Sky Gilbert's 'Toller'
bottom Toller Cranston - top Sky Gilbert
A few Tollerisms? Do not tolerate mediocrity. As you age, it is better to skate backwards. (Better for a receding hairline.) And the Oscar Wilde gem: “I may not always be right, but I am never wrong.” https://skatecanada.ca/2015/07/skating-community-celebrates-tollers-artistry/
Toller was a terrifying figure to me as a closeted teenager growing up in rural Ontario. He was artistic, flamboyant and outrageous; all the things I carried deep inside but was too ashamed to express. It would seem I have become the very thing I was so terrified of and, remarkably, I love the view.
David Benjamin Tomlinson, star of Sky Gilbert’s 2016 solo play Toller
For those of us, as Janis Ian pointed out in 1975, “who knew the pain of Valentines that never came…and those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball” Canadian figure skating icon Toller Cranston was a role model, but not one everyone was always comfortable with. For specific encounters of the campy, cutting, and uncomfortably fabulous kind, just google the November fourth Toronto Sun interview, 2010 (Toller Cranston vents about Elvis Stojko) for a few classic remarks from the ice monarch’s mouth. It is a fabulous and entertaining exercise in gender politics and close encounters of the camp filled kind.
Even the interviewer for the Sun couldn’t contain himself from sharing shards of his own camp consciousness during the interview when he remarked
“Figure skating legend Toller Cranston has metamorphosed into a world renowned artist, which is not hard to believe given that his skating performances were, in a way, works of art. But he also would have done very well if he had joined a spy agency when his skating career ended a decade or so ago. The man has "spies" everywhere.”
In his revealing and delightfully bitchy article Sun writer Steve Buffery composed a remarkable pre-posthumous homage to Cranston and his unique place within the pantheon of tell-all queens with a penchant for validating gossip and giving it its rightful place within sports - both social and athletic;
excerpts from Sun article;
And it was one of these spies who told [Cranston] that Elvis Stojko, another great Canadian skater, had imitated him in an unflattering way once at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club.
The way Cranston tells the story - and telling stories is certainly another one of his many talents - Stojko was asked one day to teach the "Morning Glories", as the older women at the club are known, for a guest session - a big thrill for "the old bags", as Cranston calls them.
"He apparently did a lot of unflattering things imitating me, but ended up cutting himself and being rushed to the hospital, so it served him right," said Cranston on Thursday night, as he prepared for a showing of some of his art this weekend at Artworld at Sherway Gardens.
Perhaps it was that incident that soured Cranston on "poor Elvis" as Cranston refers to Stojko, a three-time world figure skating champion who was known for his amazing jumps and other technical elements, and not so much for his artistry - the complete opposite of Cranston.
And when another spy told Cranston that Stojko had teed off on Evan Lysacek after the American won the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Cranston did another slow burn -
"When I first heard Elvis slam Lysacek, I thought: 'Why do I want to jump into his imbroglio?' But that was then, and this is now. Now I'm opening my mouth," Cranston said. "I'm venting and spewing."
Cranston is furious that Stojko suggested to a number of media outlets, including the Toronto Sun, that Lysacek was unworthy of the gold medal because he did not attempt a quad jump. Basically, Stojko said that Lysacek's skating is not worthy because there are not enough difficult technical elements to it. And that freaked Cranston out. Of course, Cranston, a former Olympic and world championship medallist, is considered one of the great innovators in skating, a skater whose ground-breaking artistry set new standards to this day.
"Elvis Stojko's pronouncement that only real men do quads, was said because he could do them," said Cranston. "But that said, what about all the things Elvis couldn't do? He was the most inflexible skater in history. He was a poor spinner. He was inartistic. It didn't really matter what music he skated to because it was either a theme from Rocky or Rambo. One or the other.
"The great skaters of history are always are the most rounded skaters," Cranston continued. "Kurt Browning is far superior, in my opinion, to the likes of Elvis. Because Kurt really was everything you're supposed to be. There was nothing Kurt couldn't do.
"The other thing, is," added Cranston, "you can push the envelope, as I did, but certainly not with quads. With other ways. There are many ways to cut the cake."
My own very indirect brush with Toller came from the lips of my maternal grandmother when she remarked that she admired his skating but “he was too effeminate.” Imagine my shock, in the mid seventies, as a teenaged fairy mincing and lisping among the small town closets of Peterborough Ontario, when my beloved Nana took offence at everything I embodied. She also designed and constructed figure skating costumes for my female cousins, but none for me. I would have to steal away to the attic at grandmas house and try the sequinned creations on all alone in the dark shadows of a musty rooftop hovel. Woe. Is. Me, tra la.
