Sunday, 16 April 2017

I Disagree With You, J. Kelly

First of all I want to say this: I am very pleased J. Kelly Nestruck exists. It’s heartening to know someone is writing a column in a major newspaper about  theories of the theatre. In this bottom-line, mega-corporate, digitally dominated world, the fact that a heterosexual male holding a position of power is interested in debating aesthetics gives me hope.
That said, I must take issue with all this talk about ‘liveness.’ J. Kelly, like Jordan Tannahill before him (in his recent book Theatre of the Unimpressed) is intent on stressing the seemingly statutory imperative of the day -- that all theatrical performances must acknowledge that they are ‘live,’ and that we must immediately cease attempting to suspend our disbelief. 
Respectfully, I disagree. 
I am certainly tired of having ‘liveness’ stuffed down my throat. I saw two productions last week in which an actor from the play stepped forward at the end and spoke directly to us to remind us that we were watching a play. One of the plays was fabulous, the other was not -- this device didn’t stop me from enjoying the one play and hating the other -- but I am just dreadfully tired of a technique that has become trendy but doesn’t make sense.
At the heart of this discussion is the fallacious notion that there is such a thing as ‘reality’ in the theatre. The notion that if we are watching actors who are playing themselves or who -- as is mentioned in J. Kelly’s recent article -- even bother to acknowledge that they are acting in a play, then we are watching something that is more ‘real’ than a play in which actors are playing fictional characters saying made-up lines. But why would anyone think actors onstage are ever being real? Let’s leave aside the ultra-loaded post-modernist question (What is real?), or the issue of whether or not we are ever ‘real in real life. As soon as people walk onstage and perform, they are doing something fake. They are, at the very least, being themselves for ‘public consumption,’ and in this era of celebrity worship we know exactly what that means. Let me tell you, I know a lot of actors personally, and as much as I love them, they are masters at keeping you away from what they are really thinking -- because they are, well -- actors. That’s their job.
As far as I’m concerned, Brecht took the whole matter as far as it can go. Everyone loves the notion that we are improving, that our theatre is getting more and more ‘real’. But though Brecht acknowledged a play could alternately engage you and alienate you, that actors might step in and out of their parts -- he never completely abandoned plot, or the notion of fiction or characters. He was smart enough to know it was folly to imagine that theatre could ever be ‘real.’
When directors create what they think is the ultimate ‘reality’ in theatre it usually ends up feeling a lot like group therapy.
There is no craft. (I know, I mentioned that horrible word, craft).
Anyway, pillory me if you like, or just ignore me (which is most likely) or call me old-fashioned (which many have done before).

But I’m awfully tired of ‘liveness.’

Saturday, 1 April 2017

What’s Wrong With Theatre

There’s something wrong with theatre these days.
There are two, maybe ten people turning up sometimes. Is it because the plays are bad? Or is it because the audiences are stupid?
I’ve long enjoyed bashing audiences. And as condo-dwellers take over the downtown core and we all becomes more suburban, I can’t help noticing that audiences are becoming stupider.There’s not much we can do about that. Kinky Boots sure seems experimental for those whose main entertainment diet consists of Batman and Cinderella.
But I’m not going to complain about Toronto audiences here; I’m going to complain about the plays.
After all, a really good play can tempt even the most complacent suburban patron to leave the house.
But the plays these days are dull. No wonder people aren’t going.
In Theatre of the Unimpressed, Jordan Tannahill makes the case that the best theatre emphasizes its liveness. 
I think liveness is important, but you can be as ‘live’ as you want, and still devise a bad play 
These days, from the moment a play starts you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Period. And I’m not talking about melodrama, or ‘whodunnit.’ I’m talking about the moral issues that a good play might choose to debate, present, or hide as subtext.
These days plays are about oppression, or wrongdoing, or evil, and the author always tells us who the oppressors, wrongdoers or evildoers are.
So where’s he moral suspense?
Where’s he dangerous fun?
We don’t know much about Shakespeare; but we do know he could write a great play. And it isn’t so much that Shakespeare isn’t interested in ideas or opinions (actually his plays contain lots them) it’s that he mastered one of the most important principles of classical rhetoric:
Never let the audience know where your real sympathies lie.
A great debater can convincingly argue both sides of the abortion issue; a great playwright can make us believe that any character -- even Macbeth, Richard III or Iago  is still somewhat sympathetic.
Bad plays aren’t going to stop me from going to the theatre; believe me, I love all theatre, no matter how bad it is.

