Is there such a thing as gay heritage? Canadian play searches for answers

Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, and Andrew Kushnir — the team behind The Gay Heritage Project — set out not only to uncover significant events from a gay history, but to ask whether these historical markers might shape a common understanding of a community's collective identity and a shared vision for the future.

Production heads to Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria in coming weeks

(Guntar Kravis)

Four years ago, three artists came together with one question: Is there such a thing as gay heritage?

Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, and Andrew Kushnir —  the team behind the acclaimed theatre production The Gay Heritage Project — set out not only to uncover significant events from gay history, but to ask whether these historical markers might shape a common understanding of a community's collective identity and a shared vision for the future.

"There's often very little if any record of gay history, so tracing a linear path was sort of impossible," Atkins says. "We knew from the start we couldn't create a comprehensive overview of the subject. Instead, we saw it as beginning the process of remembering."

Both the contemporary gay world's collective amnesia on their history and the challenges of researching them served to catalyze the process. While playing the gay son of a Nazi war criminal in Hannah Moscovitch's play East of Berlin in 2009, Dunn discovered Heinz Heger's book The Men with the Pink Triangle, which examines the persecution of homosexuals under the Third Reich. More upsetting for him than the atrocities committed was being confronted by his lack of knowledge on the subject.

There's often very little if any record of gay history, so tracing a linear path was sort of impossible.- Damien   Atkins  on the origins of The Gay Heritage Project

"I was surprised by the visceral outrage I felt," Dunn says. "It may have been because I came across the information in the context of theatrical research, but my first impulse was to reach out to Damien and Andrew to make something addressing that anger and confusion."

The team leapt into research mode, scouring archives and libraries for clues. They interviewed community elders and set up a booth at Toronto Pride, inviting passersby to share their thoughts on the subject. With their collection of notebooks, newspaper clippings and photos, they went into the studio and began developing material using vocal masque — a playfully athletic form of storytelling. Initially they created over four hours of content, which was then chiselled down to a succinct 90 minutes.

(Guntar Kravis)

The result is a collage of overlapping scenes, where each performer plays multiple characters. They step into The Wizard of Oz and put the HIV virus on trial, talk with a man in a concentration camp and perform an excerpt from figure skater Brian Orser's 1987 World Championship winning routine. Despite the material's weight, the piece is neither a monotonous soapbox speech nor a dour history lesson. The aim instead is to translate overwhelming and occasionally dry subject matter into a play that occupies a space between education and entertainment.

After an initial run in 2013 and now two sold out stints at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times, the trio are hitting the road with stops in Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria. They have continued to chase their subject, adding timely tweaks to the show such as Caitlyn Jenner's coming out and the implementation of marriage equality south of the border. Yet the answer to their initial question remains as elusive as ever.

"The play doesn't give any absolutes about whether gay heritage concretely exists," Kushnir says, "but what resonates with me is defending the right to search it."

"We've tried to present the work as an invitation, rather than a lecture," Atkins adds. "By portraying our own investigation into this question, we want to invite the audience to investigate it for themselves. As a piece of theatre, we've tried to make it as inclusive and pleasurable as possible. Even if it's not your heritage being examined, you might find links here and there, and hopefully have a great time in the process."

The Gay Heritage Project. Created and Performed by Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. Feb 10-27. The Citadel Theatre, Edmonton. Mar 2-19. The Cultch, Vancouver. Mar 22-26. The Belfry Theater, Victoria. 

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