This new play queering small towns offers something we all need a little more of: optimism
Mark Crawford's Bed and Breakfast features two actors — a real-life couple — playing 22 different characters
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Like many queer Torontonians, Brett and Drew — the couple at the heart of Mark Crawford's new play Bed and Breakfast — are questioning whether the frustrations of city life are worth it. Unlike many queer Torontonians, however, they find themselves with a seemingly easy way out: they inherit a big heritage home in a small tourist town.
"As the play begins, they've just lost their seventh bidding war on a house in Toronto and they're both frustrated with their careers," Crawford tells CBC Arts. "They decide to take the plunge: move to this town, renovate and open a B&B. Of course, they soon find out the simple life ain't so simple."
The comedic play features 22 characters — although only two actors. Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia, in addition to playing Brett and Drew, perform as everyone else we meet on stage: family, friends, guests at the B&B, teenagers, old people, little kids, men, women, everybody. They also, as it turns out, are a couple in real life.
"First and foremost, Gregory and Paolo are both really great actors — funny, smart, open-hearted, curious, honest, and really adept at this kind of quick multi-character performance style," Crawford says. "It's a joy to work with them and have them do this show. The fact that they're a couple is an added bonus!"
Crawford himself performed a few previous iterations of Bed and Breakfast with his own real-life partner, Paul Dunn.
"I love performing it with Paul," he says. "There's an ease, comfort and chemistry we have as partners that we can bring to the stage. Plus, we both get to be working and together in the same city."
As for Prest and Santalucia, Crawford was overjoyed watching them bring their own "chemistry, quirks and love" to the show.
"Obviously, they aren't Brett and Drew — neither are me and Paul — but the central relationship of the play comes very naturally to them," he says. "It's a blessing. This way, they can spend that time and energy figuring out the other 20 characters."
Crawford feels that just knowing you're watching a real-life couple onstage can add something to the experience.
"Audiences get to see straight couples act together all the time," he says. "At Soulpepper, I've seen Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk act opposite each other countless times; they're both brilliant actors, but there's something extra special about their work together. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another time I've seen a real-life gay couple play a couple on stage, so I think this is exciting. I think audiences will get a kick out of seeing Gregory and Paolo together in Bed and Breakfast."
When it comes to the inspiration for the plot itself, Crawford spent several summers working as an actor in towns like the one in the play. He also grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario.
"I have a real connection to small town life," he says. "And in the years before I wrote the play, I came across several news stories about queer folks living outside of urban centres. Some of the stories were positive and affirming: small towns having their first Pride, successful businesses run gay people, rural high schools starting a Gay-Straight Alliance."
But some of those stories were darker and more troubling, like ones about homophobia, hate crimes and people feeling like they struggled with being out in their communities — or about the pushback to those noted Pride festivals, gay-owned businesses and GSAs.
"I felt like there was a lot to be explored in the LGBTQ experience outside of the city limits — and maybe there was a play in there not only for gay audiences, but for everyone."
Crawford also wanted to write play about gay men that didn't end tragically.
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I love Angels in America, The Normal Heart and Hosanna, but I think part of me longed for a story about gay guys that get to be...ya know...happy. That's not to say Bed and Breakfast is just a happy play about happy gays — it's not. They struggle, they have some serious ups and downs, their relationship is not perfect, but — spoiler alert! — they make it out alive."
He also hopes audiences make it out more than just alive but also — without giving anything away — with a sense of that all-too-rare feeling as of late: optimism.
"The play offers up the idea that maybe this is actually a great time to be alive as a queer person," he says. "And maybe things will continue to change, evolve and get better. I don't think that's me being a Pollyanna. There is darkness and negativity in the world. There is work to be done. There are queer people here at home and around the world that don't have it easy. But I also think it's a powerful thing to stand up and say: 'Hey everybody, we're going to be OK.'"
Bed and Breakfast. Written by Mark Crawford. Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr. Until September 2. Soulpepper Theatre, Toronto.