Personal & Political! Acclaimed Playwright Sky Gilbert In Halifax

Posted by Wayves Volunteer 12/10/2013

By Hugo Dann for Wayves

Yesterday evening, in Theatre Nova Scotia’s cozy studio space, one of Canada’s most influential queer playwright’s, Sky Gilbert, gave a dynamic, funny, and personal reading from some of his published works, plus an excerpt from a new play that will premiere next year at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto.

Mr. Gilbert is in Nova Scotia at the invitation of DaPoPo Theatre, as part of their month long professional development festival, the Live-In.

If folks missed the reading last night, there is another opportunity to see Sky tonight. He is taking part in an all star panel discussing the Live-In’s theme: The Personal Is Political.

I have known Sky for at least thirty years. While we only worked together a few times, he has had an enormous influence on my development both as a theatre artist and as a queer activist.

Sky was one of founders of Buddies in Bad Times and its first artistic director, and was certainly the driving force behind turning it into one of the most dynamic queer theatre companies in the world. Through the late 1980s and the early 1990s, while gay men in Toronto were dying by the dozen, Buddies was the focus of a tremendous outpouring of original work that tackled not only the deperation of the ongoing AIDS crisis, but social forces of homophobia, patriarchy, and capitalist greed that made the plague so deadly for marginalized people like queers, the racialized and the poor.

Always fiercely intelligent, Sky’s plays frequently presented key figures in the development of queer culture: poets and artists such as Cavafy, Pasolini, and David Hockney.  I remember his Hockney play as being funny, informative, and one of the most sensual and erotically charged plays I’ve ever seen. His musical about the puckish young Truman Capote was a sex farce worthy of Feydeau. One of his masterpieces, Drag Queens on Trial is one of the very best plays to come out of the AIDS years, period!

Throughout Sky’s tenure as artistic director, Buddies was always fiercely political and frequently under attack from those in power. Sky himself was always ready to plunge inrto the fray, not just to defend the right of his theatre to exist, but on behalf of queer rights and artistic freedom.

Megaphone in hand, and fabulously turned out in the blonde curls and power pumps of his drag persona, Jayne, Sky was already to storm the barricades. Whether trying to occupy the offices of the virulently homophobic Toronto Sun, protesting Toronto’s many attempts to defund AIDS orgaizations and queer arts groups, or appearing as Jayne in court to fight a police ticket she was given for failing to wear a seatbelt in the back seat of a cab, Sky was (and is!) a force to be reckoned with.

To challenge the ticket, Jayne arrived at Toronto City Hall in a white stretch limousine and gave her testimony. She offered the opinion that the only reason the cop had pulled her cab over was to harass her for being in drag. The judge nodded and gave his decision. “You seem like a very reasonable young man, Mr. Gilbert. Case dismissed!”

At the reading last night, Sky read some hilarious excerpts from one of his novels, speaking as a 140 year-old Judy Garland. The play he read from is a bittersweet romance exploring the relationship of two American soldiers, inspired by the case of Chelsea Manning and the soldier who eventually turned them for leaking information to Wiki Leaks. He concluded with some sweetly tender poems about his relationship with his late mother.

Buddies was also a place where a host of leading Canadian theatre artists first tested their mettle. Sky has nutured the likes of Daniel Macivor, Bryden MacDonald, Don Druick, Alec Butler, Ron Jenkins, Sonia Mills, Ellen Ray Hennessy, and many, many more. It seemed very natural that DaPoPo Theatre, which is one of Halifax’s queerest and most political companies, and which has been a home for many of Nova Scotia’s young talents, should bring in Sky for part of their month long professional development festival, the Live-In.

I sat down with DaPoPo’s artistic drector, GaRRy Willliams to talk about Sky:

Hugo Dann: What inspired you to bring Sky Gilbert to be part of the Live-In?

GaRRy Williams: When I made my mental short-list of artists I would like to invite – artists who I felt were like-minded –, Sky was one of the first names that came to mind. So how could I not at least ask? And of course I was delighted when he said yes. I remember reading Drag Queens of Trial years ago, when I was quite new to Canada, and begin riveted by the power of Sky's theatrical language. I have always been particularly interested by theatre artists whose plays are explicitly political and coloured by a ferocious and defiant humour. 

H: How does Sky's participation tie in with this year's theme, or, can you explain a bit about this year's theme and panel, and its possible relevance to the Queer community?

GW: For me, Sky's writing seems to come from a deeply personal place, and yet – by the nature of his identity – an acutely political one. Some plays define an era, or a generation, or a sub-culture. I think Sky's pays do that, define a generation of queer men who were defiant, and out, and smart. 

Megan Leslie once told our DaPoPo Queer Youth Ensemble that artists bring about social change, not politicians. I believe that. And that is what the panel is about for me: what power do theatre makers have, and how should they use it? 

H: What about Halifax's queer and/or arts community are you most looking forward to sharing with Sky?

GW: I am excited for Sky to spend some time with some of the creative queer artists who live and work here, as well as the hugely supportive queer community. I have enjoyed getting to know many fun and warm people working at Menz for the last few years, and hope that some of them make it out to Sky's reading, workshop and the panel discussions. I would like to share the lively and diverse programming in the regional theatres and more urban companies, the unique and surprising work that is happening in Halifax. 

H: What is your best wish for this year's panel?

GW: My best wish? That's a toughie. My wish is that the panelists enjoy Karen Bassett's playful and intelligent facilitation – I am so excited about her ideas for the panel – and that they learn something they can carry forward into their own practice, and become excited about the personal and the political aspect of their profession. 

After last night’s reading, Sky fielded some questions from the audience. Musing on everything from queer identities, to making theatre in a working-class town (he’s currently based in Hamilton, Ontario), to our cyber-future. I was brought right back into the presence of that fiery intelligence I admired so much as a young man. Age has not wearied his wit, it is as sharp as ever. I realized how much I enjoy hearing his insights, and how I’ve missed their ready availability.

I urge all who can to catch tonight’s panel, you will be challenged and most assuredly entertained! If you do, admission is by suggested donation of $10. Please give as generously as you are able. This month long festival of theatre-related learning and performance is one of the (somewhat) hidden treasures of Halifax. It is is fueled and to some extent funded by the strenuous efforts (and even the pockets) of DaPoPo’s artists; a gift to our community that should not go unrecognized or unrewarded.

Saturday, October 12, 8:00 pm: The Personal is The Political? 

A panel discussion with Sky Gilbert, Mary Lou Martin, Dustin Harvey, Annie Valentina, Kathryn MacLellan and Thom Fitzgerald. Moderated by Karen Bassett

TNS LIVING ROOM 2353 Agricola Street, $10 Suggested Donation


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