Saturday, August 18, 2012

the unbearable lightness of being queer

As I’m leaving the bleachers I overhear a well-coifed elegant older woman in impeccable summer attire say to her friend “tasteful.” She liked the show, because it was, tasteful? I’m perplexed. I’ve just spent two hours out doors, something I try not to do unless I have a very good reason and a lot of mosquito repellent on hand. The show in question has made me laugh, cry, and shrink in bewilderment upon realizing, yet again, this late in the day, that yes, we really do still need plays like this in order to help people understand that being different doesn’t mean we should be punished. The Trillium foundation certainly agrees, having given the theatre one hundred and four thousand dollars to explore diversity themes ranging from queer identity to disability issues. We’ve come a long way, but we have miles to go before we sleep.
Go girls!! Trilliums (AS IN FOUNDATIONS) 
have always been my favorite flower. 
But I'm often torn between the pristine 
white ones and the rather ‘queer’ looking 
pale purple genre.

The current 4th Line Theatre production of acclaimed enfant terrible playwright Sky Gilbert’s St. Francis of Millbrook, opened last week and it is a wildly entertaining cultural phenomenon to behold. Under the superb layered direction of Kim Blackwell, a succession of heavily populated scenes, inhabited by professional and skilled amateur thespians, reveals Gilbert’s knack for immaculate structure in the midst of narrative mayhem. Admittedly,[1] Gilbert has constructed this commissioned piece for a very particular audience. And yet, the myth of cottage country small town spectatorship[2] runs rampant as one watches onlookers from a variety of predominantly white middle class, and beyond, experience respond favorably to this lush panoply of very queer consciousness as it makes its way through a forest of heteronormative desire.

Ellen Ray Hennessey in a lead role superbly guides a wonderful ensemble through a fabulous and familiar story of growing up gay in a rural community.  Gilbert’s script has combined the perfect cultural elements, both past and present - and future. The nineteen sixties, the truly memorable iconic music of that era, Madonna’s presence in a growing nineteen nineties post modern environment where sex symbols begin to acquire religious status, commingle in this musically adept ménage. Class, gender, and sexuality blend discursively as aging hippies make multi-cultural pleas for acceptance, culminating in a significant nod to race with a moment of Yoko Ono celebration as the icing on the multi-faceted cake. All of the critical socially conscious parts are there to create the whole, and even though Gilbert has tailored the piece for audience members who may very well need tasteful theatre in order to placate them into the shady naturalism of queer identity, there are still all the trademark bad boy elements and the kitsch campiness he is famous for. Gilbert pushes the envelope perhaps as far as he can in a culturally savvy production replete with pickup trucks, white horses, endearing pig narratives, and the odd barn swallow (what do I know from barn swallows!) gracing the stage here and there in non equity unscripted roles. The natural beauty of Fourth Line continues to reside in the unexpected quality of nature that graces any given performance. And the overt queerness of this particular script makes the whole idea of nature sing sweet with contrast and coming home/coming out warm-heartedness.

Nathaniel Bacon as Luke brings a fresh and physically adept vitality to the role that blends youthfulness, naivete and a sincere love of nature that renders the meadows and the barnyards somewhat more camp than one might have expected. (see my own poetic rural drag narrative written when I was a stage manager and a walk-on farmer's wife in drag at Fourth Line Theatre several decades ago at

William Foley and Sherri McFarlane as Luke's parents shine as they battle the timeworn dilemma regarding how they can manage to love a gay son and stay together. McFarlane possesses a serene power as the stalwart subtly courageous matriarch while Foley delivers a skillful study in reactive disgrace and thwarted tender paternalism due to the iconic presence of hockey woven into the script.


But is any of this tasteful? Well, no, any interrogation of queer identity worth its salt leaves tasteful at the doorstep when it includes the violence too often inherent to growing up gay in a small town, or any metropolis, big or little, where so called loved ones become so conflicted by the emerging identity of their offspring that they revert to physical aggression. There is nothing tasteful about homophobia, on stage or off, and that’s the way it should be. I would have liked to have seen the mythic affects of tastefulness pushed a little further, but that’s just my own take on bad boy consciousness. Fourth Line, Kim Blackwell, Robert Winslow (Artistic Director), and Sky Gilbert must be commended for bringing together a seminal production in the growing history of queer theatrical enterprise. In the same audience where I overheard the “tasteful” remark I also heard someone express their surprise that this kind of social issue still needs to be put out there for audiences to 'learn' from.