But enough about my sullen brush with icy fame. David Benjamin Tomlinson, the star of Sky Gilbert’s new solo play, partially based on Cranston’s memoir (Zero Tollerance), makes the quintessential remark about male effeminate identity when he says that he now loves the view from the very place that terrified him as a teenaged boy. Many of us know the feeling. And when Tomlinson takes the stage in Gilbert’s hour long tour de force, he crafts ‘outrageous’ words and ‘flamboyant’ blocking with a fine sense of elegant pacing and physical acumen. Moving within a relatively confined space at the Toronto Fringe this past summer, his performance included a lovely and hilarious use of fabric (written into the script) that simultaneously trapped and freed the actor/character from all the essential artifice that has been culturally manufactured around the idea of femininity when it is found in a man’s body.
Among Cranston’s greatest achievements as an athlete, according to many figure skating aficionados, was that he broke new ground for men in his field by liberating them from purely technical manly displays, allowing them to include more creativity within the overall execution.
Cranston’s taste for camp is not lost on any camp-queer reader, and as Susan Sontag claimed (and was criticized for) “camp is a tender feeling” * - despite the cutting edge of a figure skater’s blade-like retort. Abject views can spring from the retaliative palpitations of an oppressed subject hell bent on both loving and loathing their greatest critics. Cranston also publicly admired Stojko’s obvious skill as a skater, but was clearly in no mood for any gender divisive pronouncements. Stojko recently took on the role of Billy Flynn in a production of the acclaimed musical Chicago and garnered positive reviews as someone who steals the show from a much beleaguered third rate touring cast. How butch! Go girl!
top to bottom; Elvis Sotjko, on the ice and in Chicago
But enough about Toller’s critical affair with Elvis. What Gilbert has done so well in his new solo play is to take, and to distill, a variety of elements from Cranston’s life and turn them into a mere sixty minute manifesto on how to speak of all that you love, and all that frightens you, in a sophisticated, informative, and extremely entertaining manner. Anecdotes about critics, mentors, friends and lovers, come across as a kind of stream of consciousness rant, peppered with variations in tone and emotional levity, mixed with deeply disguised (at times not so disguised) poignancy within a man who lived his life as he chose. As a director and a writer Gilbert knows precisely how to manage tricky characters by putting their greatest strengths and weaknesses on full display, both physically and emotionally. A single chair and a closing vocal duet with a very personal critic provides the conclusion of the play with an especially revealing and deliciously uncomfortable finale.
On an international stage Cranston never faltered. His language, as seen in Gilbert’s Toller (and the many public interviews) reveal his insistence upon a very complex and often misunderstood form of communication within an oppressive cultural site - camp consciousness. The effeminate male body continues to undergo negative critique (e.g. - film and television), and frequently stands in as the butt of so many jokes that go unnoticed - or at least unattended to. Gilbert’s rendition of this phenomenon, in the body of Toller Cranston, exists, like much of Gilbert’s work, as a testament to the lives of two Canadian artists (Cranston & GIlbert) who continue to defend, define, and represent ‘bodies that matter’ both onstage and off - bodies that mince, lisp, flaunt, and hope to garner the complex forms of respect they have always deserved.
The intersectionality that marks both homophobia and misogyny is one of many concise political moments existing within the layers of Sky Gilbert’s latest creation, a creation that both Gilbert and Tomlinson hope will allow a national conversation to begin;
I hope the show is the beginning of a national conversation about Toller. He was a contentious figure, I get that, but he also revolutionized a sport, challenged the system, and devoted his life to art. He is a
fascinating and iconic individual. Innovative, prolific, polarizing, his example of his dedication and the ferocity with which he attacked self-expression is inspiring for any artist.
- interview with David Benjamin Tomlinson
- Sontag reference from - http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html
- INTERVIEW WITH SKY GILBERT ON THE MAKING OF ‘TOLLER’
DB How did you develop the Miguel sequence that ends the play - the
following sequence in particular?
excerpt from Toller, by Sky Gilbert
MIGUEL. Do you think anybody is interested in a show about the good old days? This is 2014! All people want to do is think about the future. They are on their cellphones 24 hours a day planning their lives for the new cyber century! What interest do you think would they have in an old man and his reminiscences?