But if we’re going to lure Toronto audiences away from Broadway pap, we’re going to have to do better than that.

Thursday, 16 March 2017


Dear Stephen Sondheim,

 I'm writing this because I was sitting on the bus this afternoon listening to Barbra Streisand sing ‘Send in The Clowns’ on my ‘Best of’ Barbra Streisand album. Now usually, when I’m listening to anyone sing ‘Send in the Clowns’ I can’t get Elizabeth Taylor from the movie version out of my head. You know that moment Steve (can I call you Steve, like Oscar Hammerstein used to?) --  that moment when Elizabeth Taylor gazes down at her own humungous breasts in that terrifyingly low-cut gown and inquires “Are we a pair?”
But today it was another lyric that struck me --
“Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer? Losing my timing, this late in my career?”
Okay, I’ll say it.
Why, oh why Steve, did you have to use the word ‘queer’? I mean couldn’t you have written --
“Isn’t it rich? Isn’t odd? Losing my timing this late in my job?”
Hm. I guess that’s not quite as good.
Maybe that’s why you’re Stephen Sondheim and I’m not.
But you see the point is Steve that there are loads of words that rhyme with ‘career’. The problem with queer is that it doesn’t just mean ‘odd’ it also means ‘homosexual.’ And I’m sure you’re aware of this Steve -- as you are gay -- a lot of little gay boys just love your musicals. And when they run to their parents to play them their favourite song they have to watch as Dad winces when Barbra (Elizabeth Taylor, or Glynis Johns) sings ‘isn’t it queer’ thinking ‘Oh no, Dad knows what that means. It!’
Now I could understand if you don’t want to do this right now. Maybe you don’t want to change the lyric at this late date.
I mean after all, A Little Night Music is kind of a masterpiece, and all.
But, wait.
I have another idea.
There’s still time for you to write that big, gay musical! (Jerry Herman did it!) I mean do you want to die (sorry to bring that up, really I am, but-) without writing your  big gay ‘opus’? You don’t want to end up like Edward Albee, do you? Gay, dead and no gay opus?
I wouldn’t think so.
I hope I haven’t offended you.
It was...well it was just a suggestion.
And I hope I didn’t step out of bounds by calling you Steve, Mr. Sondheim.
It’s just that after hearing your work I just feel we are so close.
Very Sincerely,
Sky Gilbert

Saturday, 11 March 2017


I eagerly attended the documentary about James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro. I was especially excited because Baldwin has always been somewhat of a hero for me; a gay misfit whose iconic and beautiful gay novel Giovanni’s Room changed so many lives.
Well lo and behold, as I sat through the flic I became more and more befuddled. Had I imagined it? Was James Baldwin actually straight? He certainly doesn’t talk about his gayness in this particular documentary -- although at one point in the movie Baldwin answers someone’s accusation that he was a homosexual (without speaking of being gay).
So just to set the record straight (or should I say crooked?): James Baldwin was gay. Or perhaps to be completely accurate, I should say he was homosexual (as the term ‘gay’ didn’t come into common parlance until the end of his life). His sex life was somewhat complicated by the fact that he was quite effeminate and not beautiful in a traditional way. Also, his preference was for straight and bisexual men. The love of Baldwin’s life was Lucien Happsberger, a 17 year old, white, bisexual Swiss artist whom Baldwin met in Paris. Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room (published in 1956) tells a very tragic -- some might say discouraging -- gay tale; but no one could argue that it was not enormously revolutionary for its time.
So why make a documentary about Baldwin and ignore the fact that he was gay?
The most obvious answer is homophobia. It would appear that anti-racists are afraid of muddying their cause by bringing sexuality into the discussion. If you are trying to convince racists in a homophobic society that black people are okay it might hurt your argument to admit that some black men are gay.
However, the buck doesn’t stop with I Am Not Your Negro. The film is just one of many instances of race trumping sexuality. When someone is black and gay it seems to be more important to talk about racism than homophobia.
I heard via the grapevine that the Academy Award winning film Moonlight was a film about a gay black man. I went to see it, and outside of one brief scene of adolescent masturbation the leading characters are unable to come to terms with their sexuality; as adults they can hardly speak of their teenage shenanigans, and they barely touch. The website rogerebert.comsays the film is about “a boy and then a man who has trouble figuring out his place in the world.” Elsewhere I have seen the film described as being about ‘friendship.’
I am (as you may have guessed) a white gay man. Some will say that I don’t have any right to talk about this because I don’t understand what it means to be black. I will accept the latter but not the former. 
Believe me, I don’t want to write about this. But someone has to.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

