III. I Dreamed a Dream That One Day I'll Fly Away From This Wicked Little Town (Pt. 1)

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.

I. Very Scary Things

Writing for anything other than film and theatre has always been something I’ve shied away from. Not because I thought I'd be bad at it. Back in the day, I'd occasionally whip up a short story and, when I read it back, had general good feelings. But writing an opinion piece seems, to me, a very different beast. I suppose I’ve never thought anyone would want to hear my thoughts on anything, or that my lack of formal education somehow made me less qualified. And isn't the internet populated with enough Men Who Opinionate to last us ‘til rapture?

But recently I was reading an article by Catherine Hernandez in which she helpfully reminded me that “being an artist means scaring yourself into doing new things every day.” This is how she scared herself "into writing full-length fiction for the first time after years of writing theatre.” And I had been meaning to diversify my writing soooooo here I am, doing this Very Scary Thing, which might not be so scary in the end, but since it’s October why not lean into the spooky moments?

In a convenient bit of synergy, my most recent play Rope Running Out will be read in one week as part of DaPoPo Theatre's Live-In Festival 2017 in Halifax. This piece recently had its world premiere in Toronto presented by lemonTree creations. It was my first professionally produced work and I'm still shook that I can make a claim to such a thing. Even more that people came to see it (which is only a bit of a lie because I was also convinced it would sell out every single night [it didn't] and that it would win every award it could possibly win [it hasn't]).

Rather, my shookness comes from how long it took to get the damn thing to the stage. At several points, you start to think it might not happen, so when it does incredulity is part of the package. In total, the journey was about twelve years. It began at theatre college, a particularly tumultuous time in a tumultuous life. I was in my most serious relationship up to that point and had recently come to terms with the fact I had been sexually abused as a child, something I had by that point suppressed for over a decade. I'm still not totally certain what combination of events led to the bubbling up of this truth. Maybe it was all the stretching and breathing, the dance classes, the sheer physicality of it all that finally loosened the walls I erected for protection. Loosened. What a slight word for how they fell! They crashed really and buried me under.

Still, I soldiered on. Offered the opportunity to create our own work in second year, I chose to write. I'd recently seen the original cast of August: Osage County on Broadway and I was inspired. The revelation of my abuse caused huge rifts in all my personal relationships and this work, with its high-wire emotions and fractured familial dynamics, had resonance. But it, like so many works before, focused on a white family. The only person of colour barely had any lines and seemed to serve only as comfort to her employers. Wanting to be an actor at the time, this obvious lack of opportunity was glaring and, paired with all my inner turmoil, stirred a hunger to create something that reflected my reality: a world where people of colour were central to major stories.

The first version of Rope was heavily influenced by August and super traditional in its structure. There were like seven (!) characters. One was depressed! One was overbearing! One was distant! There was a dinner party where everyone got drunk and yelled! And, about three-quarters of the way through there was a revelation of trauma. Specifically childhood abuse.

The experience of the read is fuzzy, like I had stepped outside myself because I knew how personal it was going to be. I sat as far away as possible in a dark corner, on the floor. I remember the audience laughed more than I thought they would. I remember the actors seemed to enjoy themselves more than I thought they would. And I distinctly remember cringing for the gawds as the revelation happened. But while the moment felt exposing, it also felt amazing. Because even though the words were coming from the mouth of a fictional character, they were still my words, and it felt in many ways like they were coming directly from my lips.

The reading went well and buoyed by the high of triumph I vowed to keep developing the piece. But as the weeks went by I found I could no longer look at the pages. What had once felt healing, now felt oddly exploitative and much, much too personal. Then my relationship came to the final end in a string of ends and the central love story lost all meaning. I put the piece away, telling myself I would revisit it one day after I had lived some life and gotten a better grip on the emotional mess of being abused.

What I didn't realize was that a "better grip" would never really manifest. Not in the way I thought anyway. A part of me said, "get some therapy, put in the work, you'll feel normal again soon." But it had slipped my mind how expensive therapy is, how much life gets in the way of doing the work. The journey to a kind of healing was marked by fits and starts and the burden of my abuse hung over every single intimate relationship I went on to have.

That might seem a bit overblown, but I assure you it's not. In the most simplistic terms, it got better, but it never really went away. I'll use a rather strained metaphor I've voiced in the past: think of the emotional toll of abuse as the weight you might use to create recycled paper. You are the amorphous blob that gets smushed into something seemingly pristine, but easily tearable. Once torn you are turned back into an amorphous blob, waiting for the weight to land again. And it always lands again.

