It Gets Louder: YYC’s Proud Theatre History

{Kevin is on a book tour currently in Toronto and Ottawa – check out dates/times: here!}

I was fortunate to be invited to the opening night of The Louder We Get. The musical is Theatre Calgary’s exploration of a true story, which was precedent-setting for the LGBTQ2 human rights struggle in Canada. The Louder We Get portrays the 2002 battle between high school student Marc Hall and the Durham Catholic School Board. The drama inherent in the story is whether Marc will be able to take his boyfriend to prom. His legal case made Canadian and international headlines – and he won – making for a triumphant ending. The long-standing ovation and visibly moved audience at opening night augers well for a long-life for The Louder We Get: go see it!

Louder Cast

The artists of The Louder We Get celebrating on Opening Night

Calgary’s theatre community has been brave historically in showcasing gay stories, even when there was public hostility to their staging. Furthermore, the theatre was one of the earliest safe places for gay people to find work and also be open about their lives. For example, Ken McBane, a Theatre Calgary set designer was one of the five founders of Calgary’s Club Carousel in 1970. It was Ken who came up with the circus-themed look of the Club, and the Carousel was the site of many performances of musicals, plays, and stage-nights.

Roger Perkins

A “Stage Night” at Club Carousel circa 1972

The Loose Moose Theatre Company, founded in 1977, was an early adopter of gay content in Calgary. In March 1980, it co-produced with Gay Information and Resources Calgary (GIRC), Fortune and Men’s Eyes at the Pumphouse Theatre.

Fortune and Men’s Eyes is a play set in a Canadian prison for youth and deals with society’s injustice towards gay people. Written in Canada’s Centennial Year, 1967, by John Herbert, the play shocked audiences and helped force Canadian society to acknowledge the existence and rights of homosexuals.

In 1991, Theatre Calgary presented a highly lauded production of playwright David Stevens’ The Sum of Us. Described as frank, funny and touching, the play explored the relationship between a widowed father and his gay son, set in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, Australia.

Theatre Calgary secured impressive talent for their production. Gordon Pinsent played the widower Harry, and Ted Atherton, his son Jeff. Theatre director Eric Steiner was engaged to bring The Sum of Us to the Canadian stage. Steiner, who came to Calgary, via Stratford, Chicago and Toronto had worked with Theatre Calgary before, directing The Normal Heart in 1986, one of the first plays about AIDS ever presented in the city.

Playwright Stevens was on the record that the Theatre Calgary production was the finest his play had been given. And Calgary audiences liked it too; the show tripled its expected revenues at the box office. Theatre Calgary then leveraged its success and opened the play in Toronto that November at the Bathurst Street Theatre for an open-ended commercial run.

The gay play that attracted the most controversy in Calgary was Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) staging of Angels in America in 1996. Before even opening, the play attracted a wagonload of controversy. “Why are taxpayers still having to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company that stages a self-indulgent production many feel is abhorrent? It is simply not right,” expressed the Calgary Sun.

Calgary-Shaw Tory MLA Jon Havelock suggested that plays offending community standards should not receive public funding. He added, “It seems to me that in some instances people confuse sexual expression with artistic expression.” Calgary-Fish Creek Tory MLA Heather Forsyth called Angels obscene and about ATP said: “If they can’t come up with better shows than this, maybe they shouldn’t be getting funding.”

There were heartfelt published defenses of Angels in America too. A well-known educator, Dariel Bateman, wrote a guest column in the Calgary Herald. She described the play as: “a glorious opportunity to stare down despair, to make sense of things, as we must.”

Ultimately, ATP found themselves rewarded. The controversy put extra bums in seats and attracted almost $50,000 in individual “Angels Consortium” donations. The play doubled expected ticket revenues and was sold out in its final weeks—setting audience records for the company.

{KA}

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