Drive on out to the country and see this saintly little gem. It will make you feel good about feeling bad. It takes queer and freshens it up with a whiff of country air, and there’s even a bit of skin to behold, not too much though. One wouldn’t want to exceed the limits of tastefulness now, would one?

Spencer Harrison’s gorgeous Circus Tent, as part of his PhD thesis examining homophobia and queer identity, was set up for the media opening and queered the event even further as Harrison’s own experience as a country boy growing up gay continues to manifest itself within his practice as a visual artist. More on that in an upcoming blog post!

[1] In a panel discussion before the media opening of the play Gilbert described his early meetings with Robert Winslow (Artistic Director) and Kim Blackwell (Director & Associate Artistic Producer) that included ways in which queer subject matter might be represented within the company mandate  focusing upon community stories 

[2] the whole notion of spectatorship has been interrogated and called into question in a variety of texts that examine demographic and the assumptions made about audience appeal and accessibility - briefly, for the purposes of this ‘review’ and this production, it can be argued that the people any given script is tailored to, ‘despite’ their location within a rural area, frequently come from very sophisticated, affluent backgrounds, and even when they don’t, it can be a very subjective and diverse experience for ‘them’ to view ‘us’ whether they are watching a play in the country or the city 

Sunday, August 12, 2012



by Tristan R. Whiston & Moynan King

Voice is a system equal to sexuality —as punishing, as pleasure-giving: 
as elective, as ineluctable 

Performance Installation
August 24, 7-9pm
August 25, 11am-1pm // 7-9pm
August 26, 2-4pm

Artist talk
August 25, 1pm

The Christie Studio
Artscape Wychwood Barns
601 Christie Street, #170
TorontoTristan R. Whiston and Moynan King are no strangers to performance art that interrogates the voice as a heavily gendered vocal instrument that profoundly governs the ways in which we perceive the body. In an issue of the Canadian Theatre Review (CTR - winter 2011) Whiston's and King's past work with the The Boychoir of Lesbos was featured in an essay by, uh, well, me... 
                    TRISTAN R. WHISTON
During an interview conducted for the essay Whiston shed light upon the ways in which voice has played a significant part in his journey from 'female' to 'male' through the use of diverse performance modes.

For [other Boychoir members it was] more game . . . 
playing with the character, and varying degrees of in 
between, as in, I am doing this character and it has noth- 
ing else to do with my life. For me it was a very safe way 
to open up the whole exploration of gender and of tran- 
sitioning, tasting what that would be like, did I really 
want that? Ultimately it was like, it was not enough, I 
want to grow up —I’m willing to let go of the voice that I 
loved, but that was very much a young boy’s voice or a 
woman’s voice . . . Holding on to my voice became some- 
thing about growing up so I let go of it. (Interview - CTR 2011)         

Trace, the upcoming collaboration between Whiston and King promises to be an exciting and thought provoking examination of Whiston's ongoing investigation of his identity as he begins to take experiences from the past, and the present, and morph them into a future that continues to utilize performance as an expression of bodily change, function, celebration, and wishful performative promise.* The CTR essay took on some of these areas and Whiston expressed his desire to create a vocal performance project rooted in a nostalgia for what has happened, what is happening, and what will continue to happen to his body and his voice as he moves through various periods of his life.

* 'WISHFUL PERFORMATIVE PROMISE' - a term used in order to express the possibilities that any given performance, in life and in art, can embody - the ways in which performance inspires the performer and the audience to examine their own identities, actions, etc. and evolve through a shared performative experience

Whiston also had concerns about how he would become 
‘‘for ty or fifty or sixty and [still be] clinging to this twelve 
year old self.’’ He feels that ultimately sacrificing his boyish 
soprano voice was part of his quest to ‘‘become a man.’’ The 
Boychoir was a revelation when [s]he came out as a lesbian in 
her twenties and looked around and saw that all her ‘‘friends 
kind of look[ed] like boys and sound[ed] like boys. We should 
be boy sopranos!’’ into the machinations of becoming, onstage, innocent boys singing choral songs and charming their audiences into dual states of enjoyment and gender curiosity. The experience became a form of conscious, satiric, tongue in cheek, comical bewilderment reflecting strict cultural coding around puberty and all of its traditional gender expectations. (CTR winter 2011)


trace: evidence or an indication of the former presence or existence of something

Can one man stand amidst his many voices and find herself there? Can a person sing harmony with different parts of theirselves? Can we trace the sound of ourselves as we change? If so, what remains of the original voice?