SG This passage came from both my personal life and the importance of
contextualizing this play. My partner is my greatest critic, and their
are aspects of Miguel in him (particularly Miguel's tendency to bring
Toller back to 'reality' which is what my partner does with me). But
in a dramaturgical sense what I wanted to do was put Toller's
obsession with the past, which is indeed the whole play's obsession,
as Toller is the star and spends a lot of time talking about things
that may have happened before some audience members were born, into
some context. It has a lot to do with knowing that I am writing for a
young audience which is perhaps gay, but who live in a digital world
that is not very concerned with history, but very concerned with the
present and the future. It's an old rhetorical trick; bring up the
arguments against Toller so that we might be able to appreciate him
more, since we are conscious of what the objections might be.
DB What drew you to the subject matter initially?
SG Keith Cole gave me a copy of the book Zero Tollerance and then I read
a passage from it at a Buddies event. But I couldn't bring myself to
read it. My partner suggested I write a play about the subject matter.
Yes, I used to figure skate as a kid and though I was never very good, I spent
Yes, I used to figure skate as a kid and though I was never very good, I spent
several years in the 'culture' which is believe me, it's own little
world. My 'pro'(teacher) knew Ellen Burka and I met her and her
daughter Petra, the medallist. They used to work at the Cricket Club
in Toronto where I trained at one time. So Toller's 'pro' was
contingent on our lives. But also I know how competitive and toxic and
most of all CLOSETED that world is. I knew gay figure skaters or (as I
was in the closet) gay skaters who I secretly thought were gay, But
what really drew me was the fact that I knew that Toller was an
insufferable character, easy to love but also to hate, because of his
pomposity and tendency to elegize himself. I think this is a big issue
for me as an aging gay man. When people ask me about my 'legacy' I
want to hit them. That's a very hetero male idea, I'm just an old drag
queen and I live for the moment. I love to create, but there is no
'legacy' and talk of it is nauseating and patriarchal and self-swelling.
DB Could you describe some of Toller's 'celebrity' as a queer icon
and how he, and your play, contribute to a sense of Canadian identity, or lack thereof?
SG I always knew about Toller from his TV commentary and from the fact
that he was considered to be a male 'artist' of figure skating, who
freed up men to be more 'creative in their performances. I thought
everyone knew of him in this way, and I think it's true. But I wasn't
prepared for the volume of fans that he has. Every performance meant
that there were people (mainly older women) who either claimed to know
him, be his friend, have met him, or just be inspired by him. He had a
HUGE following. I think it goes far beyond figure skiing. As an old
school closet case, he comes from a time when women were permitted to
adore gay men, without being considered fag hags, or having to deal
with sexuality at all. You just adored this talented creative guy,
that's all. So it was innocent this adoration. That's the key to it I
DB Do you have future plans for the show?
SG Yes. We definitely want to tour it to the fringes in Canada next
summer. I also have a connection with the international performance
network, I am hoping to take it to Germany but of course with what
money? Also there is Edinburgh as anybody can put on a show there, but
again, money. But we are trying to raise money through grants and the
DB Could you respond briefly to some of the excerpts I have included
below - how they developed, how they contribute to Toller's story,
and how you made your decisions sturcturally and or thematically in
order to provide a sense of Toller's life as a Canadian and an
international figure skating celebrity. And are most of these
excerpts loosely based on
excerpt from Toller, by Sky Gilbert
I’ve always been bisexual, if I had to put a label on myself, which I would rather not, because
truth be told sex just seems to me to be an awful lot of trouble.
Always has. And it’s so messy.
SG I think I am -- if not quoting Toller here -- quoting the essence of
his public (highly hypocritical) attitude to sex and sexuality. In his
book he claims to be bisexual, but doesn't talk about sex with men at
all, only about his tutelage of Christopher Bowman. We as younger
'out' gay men grew up in the shadow of these tortured fags who had to
disguise their sexual feelings with artistic impulses, and often
became artists. I personally know two men who had sex with Toller, and
I know that he was homosexual. If I know two, think of how many there
were! And that promiscuity is NOT reflected in his bio. One wouldn't
expect it to be, I don't blame him but it's typical of an era. Also ,
he seems prudish in the book, he goes overboard to express his disgust
at various things that disgust him (including S and M0 which I find
excerpt from Toller, by Sky Gilbert
I could not stop myself from believing in Christopher Bowman and so
I pushed him, I yelled I screamed, I made him do his figures over
and over, I demanded excellence and artistry from his free style
program — I was a relentless nay nearly sadistic coach, amentor who
would broach no excuses, who would endure no procrastinations nor
laziness but at night…oh those nights… inevitably, ineluctably, he
lured me too….he lured me with those eyes those deep dark pools
of….of of.. (he takes a drink) of talent. The short story is that we
lived together for nearly a year and I don’t hesitate to say that it
was my perhaps tragic misdirected passion for art and beauty that
led me astray I believed he could be a great skater I believed it so
much that I became somewhat of a drug addict myself oh I cant even
talk about it
SG This again is not a quote. But it is true. I have stories (sorry make
that three people I know, I just thought of this guy) who used to
attend sex parties at Toller's house with Christopher Bowman and the
three of them used to do whatever was fashionable at the time, maybe
coke, or a hallucinogenic. Toller also admits he became an addict in the book. Again, this speaks to his hypocrisy. and how he substituted 'art' for 'sex.