It’s Time to Break the Silence Around PrEP

Have you heard about PrEP?

Well if you have, you could be forgiven for being confused.

PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a drug that stops HIV negative people from becoming infected with HIV. Simply put, if you are HIV negative and you take it and then have sex with someone HIV positive who is not wearing protection, it is highly unlikely that you will become infected with HIV.

But exactly what you know about PrEP depends a lot on where you get your information.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation says that “for people who take 7 PrEP pills per week, their estimated level of protection is 99%”

Sounds great! I’m gonna get some PrEP!
But wait....

The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta says “Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%.”

Hm...that doesn’t sound quite as good. 

And what does Toronto’s own associate officer of medical health Dr. Rita Shahin say? “People on PrEP … could be more likely to acquire STIs because they may not be using condoms.”

Gee Whiz. Thanks for the useful information, Rita!

What is going on here? What is the conspiracy of silence -- which is really a conspiracy of lies -- surrounding a drug that could change our lives? Why is it that the only time we hear about PrEP on CBC is when a doctor is advising us not to take it? PrEP is a major breakthrough in the fight against AIDS. HIV negative people can now protect themselves from being HIV positive. Why isn’t this news being shouted from the rooftops? 

Most importantly, why aren’t gay men happy about PrEP and why aren’t they ‘spreading the news’? 

Could it be guilt? Could it be shame? Could it be that all these years of people telling us that AIDS is God’s punishment for our sexuality has actually made us hate ourselves? I understand that PrEP doesn’t protect against Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and Hepatitis, and people should still wear condoms.  But that is a separate issue.


Is there some reason why no one seems to want people to know about the effectiveness of PrEP?

It’s a question that plagues me. 
And honestly, I’m very afraid of the answer.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

‘Titus Burgess on Laundry and Love’

Have you ever heard of Titus Burgess? I had not seen nor heard of him until, recently, I happened on a horrible commercial that features him. Let me say right off the bat that Burgess is a very talented actor (and I’m sure, singer) and none of this is his his fault. I don’t hold him responsible; he was offered a high paying gig and he took it.
I do, however, hold our homophobic culture responsible. 
The offending commercial can be found at .
In this commercial, Titus Burgess extols the virtues of -- of all things --  Unstopables In-Wash Scent Boosters by Downy. 
Please do rush out and buy these pretty little beads so you can drop them effortlessly into your wash.
Titus Burgess is a large, effeminate, out, gay black man. But it should be evident to anyone that he is gay because he has made somewhat of a career being Broadway’s premiere ‘gay’ actor/singer. Wikipedia tells us that he is known for his high tenor voice. In 2013 he performed "And I Am Telling You..." from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising concert. He was the first male cast as The Witch in Into the Woods in 2015. 
Let me tell you, nothing could be gayer than Titus Burgess.
So let there be no doubt that Titus Burgess -- being the only out gay Broadway star I’ve ever heard of besides Nathan Lane -- is, in this Downey commercial, meant to represent all gay men, since -- when was the last time you saw a real gay man playing a gay man in a commercial, anyway?
In this detestable ad Titus says “Downey Unstopables last up to twelve weeks -- which is longer than any relationship I’ve ever been in!”  Then he cries. That is, he cries fake tears about his inability to maintain a long-term relationship.
I know what you’re thinking. Can’t I take a joke?
In a word, no. What if there was a joke in a commercial about how Asian men have small penises? Or about how women aren’t very good at math? These ‘jokes’ might be funny to some people but that wouldn’t stop me from finding them offensive.
Just to set the record straight, what this commercial is saying about gay relationships is not true. Have you looked at the heterosexual divorce rate in the USA? Basically one third of marriages will end in divorce. Gay marriage, in fact, holds a much greater promise of success than straight marriage because we queers tend to be more honest about infidelity than straights; some of us even admit to having open relationships, or champion polyamory.
I have to say it’s disheartening to see the old gay stereotypes trotted out once again in 2017. Has nothing changed? And this commercial is not just homophobic but racist. Downy thinks the ‘exotic’ quality of a black man will help us to tolerate his flamboyant gayness (blacks are very, well - flamboyant, don’t you know?)
This commercial is homophobic and racist and should be off the air.

