Playwright Nick Green on dramatizing the life and contentious times of Toronto’s trail-blazing gay-rights journal.
Buddies in Bad Times has been hitting the history books this season. First there was the reprise of The Gay Heritage Project, then a visit from those 20th-century queer icons Stein and Toklas—Gertrude and Alice—and now the premiere of Body Politic.
Nick Green’s new play dramatizes the founding and watershed moments of one of Canada’s first major LGBTQ publications, The Body Politic, a monthly that emerged from Toronto’s burgeoning queer community in 1971 and weathered controversies and court cases before finally folding in 1987.
Green’s play has been five years in the making, and is currently running at Buddies in an appropriate overlap with Toronto’s inaugural Pride Month. While it recreates and imagines some key scenes in the city’s queer history, the work also attempts to connect those times to the present day. That was an important aspect for Green, a Vancouver-born actor and playwright who started his career in Edmonton (a city notable for its vibrant queer-theatre scene) and has spent the last six years in Toronto. He chatted by phone with Torontoist about the origins of the play and why he wants it to speak to more than just the veterans of the gay liberation movement.
Torontoist: In the program notes you say that one impetus for writing Body Politic was that notorious article in The Grid in 2011, “Dawn of a New Gay,” by Paul Aguirre-Livingston. His implication that all the LGBTQ battles were over for young gay people today certainly caused a backlash.
Green: I think that it was a ballsy thing for him to write it and The Grid to publish it, but as I said in the program notes, it was the negative reaction that had a really great unifying aspect to it.
And by coincidence you were about to write this play, which deals with some of those battles.
The article came out about a month after I was approached to write the play by lemonTree creations, which is Indrit Kasapi, Cole Alvis, and Jonathan Seinen. At that time, Jonathan was doing [Studio 180’s revival of] The Normal Heart at Buddies and became connected to Gerald Hannon [one of The Body Politic‘s original writers]. I think the combination of talking to Gerald and doing Normal Heart made him think, “We have a Toronto queer history as well—a different story from the U.S., but with a similar grassroots, community-activism aspect to it.” So he called Indrit and said, “Have you heard about this paper, The Body Politic? We should write a play about it.” At that time I had just finished working on a play about the Edmonton bathhouse raids that happened in 1981. I’d gotten access to the undercover police reports that were generated prior to their raid and wrote this play about detectives going undercover in bathhouses. I did a reading of that in Toronto and the lemonTree guys thought it was similar to the project they were thinking of, so they approached me to write.
Body Politic does bear some resemblance to The Normal Heart. Did Larry Kramer’s play influence you?
I’m familiar with The Normal Heart as well as most of the American plays written about the gay rights movement back then, but I can’t say it influenced my approach to the project or the structure. Certainly the heartbeat behind it was the urgency and the immediacy of what was being done in the queer community back then. That was something I was drawn to and tried to capture in the play.
In researching the play did you talk to Hannon and any of the other people who were involved in The Body Politic?
Yes, I started with Hannon, because his relationship with Jonathan is what got this whole thing rolling. And from there I just followed my nose. The people I interviewed would recommend other people, and some people approached me. And I did a lot of research as well, reading about what other people had written about Body Politic, as well as back issues of the paper. This play was in development for five years, up to its opening. But most of the research was done in the first few years. After getting a Buddies in Bad Times residency and having [then-artistic director] Brendan Healy as a dramaturge, my focus shifted from research to dramatic structure and developing the characters and relationships onstage.
Your central character, Phillip, is clearly based on Hannon. At what point did you decide not to put real people onstage, but instead go for fictional composites?
I made that decision pretty early on. Maybe when the Canadian Opera Company options the play, we can look at getting 100 people for the cast [laughs], but as long as we’re doing it in a small Canadian theatre, there are limits. And the history of The Body Politic touches hundreds of people over the course of 15 years. So for me to focus on what I was interested in, which were some pivotal moments in the paper’s history as well as the way that history resonates today in the queer community, I made a decision to fictionalize and imagine these instances with characters that are composites of real people—the inspiration of many different people is crammed into each character, including Phillip.
