Arts·Queeries

This heartbreaking story of the impact of AIDS on Vancouver theatre reminds us to honour our heroes

There are so many moments we need to remember from the onset of the AIDS crisis — and this podcast guides us to one.

There are so many moments we need to remember from the onset of the AIDS crisis. This podcast guides us to one

Robert McQueen in the 1980s, taken by his friend Corrine Koslo. (Corrine Koslo)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

"Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals." That was the headline of a New York Times article that ran on July 3, 1981, bringing the syndrome that would come to be known as AIDS into mass public consciousness for the first time (though this should not be considered as the "40th anniversary" of AIDS — extensive research has suggested it existed at least as early as the 1960s). 

Canadian theatre director and dramaturge Robert McQueen was living in New York City at the time, having moved from Vancouver the year prior. And over this past year and a half of surviving a very different global health crisis, McQueen used his time in social isolation to remember and reflect on his experiences during that era.

"I had gone to New York very specifically to study and to go to school," McQueen says. "And so in the writing that I've been doing over the past year, it's really been digging into those stories and those memories of very small events, very singular events. My memory of the first article in The New York Times that mentioned the medical profession's concerned about this strange illness that they were starting to see — I really specifically remember that and where I was and what was happening and why I was reading it."

This is one of the many memories McQueen shares in the third episode of Andrew Kushnir's extensive and quite extraordinary new podcast series, This Is Something Else: Consciously Eclectic Histories of the Arts Club. The investigative podcast, produced by the Arts Club Theatre Company and created by documentary theatre-maker Kushnir, looks at Canada's largest urban theatre company, Vancouver's cultural scene over five decades and, ultimately, the future of theatre in this country.

The episode featuring McQueen takes an unflinching look at how the AIDS crisis of intersected with the theatre ecology. 

Promo for the podcast This is Something Else. (Arts Club)

"If I'm going to, as an artist, engage with history or heritage or lineage or legacy, I'm really interested in what's in between the lines," Kushnir says. "And certainly this story in episode three around how the AIDS epidemic deeply impacted, gravely impacted our theatre community — that's not something I've heard a lot about. It's not a story that I had been exposed to it in any great detail prior to this project."

It's unfortunately not a story many of us have been exposed to if we didn't live it ourselves, though Kushnir's research and the podcast that resulted from it has helped change that.

Kushnir recalls a moment in his research at the Vancouver City Archives when he was looking through various items in their holdings that pertained to theatre.

"I came across this image from production of this play called As Is by William H. Hoffman. And this play, it had its premiere on Broadway in 1985," he says. "It comes in just before The Normal Heart. In fact, I think it's a kind of the first mainstream AIDS play. And I find this picture in the archives and I'm like, 'Holy shit, I know that guy.' And it was Robert McQueen. Robert was in this image with this other very handsome guy. And so I reached out to him."

The "other very handsome guy" in the photo would turn out to be John Ormerod, who co-starred with McQueen in the 1986 Vancouver production of As Is.

Robert McQueen and friends: L-R John Ormerod, Robert McQueen, Andy Rhodes, Corrine Koslo. (Robert McQueen)

"For me, any kind of access point or entry point into a kind of queer heritage conversation, I'm so up for it," says Kushnir. "I invariably find that form of encounter so nourishing and humbling and a really good reminder of where my privileges come from, where my space comes from. And so I wanted to talk to Robert about that photograph initially. I just wanted to get to know what that experience was for him in the show, but also like, who is this other guy in the photo? And in this podcast episode, we talk about John Ormerod a lot."

McQueen had just moved back to Vancouver, after five years living in the epicentre of the AIDS crisis in New York City, when he accepted a part opposite Ormerod in As Is.

"They're lovers in a play," Kushnir says of McQueen and Ormerod. "But Robert is also housing a kind of first love for this man, this other actor. And so there's just these layers upon layers that I found deeply fascinating. It really highlighted for me how much artists are these kinds of messengers. They're sort of bringing these messages from their life into the theatre. And an audience could be sitting there and they're going, 'Wow, this is so moving or so raw or so dangerous.' And they don't necessarily know why."

