Student bodies: This new Montreal play is an intimate exploration of queerness, sex and power
'The History of Sexuality' brings academic critical theory into the real world
Now that the group chants and matching outfits of frosh season are but a faded, hazy memory, the school year is in full swing — and the timing is fitting for Dane Stewart to launch his new play, The History of Sexuality, at Montreal's MainLine Theatre from September 21-30. The play, written and directed by Stewart, follows a five-person fall semester grad seminar at Concordia University, bringing its audience into the classroom as its cast of characters study the philosophy of French theorist Michel Foucault. Conversely, when Foucault's theories leave the classroom, the students begin to grapple with the complexities of sexuality and power in their own lives and relationships.
While this is an academically inviting premise on its own, it is Stewart's layered and elaborate writing process that is rather noteworthy. For the script, he used a writing technique he developed as part of his own Concordia Master's thesis, called "fictionalized verbatim theatre."
"How do you ethically write someone outside of your own experience?" he asks. "Most people are probably familiar with verbatim theatre and they don't even know it, like The Vagina Monologues or The Laramie Project. But those shows are documentary style — people on stage represented as themselves. In verbatim theatre, there's this ethos of truth, but the playwright has so much control over what they're including or excluding. I wanted to come up with a technique that would challenge that aura of truth, so I've fictionalized it."
To incorporate a range of Montreal-based queer histories and experiences into the show, Stewart ran focus groups centred on queerness and three themes: labour, social space and academia. This interview process, with queer Montrealers spanning in age from early 20s to mid-50s, provided Stewart with a wealth of information to work with. "Though the characters are fictional, they speak verbatim from the interviews," he says.
With queer plotlines, you often see people sensationalize or fixate on whatever is 'abnormal' in that person's identity. But I knew I could write a very real, intimate representation of that.- Dane Stewart, playwright
However, Stewart's interactions with interviewees did not end there, because the subjects had agency in how their words were used in the play. "We gave them the chance to read their testimonies, to give feedback. We invited them to a table read, and then to a staged draft. If they thought their dialogue was misrepresented, I met with them again to work on their representation."
Within these collaborative feedback loops between playwright and interviewee, issues of agency and representation were most challenged when dealing with the subject of sexual assault. Stewart explains, "I was using this poem as a metaphor for sexual assault. But our interviewee said, 'You represented all of these experiences, but the only poetic device you used is for a woman's sexual assault. You should be able to talk about what happened.' So we followed up with her and worked extensively on that monologue. Her audio testimony is played during the show." He notes that there will be a content advisory at the beginning of the production.
As the school semester progresses, the students' narrative arcs touch on contrasting experiences of depression and anxiety within the context of queer relationships, oppression, unemployment, disability, sex work, polyamory, shifting genderqueer identities, BDSM and pup play — the latter of which Stewart knows a thing or two about, given he holds the title of "IPC International Puppy 2018."
"This means I'm an advocate for the human pup play community, working to support those interested in pup play, and demystifying kink to the general public," he explains.
Stewart is also the creator of Voices in Leather, an oral history project included in the 2017 edition of Fierté Montréal Pride. Eventually, he hopes to turn this work — which documents the history of the Montreal leather scene — into a podcast.
While pup play features as one of the characters' plotlines in The History of Sexuality, Stewart remarks that it is by no means the defining plotline. "He's my window into the show. Pup play is something I engage in and have incidentally been public about, so I know I can write it well. I can write about the intimacy of that relationship better than I've seen it represented. With queer plotlines, you often see people sensationalize or fixate on whatever is 'abnormal' in that person's identity. But I knew I could write a very real, intimate representation of that."
The History of Sexuality. Written and directed by Dane Stewart. September 21-30. Mainline Theatre, Montreal. www.mainlinetheatre.ca