in our lifetimes isn’t for naught, that it all continues on and on and grows exponentially.
All that from Helen Hunt.
My schedule nowadays is pretty chockablock full. And I’m constantly looking for means to trim activities, involvements, events in order to give myself the space and time I need to write creatively. But one thing I find I’m never able to walk away from are chances to work with young people. I teach (from elementary to college), I mentor novice playwrights, I attend as many productions featuring new theatre professionals as possible. I like to see how writers grow. I am the product of countless opportunities for young creative people in development, and though not everyone will know even what I’m talking about, I think it’s important to acknowledge some of them here: Canterbury High School’s Literary Arts Program, the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Youth Program, Nightwood Theatre’s Emerging Actors Program, PTC’s various Writer’s Blocks, Sage Theatre’s IGNITE! Festival, The Rhubarb Festival, SummerWorks Festival, Tapestry New Opera Works’ LibLab (I was the youngest participant they’d ever taken), Various Playwrights’ Units, York University’s Creative Ensemble program and Judith Rudakoff’s playwriting class where I discovered dramaturgy, Green Thumb Theatre, heck, The Calgary Boys Choir (yup, I once sang) the list goes on and on, but my memory becomes cloudy at a certain point. And that’s a good thing, that means that I’ve been gifted a lot of opportunities – in some cases on blind faith, and in some cases because people knew that we needed, at a certain point, to help that next generation along.
And though I’ve painted it to be this really lovely selfless “pay it forward” notion, there is an absolute selfishness to it – in seeing these artists grow it reminds me that as a creative community there is constantly room for growth and improvement, for the work to step into its next phase of evolution, which reminds me that when I write a first draft and it’s absolute drivel, that’s okay. It just needs some time to bake.
Thanks, Haley Joel.
Heroes are strange things. These mortals that we build into gods, these everyday people doing extraordinary things that impact our lives. Some lives. My life. I’ve never been excited by celebrity, but more on what people contribute, their legacy that they gift the world. Being a hero is not based on public approval, but on content.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet my own hero twice. That’s a lot for one lifetime. And in meeting him in the flesh it becomes an overwhelming and, in a way, sad reminder that though he occupies such a place in my world, I am just another admirer in his. And that’s okay. That’s as it should be.
Meeting Michel Tremblay this past week at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest brought me back to the fat, bubbly and all too eager 13 year old I was when I first encountered this master playwright’s work at the Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company in 1997. I was arriving late to the game on Tremblay, but over the past sixteen years I’ve devoted much of my work and practice to celebrating his. I missed two weeks of theatre school to travel to Winnipeg’s Master Playwright Festival the year they announced it would be TremblayFest. Staying in a hostel, mid-February, in Winnipeg, completely lost because there were no map functions on phones yet, but seeing 14 plays by my hero – I’d never been happier. At the time I was in pre-production for the English premiere of Tremblay’s first play Le Train, which I’d procured the rights for and had translated into English myself. This was my final project for my undergraduate theatre degree. Later, I would serve as production dramaturg on his play Past Perfect at Tarragon Theatre. My bookshelves are full of everything he’s ever written. My files are filled with decades of articles about him, many of them from microfiche at the National Archives in Ottawa.
So what makes us so drawn to our heroes? He was an out gay playwright long before that was acceptable let alone cool. He made a career writing strong women. He was never pigeonholed for being a “gay playwright” though some of his work is hugely gay. He was never shy about his politics, for better or for worse, and he was a loudmouth. But more than anything he created a world of characters that he would visit and revisit throughout his career which become a second home for the little gay dreamer in me. A world of strong, fat, loud Quebecois women who chain smoked and celebrated life. A world of drag queens and drug dealers on the Main. A world of writers, and the misunderstood and the undesirable and the forgotten.
Seeing him this many years later, when my entire career has been spent loving everything he does and being inspired by his legacy proved emotionally overwhelming. I listened, I took copious notes, I laughed, I asked questions, I got my autograph, I got my photo (that will sit in my office beside the photo of us 9 years ago), and I went to my car and cried. Yup, sure did. I cried because it was overwhelming and cathartic to have seen him twice in a lifetime and to remember that though heroic, though a literary god, he’s just another heavyset gay guy with great glasses and a sweet smile. And that I can relate to.