By the time the opportunity to return to Rope came up, I'd done therapy whenever I could, I'd fallen in and out of love a few times. Needless to say, I approached the writing with a completely different set of eyes. Thanks to all that emotional work I'd done over the years, I'd gotten to a point where I could be totally open about my abuse with anyone who asked and when I was feeling sassy, even those who didn't. Yet still, when looking at the script anew, I was reminded of an issue that had plagued me in the past: the third act revelation. So, not wanting Rope to be That Kind of Play, I chose to move the revelation into the distant past, outside the structure of the piece. I chose as well to focus on life after without revealing the details of trauma. Basically, I didn't want it to be easy for the audience. The revelation only served to explain away the protagonist's complicated sexuality when what I wanted was for the audience to find a piece of themselves in the characters and go off into the night reflecting on their own relationships with sex and intimacy. After all, everyone's got hang-ups around both.

Some context: Rope Running Out follows Nacio, a struggling photographer who, for better or worse, has learned to live in the aftermath of trauma. He and his partner Félix have built a loving and happy partnership that just happens to be physically non-sexual. Instead, they play a game where they choose a hookup for Félix and after he has gone out to play, return to each other to have what Nacio calls "brain sex." But after a drifter from Nacio's past appears, their entrenched approach to intimacy is challenged.

Here's the thing: I still feel keeping the exact nature of the trauma out of the play was the right choice. First, because I didn't want to trigger anyone and I wanted to show a loving relationship whose members were working together and apart to heal. In that context, exactly what the trauma in Nacio's past entailed wasn't relevant. In collaboration with Indrit Kasapi, the wonderful director of the world premiere, I chose not to share the full information of Nacio's trauma with the actors. We felt it was more important for them to make their own choice, to find something that they could relate to and therefore play truthfully.

What no longer feels right, however, is how I kept telling myself I didn't want Rope to be That Kind of Play. While I stand by my reasons for not including what the trauma was, I do regret to a certain extent that I wasn't more open about how the play came to life, that I didn't use my platform to be a more vocal advocate for the lives of survivors. But my regret is a double-edged sword. The play did what I hoped: it spoke to people's personal experiences in personal ways. Audience members expressed to me vastly different opinions on why Nacio and Félix related the way they did. Some thought he was trans and not ready to admit it, some thought he was asexual and again not ready to admit it, some picked up on the trauma but vocalized its origin in vague terms, usually in hushed tones. Some who mentioned it even rolled their eyes, aghast at the "cliché" of it all.

Sadly, I completely understand this reaction. So often trauma is used in film or theatre as a way to shock audiences or to explain in supposedly simple terms why a character acts the way they do. It is almost always depicted as pitiable and strips the survivor of their agency. We rarely get to see what it means to live in this truth, what it means to work together with a person you love to overcome past pain. I suppose too, this reaction had a lot to do with the fact that I was not forthcoming with my own truth, which could easily have meant I was appropriating this experience to inject drama. I tend to shy away from discussing the personal aspects of my writing. There's a feeling in some circles that putting too much of yourself into your work makes it less Art and more diary entry. The personal nature makes work too specific, cutting off a chunk of the potential audience. Also, talking about your personal issues in a professional setting is to most unbearably gauche. So even though I was totally open about my abuse in my personal life, I figured bringing it up in my professional life was, well, unprofessional.

But in experiencing my work with an audience again, I realized that whatever shame or hesitation I had about sharing the true genesis of this piece in a public forum stemmed from a small raw spot I hadn't fully come to terms with. When I was actively dating, I used to feel this same shame about revealing my trauma to potential partners. I feared that when I told them they would go running for the hills, never to be seen again. Or, if they chose to stay, they would never truly be able to look at me the same way. Suddenly, in their eyes, I was damaged goods to be handled carefully. I feared that my work would be looked at in the same way. I feared that the true core of the piece would then never been seen. I keep hemming and hawing about whether or not to share this. I imagine if I hit publish some future audience member will read it and will only be able to see the abuse. I worry the truth behind the piece will make it less enjoyable for them, less relatable. But what is the root of this feeling? Shame, plain and simple.

So you know what? Screw that. There's nothing to be ashamed of as a survivor. And there's no reason for this piece to pretend to be anything else. I trust non-survivors will still find something to relate to. But mostly I hope that survivors will feel seen, reminded that they are worthy of the kind of love that is willing to work alongside you, willing to evolve and expand and flourish. Because survivors absolutely deserve this. And we deserve to have the aftermath of our trauma depicted in a way that doesn't only focus on the suffering but chooses to celebrate how we can navigate those difficult waters in a sex-positive, loving way. 

Rope Running Out will be read as part of DaPoPo Theatre`s Live-In Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia 7:00 pm, Tuesday October 10 at the TNS Living Room, 2353 Agricola Street

For more on Dahlia Katz please visit www.dahliakatz.com