Ignite your theatre flame with Spark Festival: The Gay Heritage Project shines new light on the collective queer experience.
Many Canadians remember those "Heritage Minutes" TV ads from the '80s that claimed to represent "A Part of our Heritage" as Canadians. They brought scenes and personalities from our collective past to the present, offering a curated collage of what it means to be Canadian.
Now a group of Canadian actors and playwrights, Paul Dunn, Damien Atkins and Andrew Kushnir, are exploring the idea of gay heritage; specifically, "Is there something that connects us to people in the past and how have their experience and their struggles influenced the way that we experience being gay today? Is there something that connects us to other members in the community just by nature of being gay?" contemplates Dunn while chatting before a performance at The Cultch in Vancouver. The GHP is coming to the Belfry Theatre’s Spark Festival, March 22-26 in Victoria’s historic Fernwood neighbourhood.
Dunn had the idea to write the play when he was doing a play called East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch. He started researching the way gay men were treated by the Nazis in World War Two, and read a first-person account called The Men With the Pink Triangle.
"I had such a visceral response to it because I had done a lot of research about a lot of other historical events for plays but because this was a first person account from a young gay man. I could see myself in it in a way that I hadn't seen myself in other stories; in a way that surprised and really moved me. And I thought two things: one, why didn't I already know more about this? And why did I feel a disconnect with my community in the present?" says Dunn.
He approached longtime friends and colleagues Atkins and Kushnir to help him actualize the project. "They were the first people I thought of because they had both created theatre, life myself, that dealt with being gay and have been out in the personal and professional careers," says Dunn.
They used their individual cultural heritage —Dunn is Irish and Scottish, Kushnir is Ukrainian, while Atkins was born in Australia — as a starting place. "We wanted to see if there was in intersection between our cultural heritage and gay heritage," says Dunn. "Did the way gay people were treated in Scotland and Ireland have anything to do with the way that I experience being gay today?"
They soon met with Cleve Jones, American AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist, and creator of the AIDS memorial quilt. "He was very excited by the idea …. of someone of a younger generation taking up the mantle of activism or of telling and sharing stories," says Dunn. "That experience was really the galvanizing force for the three of us to really get going on it."
The show began as a workshop at Buddies in Bad Times' Rhubarb Festival in 2012. They brought on director Ashlie Corcoran to help them pull the material together. "She came in as our outside eye and director to help shape it. She hadn't encountered these ideas or any of this material before and so she was very useful that way," says Dunn.
The result is an action-packed hour and 45 minutes of theatre. Using the "vocal masque" technique, Dunn, Atkins and Kushnir take turns performing every character in individual scenes, sewn together in a cultural collage. There are "no props, no costume changes, it's just the power of the performer," says Dunn. "It's a huge pleasure for the audience to watch because the actor is shifting really quickly in between characters and that is a huge part of the enjoyment of the experience on top of the content itself."
Together, Dunn, Atkins and Kushnir play more than 100 characters, including themselves. "It's a journey of discovery," says Dunn. "Not only do our personal lives come into it, but also our reaction to the material," says Dunn. "The topic is so enormous, it would be impossible to represent that even remotely fairly, so the solution is to present our own individual journeys and questions with that."
Far from a history lecture, or a documentary, GHP takes heritage from a noun to a verb, engaging the audience with each performer's personal exploration of their heritage as well as their reaction to events from the broader gay community.
"When ever I talk about the origins of the piece it makes the piece sound like a real downer but I have to say the way we've gone about it is a lot of fun. The piece is full of celebration and wit and, yes, sadness and mourning and honouring, but also a lot of joy for people to experience… Rather than present a comprehensive list of facts or findings about gay heritage, we wanted to engage in an exploration from a personal place with the hopes of inviting the audience who are witnessing to have their own exploration," says Dunn. "To walk away with their own list of questions about their heritage."
The Gay Heritage Project Performance Times:
Tuesday, March 22 – 7:30 pm
Wednesday, March 23 – 7:30 pm
Thursday, March 24 – 7:30 pm
Friday, March 25 – 8 pm
Saturday, March 26 – 8 pm
1291 Gladstone Ave, Fernwood.
Dunn, Kushnir and Atkins will be offering a workshop in Vocal Masque techniques Sat., March 26, 1-5pm. Call 250-385-6815 to register. $25.
Mary Ellen Green