Post Your Opinion
Arguments In Motion
by R. M.Vaughan

Fuelledby sex but ultimately structured by desire, SkyGilbert`s plays provoke gays and straights alike SKY GILBERT is pacing. And talking. It`sbeen a typical week. His film MyAddiction, thesecond instalment in a projected trilogy, has just been accepted at the prestigious San Francisco Gay andLesbian Film Festival. His recent appearance on TVOntario`s"Imprint," in which he was typecast as the hysterical gay artist, isgetting him into arguments in bars. The construction of the new, much larger Buddiesin Bad Times Theatre has leapt over the last of Metro Toronto`s building-codehurdles and is on schedule for a gala September opening. And Christina Blizzardof the Toronto Sun is telling her readers thatGilbert is a m A lonely neuroticwho needs psychiatric care. It`s been a typical week. Is Sky Gilbert the mostdangerous man in Canadian letters? As founder and artistic director of Buddiesin Bad Times Theatre, Gilbert has written, produced,directed, and sometimes starred in more than 30 plays in the last 15 years --including the award-winning Whores Revenge andSuzie Goo: Private Secretary, the contro versial Ban This Show and Wildboy, andlast season`s critically acclaimed PlayMurder. Withtwo Doras, a Pauline McGibbon Award, an arm`s length of publications, and playsstaged in Europe and the United States, why isn`t Gilbert swimming in thecalming mainstream that has drowned so many of his contemporaries? Because hestill pisses people off. Critics on the left denounce his work asexploitative and hyper-sexual, liberals simply find it confusing, andright- wingers believe Gilbert is satanic, and possibly poisoning their children. The public`s inability to make up itscollective mind about Gilbert`s work stems from an inability to separate SkyGilbert the playwright from Sky Gilbert the radical queer activist. Gilbert`soutspoken support of everything from banned books and sex workers` rights toradical AIDS activism and sadomasochism seminars has earned him the eternal,and increasingly vicious, ill will of conservative forces within the gaycommunity as well as the mass media. Gilbert`s activism also threatens tooverwhelm his first calling as an artist, and he worries that even hissupporters are coming to see "Sky Gilbert`s new play" as opposed to"a new play by Sky Gilbert." The dual spokesperson/artist role istaking its toll. "I hate the whole writer/activist label," Gilbertsays. "It seems that if you are involved politically, at any level, peoplelatch on to your political agenda and drag your art down, or up, with it, as ifbeing an artist and `political` too is some sort of strange, maybe not quiteacceptable practice. Every artist is political, any act of creation is riddledwith politics. Nobody escapes, but plenty of artists choose to either notaddress their own politics or hold on to the naive idea that they`re free from,or above, such things." "But," he stresses, "andthis is where I always get into trouble, I don`t believe that artists are ever,ever responsible for explaining their ideas, or their politics, or joys, hates,lusts, whatever. All art has politics, but no artist should be forced to be apolitician. Artists are not scientists, they do not have to prove the validityof their work by achieving some sort of external goal. The art speaks foritself, and it may very well have a lot of contradictory things to say --the best art usually does." The purposely contradictory messagesinherent in drag and transgenderism have inspired some of the most colourfulpieces in Gilbert`s sexuality/art jigsaw. His plays Lola Starr Builds Her Dream House, Suzie Goo, and the "dragmelodrama" cycle Drag Queens on Trial(currentlypreparing for a New York production) and DragQueens in Outer Space take issues of genderand cross-dressing to Genet-like poetic (and farcical) heights withoutbecoming "issue" plays. Gilbert has never resorted to the"trauma of the week" style of play writing. Even his most occasional pieces,such as Ban This Show, an S/M playprompted by the media circus around the works, and death, of RobertMapplethorpe, have always been more about poetry than polemics. Thestereotypical image of the drag queen as confused, pathetic, and probably notlong for this completely overturned in Gilbert`s plays. earth is cot Dragqueens are powerful, wily, and dangerous. Thesupposed central question of drag who am I is dismissed for what it is, aprojection of straight anxieties over the myriad possibilities of gaysexuality. Gilbert`s queens arrive full blown and confident in their identities-- besides, with aliens, crooked boyfriends, and arch courtroom dramasall around them, what`s a queen to do? Psychoanalyse? In Gilbert`s world,couches have better uses, and identity crises are for audiences. As drag culture becomes increasinglymainstream, the attacks on its depiction of femininity grow louder. Feministscholars have questioned the "parodic" intent of drag. The mildestarguments have wondered if anyone, male or female, can be empowered by, orthrough, gender confusion. Is drag not essentially a presentation of femininitythat is both Outdated and male-centred? The fiercest attacks on dragargue that the practice is little more than a stylized, more decorous form ofmisogyny: that men presenting themselves as hyperfeminized women are notcelebrating women but satirizing and degrading them. "I`m open to all arguments aboutdrag, because drag is essentially an argument in motion, brought to life,"Gilbert responds. "But I don`t think drag can be wholly dismissed. Drag