Brendan Healy on Queer Pride, “Post-Mos,” and the Mayor
Brendan Healy, in his first year as artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, has had exceptional success. At the Dora Mavor Moore Awards this past Monday night, the play he directed and chose as his season opener for BIBT’s season, Blasted, won five awards in the general theatre division, including Outstanding Production and Outstanding Direction.
Sky Gilbert, BIBT’s founding artistic director, also won for outstanding New Play for The Situationists in the independent theatre division, and that play’s co-star Gavin Crawford won a statuette for Outstanding Performance, constituting seven awards in total for BIBT. Said Healy afterwards: “I could not be more thrilled to have received an award on the same night as the founding Artistic Director of this incredible company. Sky has been, and continues to be, a great inspiration to us all here at Buddies.”
Healy has also tackled with gusto the more political aspects of being at the helm of Canada’s most established theatre company for queer culture, speaking out on a number of recent hot-button topics that affect the queer community. We sat down with him for a wide-ranging interview in the offices of Buddies in Bad Times, as preparations were being made for the many events happening at their Alexander Street building during Pride Week.
BIBT has its own festival, Queer Pride, in the lead-up to (and during) Pride Week.
Brendan Healy: What we try to do in our programming for Buddies during Pride is look at what’s happening in a larger context, and what communities could use our support and our space that might not find representation in the more mainstream Pride Toronto events. And that’s not a knock against Pride Toronto, we just don’t want to reproduce what they’re doing—we want to complement it.
So we’re trying to identify subcultures within local queer culture that we can support. For instance, one of our big marquee events is the Royal Court Ball, which is the House of Monroe’s huge voguing event. It’s a really developed subculture in the queer community that Buddies can take advantage of Pride to highlight.
We’re a professional theatre company, but especially during Pride, we really try to open up our building to the community—like Pride Prom, we do that every year, a prom for all the high school queers to come and have their own prom night, which is really beautiful.
Especially for those at Catholic schools.
For sure. This year, what with the banning of Gay-Straight Alliances, it’s really topical, and important that we reach out to them.
That’s something that the Rhubarb Festival did really well this year, extending Buddies out beyond these walls, with programming at Yonge-Dundas Square, for instance.
Yeah, we were really proud of that, being out in the public sphere.
Mae Martin made it clear in her interview that BIBT feels like home to her and that there’s a lot of gay performers who feel that way. Buddies is a space where so many different things—theatre, comedy, club events—take place. How do you balance that, BIBT as a theatre company and BIBT as a social hub?
It’s actually not that hard. The way our season is structured, there are lots of opportunities in the calendar for both structured work—plays like Blasted and The Situationists—and for more experimental events, like Rhubarb and Queer Pride. The company has a long history of providing a space for really varied work to be shown here; our audience has come to expect it of Buddies, over 30 years.
Buddies is a very successful club as well as a theatre space, and a social space as well as a performance space.
The Buddies In Bad Times sign, outside their Alexander Street building.
So, congratulations are in order, for all your Dora success. Blasted was a terrific show—we had a very positive review for it on Torontoist. There was quite a bit of talk, at the time, that it wasn’t specifically a play with queer themes. What attracted you to the play, as your season opener?
Well, it cuts right to the heart of what I think is significant about queerness, and that’s having a questioning stance, and challenging all kinds of dominant forms of identity. For me, Blasted certainly fell into that category—and also, Sarah Kane [the playwright] was gay.
It’s a very salient critique of masculinity and expectations that society places on men. We live in a society where men are still conditioned for war, and expected to be able to go off and fight, and kill other men. And with that comes a lot of violent baggage, which shapes many relationships between men and women. The play’s also a critique of rape, a very intense examination of what the impulse to rape is.
All of that fits into a notion of what queerness is, not just about two penises, or two vaginas, but about positions of revolt, challenge, and protest, which I think Blasted embodied.
Speaking of critique, as artistic director of BIBT, you’re doing more than just programming and curating theatre and events; in many ways, you’re a spokesperson for queer artists and for the overall queer community in Toronto. Recently, there was a cover story in The Grid about “post-mos”, and you wrote a letter in response—which they published, in part.
In part… and it’s interesting which part they did print. [Laughs] Xtra printed the whole letter.
It was a very disturbing article, for the reasons I enumerated in the letter. The intention behind that letter was to invite The Grid to consider its responsibility as a media outlet, in terms of perpetuating a position that’s apathetic and not useful to anyone.
The author in question had a right to express his own experience and to live out his sexuality in any way he wants. Though I think in 10 years’ time he’ll look back and say, “Augh, I can’t believe I said those things publicly.” Young people have always said, “These older institutions mean nothing to me,” and sure enough, as they get older, they realize, “Oh, fuck, these institutions are important.” That’s normal.
What isn’t normal is a media outlet picking up on that and putting it out there as some sort of real “truth.” As in, “This is what it means to be gay now.” Media outlets have a responsibility to do some research and make a distinction between personal and anecdotal experience, and an objective reality. The Grid didn’t do that at all.
It seems like the issue was that it wasn’t a small opinion piece in the middle of the paper, but a cover story with multiple pages and a full photo spread.
A photo spread of all these other people, and there was every indication that this was a big statement about an entire generation of gays.
And at least one participant wasn’t clear on how his image would be used, and wrote a response denouncing the article.
It’s problematic, in that a few weeks ago, for instance, I was part of a delegation at City Hall trying to save Pride funding, and it feels like the equality rights that have been acquired are so tenuous, and to have The Grid print this apathetic, immature statement of “What It’s Like to Be Gay”—it was very disturbing to me.
Let’s talk about City Hall, yes, and the mayor. It’s not even that he’s not planning to march in the Pride parade; he’s refused to publicly schedule any appearance over the 10-day festival (the deputy mayor has no plans to attend the parade, either.) What does that mean for the community, when there’s so little public support from the leaders at City Hall for Pride?
To not interpret it as homophobia is almost impossible—we have to call a spade a spade. I think it’s shameful, in that Pride is a major marquee event for this city, and as elected officials who represent all of Toronto, supporting it is part of your job—regardless of your personal fucking opinion about gays and lesbians. When you have an event where almost a million people show up, and there’s a long-standing tradition of mayors being part of that event, it’s just your job.
It’s also not easy to see it as anything other than a very clear message to the community, saying “We don’t support you.” And that’s not just going out to the local community, that goes out to the world, about Toronto.
To me, what Pride Toronto is all about, is that we as a city celebrate difference and respect difference among our citizens. I love that the parade has families, and kids, and plenty of straight people as well as gay people. It’s beautiful, in terms of what I envision for the world, where difference is respected and encouraged, where we aren’t irrationally afraid of each other. Toronto, for a long time, has been a world leader in getting that message out there, that people of all cultures and differences can find ways to work together, civically. And a big part of that is having a mayor who appears at the Pride Parade—even if it makes him uncomfortable. He can be there with the PFLAG people—he doesn’t have to be on a float with all the half-naked gay boys.
Let’s not end on that note—this great disappointment in our civic leaders. What are you excited about for Pride this year?
The Royal Court Ball will be amazing this year—the dancers are super fierce, the party will be awesome and super inclusive of all aspects of gender and sexuality. And the music will be really hot.
And then, on the day of the parade, I’ll be there, cheering and booing and getting soaked like everyone else.
Photos by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.