Thursday, 2 February 2017


If you’re like me, you’re tired of those gorgeous young people stepping forward to stand and deliver those sappy, untuneful songs from RENT, reducing us all to tears with their mundane stories about pretty dying drag queens who -- conveniently for all of us -- have had very few lines to say and very few gay kisses to share onstage.
If you’re like me, you’re hoping that RENT -- that smarmfull heap of sentimental liberal garbage -- written so that middle class people can congratulate themselves on how much they care about the poor and the sick -- will never be produced in Toronto again (especially at the actor-exploiting Lower Ossington Theatre).
Because, unfortunately, RENT has now come to Toronto for real. Apparently THE STOREFRONT THEATRE has been kicked out of it’s downtown digs, where it has been providing challenging Toronto theatre fare for years, because of (what’s he excuse?) oh yes, fire regulations.
Right. If the City of Toronto and the Government of Ontario care so much about fires, why don’t they give the TAC and the OAC enough money to fund THE STOREFRONT THEATRE so that they can bring their old space up to code? Instead these governments are complicit in destroying Toronto’s most vital performance spaces.
I’ll tell you what the problem is. People are moving to downtown Toronto so that they can be a part of a vital culturally exciting city that nurtures the arts, right? But what happens when there is no vital culturally exciting arts city anymore -- because real artists can’t afford to live and work there?
I don’t know how to tell you this, but not everybody is old and rich -- which means that not everyone prefers to hobble to their seat at the Opera, the Ballet and Soulpepper.
Not everyone is a young trendy Annex family that wants their ‘experimental’ French Canadian dance/theatre piece at Canstage to be over by 9 pm so they can hurry home for a cup of cacao-free cocoa.
No. Some of us want to drink and stay out all night, and yes -- get laid. And to facilitate all that, we want the theatre to be stimulating, perhaps shocking, and perhaps even cause us just a little  bit of very sexy discomfort (there’s nothing like a little friction to turn you on!).
I fondly remember Brandon Crone’s foray into gay kink -- NATURE OF THE BEAST that featured a sexy boy tied up in the basement. I remember Tyrone Savage directing his own parents in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF -- if that’s not perverted, what is? I remember a lot of other shocking, groundbreaking productions at STOREFRONT, and some of them were actually Canadian.
The Storefront theatre is now looking for a new home -- and I sure hope they find it. But what if they don’t? And what if they can’t afford the new space? And what is happening to the small theatre community in this town? Does anybody care?
Think of that the next time you’re crying your salty tears for Angel in RENT and patting yourself on the back for caring about the arts community by going to see a stinking pile of hypocritical crap for the thousandth time!
Yeah. Think about it.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Will Shakespeare Go Out of Style?

