I’ve been conflicted about being seen my entire life...
When I was in grade three my school was arranging a trip to see a touring production of Phantom of the Opera in the “big city” aka Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. At the time we were living in a little town about 45 minutes north of Saskatoon. Even then, I was pretty obsessed with going to the city, probably because it seemed to happen so rarely. We'd go mostly on the weekends for groceries or the occasional movie, and I remember the excitement I would feel when I saw the city rising on the horizon. Y'all, it wasn't even a nice view. But to my eyes, starved for anything out of the ordinary, it seemed like a City of the Future. In other words, the idea of a day trip with no parents to see a theatrical event sounded pretty damn great. I suppose I imagined a Home Alone 2: Lost in New York scenario where I would get to see the glittering stars of stage and then somehow get separated from the group and wander into the hijinks of the city streets. I was excited.
There was a little problem with this daydream, however: I was already being called out quite a bit by my father for not being enough of a boy. I was expected to play soccer and help him with home repairs and generally stop being so effeminate. I already knew these things didn’t interest me, but I was brought up to listen to my parents, to respect their authority, especially my father's. The trip to see Phantom was around the same time as a monster truck rally. We didn’t have much money so I was given a choice: go see Phantom (which my sister had already decided to do) or go to the monster truck rally. You already know what I really wanted to do. But thanks to some pressure from my father and uncle who made it clear that swaying in the other direction would make me a Man Disappointment, I decided to go to the rally. I spent the next couple of weeks performing my excitement for this most masculine of activities.
The weekend of the rally came and we drove into the city where my father, uncle, two cousins and I headed into the arena once known as Sask Place. I don’t know how many of you have been to an indoor monster truck rally but they are truly horrendous. The smell of gasoline, the roar of engines, and the crashing of metal put me off cars for the rest of my life. Still, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a kind of fun. I was, after all, an eight-year-old boy who was getting to spend dedicated time with his father doing something that felt like exactly what fathers and sons should be doing to bond. But the fun was fleeting, to say the least. I remember getting a splitting headache from the gas fumes and bucket of soda we shared. I remember thinking myself much too delicate for all the noise and macho posturing. But, when we got home, I again performed my part. I made it sound like the most fun thing I had ever done.
I ate my words when my sister came home the next week from the performance of Phantom. Since her ticket was deeply discounted she had some money left to spend and came home with the double tape of the Original Cast Recording featuring the legendary Michael Crawford and (gasp) Miss Sarah Brightman. I was immediately fascinated by the deep black of the tape sleeve with its broken glass titles, punctuated by the red of the rose and bluish white of the Phantom’s mask. Then, I listened. And OH. MY. GAY. GAWDS.
(Hold up, I put it on just now as “background music” and got completely sucked in. I haven’t listened to this shit in years and somehow every word is still up there. Will I remember this when I’m on my deathbed!? I hope so.)
Anyway. Another souvenir had come home with my sister: The Complete Phantom of the Opera in glorious hardcover. Inside all the secrets of the development and mounting of the original production were revealed and I became obsessed. Not just with the show but with the process of theatre. It seemed like such amazing magic. They had a boat, my friends. On stage. And a chandelier! And and and! Then, after all this joy and fascination, I crashed. The world of lights and costumes and curtains seemed completely inaccessible to a kid stuck in a wasteland of flatness. I vowed then and there that I would never pass up another opportunity to see one of these big touring productions. In the following years, I begged my parents to take us to every show possible. They did their best, bless them. I honestly don’t think they knew what to do with the little girly boy who holed himself up in his bedroom and listened to the Phantom tape over and over. Taking me to these shows might have become one of the only ways for them to get me out of the house.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was my next obsession. Mostly because it was a frustrating missed opportunity. When the production came through they announced that they were looking for local kids to join the children’s chorus. Despite my desperation to be on stage, I was beset by horrible doubt that theatre wasn’t an appropriate desire for a boy to have, and my father was still doing very little to dissuade me of this notion. I hadn't ever been a, let's say, socially talented child, possessing very little self-esteem and feeling unsupported in my dream didn't help. So I missed my chance to make my theatrical début. I was crushed. Especially when I got a chance to see it and the sea of white kids who emerged as the chorus made my theatrical dreams that much more inaccessible. I became a critic that night. As much as I appreciated the talent on stage, I was struck by the shoddiness of the production, something I probably couldn’t (but absolutely could) tell from our cheap seats in the sky. Also the fact that Joseph was meant to be this wonderful, kind, attractive young man, but struck me as a terrible brat. I could have given him heart, I thought. I was also put off by the blatant kid-pandering of the score. I was sophisticated, you see. I found myself wanting to play the Narrator, an interesting choice in hindsight.