You also use a framing device for the play, in which the older Phillip [played by Geordie Johnson] is reminiscing about these events with Josh [Aldrin Bundoc], the young, gay Starbucks barista he’s invited over to his place. What were you hoping to do in using this framing story?
I think when you approach a project like this, there’s always the lingering question, ‘Well, whose history is this?’ And I think there’s the temptation to say that the history of The Body Politic represents the history of the gay rights movement. But queer community and the queer identity is such a vast and intricate thing, and I thought it was important to locate this history within a very broad, diverse, and ever-changing community. So the thought behind the present/past framework was about looking at where this history fits into the queer world today. The progress made at the time was ground-breaking, but only for a certain facet of our community.
That’s true. The play reminds us that the people running the paper were predominantly gay white males. Your lone exception is the lesbian activist Deb, played by Diane Flacks. It’s intriguing that you chose to emphasize Phillip’s close association with Deb, and also suggest a parallel in Josh’s difficult friendship with a girl named Kelsey.
I am ever fascinated and inspired by the relationship between women and gay men—both the oppressive nature of the relationship in some cases, as well as the allegiance that can exist. There are opportunities in the play to think of both of those tensions.
The character of Deb turns out to be a fairly substantial one, with a huge influence on Phillip. Was she modelled on a specific real person?
Most people who watch the play identify her as Chris Bearchell. Chris did deliver a speech at the [bathhouse] demonstration and famously yelled, “No more shit!” [A scene dramatized in the play.] She was also a long-time collective member [of The Body Politic] and known for being a revolutionary coalition builder, someone that wanted to bring groups of people together toward common goals, which is a driving force of Deb. There are other aspects of her, in terms of her political beliefs about gay men and lesbians working together, that were informed by other women who wrote for Body Politic and their experience of working mostly with white males.
Have any of the original Body Politic people seen the show?
Yes, the people I interviewed have come and have reportedly enjoyed it. I think that it’s clear that I’ve imagined a lot of these scenes and not everything is exactly as everyone remembers them. The fact is, everyone I interviewed described every incident differently and that’s kind of the way memories work, right?
Some of the events you touch on, like the Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981, unquestionably provoke outrage in retrospect. But Hannon’s sympathetic 1977 article about pedophiles (“Men Loving Boys Loving Men“) would still cause controversy if it came out today. Although the Attorney-General at the time tried unsuccessfully to have the paper prosecuted for obscenity, I’d bet that piece would still have trouble getting published now.
A theme that runs through this show is that a lot of the conversations had back then are in many ways similar to conversations we still would have. Certainly, the “Men Loving Boys” article would still provoke conversations about censorship and the point of deconstructing the conventions of childhood and sexuality—it’s an attack on people’s core principles and a hard conversation to have.
You’ve acted in shows at Buddies before, but this is your debut as a playwright there.
Yes, it’s been a major goal of mine. Ever since I was 18 years old and living in B.C., I’ve wanted to premiere a play at Buddies, so this has been a big deal to me.
You’ve got some heavy hitters involved in it: Healy, Alisa Palmer as director, Geordie Johnson, Diane Flacks…
We got very lucky. Alisa came on board at the very beginning, when the play was still a first draft, and she’s been the director on the project since then. We’ve been very lucky to have her behind the helm. The beauty of having Geordie and Diane involved is that they bring such a huge experience and dramatic vocabulary to the rehearsal hall. There were rewrites going on throughout the rehearsal because the actors were bringing such exciting things to the hall that would keep me questioning what I’d written and the decisions I’d made.
Your play has come at a time when people are thinking about the future of established publications. It was just over a year ago that Xtra!, The Body Politic‘s offspring, decided to pull the plug on its print edition.
I think it’s interesting to consider this play in the context of the ever-changing nature of media news. A lot of people ask, ‘Where is that [i.e. The Body Politic] today?’ And it certainly exists. There are a ton of very important queer publications today, whether online or otherwise. So The Body Politic is still out there, so to speak—it just looks different.