Today I was trying to figure out what movie to see and I googled the reviews for Trespass Against Us, a new flick in which Michael Fassbender appears shirtless.  This seemed to me to be a good reason to go see it, in any case (by the way, it’s a great movie!). But Rotten Tomatoes made it very clear that I should not go to see it because the leading characters were amoral. All the more reason to go, I thought -- amoral, shirtless guys -- I can’ imagine anything more lovely!
But it did get me to thinking.It seems to me that panning a film because it does not improve us sets a bad precedent. Is a work’s didacticism the measure of its success? Apparently it is these days. People seem to think artists should base their work on real incidents and true stories, and deal with big issues like child trafficking, and the murder of aboriginal women. I am all for politicians and journalists tackling these important subjects, but it has never seemed to me that great art comes from moralizing.
I predict that in a few years Shakespeare will fall from his exalted position as the penultimate Western literary genius for one reason alone: his work is singularly amoral. This may be why his plays were so neglected for more than a century after after his death. Unlike his contemporaries Spenser and Sydney, Shakespeare’s work is devoid of overt Christian preaching, neglecting to take a stand on the most important issue of his day. One critic calledTrespass Against Us a ‘violent drama about [an] unlikable criminal family.’ The same of course, could be said of Hamlet. And no relationship would have been considered quite as immoral, in Renaissance times, than the affair between Antony and Cleopatra -- she a whore; and he ‘unmanned’ by her sly womanly wiles. Yet Shakespeare devoted an entire tragedy to this notorious twosome whose only possibility of redemption was in his poetry.
It isn’t that we don’t know Shakespeare’s opinions about anything -- for that is not entirely true. It is true that Shakespeare’s works display an obsession with critiquing the very notion of truth. Shakespeare was the first post-modernist. Post-modernism, does not posit (as many would have us believe) that there are ‘alternative facts’ (Trump style). Post-modernism and post-structuralism suggest instead that everything is fiction, and that we should treat anything that passes for ‘truth’ with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Shakespeare was obsessed with the notion of art as lie; and yet he was a poet. Unlike Sydney, who (in his Defense of Poesy) suggests that poetry is valuable because it instructs, Shakespeare’s plays foreground the discombobulating paradox that art is both a holy, mystical truth, and a dangerous, immoral lie. 
The suspicious lack of preaching in Shakespeare makes his work irrelevant to us now. We need quick, clear answers. We expect art to take positions on the issues of the day.
Because most of all, we want to know -- what is the truth?
And we want to know now.

Friday, 13 January 2017

What About Gay Washrooms?

There has been a lot of talk lately about transgender washrooms.  
What about gay washrooms?
I know you might think I’m kidding. But most decidedly, I’m not.
I understand the importance of transgender washrooms in schools -- young people who self-identify as being of a different gender than the gender assigned them at birth need a safe place to go to the bathroom without being bullied.
But the same can be said about young gay men.
Let me tell you a story. I was having lunch the other day at the Nations grocery store. I sat down beside three high school age young men who were working there, and obviously on a break. I don’t know whether it was my proximity to them (I do tend to be paranoid about these things!) or just well, something in the air, but soon after I sat down they proceeded to have a pretty homophobic chat. One of them was talking about eating a popsicle and that set it off. “That’s such a gay thing to eat man!” Much hilarity. “That’s so gay man!” “You are gay!” etc.
Now despite the earnest efforts of many --  even people who are gay -- to claim that when kids use the word ‘gay’ in high school it doesn’t mean ‘gay’ (the usual excuse is -- “‘Gay’ is just another way of saying ‘stupid;’ it’s totally innocent!”) the truth is that when kids in high school use the word ‘gay’ it is usually in a homophobic way.
Young gays and lesbians in high schools are still afraid of coming out despite Will and Grace and Ellen DeGeneres. Hence the ‘Rainbow Program’ in Toronto -- a Toronto high school to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students who don’t feel safe in regular schools. The Rainbow program is still going strong.
But gay washrooms should not be merely safe spaces. It should be okay for young gay students to cruise them without policing, and a bulletin board should offer information on condom-less sex and PrEP. Gay high school students often have no outlets for their sexuality except meeting strangers online. Wouldn’t it be great if the authorities at school gave them a safe  space to explore their sexuality that offered lots of information related to their health and safety? PrEP is a new drug that prevents AIDS if you are not HIV positive. And these days, if you are HIV positive you can be arrested and put in jail if you do not disclose. Young gay men in high schools need to know about these things.
Okay, did the last paragraph shock you? Did you think ‘Hey, I was with this guy until he said that high school washrooms should be safe spaces for gay students to cruise?’
I hate to say it, but -- gay or straight -- if you find that offensive, that’s homophobic. Hello! Young people, gay and straight alike, want sex and they will get it, one way or the other. And sex is a good thing! Gay high school boys will end up hooking up with some older guy online if they don’t have a gay washroom where they can be as gay as they want. And these days when HIV is now a chronic illness and HIV positive people are regularly put in jail, they need as much information as possible about health and safety.
I know my idea may not be popular, and is unlikely to be instituted in any high school soon. 
Instead, we prefer to watch as young gay men continue to be bullied and beaten up.
What does that say about us?