Small theatre companies address giant social issues

Boys behaving badly, and girls coming out

FFWDWeekly Magazine, March 21, 2013  by Kathleen Renne in Theatre

Photo courtesy Bree Gardner.
Photo courtesy Bree Gardner.

Two small theatre companies are shedding light on two important and sometimes controversial issues. Theatre BSMT presents Dennis Foon’s War, about young male aggression, and Third Street Theatre presents its inaugural play, This is How I Left, about love and loss in the queer community.

With a title like War, one might assume Theatre BSMT’s latest offering is about something other than four 17-year-old males in high school. However, Theatre BSMT artistic director Amy Dettling, who is directing the play, says the title is fitting for the subject matter.

“The title is just a reflection of what it’s like to be in high school. It’s a bit of a battle zone trying to figure out who you are as a person and, also, dealing with the pressures to ‘be a man,’” she says.

While that phrase seems like it should belong in the past, Dettling says “being a man” is still a very real pressure for many young males in our society, and something that is often misinterpreted. One of the characters, for example, is a hockey player. “He is taught to beat the crap out of people on ice,” Dettling says, adding that the teen carries that questionable “lesson” into other areas of his life.

Foon’s play also explores the prevalent high school issue of “stereotypes and cliques,” as each character represents an archetype of some sort. In addition to the hockey player, there is a gang member who has been abused by his mother’s multiple boyfriends and now resorts to beating up people for money; a “nerdy actor type” whose father dies and leaves him a note instructing his son to “be a man,” accompanied by a manual on martial arts and a copy of The Joy of Sex; and an aggressive young man who belongs to a cadet program.

The boys’ treatment of women is central to the play. Audiences find out that Tommy, the cadet, used to date a girl named Sheila. When the males talk about Sheila, they call her a “skrunk,” one of Foon’s invented words that allow the characters to swear without inciting the wrath of school boards and parents when the play is presented to teen audiences.

Foon is known for his TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) plays, and while War explores issues relevant to youth, Dettling says there is a lot that is of interest to adults, not least of which is the reminder that they play a role in the bad behaviour the teens exhibit.

The play enters into very serious territory when a rape and arrest occurs. “It’s definitely a challenging piece for emerging artists to sink their teeth into… and there’s a lot of really great conflict, which is something we love as Theatre BSMT,” Dettling says.

Third Street Theatre, Calgary’s queer theatre company, also explores social issues and acceptance with its inaugural play, a collective creation piece called This is How I Left.

Third Street artistic director Paul Welch says the creation process involved drawing up a list of themes they found important, including identity issues, shame, stereotypes and labels, gender politics, pornography and education. Next, guided meditation, movement workshops and writing exercises helped the ensemble members come up with characters. Finally, Welch says the common theme of love and loss emerged from the cast of characters the company had created, from which was born the narrative of This is How I Left.

The play features a 40-year-old lesbian writer, Sam, whose partner, a military helicopter pilot, has died in an accident. The couple spend most of their lives in the closet due to the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — if Sam’s partner is revealed as a lesbian, she will be discharged. After the policy is repealed, Sam’s partner dies.

“(To) be able to finally live authentically, only to then lose the love of her life in such a tragic manner, causes Sam to spiral down into a pit of grief and despair,” Welch says.

Sam enters a military grief centre to help her deal with her suicidal thoughts, and while in the centre, the spirit of a murdered transgendered female enters Sam’s world. The dead 17-year-old wants her story told, with Sam’s help.

“One of our hopes is that audiences will see how we are all related, how we all deal with love and loss, and how it affects everyone regardless of who they love or why,” Welch explains, adding that Third Street Theatre is also hoping to shed some light on the transgendered community and give it a theatrical voice.

“It seems like 90 per cent of the roles in mainstream theatre are for heterosexual Caucasian men, and it seems like 90 per cent of the roles in queer theatre are for homosexual Caucasian men.” Welch says. “We are looking to add to the canon of queer theatre and to allow more stories to be told from different perspectives.”

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