Saturday, 14 July 2018

Leave THE KING AND I Alone!



It’s so sad that people are wasting time attacking The King and I. Yes, this gorgeous Rogers and Hammerstein classic (no one is creating anything that matches it today!) is racist.
Yes it is old fashioned. Yes it presents stereotypes of non-white people. And yes it underplays the atrocities of western oppression and destruction of non-white cultures by the very premise of a western ‘teacher’ cheerily warbling her wisdom to the King of Siam.
But.
May I ask a simple question?
Why is The King and I being revived now?
I’ll tell you why. Because we are so culturally bankrupt that we cannot come up with a work of art that measures up, yet is modern and relevant .
I am gay. If I visit New York I am to be treated to a revival of The Boys in The Band. The Boys in the Band is the gay theatrical equivalent of The King and I. It was a supremely entertaining, ground breaking play in its day. Nowadays, with gay marriage, AIDS, meth culture, and PrEP, it’s about as relevant as my great grandma’s handbag. 
Yet everyone seems very excited to see it again.
Why?
Because people who go to the theatre these days are afraid to see anything that deals with gay culture as it is, now, in 2018.
Our culture is bankrupt. We have two choices, equally unappealing. 
First we can go to old revivals of musicals at Lower Ossington Theatre/The Royal Alex, and when we’re done, curl up in front of the computer and turn on Netflix, and when we’re done with that, lie in bed watching 30 second youtube videos of cats (those are my fave things! they don’t require a helluva lot of concentration! And God knows what I can get up to at the same time!).
Or.
We can attend an avant-garde production of a not very well written, preachy play about how horrible cis-gendered people are, or about how horrible men are, or about how horrible white people are. These plays have admirable premises— as an aging drag queen I’m not big fan of straight white men! But the only alternative to corporate-mind-numbing-mega-musical-Netflix culture is plays that bore you to death with their self-righteous moralism because they are not so much plays as they are preachments to the ‘woke.’
The fault dear Brutus, likes not In these old classics, but in our cultural bankruptcy.
So please don’t blame The King and I.
Blame ourselves.



Saturday, 7 July 2018

Closeted Gay Men Will Save the Theatre



The theatre has always been ours; I’m happy to say it will be gay men who save theatre.
The theatre was always my place to hide. When I was an adolescent people remarked on my fluttering hands and my dramatic way of speaking. They were concerned and…uncomfortable? When I decided that I was an actor it all made sense — to everyone. It wasn’t that I was gay, it was that I was an actor. I started a gay and lesbian theatre in Toronto many years ago. Much of the opposition was from gays themselves. The problem was that a gay theatre was a contradiction in terms; theatre was a place where gay men went to hide. Everyone knew that. Promoting a gay theatre meant that the hiding place now had a bright light shining on it. When I ask people abroad if there are gay theatres in Europe, they say ‘’Oh no, all theatre is gay here.” Indeed it is. What they mean is that theatre is a place for gay men to hide.
Why not also speak of lesbians and the theatre? Because, unfortunately, in a sexist society, it is men’s mannerisms and actions that are remarked upon with the greatest concern. We’re supposed to be running the world. We’re not supposed to be girly!
The fact that theatre is where gay men hide became explicitly clear to me when I read Simon Callow’s autobiography. In Being an Actor he spoke of acting as a disguise. He said that as a little effeminate gay boy, putting on the mask of a character was the only way that he could feel good about who he was. I recognized this syndrome in myself, and I see it in many closeted gay men. 
That’s why we gay men will always save the theatre. These days there are two opposing political movements that are gradually changing the world. One is a move to right wing dictatorships (it’s happening in America, we all know that, but we are afraid to say it). Probably in the next year the U.S. Supreme Court will repeal gay marriage (along with Roe vs Wade’s precedent making abortion legal). In the future, Canada may be one of the few countries where gays will be safe. At the same time there is a cultural wave of political correctness and a ‘reality theatre’ trend that have combined forces to wage a war on what is the very essence of the theatre: disguise. Avant-garde and thoughtful artists these days are challenging whether they do, or should, have the right to put on a disguise, to create art about anyone who is not exactly like themselves.
It is the closeted gay artists who will speak out about this, I guarantee it. They are gay, their friends know, but these artists don’t feel the necessity to talk about it too often. Just being in theatre is enough. Their work is not about gay things, not about being a gay man. No, no. Their work is sensitive, looks back in history, is colourful, innovative, design centred — it’s often about women and feelings and usually music is central. Closeted gay artists have worn a disguise and made theatre that was not about gay subject matter for centuries. I expect they will continue to do so, and be applauded for it.
As the world becomes more and more oppressive, as our little Glad Day —  our time when we had our civil rights, and felt we could celebrate our sexuality by dancing and kissing in  the street — becomes something to remember (a thing of the past!) the closeted gays will be very motivated to hide again, in their favourite hiding place.
And the one good thing about all this is: the closeted gays will save the theatre.


Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Election of Doug Ford Makes it Clear as Day



The election of Doug Ford makes it clear as day. How did such an obviously corrupt and inept man became the premiere of Ontario?
Easy. This situation mirrors the election of Donald Trump. 
Voters were afraid of the ‘assault of the new.’
The ‘assault of the new’ is what I call gender and anti-racist politics. In the west, we have recently become more and more obsessed with recognizing the oppression of non-white peoples, and with ensuring that women take their rightful place in our society. The ramifications of these beliefs are huge. If the government has a dedicated anti-racism policy that means if you are out of a job a person of colour may get a job before you do— or become your boss. Valorizing women means disempowering straight men — which means not only that abortion will be every woman’s right but also that queer and trans people will be given power and agency too.
If you don’t understand what is so frightening about all of the above, then you are a politically correct, anti-racist, and anti-sexist person. Period. You don’t have to be a white male to understand — there are plenty of racist people of colour (Kanye West, anyone?) and sexist women (Women for Trump, anyone?). You just need to be a person who is, for whatever reason — and it may have nothing to do with your skin colour or gender — afraid of the ‘assault of the new.’
And for such people, the election of a black president in the United States, and a lesbian as premier in Ontario, were both hugely threatening events. For those who are a afraid of the ‘assault of the new,’ nothing about a candidate matters other than whether or not they are going to bring back the ‘old ways.’
Erich Fromm wrote a book called Escape From Freedom, about why people yearn for dictatorships. One of the reasons was that people need to ‘conform to a group norm.’ 
No group norm is as appealing as white male racism/sexism.
Whatever complaints we may have against Kathleen Wynne and Barack Obama they did not deserve the hate that was directed against them. Doug Ford, in contrast to Kathleen Wynne, will Make Ontario Great Again. This means he will bring assurance to those who are deeply, desperately, anti-racist and anti-women. There will be a bunch of old white straight guys in power again; and everyone who is afraid of the ‘assault of the new’ can take a deep breath.
Maybe you were confused, and thought this election was about fiscal responsibility, or Ontario Hydro?

Well, think again.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Are You ‘Woke’?