There was a period where all of us were going to several funerals a month. And there were people within the theatre community. There were so many people who were really pivotal people in that community who died.- Robert McQueen

In Robert's case, what blew Kushnir's mind was that "he was holding New York City in his body."

"He had been there from the onset of the epidemic in New York. He lost an incredible number of friends, an incredible number of people that had taken him under their wing — like whole choruses of musicals on Broadway that he had befriended, that one by one evaporated."

Another thing that struck Kushnir about the Vancouver production of As Is was how quickly it was mounted on the heels of iys New York run.

"It's quite a daring bit of programming by Bill Millerd [who, after founding Arts Club, spent 46 years guiding its artistic direction]. It's like really him, I think, processing the early impacts of the AIDS crisis on Vancouver and going, 'I know this is going to be a challenging play for my audiences, but we need to be talking about this.' And it was a challenging play."

McQueen remembers that were multiple walk-outs during the run of the show at The Arts Club's Seymour Street Stage. 

"I think I said to Andrew [that] I was impressed because you really couldn't make a quiet exit out of the Seymour Street," he laughs. "You kind of had to walk in front of the stage to get out of there. And people would make very visible exits if they left."

A flyer for the 1986 production of As Is at the Seymour St. Stage in Vancouver. (Andrew Kushnir)

McQueen also recalled the period after the production of As Is, when too many people in the community — including Ormerod — would pass on due to complications from AIDS.

"There was a period where all of us were going to several funerals a month," he says. "And there were people within the theatre community. There were so many people who were really pivotal people in that community who died. Of course, the two Johnny's, Ormerod and Moffat, were two dear friends. They died six months apart."

"But theatre continued. People kept doing things. There were shows that were created that that specifically were dealing with what was happening. But there was also just the force of how sometimes it felt like we were in a war zone. We just had to keep our heads down and try to stay clear."

There was one specific memory that stands out for McQueen, when he hadn't heard from Ormerod for a couple of days and couldn't reach him on the phone.

"He was living out in Deep Cove, which is very pretty," he says. "But nobody should actually live out there. It's just too fucking far away. And at that time, it was absurd that he was there with his health condition. He lived down at the base of about 10,000 steps! It was right at the edge of the water. And I mean, it was glorious when you looked out the window. But I finally just drove by one day and when I walked in he was there in bed. And I said, 'What is happening?' And he said, 'Sorry, I'm just not really well.' And so I stayed with him for a couple of days and went shopping and cooked for him. And then at one point it was clear he was not getting better. And I said, 'Johnny, I can't I can't do this, we have to take you to a hospital.' And he didn't want to go."

Despite what McQueen describes as a "sudden monsoon" outside, he wrapped Ormerod in a blanket and started to carry him.

"I'm carrying him up the steps to get to the street level so I can put him in my car and we can go to the hospital. And I said, 'You will not be returning to this house. I'm not doing this a second time.' But I got him to the hospital and checked him in. I only lived a block and a half away so I was able to just go home from there. But I remember just sitting in my apartment that night and thinking, like, how do you deal with that when you're you're 30 years old? How do we process this?"

Andrew Kushnir in podcaster mode. (Andrew Kushnir)

Kushnir says that before making the podcast, he had never really thought about how "so many men and women and anybody who survived that era would be carrying this trauma."

"I hope that people can appreciate that among us are these incredible survivors and we've got to listen to them," he says. "We've got to honour them. They are the carriers of incredible knowledge that enriches us all and rattles us, I think, from like the dangers of complacency. There's a toxicity that has crept into some aspects of gay culture or particularly cis white male gay culture. And I think that hearing these stories, I feel dislodged from complacency. I'm reminded that we've got to look out for each other. And there's so many heroes that that came before us."

Like Robert McQueen and John Ormerod, and so many others.

Listen to This Is Something Else: Consciously Eclectic Histories of the Arts Club here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2020s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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