Sky Gilbert is no stranger to controversy. He's used the theatre to rail against social mores, such as conservative attititudes about sex and traditional notions of gender. Now, the Hamilton playwright and provocateur has a new target. Opening on Thursday at Artword Artbar, his latest work Naked Hamilton takes aim at what he identifies as another disturbing trend: gentrification in downtown Hamilton.
CBC Hamilton sent Gilbert a set of questions by e-mail, hoping for no-holds-barred responses. He didn't disappoint. Here's his (mostly unedited) reply:
For how long have you been living and working in Hamilton and what drew you to the city in the first place?
I have been living here for nearly 10 years. I came here with my partner. Like many, we were drawn to the inexpensive real estate values. But we were also drawn to Hamilton because it's an unpretentious working-class town. After running a gay theatre in Toronto for 17 years, I wanted the opportunity to get away from it all, but especially from the too-expensive, upper-middle-class, condo-ized lifestyle in Toronto.
I'm a writer and though I like to be around people, I'm somewhat of a loner (I know, it's odd). But it's the business-oriented, success-oriented city that turned me off in Toronto. In Hamilton we have real neighbourhoods with real people who are not "on their way up." They are either just surviving or enjoying life for what it is, not for how much money they can make by exploiting others, or for how they might make it up the corporate ladder.
The promotional material for Naked Hamilton says that though the city's changed, "much remains the same." In what ways has Hamilton remained the same, and why are those things important to acknowledge?
Hamilton is still a working-class town. Though the work has changed from the steel sector to the healthcare sector, Hamilton still has a lot of poor and working people who struggle to survive. Though there is gentrification on Locke and James, there is still an honesty and brashness that characterizes working-class life. Working-class people lack the hypocrisy of middle-class people. Racism, sexism and homophobia are universal; middle class people try to pretend they are over them, but working-class people still honestly state their prejudices instead of hiding them.
I don't respect racism, sexism and homophobia, but I respect a culture that is at least honest about what it really thinks. Hamilton should embrace its no-nonsense, common-sense honesty, its Goths, its tattoos, its kinky people, its shaved heads, its hookers, its motorcycles. These are all lovely things that come out of working-class culture.
At least ostensibly, the city seems to have become more hospitable to the arts. How do you reconcile your discomfort with how the city's changed with that fact that you work as an artist in a city that's becoming better-known for its vibrant arts community?
Your question displays (if you will excuse me) a common misunderstanding of gentrification. Let me see if I can help. Artists move into neighborhoods that have cheap rents (as I have done) and do their work in cheap studios (as I have done). This is because they don't have a lot of money to do their work, and they want to create. They are not gentrifiers, although they may unwittingly be the first step in gentrification. What happens next is that people who are interested in making a buck see that artists have changed the face of the neighbourhood and decide to take advantage of that to buy up cheap properties — not to work and create art, but to make money. They then buy property, raise rents and kick the artists (and the poor) out. They are the gentrifiers.
I'm doing what I always do, creating art. People will try and make money out of that and everything because this is a capitalist society. I teach at a university to keep body and soul together because I don't have a hope in hell of making money from my art.
Who is your target audience for this play? What do you hope they take away from it?
Anybody. The play will speak hopefully to my barber (who is coming) and to my colleagues at the University [of Guelph] (who are coming, too). I hope my work gives people a glimpse of real life — of shysters, church ladies and local drunks — and reminds them that death and sex are a very important part of life, that we ignore death and sex at our peril. Like all my work, it sits in an odd place between entertainment and ideas, between bawdy and real, between funny and tragic. My work is not really classifiable, other than it's usually somewhat funny and usually has a lot to do with sex. But if you create characters that you love, almost anybody can relate to the work.
I can tell you who won't like it: gentrifiers, very ambitious, pretentious upper-class people, members of the religious right and people who hate sex. Everybody else should probably have a good time.
If the city as a whole could take a path of your choosing, what would it be?
I think I said it. Don't try to be Toronto or anyone else. Just be Hamilton; that means being honest, which is a good thing.
Naked Hamilton runs from Thursday until Sunday and Nov. 22 until Nov. 25 at Artword Artbar (15 Colbourne St.). For showtimes and ticket information, go to artword.net/artbar or call the venue at 905-543-8512.