It was Evita that truly solidified my love of the stage. I mean, come on. Latin actors (maybe) on stage! Latin characters that I could (maybe) play! And Eva Perón was exactly my kind of lady: outspoken, ambitious, calculating, and glamorous with a deep-seated need to Get Out, to Live the Dream. There were many times where my father discovered me using my music stand as a makeshift balcony of La Casa Rosada, singing quietly and emoting gigantically. He could never hide his displeasure and I would shrink into myself, trying not to be seen, trying not to take up space. Despite this, or because of this, I swear Evita was the real cementing of my queerness. How could it not be? It was Diva Magnifica Miss Patti Lupone whose voice I pretended was mine, and there’s a song called fucking “Rainbow High.” If that's not Gay!, then I don't know what is.
Then came Les Misérables. Joseph and Evita were cool, but they felt obviously scaled back for touring. Les Misérables, on the other hand, was BIG. Having love for Les Misérables is pretty basic, it’s true. It’s a bunch of accessible pop songs strung together by a "plot". Characters come and go at random, giving us A Moment and then often dying tragically and glamorously. But for all the Bigness, the moment that stuck with me most was when Eponine, your favourite tragically glamorous street urchin in unrequited love with Hunky Marius, wanders the stark night-lit street of that French place they were in (Paris? Who knows, who cares!). This was when they still had that giant rotating disk as the centrepiece of their set so she was walking but stayed. In. Place (gasp). Dilapidated windows looked down on her as she belted out her emotional deprivation. I meeeaaan. Girl! She was me, I was her, we were one. Both "on our own." Pretty sure I’ve described this moment in reverent tones to practically every single one of my friends. Then, the dumb girl had to go and die to save Hunky Marius and I was outraged. Why would she do that? He was a dick! He didn't deserve her love! She should've said "Boy, bye" and gotten outta that fucked up town, lived her dream in some other fabulous city where they appreciated her kind. I had conveniently forgotten her (and my own) financial hardship.
The next few years were pretty dry. The only major theatre in the city underwent renovations or lost a contract and could no longer host the bigger productions that rolled through town. I spent those years going to the library as much as possible. The main branch in Saskatoon actually had a really great musical theatre section and any chance I got I would head down and spend hours browsing the CD’s. I would bring a stack up to the counter and cart them home. I stuck to the more traditional stuff, South Pacific (nope), Carousel (nope), Sunset Boulevard (meh), and Jesus Christ Superstar (meh).
Then the renovations were finished or the contract renewed and one of the first shows announced was Miss Saigon. I’m not sure if I can fully describe how impactful this show was to me. Asian people (maybe) on stage! Parts that ambiguously raced people like me could play (maybe)! And the scale. They had a fucking. Helicopter. And there seemed to be so many people on stage! Things flying in and out! A pink Cadillac! And the melodrama of it all. I assume it’s because I’ve become accustomed to Lea Salonga’s voice from the Original Cast Recording but I swear the woman who played Kim sounded exactly the same. How could you not be turned into a jelly mess when she sings “I’d Give My Life For You”? But, as big a deal as the show was, the music wasn't always memorable and the icky fetishizing of Kim was truly unfortunate. Theatre still seemed so far away. I needed to find something that spoke to me.
And then I found Rent. As A Theatre Gay of the 90’s, I’m pretty much obligated to have a past with Rent. I found the double CD at the library, pulled in by its colourful cover, with a diverse group of faces set in grungy, hip expressions. And the music! Everyone was so angry and ~arty~. They were also glamorously tragic and, despite living in New York City (the centre of the universe!) they desperately wanted to Get Out. My parents probably know the words as well as I do because of my near constant listens. This love only deepened when I got into a summer theatre program in Edmonton where we workshopped a new show by Marty Chan called The 7th Circle. The kids in the program were a gaggle of mostly middle-class nerds from the suburbs of our various cities and we were supposed to be playing a bunch of disaffected teens in a high school based on Dante’s Inferno. Rent was the angriest thing most of us had any experience with so clearly we had many sing-alongs while partying in basements. I was playing the closeted gay teen who led the main character through the halls of the school AKA the seven circles of hell. At some point, my character was beaten up by a gang of boys. He eventually shot the school up in retaliation, at one point dramatically dumping a backpack full of bullets on the stage. Despite the difficulty of the role, I was in heaven. I remember quite clearly when we choreographed the beating. It was appropriately hot as hell that day and the studio was beyond stuffy. For some reason, the director had left this scene to the last hour of a very long day in the final week of rehearsal. I spent much too long on my hands and knees on a hard floor in the middle of a circle of young men enacting a violent beating in slow motion. When we finished setting, I left feeling emotionally distraught but challenged. It felt good to tell the story of a queer kid, to make explicit the kind of violence that can happen to us. I had a lot of bottled up rage and pain from never really feeling safe to be who I was and, being away from home, playing this role, gave me a chance to let some of that out. Because of all the emotional catharsis, the run felt like a resounding success. I was given an award for performance excellence and on the last night, as we partied, we belted out "Seasons of Love" until our voices ached. I felt like a new person, finally free, finally more comfortable with being seen, with taking up space.