isa huge part of gay cultural history. Nobody should be in the business of wipingthings out of existence. "I think drag is really about men --about poking holes in the coldness, the unfeelingness, of masculinity. That isthe most loving aspect of drag, how it opens men, and `maleness` up, offers aview of men that is so radical that you can`t keep your old ideas aboutmen/women any more. Drag is about breaking rules." Gilbert`s own work as a drag artist hasbrought him both respect and, Surprisingly, contempt from the gay community Withinconservative gay circles, drag is frequently describe, I as a weight thatthreatens to sink the who lecommunity. Until recently, most gay Clubs banned drag queens, or relegated themto special "drag nights." Gay men who wish to "assimilate"into the dominant Culture wince at the glamour of drag, and accuse dragperformers of giving ammunition to the ultra-right. "Sometimes we`re our own worstenemies "I Gilbert says of conservative gays. "I`vehad more trouble about drag from selfhating gay men than I`ve ever had from thestraight community -- perhaps because the straight community justdoesn`t care, or has already written LIS all off anyway. But right-wing gaysknow what drags about, know that drag can define the radicalism of gayness in aunique and inescapable way, and that threatens them because they have only oneidea of what being gay is and they want the rest of the community to toe theline." Not everyone in the straight community "just doesn`tcare." Gilbert recounts with glee the wide-eyed descriptions of himselfprovided by representatives of the TorontoSun duringa recent press council hearing. Gilbert imitates the Sun`s spokespeople,"Mr. Gilbert is known to dress in women`sclothing (gasp) and refers tohimself as a woman called Jane, and, as Jane, appears publicly (gasp) and makesspeeches in a woman`s voice...." Gilbertlaughs. "It just killed me, like I was the first man on the planet to Puton a dress. It was really `We got trouble, right here in River City`- Godknows most of those men are old enough to remember Milton Berle." Gilbert`s drag queens are empoweringbecause they are not frightening, sad, or freakish to their audiences or, moreimportan to themselves. Thereis an inclusiveness to Gilbert`s drag works, the kind of inclusiveness that isachieved in art when the very, very particular is aggressively positioned asnormal, and even accessible. Because Gilbert`s drag queens remain honest tothemselves, their radical revisions of our concepts of history, beauty, and sexstrike us as oddly true. Gilbert`s queens know us, have seen us around, andknow what we like to do. "Drag culture is a great source forme, it attracts me on so many intellectual, aesthetic, and sexual levels,"Gilbert says, "and it`s very freeing. One of the best things about drag isthat it intimidates straight men, who have always intimidated me." As immersed as he is in the minefield ofrepresentational politics, it is hardly surprising that much of Gilbert`s workis about power -- the power to express sexuality, the power of witover money or status, the power of beauty (redemptive and destructive), and,largely overlooked in the heated polemics that surround his work, the power ofcomprassion. Gilbert`s plays always turn on theiraudiences just at the point when everyone has settled into their seats andbecome comfortable with the characters, the point when seasoned theatre typesthink they`ve got it all figured out. In Play Murder, avengeful bisexual gold-digger cradles her dead husband, la Pieta, after drivinghim to suicide. She cries because, of course, she really did love him. In My Night with Tennessee, the drunken, embittered,and ruined Tennessee Williams wants, finally, merely to look at a beautifulyoung boy, while Williams`s lover, bloated from the playwright`s largess, wantsjust a simple kiss goodnight. In the upcoming More Divine, Foucaultand Barthes, intellectual and romantic rivals for decades, can ultimately findpeace only in each other`s company. Gilbert`s plays offer us a world that is fuelled-- gleefully by sex, but ultimately structured by desire. FewCanadian writers today can convincingly depict the profound and oftendevastating difference between these two equal but very distinct forces. InGilbert`s work, desire and sex are frequently conflated emotionally, butactions, however disastrous or triumphant, are the products of choice. Whatcharacters truly want, or love, is just as powerful as what they are attractedto. The crux of the drama is: which impulse wins? Gilbert`s recent film work explores theseconflicts with a gritty, intentional amateurism that is more Warhol orCassavetes than Egoyan. His latest film, MyAddiction, is so unlikemost art film today that one wonders if Gilbert is working in reaction tocontemporary practice. In contrast to most Toronto art films, there is arefreshing lack of technological smart-assing and semiotic posturing --there are no intertextualizing video screens (a prerequisite for Torontounderground films), and a television set is not a central character. Where`sall the cyber-paranoia, and who told him he could do linear narrative? "In my film work I want to showpeople`s lives, I want the audience to get the sense that they`ve snuck in onsomeone`s crazy, sexy life. Theatre is where my sense of the fantastic, theimpossible, comes out. For me, theatre is dreaming, but film is like aninvasion. I want my films to document the sexual underground of Toronto, butthey`re not `documentaries.