Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Exposing the Subtle Racism of Come From Away

Racism has at last become unfashionable, at least in the mainstream. So when racism makes a high profile appearance it’s a surprise. I haven’t seen Come From Away for nearly six months, and for six months I’ve been asking everyone the same question — ‘why is such a mundane, unhummable musical so popular?’
I’ve also been complaining about the token gay characters. The musical is all about the kind, nice, straight people of Gander — but now and then a chirpy gay couple pops in and makes us laugh with their harmless shenanigans. Why is this offensive to me as a gay man? Because gay men have been represented as secondary characters who provide comic relief since the dawn of time. (This even applies to Will and Grace, which — though it features a gay man as the leading character — is all about his friendship with a woman, leaving Jack MacFarland, Will’s sidekick, to be the effeminate guy who actually has gay sex and is therefore, well, the real gay man.
The presence  of these two ‘chatty Jacks’ in Come From Away does not explain its popularity But this mega-musical’s treatment of people of colour may very well do so. The theme of Come From Away is ‘Aren’t the people of Gander, Newfoundland kind and wonderful?’ The plot centres around the population of a mainly white little town that opens its heart to foreign airplanes forced to land there temporarily during 911. It makes much of the ability of the town’s mostly white, Celtic citizenry to put aside their prejudices and welcome a Muslim passenger. Of course Come From Away makes every attempt to humanize its token Muslim character (just as it tries to humanize its token gay couple) — but  ultimately this is a musical about how wonderful white, straight people are. The leading white characters are extolled for helping the marginalized secondary characters. It’s a giant congratulatory slap-on-the-back for North American whites — who are specifically celebrated in Come From Away’s opening song: ‘Welcome to the Rock.’ Come from Away, like Kinky Boots,  is part of a new trend: mega-musicals that celebrate tolerance. Funny, but I personally have never been very fond of being tolerated.
Am I being a nit-picky, political correct lefty a-hole? After all, how can you possibly accuse an anti-racist musical of being racist? I’m not saying that any play that celebrates the fabulousness of white people is racist. But, sorry, the person most likely to get-teary eyed over the fact that some old Newfoundland lady has to go out and buy extra toilet paper for an unexpected guest is probably another old white lady (the target audience for this musical) and her husband — that she dragged out to see this corny stuff. And how did that lady get her ‘hubby’ there? Well, both of them feel a little guilty about being white people these days — and Come From Away makes them feel better.
I’m not blaming anybody (certainly not the fine cast, director, etc.)  — just our messed up ‘tolerant’ culture. But perhaps this is something to think about? When plays become all about making money (not art) then sometimes quality is sacrificed for pandering to our very worst instincts.
And we may not even know it’s happening.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Plays That Turn Into Land Acknowledgements

Have you noticed that land acknowledgements have started to turn into plays and plays have started to turn into land acknowledgements?
No, really.
I affirm the importance of land acknowledgements. We must remember that we are settlers here and that this land was not given to us, but stolen by force. It’s also important to acknowledge that we heartlessly exterminated another culture, and to take responsibility for our crime.
Perhaps in a  good land acknowledgement the speaker might suggest some course of action? Some way to try and compensate aboriginal people for the wrongs done to them? I know it’s not easy to figure out how to actually make change, but anything would be better than what land acknowledgements have been turning into.
Like…. personal memoirs? Like when the (usually white) person who is doing the land acknowledgement does not want to appear cold, or impersonal, or uninvolved, so they set about offering us a personal anecdote that they reckon is related to aboriginal issues? Inevitably the speaker strays from the topic at hand and sometimes (embarrassingly) ends up doing a little (perhaps unintentional) self-promotion?
But what’s really frightening is that not only are land acknowledgements turning into plays but plays are turning into land acknowledgements.
These days when I read a review of a play in Toronto tells us what the theme of the play is. And the play is judged to be good if the reviewer agrees with the that theme and bad-to- middling if the reviewer cannot find a theme to agree with. Is this what a theatre experience should be? I remember when a good play would set the reviewers puzzling over what it meant, or arguing about what they thought it meant — but nobody really knew for sure.
And I kind of liked that.
These days, at the beginning of the play, the author(s) tell you who is oppressed and who is not. After that it’s very boring. Am I suggesting that writers should be on the side of the oppressors? No. I’m just suggesting that plays should be more complicated and interesting than a game of football where you know before it starts which side you’re on.
I used to write gay plays that sometimes featured awful and nasty gay characters. I remember someone came up to me once and asked ‘Why do you hate gay people so much?” And I said “I don’t hate gay people it’s just that a lot of gay people are stupid and mean just like straight people. Would you like to see a play about people who were smart and nice? I think it would be a very boring play.”
Land acknowledgements are not suppose to be entertaining. They are supposed to make a point.
But plays…well plays used to be something other than well just — political views you know you agreed with before you came in, and still agree with, only more so, when you come out.
I long for that.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Dwindling Decorum

