Queer Theatre is Visionary Theatre
Toronto, often deemed “the most multicultural city in the world,” is the largest city in Canada. There’s a thriving theatre scene here, with almost everything you could ask for, and the artists whose work we’re treated to are some of the best in the country. In this city series, you’ll hear from several of these theatremakers about the Toronto theatre landscape through their eyes. In this article, playwright and performer Rhiannon Collett talks about Toronto’s vibrant queer theatre scene and the power of imagination. —May Antaki, series curator
“We are in an imagination battle.” I wrote these words down last week while I was reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. brown states that, as a queer Black woman, she often feels as if she is “trapped inside someone else’s imagination” and that she “must engage [her] own imagination to break free.”
As a white person, I benefit from the dominant narrative so many people buy into—a collective imagination that, as brown points out, perpetuates white supremacy, xenophobia, and borders. In the same breath, as a non-binary trans person in a diverse community of trans people, I am a constant witness and participant in the imagination battle around gender. When your community fluctuates between unseen and dangerously visible, imagination is a powerful thing.
I’m a queer theatremaker in Toronto, one of the largest and fastest cities in Canada. Living in Toronto is like having a constant adrenaline rush. The city works hard and plays hard. Rent prices are ridiculous, condos blossom out of dead DIY spaces, and access to nature is sparse—everyone you’ve ever dated can be found lying on the same yellow grass in the same public park all summer long. Success feels fragile, as does financial stability. Surprisingly, it is here that the “imagination battle” has come to the forefront in my life; as a Toronto-based artist, it is imperative that I carve out space to cultivate my imagination. In order to survive, I must dream of what I can be. As artists and queers, we are constantly resisting—resisting the destruction of sexual education, the closing of queer spaces, government cuts to Indigenous funding, an overwhelmingly white, cis, straight arts scene. The resistance is exhausting, but in the pressure cooker that is Toronto, I have witnessed many queer artists’ imaginations transform into calls to action with what little resources they have.
I moved to Toronto to be a part of the Emerging Creators Unit at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Located just off Yonge Street on the edge of Toronto’s Gay Village, Buddies has been a home to queer artists for forty years: it is both the largest and longest-running queer theatre in the world. Led by current artistic director, Evalyn Parry, Buddies boasts a cabaret space, a full theatre, silvery gender-neutral washrooms, and dressing room walls covered with posters from many gay years gone by. There’s an active glitter ban in the building, but that doesn’t stop drag queens and kings galore from prancing through the halls with sparkles firmly adhered to their faces. On any given night at Buddies you can happen upon a dance party, a poetry slam, a drag show, or a play, sometimes all in the same evening.
The resistance is exhausting, but in the pressure cooker that is Toronto, I have witnessed many queer artists’ imaginations transform into calls to action with what little resources they have.
A lot of my training at Buddies has happened through the Rhubarb Festival, both in 2018, when I performed an excerpt of my show There Are No Rats in Alberta, and in 2019, when I directed an excerpt of my play Wasp. Rhubarb, which for the last five years has been run by Mel Hague, is a creative experience like none other. For two weeks, Buddies transforms into a hotbed of creative activity: there are six shows per evening, each running twenty-five-ish minutes long, three in the cabaret and three in the chamber. The audience can move between the two spaces, but as both sides run concurrently, it’s usually best to come two nights to make sure you don’t miss anything. The second week offers a whole new whack of programming.
Anything can (and does) happen at Rhubarb. The festival has a no-reviews policy for the two weeks, which allows artists to not worry as much about being “commercially successful” (the plight of Toronto) and just be Extremely Weird. As an emerging artist, it’s the ideal place to explore new skills and new ideas, have a receptive audience, and not worry too much about flunking your debut.
While hundreds of shows play every night in Toronto at venues all around the city, it’s still rare for authentic trans voices to be included in that mix. The tokenism is very real—we’re written in as afterthoughts, educators, or uncomfortable stereotypes. Or, more often than not, we’re not written in at all. Part of the imagination battle is being able to see trans people on stage just… doing things. Existing. Having normal narratives that move beyond saving the cis protagonist from their own mediocrity.
Both times I was in Rhubarb I got to work almost exclusively with extraordinary trans and gender non-conforming (gnc) artists. I was mentored by Sunny Drake, an amazing playwright, theatre creator, and performer, and I was double-billed with Heath V. Salazar, aka Gay Jesus, a drag artist and actor who performs as male, female, and gender-variant. This year, during Wasp at Rhubarb (which featured Heath, Cole Alvis, Robin Luckwaldt Ross, and Gabe Maharjan, with the musical talent of James Knott), we only had one cis person in a team of six. It felt radical to be so many trans/gnc voices in a room together, creating stories for our vision. Other trans shows at Rhubarb this year included Hanlon McGregor and Syrus Marcus Ware’s Trans Bubble Pride; The BiG SiSSY Show by afro-futurist pop music duo from Montreal BiG SiSSY, and the Trans Gemmes, a showcase curated by performer/playwright Bilal Baig that featured the work of young trans femmes/trans women of color.
Toronto is lucky to have Buddies, but there are also lots of organizations here doing excellent work either as queer artists or for the queer community. The resistance of imagining has created some vital calls to action amongst smaller companies and independent artists.
In the relentless bustle of Toronto, we carve out our space. We resist, we create, and we survive.
Generator is an innovation incubator that strives to develop the skills of independent artists and producers, helmed by two powerhouses: executive producer Kristina Lemieux and artist-producer training facilitator Sedina Fiati. Many queer and trans folks (myself included) have gone through their producing/training programs, which are aimed at strengthening the theatre scene one artistic producer at a time. Generator gives marginalized voices the tools to resist artistically and effectively.
Generator also has a history of having killer creative teams in residence, including the AMY (Artists Mentoring Youth) Project. Run by current artistic director Nikki Shaffeeullah, the AMY Project trains young women and non-binary youth in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in theatre creation and performance; most recently they partnered with Buddies to present the Trans Gemmes Cabaret. In residence at Generator currently is manidoons collective, an Indigenous performance collective comprised of Cole Alvis and Yolanda Bonnell, two leaders on the queer scene.
Cole’s other creative project, lemonTree creations, has been operating for ten years. With co–artistic producer Indrit Kasapi, Cole frequently collaborate with artistic associates Jonathan Seinen, Ryan G. Hinds, and playwright in residence Donna Michelle St. Bernard (who recently moderated an extremely impactful long table discussion at Buddies in Bad Times). Their upcoming show, Lilies; Or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama is a co-production with Buddies and Why Not Theatre that features a cast of Indigenous, Black, and culturally diverse artists in the retelling of the classic play by Michel Marc Bouchard. Seinen is also a part of Saga Collectif, a group of artists comprised of Virgilia Griffith, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben M’Carthy, and Thomas Olajide, known for their award-winning production Black Boys; they recently graced the Toronto stage with a new adaptation of Iphegenia Among the Taureans, called Iphegenia (On Taurean Land) by Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho).
These artists are only a handful of the people in this city creating work that fuels the queer imagination. In the relentless bustle of Toronto, we carve out our space. We resist, we create, and we survive. As academic José Esteban Muñoz put it in their manifesto Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, utopia is “not simply a mode of fantastical escapism, but instead a blueprint for alternative modes of being in the world.” For me, that is what queer theatre is at its utter best: a rebellious, beautiful blueprint. An act of resistance where, for just a moment, artists and audiences can envision our futures together. A place to imagine ourselves as we are.
Queer theatre is visionary theatre. I truly believe this.