Through an exploration of voice, trace transforms a private story into a performative experience integrating sound, video, installation and live performance. Using archival recordings taken before and during Tristan R. Whiston’s gender transition from female to male, along with recent recordings and live vocals, trace explores the idea that change is constant and we are always becoming someone new.

                          MOYNAN KING

Throughout the installation are multiple speakers, each playing a single part or element in the immersive soundscape. Audience is invited to contribute to the performance by entering one of the installation’s beach inspired changing huts and, using old-fashioned technology, create their own vocal recording, eliciting an experience of auditory self-reflection.

Tristan R. Whiston and Moynan King are artists with distinct multi-disciplinary practices. Their shared interest in ideas of identity, gender, communication and the element of time (in both life and art) brought them together as artistic collaborators early their careers.

Video by Leslie Peters

Set elements by Trixie and Beever

Software design by Dafydd Hughes

Photo by David Hawe

Sound Travels Festival of Sound Art: August 4-31, 2012

New Adventures in Sound Art:



Middle C was produced by Carma Jolly and Tristan R. Whiston for CBC Radio's Outfront in 2007. It won the Premios Ondas award for International Radio and a silver medal at the New York Festivals.

Tristan R. Whiston first performed as a solo soprano at the age of six. With that raw talent, years of hard work led to an accomplished singing career. But Tristan has decided to give up the most precious thing a singer has — the voice. You see, something was never quite right. Tristan always wanted to be a man. Now that dream is about to come true as Tristan embarks upon the process of gender reassignment. In a year’s worth of intimate audio diaries, we hear milestones like Tristan’s first shave. But the most striking thing is the transformation of Tristan’s singing voice. Tristan starts out as a soprano whose voice soars on the high notes. As the testosterone takes effect in Tristan’s body, that sublime voice is ripped to shreds and has to be completely recast - just like his identity.

Follow the link to listen to Middle C:

Saturday, August 11, 2012


The current Soulpepper production of the The Sunshine Boys is a truly impeccable exercise in comic timing. Eric Peterson, at the helm of this classic Neil Simon comedy, steers his impressive cast through the fluid terrain of an old vaudeville team trying to survive the passage of time with absolute charm, perfection, and open hearted distemper. Ted Dykstra's direction bears the mark of someone acutely aware of the need for physical and verbal action in a "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" Shakespearean sense. There are sheer blissful moments of absolute brilliance when Peterson takes a single line, a single movement, and delivers them, embodies them, with such nuance and impeccable pacing that the experience becomes almost meta-theatrical - in the most insular and charming way possible. But enough about me and my theatrical idiosyncrasies.

Kenneth Walsh and Eric Peterson both brilliant as The Sunshine Boys

Jordan Pettle plays the charming frustrated nephew-cum-straight man with a wide range of sympathetic and assertive physical and vocal gestures, creating a layered character who frequently makes his way out of his uncle's torrential bitterness long enough to turn masterful, character based brilliance into the deeply textured dramaturgical flair that has allowed Simon's work to endure.

The timelessness of the script possesses such a rich nostalgia for a past, a future, and a present whereby characters can function within all three realms through the use of sharp, incident based dialogue. Their lives are revealed and revered through the playwrights incredible knack for, and knowledge of, illuminating and relentless comic structure, in both word and deed.

Kenneth Walsh as Al takes on a bit of a George Burns impersonation and comes up with a truly original and entertaining take on the old master's position within the annals of comic history (aka the history of comedy for any grammarians in my bloggy-eyed audience). Burns played the role in the film version and gave it his signature dry wit and raw, measured timing. Walsh does all this and more as he dares to set himself up for unbeatable comparison and wins on all counts.

Quancetia Hamilton arrives late in the play as the Nurse and gives a secondary comic role incredible strength and a comic power that matches her hilarious cohorts at every turn.

Quancetia Hamilton as the Nurse

Running at Soulpepper through September, this is classic comic fare from a playwright whose work  graced Broadway stages from 1961 (Come Blow Your Horn) until the early 2000's. Simon won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers, and was honored in 1977 by the Nederlander Organization when the Alvin Theatre, built in 1927, was re-named The Neil Simon theatre. Soulpepper does Simon's impressive legacy justice with their commitment to his work, seen in their successful productions of The Odd Couple and now The Sunshine Boys.