In 1982 when I was just 29 years old, I was asked to be on a special panel at the Canada Council. I don’t remember much about it — it a one time only advisory panel on theatre. On the panel with me was the acclaimed actor Eric Peterson. Peterson was only 6 years older than I was — but I thought of him as an elder; he had been acting since 1971, and I was just starting my professional career.
At one point he turned to me and privately confessed (keep in mind, I am paraphrasing as I can’t remember exactly what he said — this is the jist of it):  “I’m sorry to say I’ve never been to your ‘Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’. You know, a lot of people wouldn’t be caught dead going there — unless they were wearing a paperbag over their head.”
So what did I do, after Eric Peterson said this to me? Did I rise from my seat, in righteous indignation, and declare the meeting an ‘unsafe space?’ Did I call for Eric Peterson’s resignation from the committee? Did I cry?
No, I thanked him for what was obviously a well meaning joke, if perhaps somewhat ineptly communicated. We continued our discussion, and continued contributing to the panel. And I think we learned quite a bit from each other.
Of course nowadays if someone made such a comment, the person who made that comment would be subject to social media scrutiny, declared a pariah and exorcised from the theatre community without question.
What has happened to our public discourse? Where is the decorum? 
The problem is this: we no longer allow for intention.
It is only words that are important. If people speak in a manner that is deemed offensive by someone else, it doesn’t matter what their intentions are, or if they apologize. They are immediately demonized. 
Everyday Feminism asks “What does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?” Impact is certainly important, but this new decorum — which is really the opposite of decorum — does not help well intentioned people work out their differences or mitigate their ignorance. It simply closes the door on discussion, and divides us.
I knew that Eric Peterson was trying his best to be sympathetic to a cause that he didn’t fully understand, and I gave him full credit for that. I didn’t waste time blaming him or hating him.

When did  our public discourse become so mean-spirited? And why?

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Welcome to Marwen: It’s a Hate Crime

I just watched  Welcome to Marwen, Robert Zemeckis’ new film. 
I almost missed it. Since it only earned a rating of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m sure I’m not the only one who crossed it off their list. 
But here’s a tip. Rotten Tomatoes is aimed at the ‘I rely on movies to babysit my kids’ crowd. As a result, most of the really bad reviews are for films that have adult content.
For instance, the holiday flick Holmes and Watson got only a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and rightly so. I saw it and I can attest to the fact that it’s basically a bunch of bad penis jokes. 
But Welcome to Marwen is, on the other hand, a real work of art. It easily measures up — perhaps surpasses —Zemickis’ earlier classic Forest Gump.
Unfortunately hardly anyone is going to see it.
What a lush, gorgeous, thoughtul, compassionate, imaginative movie this is! I had tears in my eyes when I wasn’t laughing. It’s based on the real life story of Mark Hogancamp, an outsider artist who created his groundbreaking works after being almost beaten to death by a bunch of thugs. He was left with parts of his memory and some cognitive skills missing. As part of his recovery, he devoted himself to photography — producing achingly beautiful photographs of the dolls that peopled the miniature cardboard city he created in his own back yard. 
But Zemickis’ film has a beauty all its own. He has used his consummate animation skills to recreate Hogancamp’s inner artistic world. You will find yourself watching animated scenes full of unlikely drama that are disturbingly, absorbingly ‘real.’ The film careful explicates the complex relationship between art and the soul.
So why is everyone ignoring it?
Like the TV shows of Louis C.K., and the movies of Woody Allen, Welcome to Marwen is the most recent casualty of #MeToo. Whatever the noble intentions of that movement, the effect (as the French feminists have noted) has been to put a chill on sexual art. 
Zemeckis’ masterpiece is a film about a heterosexual crossdresser. Mark Hogencamp was a shoe fetishist who photographed busty Barbie Dolls in sexy outfits. One of the ‘politically correct’ criticisms of Welcome to Marwen on Rotten Tomatoes tells us: “The female characters in Welcome to Marwen are all a little too yielding, a little too understanding... They expect so little of Hogancamp that it's all too easy for him to impress them, and all too easy for us to feel good about ourselves in the process.” 
Right. Women should reject a sexual man like Hogancamp, shouldn’t they? It doesn’t matter that Hogancamp was effectively a victim of gaybashing. We are told to have no compassion for the man, and consequently not to enjoy a movie about him — because, in his dreams and his art, he had sexual fantasies about women and liked to wear high heels.
It was a vicious hate crime when those thugs to beat up Hogan Marencamp for acting ‘queer.’

