Spite and sperm donation: One comedian's misadventures in bringing his story to the screen
Shawn Hitchins on the hilarious missteps of turning his one-man show 'Ginger Nation' into a live recording
I'm not prepared to see my face stretched across an enormous cinema screen. I'm just not.
And I'm not prepared for strangers to see me sweat profusely in a tight close-up shot. (I sweat a lot on stage, and magnifying and projecting that reality for a paying audience means swallowing a whole new level of humility.) Even though the QuickTime file of my film sat idle on my hard drive for almost a year, I'm not emotionally ready for it to be screened this Sunday at Inside Out.
This project was beyond personal.
When I shot my one-man show Ginger Nation with Mitch Fillion of Southern Souls last April, I had no plans for distribution. My only goal was to get the show captured on film so that I could move on to other projects (or quit the business entirely).
My intentions in shooting the project were one hundred per cent motivated by spite — not to be confused with the more noble terms "despite" or "in spite of". There was no fine line. Sure, the show chronicles my two-year journey as a sperm donor to a lesbian couple. And OK, it has an important social message about LGBTQ parenting; what it means as a gay man to have a biological child; the emotional grey area of sperm donation, and how to defy the odds using a turkey baster. And yes, it's a hilarious and heartfelt, award-winning, critically acclaimed production. Sure! That's all true...on the surface. Underneath, my reasoning was plain ol' fashioned ginger-haired-fiery-tempered spite — and I was hell-bent on my mission.
I had endured two years of unrelenting career hell with nothing to show for it but disappointment. My long-term relationship fell apart and my touring debt soared out of control after my career was stunted and sidelined by a botched film and TV development deal. On top of that, I lost a portion of my vocabulary trying to broker myself through U.S. Homeland Security to perform at a gay cabaret in New York. I owed a manuscript to my publisher. And my gorgeous Italian chiropractor suggested that the various stresses in my life were quickly killing me.
My intentions in shooting the project were one hundred per cent motivated by spite — not to be confused with the more noble terms 'despite' or 'in spite of'.- Shawn Hitchins, comedian
Filming the show was my giant middle finger to the "gatekeepers" of the Canadian film and television — and comedy — industries; a huge up-yours to the executives who scoffed in conference calls, "Why would we spend $100,000 on you when it will only sell for $11 in Poland?" As a gay Canadian writer and entertainer, my target audience are the good people of Poland? I've toured this show to three different countries. I know audiences. Expertly-performed mimed masturbation in slow motion is a universal truth.
I decided to go rogue after listening to Hollywood creator Brian Grazer on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. "It doesn't have to be good — it just has to exist," he explained. The co-founder of Imagine Entertainment and genius behind the 80s mermaid rom-com Splash argued that whether a creative property "is good or not" is subjective — a matter of personal taste or opinion. However, no one can argue whether a property (a film, a book, a song, a play) exists or not. Either it does or does not. And the idea I'd had for a live recording didn't yet exist. It was an obsessive thought that weighed on me night and day, turning a personal show that I loved performing into a heavy burden.
I lost a portion of my vocabulary trying to broker myself through U.S. Homeland Security to perform at a gay cabaret in New York. I owed a manuscript to my publisher. And my gorgeous Italian chiropractor suggested that the various stresses in my life were quickly killing me.- Shawn Hitchins, comedian
So, I shot my own live recording and financed the entire production using a ridiculous formula no creative accountant or funding body could fathom: I rented out a venue, sold tickets to two back-to-back performances, sourced a camera crew and offered an open bar.
I overshared my experience in an essay titled "Operation Clementine" and the shows sold out in less than a week. I befriended Fillion and convinced him to jump on board. I sewed props, built set pieces, sourced my own wardrobe from a consignment store, applied my own makeup and set up a bar. Then, I walked out on stage with my fly open and my belt buckle unlatched in front of a supportive audience. (Note: there is no way of casually zipping up your pants in front of four HD cameras and a live audience without it upstaging your act.)
I have always loved live recordings. For me, a live recording documents the temporary moments that occur in small clubs and theatres. They capture a moment of energy shared between an audience and a performer while exposing the idiosyncrasies of live performance (the mistakes, the flubs, the dry coughs, the improv, the hecklers, the accidental flashings).
Now, whether my live recording lives up to Sandra Bernhard's experimental Without You I'm Nothing or Ellen Degeneres' seminal The Beginning is subjective.
But my recording exists.
And that is something I couldn't say a year ago.
Ginger Nation. Written, directed and performed by Shawn Hitchins. Inside Out. May 28. Toronto. www.insideout.ca