` The films are very scripted, and I direct themlike plays. The great thing about low-budget film is that you just can`tdo 30 takes. The actors have to get it right the first time -- soit`s just like live theatre, no second chances. There`s a great energy createdby that tension." Gilbert`s film sensibility is closer toJohn Waterss than it is to that of the National Film Board. Fans of razor-edgedediting and nifty trick shots should look elsewhere: Gilbert`s films are verymuch the films of a writer. "I think I have a kind of talent forbrittle, pointed dialogue, for a type of comedy of manners that is maybe moreabout what characters say to each other -- as opposed to whatcharacters direct to audiences -- and when they say it,"Gilbert says. "On the other hand, I don`t really understand theatre, orfilm, that has no point of view. Preachiness is one thing -- to beavoided, please -- but presenting a piece that is intentionallywithout sides, facets, even issues ...I have a lot of difficulty withwork that is so opaque it`s as if nobody wrote it." Gilbert`s own writing habits arelegendary. He grabs an idea and runs with it. Gilbert is renowned, and envied,for his swift, "no such thing as writer`s block" work habits. "Writing is my favouritething," he says. "I`m not one of those writers who find writing aninsufferable task." Gilbert can write a complete play in one week."It`s lucky for me that I`m a fast writer, or the activist part of mylife, not to mention the administrative work, would totally overwhelm my artisticlife." Gilbert`s views on the snail`s-paceprocess of staging a play in Canada are no less direct. "Show me a playthat`s been workshopped for three years, and had 3 5 dramaturges pull the lifeout of it, and I guarantee you the play will be a piece of shit. There`s toomuch emphasis on `collectivism` and `feedback` in theatre in Canada. Someartists actually thrive in all that second-guessing but, generally, Ithink it robs the artist of his/her original vision, which is so important, andusually kills whatever spontaneity existed in the piece." Through Buddies in Bad Times, Gilbert hasheld fast to his belief that freshness and experimentation are more importantto the theatre community as a whole than a stifling obsession with staging only"polished" plays. Buddies sponsors two annual new play festivals,Rhubarb and Four Play, and offers under-budgeted theatre companies"seed show" opportunities, wherein the theatre space and resourcesare offered at little or no cost. A great many actors, writers, directors, andtechnicians began their careers at Buddies -- a fact that mostwillingly admit, but that some would rather forget. "There`s definitely a stigma tobeing associated with Buddies or with `gay theatre`- as if theatre at alllevels doesn`t have a huge gay and lesbian population -- and someartists are afraid that they`ll be ghettoized, or that they`ll never work instraight theatre again. But I can`t be too damning about it, because I know ithappens, it`s a real fear. The arts community is just as heterosexist as therest of the world." When the realities of being an explicitlyqueer artist in Canada are taken into account, it is less surprising that sofew of Gilbert`s best works are available in print, or that he is not morewidely celebrated for his considerable achievements. Perhaps Gilbert`s riskytwo-plays- a-year (and more) agenda is simply too much in acountry where many artists find it more profitable to moan about the lack ofopportunities than to make their own. Or perhaps we are not as liberal as wethink we are, and an up-front gay artist who does not sell himself as atragic, doomed victim is "going too far." "Oh, I hear that all the time. SkyGilbert is going too far, too far, too far. And a lot of the time it comes frommy own community. Well, fuck that. Do all these nice, middle-class gaycouples in the suburbs think they`ve been allowed to live their lives safelybecause they`ve behaved themselves, been good, quiet little queers? Every timea radical queer artist pushes the boundaries an inch further, the quietermembers of our community gain a mile." While Gilbert`s role in the queer theatre-communityis continually up for revision, his relationship with mainstream theatre ismore predictable. Gilbert has teamed that "it`s always my least sexual,most `accessible` works that get the good reviews and the awards. The messageis still `closet yourself for success.` I don`t give a fuck about themainstream, but it infuriates me when the arts community acts as uptight as thewhole country. Artists are supposed to be liberators, not their ownpolice." Has Gilbert ever policed himself? I hopenot. But I know there are places in my work where I scare myself. Not in sexualissues, I have no problems writing about anything sexual, but in emotionalplaces. Sometimes my characters lead me to emotional places I don`t want to go.Especially lately, in Play Murder and More Divine. Charactersbecome so powerful, so strong-voiced, they can make me, Sky, the person,feel lost. That`s a bit scary for any writer." That crucial point in Sky Gilbert`sworks, where powerful emotions cross with vibrant sexualities, a point anyonewho has been in a relationship (and who hasn`t?) can relate to, is the key tounderstanding both Gilbert`s skills and the cease less controversies his worksprovoke. Many of us would kill to be, to live, like a character in a SkyGilbert play: to live fully in control, and sometimes lose control, of oursexualities, their consequences and rewards. And some of us would kill to getout.

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