Tag Archives: Calgary Sun

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}

Bill Wuttunee remembered

The Calgary Chinook Fund supports charitable organizations providing services, programming, and education, for and about the LGBTQ2 community. They also annually present a hero award. Notably, this year’s hero was consequential to our historic human rights struggle. At their October fundraising dinner, the hero award was given to Bill Wuttunee, posthumously, in the presence of family and friends. Here is what was said at the event by the Chinook Fund’s Gordon Sombrowski.

Oki

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the proclaiming into law, the amendments to the criminal code which partially decriminalized homosexuality and therewith began the process of change that has led toward equal rights for the LGBTQ2 community in Canada. In seeking who to give our Hero Award to this year, we wanted to recognize the fiftieth anniversary of the change to the law. In working with the Calgary Gay History Project and Kevin Allen, the Chinook Fund Committee happened upon an incredible man who was a stalwart ally and champion for the gay community in Calgary and who has all but been forgotten. Unfortunately, we did not discover this man until after his passing. However, this evening we are joined by his daughter Nola, son Nisha, and family and friends.

I am thrilled to announce that our Hero Award Recipient for 2019 is William (Bill) Wuttunee.

Bill Wuttunee lived his life by the following words he expressed at age 85:

“Get active in your world to make it better. Don’t sit by and wait for others to do it.”

The lawyer, activist, and humanitarian from Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan co-founded what today is known as the Assembly of First Nations. The first indigenous lawyer in Western Canada, Wuttunee, also helped to secure voting rights for status Indians.

Yet the life of one of Canada’s true pioneers began in humble circumstances. Raised on the reserve in a family of 15, Wuttunee survived the residential school system. After moving to Battleford, Saskatchewan, to finish his last years in school, he won a scholarship to attend McGill University.

His presence there gave him the distinction of being one of only two First Nations people to attend university at that time; years later, he would also become the first indigenous lawyer to appear before the Supreme Court of Canada.

We honour him today because Wuttunee was one of our allies as an early and proud champion of LGBTQ2 rights at a time when others went out of their way not to help us. Wuttunee was Everett Klippert’s lawyer. Thus he gained the distinction of defending the last person in Canada to be prosecuted for homosexuality — his work helping to lay the groundwork for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s later famed phrase in 1969, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

This came about because Bill Wuttunee decided in the 1960s to set up his own law practice in Calgary handling criminal cases and family law. He said, “I didn’t know anybody here. I came here because the weather was nice and the people seemed nice, and I’ve never been sorry. Alberta has been good to me, and good for my family.”

In 1966, Bill opened a branch office in Yellowknife, where one of his cases was to defend Everett Klippert in the case that led to changes in the law against homosexuality.  Charged with “gross indecency” because Klippert admitted to having had sexual relations with four separate men, he was sentenced to “preventive detention” as a dangerous sexual offender. He served five years, while his appeal worked its way through the courts to the Supreme Court, where it was finally dismissed in a controversial 3-2 decision: meaning imprisonment for life.

Then Tommy Douglas raised the issue in the House of Commons, and within six weeks Pierre Trudeau introduced changes to the Criminal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality. Bill Wuttunee proudly shared that, “Trudeau cited the Klippert case when he said that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Wuttunee one

William Wuttunee in 1967, 39 years old.

However, Bill Wuttunee did not only work on high profile cases like Klippert’s for our community; he was also known for handling small local matters. Courtesy of the Gay History Project I found this wonderful statement by Bill in his own words.

Paul Jackson, city editor of The Albertan (which became the Calgary Sun), in November 1969 wrote: A Growing Cult, Homosexual Club Thrives in Calgary. Jackson quoted Bill Wuttunee as follows:

“They, homosexuals, are all members of a minority group. Like all members of minority groups, they have been subjected to persecution. My job is to see that they get the same rights as any other Canadian citizen. After all, they are not breaking the law.”

Wuttunee was to continue to be a champion for human rights to the end of his life, and even In his early 80s, Wuttunee sat on the Oversight Committee for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the organization responsible for resolving thousands of residential school claims.

Dear supporters of the Chinook Lesbian and Gay Fund, it is my privilege and honour in this year of the fiftieth anniversary of decriminalization and in the spirit of reconciliation to ask you to rise in honour of William Bill Wuttunee, our Hero!

The gathered audience leapt to their feet for a tremendously long, heartfelt, standing ovation. Nola Wuttunee, a former APTN host, as well as actor, musician, and film producer, rose to accept the award and shared memories of her father. There were several moist eyes in the room, and we felt the warm glow of a shared humanity.

Chinook Fund and Nola

Chinook Fund Members: Tony Hailu, Michel Bourque, Chris Post and Gordon Sombrowski with Nola Wuttunee (centre).

{Wishing you a reflective holiday season and a happy new year!}

{KA}

 

Angels in America in Calgary

On September 19, 1996, Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) premiered Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America. Before even opening, the play attracted a wagon load 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.

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Image from ATP Theatre Program: Photographer Jason Stang

A number of Alberta MLAs were also on the record questioning provincial funding of ATP, which was $550,000 that year, about 1/6th of its operating budget. 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.”

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Edmonton Sun Editorial Cartoon: September 15, 1996

ATP’s producing director, Michael Dobbin, rejoindered that MLAs were wrong to attack the play without seeing it first, and he criticized their community standards argument. At the theatre company’s Annual General Meeting, just days before the play opened, he expressed equal outrage: “I say, back off! I say, let the ballots be counted at the box office! That’s the only censorship that I’m prepared to accept.”

Calgary’s reactions to the controversy were polarized; there were dozens of articles and editorials in the Calgary dailies extremely for or against. A conservative radio call-in show buzzed with furor, and ATP itself fielded a number of strange or hostile phone calls, including one who pledged to “shut the show down – we are not going to stand for it in this City.”

There were heartfelt published defenses of Angels in America too. A well-known educator, Dariel Bateman, wrote a guest column in the Calgary Herald on September 13th. She described the play as: “a glorious opportunity to stare down despair, to make sense of things, as we must.”

On of the most fascinating developments was when the Calgary Herald’s Don Martin managed to get protesting MLA Havelock to actually see the play with him. He summarized the experience in an article titled: Angels in America: The sequel: It’s easy to be a critic before the house lights dim, published on September 27th. As the play progressed, surprisingly Havelock became engrossed. At one point he felt compelled to spontaneously applaud; he loved it. He wrote, “thoroughly enjoyable” on a comment card before he left.

Alberta Report Cover, October 7, 1996.

The conservative and sometimes inflammatory publication, Alberta Report, made Angels in America its cover story on October 7th. It took the ATP promotional image of an angel and altered it for its cover, making it sickly: thinning muscles and adding skin legions.* Alberta Report writer Kevin Grace opined that Angels “is an artistic failure but it bears a powerful revolutionary message. While it elevates the belief current in the ‘AIDS community’ that victims of the disease are holy martyrs, homosexuals and AIDS victims are only one division of Mr. Kushner’s vaster army: one that seeks to destroy the very concept of the law – on earth and in heaven.”

He sensationally concluded his three-page article with: “those who see Angels in America as mere entertaining, diverting theatre, should know what they are getting into. In hell, the Marquis de Sade is smiling.”

Ultimately, ATP found themselves smiling. 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)

* Photographer Jason Stang filed a lawsuit against Alberta Report for altering his image claiming the publication: distorted, defaced and mutilated his work.