But when you reject Zemeckis’ film for the same reason? Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but —  you’re doing exactly the same thing.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Kevin Spacey and #MeToo

Recently Kevin Spacey was charged with sexual assault. He has released an odd and fascinating YouTube video ("Let Me Be Frank')  in his own defence. He was accused by Heather Unruh of buying liquor for her son William N. Little — when he was 18 -- and then molesting the young man, in July 2016.
Kevin Spacey has been called a ‘#MeToo pariah.’ 
But the accusations against Kevin Spacey have absolutely nothing to do with #MeToo.
This is not a defence of Kevin Spacey. If Kevin Spacey is found guilty then few would argue that he does not deserve to be punished. But the #MeToo website states that “Women in Canada live at greater risk than men of domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment” and that this violence is “gender based" and related to “sexism.”
What does all this have to do with Kevin Spacey? NOTHING. Kevin Spacey is a gay man. Gay men are not the same as straight men. And what makes them different is not simply sexual desire, but — homophobia. Young gay men are physically and verbally attacked while growing up at school, and often lose the emotional and financial support of their parents. (For instance, The Williams Institute tells us that though the homeless population only makes up 7% of young people in American; 40% of them are LGBT.) Then as they grow up, these gay young men must decide — as Spacey did — whether or not to come out at work.
Homophobia is, arguably, the reason why Spacey is not presently a major U.S. film star, In 1997 Spacey was the subject of a homophobic column in Esquire which gossiped  about his sexuality (‘Kevin Spacey Has a Secret’). Spacey subsequently moved to England and became the artistic director of the Old Vic. He refused to identify as gay in an interview as late as 2010, and didn’t actually come out until he was accused in October of 2017 of making ‘sexual advances’ to Anthony Rapp — at which point, he was attacked on all sides for using his confession as a distraction/defence against Rapp’s accusations.
I would argue that Kevin Spacey is a deeply damaged human being who has endured a lifetime of torture over the conflict between his sexual feelings and his career ambitions. It has been impossible for him to be both a successful Hollywood actor and an out gay man. This is not an excuse for his actions, whatever they are. It is a plea for us to tell the truth about his life.
The whole incident with William N. Little is so mired in issues of sexuality and homophobia that it is almost too dense to analyze. One doesn’t dare speak of William N Little — or his sexuality — as that would be ‘blaming the victim.’ But why hasn’t William N. Little himself spoken out publicly against Spacey? Why has he left that to his mother? He is 20 years old at least — not a child. Little’s mother, Heather Unruh, a television personality, has two children. Her son founded the organization SWEAR — Stand with Everyone Against Rape, at his High School. Her daughter now runs the organization. Is it a co-incidence that Unruh has raised two children as anti-rape activists and that one of them is now accusing a closeted gay man of sexual assault? And why is she is speaking publicly for her son? What’s going on?
I ask this because Kevin Spacey’s situation has nothing to do with gender-based violence or #MeToo. Spacey is not a heterosexual male who has committed an act of sexual violence due to sexism. He is a damaged gay man whose actions in the past have yet to be determined. 
If he is guilty — and thus deserves to be called names — let’s at least call him the right ones.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