I came to understand the word ‘woke’ the other day. It is, for me, a relatively new term. A young theatre person (a ‘millennial') asked for some advice about a producer friend of mine. They wanted to hire her but they weren't sure. They asked me -- "Is she....woke?” Of course I didn’t know what they meant by ‘woke.’ They responded:  "Oh - woke --- it just means -- is she aware and informed about the latest trans issues?"
I am somewhat put off by the term ‘woke.’ It seems to to me to have an ‘evangelistic’ smell. It’s as if those who fully understand trans politics consider themselves ‘born again,’and  have ‘found Jesus.’ It suggests to me that their thinking is not so much made up of ideas, but instead a shared belief system based on instinctual understanding and faith that is never to be questioned.
I find this unsettling. But it is much more unsettling that the veteran producer they were asking about was eminently and publicly queer and outspoken in her activism. She is  an older woman (over 50) who was on the front lines of queer politics in the 80s. She has performed as a drag king, and is working class. Why would anyone wonder whether she was ‘woke’?
Evidently, it was simply because she was old.
Now I’m not suggesting that all the surviving aging queer activists from the 80s are perfect. I’m also not suggesting that older queers should never be questioned or challenged simply because they are old.
But why do young queer activists assume that older activists don’t know anything -- that they are not ‘woke?’
Could it be that present day millennial queer politics exists in a kind of vacuum? It’s evident to me that many millennial queers have not read Judith Butler or their Michel Foucault. But more importantly they know nothing of queer history. They don’t know for instance that the heroes at Stonewall were not ‘trans’ people -- the word ‘trans’ didn’t exist then -- instead, many of them were sex trade workers and drag queens. These millennials don’t know that hate speech, prejudice, access to washrooms, and issues about the relationship between gender and sexuality are not new. We have been fighting these battles for many, many years. But some millennials just don’t seem to realize that their ‘politic’ has its foundation in the politics of earlier generations of queer radicals.
Is she .......’woke’? 
What a question. 

She was awake and raging, baby, way before you were born.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

I’m Like Peter Pan: I Still Believe



John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail is trying to be nice when he says -- “Bars have closed, and bathhouses.” He goes on to say that Church Street is nevertheless still important because it’s a place to: “have a coffee, read a book...” among sympathetic friends.
Right.
It’s all very comforting to imagine that all gay men, lesbians and trans folk are ‘making love’ with their lifetime committed married ‘partners’ -- or even with someone they met on a ‘dating app’ -- in the wall-to-wall-carpeted privacy of their middle-class homes.
Well I, for one, am not comforted.
For though it's true that bars and bathhouses on Church Street have closed, it’s not true the present day purpose of Church Street is only to provide a place for people to have a coffee with friends.
What about Spa Xcess? What about Steamworks (an international chain of bathhouses that still flourishes all over North America and in Toronto?)
Woody’s and the Eagle pack ‘em in like sardines on weekends. What about the kids lining up to get into Crews and Woody's with their bisexual friends? And what about toilets in the business district downtown?  And dark rooms? And what about all the orgies, crystal meth parties and condom-less sex that goes on in rented and private spaces?
So why this lie that we don’t need Church Street, except for ‘coffee’?
Well, it’s become politically correct to suggest that gay men are not having sex anymore outside of committed relationships. It’s so ‘retro’ to think of gay men as sexual outlaws. And gay men love to promote this lie because we like to think of ourselves as respectable, like those nice straight people.
The fact of the matter is that even in the Toronto ‘tolerance bubble’ kids still go through agonies coming out to their schools and their parents. And no queer couple is going to get away with necking in straight bars on Richmond Street. And if you step just slightly out of the bubble -- to Northern Ontario -- never mind Utah or Iran -- you stand a good chance of being beaten up or killed for being openly queer.
It doesn’t help to lie about the realities of gay life. The realities of gay life are not going away soon. 
Though many wish for homophobia to disappear, wishing doesn’t make it so.
Like Peter Pan, I still believe in ‘fairies.’

And if you’re honest with yourself, so do you. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Look Out -- It’s the Cavaliers vs The Roundheads!