Then, I returned home to play Scarecrow in my high school production of The Wizard of Oz. The shock to my system was immediate. All the old walls and expectations started to build up. Depression started to creep in at the corners. I needed... more.
I went back to the library where I had been eyeing a certain CD. On the front was a black and white photo of a sad looking person holding a microphone under a single light. In the top right-hand corner, in bright pink, it declared: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For balance in the bottom right-hand corner was one of those Parental Advisory: Explicit Content fearmongers. I was fascinated, completely. First, Explicit Content? Yes please! Second, this person on the cover was ambiguous in gender. They wore a skin-tight dress with a slash of red on their lips. Their legs were muscular, their shoulders wide, their jaw square. I mustered up the courage to face the judgy library worker and took the damn thing out. Friends, this album. The moment Miriam Shor snarls “Ladies and Gentlemen, whether you like it or not: HEDWIG!” made me a fan for life. I had never heard anything like it. Hedwig was my dream role. A self-professed “slip of a girly boy” sitting alone, listening to quiet music and imagining a world far away from the world they inhabited was exactly me. Unfortunately, Hedwig is German, blonde, white and clearly, I am not. I was also tragically unhip and trying with every last bit of my gay heart to continue being the good kid I was supposed to be, never rocking the boat, never being too emotional or too feminine. Having gotten a taste of what the world could be, I felt even further from it than I had before and, as my sexuality crystalized, all that need to be good and fit into what was expected became more of a cage than it ever was.
Things got really dark then. Playing a brainless sack of hay was obviously unchallenging. And the director had a rather unsavoury habit of separating the lead actors from the chorus folk by treating us like friends, equals, regularly belittling the chorus members to our faces. It fed my ego, sure, but took a lot of fun out of the proceedings. As one of her favourites, I was supposed to live up to a standard: the good kid, the upright example. Over the next year, I partied more and more, trying to be anything but That Kid. I started going to raves and sneaking into the local gay bar where I hung out with drag queens and disappeared into an all-night lucid dream. I thought, if this is who I have to be at school, then it's too much to try to be the same at home. The rebellion was strong. This turned me into a disappointment in my parents' eyes and the weight of managing lies - pretending everything was all right - was heavy. The depression drew closer still.
The next year, as a senior, I played Tommy in Brigadoon. This show, man. It was the complete antithesis to everything I found interesting or creative. The songs were dull and totally unchallenging, I was one of the only people of colour in the entire cast, and I was supposed to be playing a masculine charmer of a man, the kind who falls madly in love and croons gently in the fog. I've since softened on it, but at the time, Brigadoon felt like the kind of thing that could only appeal to someone at death's door. So, not only was I not feeling free to express myself at home, but I was also left without a chance to do it in my chosen art. Without a proper outlet, I spiralled further. My aforementioned fear of being seen came back with a vengeance and that meant I was too scared to speak up or seek help. Who knows if it would have mattered, I don’t remember Saskatoon having much in the way of queer youth outreach. I felt completely muzzled without the proper tools to deal with anything I was going through.
I tried to kill myself that winter. I know, I know, dramatic shift. But that's how it happened. I made the choice suddenly. Or at least that's how it looked from the outside. Really it was a choice that felt inevitable, the darkness laying under the surface of my skin finally ready to come forward. I remember quite clearly lying under the twinkle lights I’d set up above my bed, as drunk as I’d ever been up to that point. Nicole Kidman was singing “One Day I’ll Fly Away” softly from my CD player. The world of Moulin Rouge with its bombastic romance and tragically romantic bohemians felt like a universe away, space that despite all my efforts, I could never ever have access to. I’m not going to describe how I did it, that's too personal. But I can say it felt very freeing. I know now that was a huge part of why I did it: to exert some kind of control over my own existence.
I drove myself to the hospital the next morning. And that night as my sleep was interrupted every hour by a watchful flashlight, a new vow began to form: to never let myself be muzzled again and to focus on the kind of art that felt rigorous and challenging.
This was much easier said than done.