There’s no point in talking

to me anymore. For some. It’s been very interesting for me to see who wishes to talk to me these days, and who doesn’t.
You see once, I had a little bit of fame. (It was a long time ago.) Soon I was surrounded by people — but I didn’t know their motives. 
For example, a few years ago a young man wanted to talk about playwrighting. People don’t usually want to talk to me about playwrighting. But I love talking about it, so I said sure.
And when he sat down  in front of me I was impressed by what seemed at first to be intellectual passion. But a couple of sentences in, my fascination disappeared. 
He leaned forward. “What I want to know is — how do you write a hit that’s as popular as The Drawer Boy? I just want to know how to do that.”
I was speechless for a moment, as I had really been looking forward to talking to him about playwrighting. Then I told him that there was a formula for writing a popular play; in fact Eugene Scribe had perfected it many years ago. 
I won’t explain that formula in terms of The Drawer Boy — as I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Michael Healey is merely a craftsman. But I don’t mind speaking about it in terms of Come From Away.
The secret to writing a hit play — in case you want to know — is this. First, try not to challenge the audience’s basic assumptions about themselves. If they come into Royal Alexandra Theatre thinking that middle class white people are essentially good people — like the Come From Away audiences do — then they need to be congratulated on that fact. Also, your piece should centre around a controversial topic (something ‘edgy’), but the play itself must not be controversial, or ask any deep or probing questions about that topic. If you want to, you might add a suspenseful plot — you know, withhold some information until they very end. But audiences are a little less literate than they used to be, and don’t care as much about that anymore. Add a little romance, set your play in a locale that the audience will find ‘exotic,’ and you have the basics for what Scribe would have called a well-made play.
I told this young man the magic formula, and he went away. I don’t remember his name. Maybe he’s one of the creators of Come From Away.
But why in heaven’s name did this young man think that someone like me could somehow help him make his fortune in the theatre? 
That’s what it was, the fact that I was — or had been — somewhat famous at one time
Well I have news for this young man and anyone else like him. After all that’s happened, no one can ever mistake me for famous; I am merely infamous. That means (please write this down!) talking to me will no longer get you anywhere. In fact, if you are ambitious in the theatre, I suggest you stay away from me.  If you want to  be rich and famous and/or solidify for yourself a position in the 'entertainment industry,' you’d better talk to someone else.
Of course, if you want to have a serious (or perhaps oddly funny) discussion about art, theatre or sexual politics—I’m still available for discussion.
Just so you know.
Otherwise there is, in fact, no point in talking to me.
Thank God. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Ten Good Things About Spending Christmas Alone

It can be depressing, can’t it? Christmas. Especially when the forces of circumstance cause you to spend it alone. Well I can think of at least 10 reasons why spending Christmas alone is better than spending it with other people:
  1. You don’t have to listen to that boring instructor at your Aquafit classes monologue anymore because your Aquafit classes have been cancelled ‘for the holidays.’

2) You can always find a seat at one of those insanely popular Christmas movies (i.e. a movie written by an actual scriptwriter — not a committee, a movie written by and for adults — to win an Oscar, a movie which is actually a good movie — with absolutely no superheroes) because there is usually one SINGLE seat left (not two mind you, but one).

3) The only guys in gay backrooms are the guys who take sex very seriously in exactly the right way. (Look for the the guys wearing Santa hats. Really. They are really fun.)

4) Listening in on other people’s conversations is easy and the conversations are so fucking sad (well, it’s Christmas), that you could write a Christmas story that is even better than ‘The Gift of the Magi.’

5) You don’t have to visit with any boring relatives because all your boring relatives are finally dead.

6)  You can finally give your cat the love she deserves (and she will finally stop staring at you like that!).

7) You finally have time to read all those long, obsessive texts that people send you, texts that rest, stylistically, somewhere between an 18th century novel and crack inspired glossolalia.

8. Masturbation.

9. There’s really no reason why you can’t watch your favourite movie for the five hundredth time (mine is ELECTION).

10. You can finally admit that it’s better to be with people who you truly like (like, yourself) than people who you see out of obligation or because you are married to them or related to them or because you have this crazy idea that being alone is the same as being lonely. 

Hey, here’s a newsflash for Christmas: it’s not.