Everything old is new again. I was chatting with a female friend of mine about the ‘Me Too’ movement, and I said ‘I think it’s becoming a movement about censorship.’ “Oh yes,” she said, nodding -- ‘it’s the Cavaliers vs the Roundheads all over again.”
I had to go Wikipedia and look up Cavaliers and Roundheads. It turns out that the Roundheads were the Puritan faction that tossed out King Charles I and the Royalist Cavaliers in 1649, and established The Commonwealth of England.
Those also closed down the theatres.
And that’s kind of what’s happening now.
The National Post tells us that comedy clubs are starting to post signs that say that ‘sexism racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, body shaming’ will not not be tolerated on their stages. 
So what’s left that’s funny?
But seriously folks, I don’t mean to suggest that racist or homophobic or sexist comedy is the only comedy that’s funny. What I do mean to suggest is that the concerns of ‘social justice warriors,’ and the ‘Me Too’ movement -- as valid as they may be in the social sphere -- are starting to worm their way into the arts.
And art is not the same as social justice.
Because art is not real.
Shakespeare told us (sort of) that artists are all lovers and madman. The fact that Louis C.K. may be an asshole in real life does not make it right for you to limit distribution of his gorgeous, classic, Chekhovian TV shows. And yet this is the kind of thing people are talking about. I went to a queer conference a while back and somebody called for banning drag queens on the basis that their humour is ‘cruel.’ You’re damn right it’s cruel. I don’t know how to tell you this, but cruel is funny. In the wake of the public excoriation of Albert Schultz, Eva-Lynn Jagoe suggested in the Globe and Mail that we should reconsider the worth of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer prize winning play The Goat because ‘we have less sympathy for the man who has transgressive desires.’
Wow. 
I guess we’d better start banning work about ‘transgressive’ sexual desire.
It’s time to get rid of Nabokov, and Joyce, and while you’re at it, Shakespeare.
Yes folks, Puritanism is back; only it’s wearing a disguise. Don’t be fooled.
 You may be against sexism, racism and homophobia, but that doesn’t mean you have to be against art.
Oh well. The Puritans didn’t rule England for long because they bored everyone to death.

Let’s hope the Puritan season lasts no longer here.

Monday, 15 January 2018

‘#Me Too’: a Full Frontal Attack on the Arts?


‘#Me Too’ has become a full frontal attack on the arts. It’s a shame, because the original aim of the movement was to combat sexism, everywhere. This was a noble idea. But '#Me Too," unfortunately, has moved on. 
Consider this. I go online or pick up my newspaper, and the latest salacious headline centres on a choreographer, symphony conductor, gay photographer, or -- mostly likely -- James Franco. Regrettably, such arts-related news leads to random editorial musings, which begin with thoughts like: "Fascinatingly, Albert Schultz was considered a ‘pioneer in theatrical exploration’ who ‘pushed boundaries.’" Soon the pundits move on. They just can’t help wondering -- "Was Louis C.K.’s shocking comic material --- which often dealt frankly with sexual subjects -- in any way related to his backstage sexual perversions?"
It’s time to ask ask a much more important question. Where are the business and corporate leaders who are sexual molesters? Are we to believe that no women at Google, Exon, Dupont, Apple,Tim Hortons or Canadian Tire have ever been molested by their bosses? Apparently. And yet we know this isn't true. The question is, why are people champing at the bit to punish potential sex criminals in the arts, while at the same time leaving corporate and business leaders unscathed?
If this continues it can only lead us to the depressing conclusion that ‘#Me Too’ is not an actual political movement destined to transform the sexual dynamics between men and women forever but just the latest google trend. I say this because unfortunately '#Me Too' (like every other movement in western culture) seems quite helpless when confronted with corporate capitalism.
On the contrary, instead of criticizing the arts, it is time to praise artists for their courage. Perhaps the reason so many arts organizations are confronting sexism is because the arts have always been at the forefront of this issue. And artistic environment environments -- unlike corporate entities -- are not generally confined to money-making enterprises, but instead quite often are politically aware institutions that seek to forge cultural change.
I do not in any way wish to minimalize  the significance of any attack on any woman, anywhere.
In fact that’s why I am raising this issue. Like Catherine Duneuve and other prominent French feminists, I must wonder if #‘Me Too’ has morphed from a feminist movement into an attack on artistic freedom.

And until the day a significant proportion of the overall constiuency of rapists, molesters and harassers don't just happen be charismatic, googlable and tweetable stars of stage and screen, I fear for women.