excerpt from Toller, by Sky Gilbert
All art is a peregrination. A journey. You never know where you will end up. What position art will put you in.
SG This is really just Toller being pretentious. I intended this to be
funny. But I can never get the audience to laugh. Toller has just been
spanked, which offends some of them, especially those who adore Toller
in an old way. They want to love him. I even went to the point of putting Toller
upside down when he says art puts you in a strange position, but few
laugh, unless they have been laughing all along at everything he says,
which some people do.At any rate, of course I do kind of believe this, but I would never speak of art this way, as it seems very pretentious.
I kind of believe this. I think this is what saves the play. I am like
Toller. I am the kind of person who tends to live in fantasy more than
reality. I am writing about this all the time in various ways now. And
I find justification in certain academic research around Shakespeare
for the notion that fictional worlds are more real than real ones. I'm
skeptical of science.
You see in Early Modern Times the way people perceived reality was
through poetry. They didn't not 'observe' things around them to figure
out what reality was, as there was no such thing as science. I'm a bit
like that. Yes, we have to live in the 'real' world, but whose to say
it's more real than the ones we make up?
DB Tell me about your brief encounter with Toller Cranston.
20 years ago, I hosted Claudia Moore's launch for her dance company "Moon horse Dance Theatre.” It was at Toller's Queen Street West studio / apartment (Queen and Augusta) -- 3rd floor. Toller 'lived' on Spruce Street in Cabbagetown - big house. Claudia dated dancer / choreographer Robert Desrosiers years ago - Robert is great pals with Toller -- that was Claudia's IN with the space
Toller was there - at the event lurking around in the corners and staying close to the wall. It was all about Claudia and Toller let her have the limelight. He was creepy but low key.
Lots of plush red drapes, lots of strawberry paintings (his signature style) and the place was very big but felt very gothic - Claudia has a skill to make anything pretty so the room was alive but Toller just felt and looked a bit dead.
I am a star fucker and I remember saying to myself that I wanted to bag Toller that night. I had been drinking - not sure what state Toller was in. The launch party was a 6pm - 9pm sort of thing. It wasn't a huge party but we were a healthy crowd. My plan was to hang around and help with the clean up. Not a regular thing for the host to do - but I had sex on the brain.
I found myself in a conversation with Toller - one sided. He was relatively silent and I was drunk and chatty - he listened - I talked.
In the corner of this huge wide open space was a futon - double (possibly Queen) that had a deep burgundy cover - no doors - but it did feel like a bedroom space.
I made the first move. I kissed Toller. People left the party with Claudia and her husband the last to leave. Toller was quick. We made out for a long time - standing. Not a tall guy (well, shorter than me). Not strong. Not very "present" and not a great kisser. But a full head of hair and a pulse. This will do - I thought to myself.
Probably around 10pm. Clothes off in darkness - no condoms or lube. He went in dry with a few pokes and then he rolled over. Done. I don't think there was sperm. I tried to give him a blow job but he brushed me off. He rolled back over and gave me a hand job. I did blow him eventually. Not a huge dick and nothing really special about it - totally serviceable and not to say "nice" but it wasn't bad either. He had a cock. Normal size balls.
I must have passed out - I woke up the next morning. Early. We were both in the futon - back to back. He was asleep. I put my clothes on and went home. Didn't wake him up to say goodbye, leave a note or anything. I just left. No final kiss on the cheek to my sleeping beauty.
I had 'fancy' clothes on - not drag - just some better than normal guy clothes. No money! I had enough money to buy a small Coffee Time coffee and a chocolate walnut cruller & no sunglasses! So the walk of shame home was bright. It was early and I think a Saturday morning on Queen West. Never heard from him again. Never saw him again.
Really, the night was like curling up with a refrigerator, kissing it, being rolled over by it and then a few quick pumps and done. I never felt cheap or used or drugged or.... anything really. Felt nothing.
hope this helps