OUTstages makes a spectacular debut

Culture Theatre

The poster for OUTstages draws the eye with a gorgeous headshot of a drag queen in pink lipstick and pearls. I was intrigued by the festival’s tagline, “Victoria’s first queer theatre festival,” because the series of shows is just that — the first of its kind. OUTstages kicked off from Pride Week and ran July 5–12, pulling in performers from New York, Toronto and Halifax, and locals like UVic writing student Kat Taddei.

The first event of the week was a play reading that featured Taddei’s work, The Bad Touch, and Vancouver playwright Dave Deveau’s My Funny Valentine. With the fifty-seat Intrepid Theatre at capacity, Taddei’s four actors sat on chairs and read from scripts, creating an intimate setting to experience a work of theatre, and making the audience a part of the creation process.

The Bad Touch takes place in real time as two one-night stands unfold in one apartment building — May and Eleanor; Brian and Ray. May, a gynecologist who found herself turned on by a patient’s genital piercing, tries to have her first queer experience with Eleanor, who is full of conviction but unwilling to share personal information. Their dialogue at times lines up with Brian and Ray, whose roles echo that of the women. Brian talks about his father a lot in a distinctly manic voice, and can’t figure out how Ray, a born-again Christian, is so casual about sex. After various mishaps and disagreements, Eleanor and May’s night ends in a heated argument, while Brian and Ray discuss the philosophy of love.

In a full production, the two apartments would be separated onstage, and the couples don’t interact except in the matched dialogue. By the time the slightly abrupt ending comes around, each character has expressed vulnerability — Brian wishes that he could know ahead of time if love is going to hurt him — but I couldn’t quite grasp a central theme. The script instead seems to be an experiment in form. Simultaneous dialogue, interesting staging, and the risky business of an entire cast of strangers all compliment Taddei’s elegant and humorous release of character details. Taddei will have a play at the Fringe later this summer, which I will definitely be checking out.

My Funny Valentine has won numerous awards since its 2011 premiere in Vancouver. Based on the murder of high school student Lawrence King in 2008, Dave Deveau’s script consists of seven monologue-based scenes. The Intrepid audience saw four.

A single actor transforms from a fourteen-year-old girl who hates babysitting to a concerned but inarticulate English teacher, to a passively homophobic teacher. In the heartbreaking last segment, an 11-year-old girl who happens to have two dads is about to receive Lawrence’s kidney.

Each character has a unique physicality, from the macho stubbornness of the teacher to the jittery excitement of young Rhonda. The full performance, too, stars a single actor, and the transformation mitigates the anger we feel at the less sympathetic characters —  perhaps a commentary on empathy. The characters are all distant from the incident, and the audience receiving only snippets of information echoes the way rumor travels around tragedy. My Funny Valentine is a beautiful commemoration not only of Lawrence King, but of all the losses that the queer community has suffered. Deveau currently has three plays in production across Canada.

Electro-shock therapy, candy from strangers, An American Werewolf in London, and a torn-apart friendship — all are included in the second OUTstages show I attended, A Quiet Sip of Coffee (or, This is Not the Play We’ve Written). Best friends Anthony Johnson and Nathan Schwartz have put together an eclectic explosion of a show to process a traumatic experience. In 2004, the self-described “gay-straight duo” asked a conservative Christian organization for arts funding as a joke, and after an unexpected response, agreed to attend two weeks of gay conversion therapy in exchange for the cash.

A Quiet Sip of Coffee is unlike any piece of theatre I’ve witnessed. Johnson and Schwartz combine explanations that break the fourth wall, re-enactments of specific scenes in which they play multiple characters, theatrical non-realism, and weird meta-scenes that don’t quite work. The result is a range of emotional pulls — it’s hilarious and horrifying, sometimes in the same moment. Discussions on conversion are ridiculous to the point of laughter, but when Anthony begins to question his confidence as a gay man, tears are definitely on the horizon for the audience. The production never feels unintentionally melodramatic or self-pitying. Though no doubt cathartic for the performers (who lost touch for six years because of the experience), their number one priority is to give a really good show.

Also on the program for OUTstages was Johnson and Schwartz’s Revenge of the Popinjay, Catherine Hernandez’s The Femme Playlist, combination vigil-dance party Let’s Not Beat Each Other to Death, and OUT Cabaret, a multidisciplinary finale that integrated festival performers and local artists.

Victoria community theatre generally tends to be queer-friendly, but having this festival specifically geared towards the queer community is refreshing and reassuring. No doubt OUTstages will grow and make this year’s the first of many.