Silence, Sexuality And Shakespeare
“It’s what I tried to create at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, a place for art and sex.” – Sky Gilbert, Death of A Bathhouse, 2013
Sky Gilbert is a writer, professor, playwright, and art provocateur. His legacy as founder and artistic director of Buddies In Bad Times Theatre has earned him the title, ‘Grandmother of Queer Theatre’. His art predominantly explores what makes queer people unique – our sexuality. In mainstream media, gays are often synonymous with interior decorating, cozy sweaters and episodes of Will & Grace, but these are cultural stereotypes that have nothing to do with being gay. Sexuality and its impact (or lack thereof) on culture, art and politics is the intersection where Sky plays, inserting a dissenting voice into the narrative thereby presenting us with new realities to consider.
Sky’s latest work, about American avant-garde leaders John Cage and Merce Cunningham, explores the little discussed relationship between the two men and its impact on their work. John Cage is best known for the composition 4’33” which is performed without sound from the musician, thus becoming a study of the environmental sounds observed by the audience. Merce Cunningham was the most significant choreographer of our time, but what is lesser known about these two is that they were lovers of thirty-five years. It’s this fact that frames Gilbert’s new work, “I Cook, He Does The Dishes”. I spoke with Sky about this and his latest projects, and what we can look forward to in the coming year.
Helkio: Why did you write “I Cook, He Does The Dishes”?
Gilbert: I wrote it because I was very angry when I found out that John Cage and Merce Cunningham were lovers for 35 years. John Cage was the inventor of modern music while Merce was the inventor of modern dance, and they really radicalized the whole avant-garde theatre and music scene in the United States during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Yet nobody talks about the fact that they were partners. It was in the 30’s that Cage was struggling, going to psychiatrists, and married to a woman, before the threesome with Merce and his wife. This is what my play is about, but it takes a very radical form in the Theatre Centre’s Incubators Space, which basically looks like a garage. The performance goes back and forth between scenes from his life, while at the same time recreating the world of John Cage’s avant-garde work.
After seeing this play what do you hope people will walk away with?
I want people to think about their relationship between art and sexuality. I think quite often there is some relationship, but we don’t talk about it as much. It’s one of the things my work is about and it goes back to that core idea. The title of the play comes from a funny quote from John Cage when they ask him about his relationship with Merce, and his explanation was, “I cook, he does the dishes.”
You’re working with Dustin Peters on “Chéri The Musical”, starring Teresas Tova at the Toronto Fringe Festival. What’s this show about?
It’s an hour-long musical based on the novel Chéri by Colette (France, 1920), which I created it with Dustin Peters, a wonderful composer who has worked with people like John Greyson. The play is mostly from the point of view of Léa who is in love with a younger man, and it explores what happens when you get older and give up your charm and trying to look pretty.
You’re also working with Dustin on an opera, Shakespeare’s Criminal, for Buddies’ 2018/2019 season, can you divulge anything at the moment?
We’re showcasing this in stages. The first will be part of Buddies’ 40th anniversary season in the Chamber. It’s a bizarre tale of Shakespeare meeting a young man who has HIV.
As a queer playwright, what do you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started?
That being gay would go out of style. I wished someone had warned me that at a certain point people would say, “oh that’s so old, so boring, so mainstream. It’s not even a thing anymore.”
Originally published in theBUZZ, February 2018
Sky Gilbert Does Toller Cranston (Again)
“The love that dare not speak it’s name has become the love that won’t shut up.”– Sky Gilbert
Sky Gilbert is a queer writer, actor, director, filmmaker, academic, and drag performer. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, he studied theatre at York University and at the University of Toronto, before co-founding of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, He has written and produced numerous plays that explore sexuality and/or queerness in some fashion. Considered by some to be the ‘grandmother of queer theatre’, Sky’s work is always provocative, often to the point of controversy which has become synonymous with his work, but also gives audiences an entry point into concepts that might normally be out of reach.
Sky’s latest production is TOLLER: A Performance by Toller Cranston, a fictional one-act presentation in which Toller Cranston muses on his life and times. Inspired by Cranston’s 1997 memoir Zero Tollerance: An Intimate Memoir by The Man That Revolutionized Figure Skating.
Toller Cranston died suddenly earlier this year at a relatively young age of 65. The Olympic Bronze medalist, born in Hamilton, was always a controversial personality. Sky Gilbert considers Toller Cranston a historical gay figure much in the ‘old school closeted’ style of Noel Coward and Liberace. Uncomfortable with gay liberation, Cranston instead preferred to position himself as a creative outsider rather than as a homosexual.
The play allows Toller Cranston himself to speak about his life and his sexuality through an artful performance of the famous figure skater’s own devising. TOLLER boldly confronts issues of sexuality, identity, and hypocrisy, ultimately painting the portrait of a fierce, frightened, heroic, and very wounded gay man.
David Benjamin Tomlinson stars as Toller Cranston.