Saturday, June 7, 2014

First-Person - Sheila L. Cavanagh on Queer Bathroom Stories

(photo by Drasko Bogdanovic)
72 Speak
by Sheila L. Cavanagh

Sheila L. Cavanagh is an Associate Professor in Sociology & Sexuality Studies Coordinator at York University. Her research is in the area of gender and sexuality with a concentration on queer, cultural, and psychoanalytic theories.  Cavanagh recently co-edited a collection  titled Skin, Culture and Psychoanalysis (2013), published by Palgrave Macmillan. Her first sole-authored book titled Sexing the Teacher: School Sex Scandals and Queer Pedagogies (UBC, 2007) was given honourable mention by the Canadian Women's Studies Association.  Her second sole-authored book titled Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination (UTP, 2010) is a GLBT Indie Book Award finalist and recipient of the CWSA/ACEF Outstanding Scholarship Prize Honourable Mention (2012). Her performed ethnography titled Queer Bathroom Stories premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival (2011) and was given the Audience Pick Award. The play will be professionally produced at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre as a WorldPride Toronto affiliate event. 

Queer Bathroom Stories (QBS) is a verbatim play about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) experiences in Canada’s public facilities. Three talented actors play all 72 characters. They showcase much more than the secret sex life of the bathroom! A brutally honest display of gender politics in public washrooms, QBS is inspired by 100 interviews I completed for my book titled Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination.  The book is about the regulation of gender in public facilities and how the cultural politics of excretion is of significance to sexuality studies. 

On November 7, 2010 during the launch of Queering Bathrooms at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, I staged the first iteration of the QBS (then titled Queer Bathroom Monologues) to give the audience a flavour of the interviews. To my surprise, 150 people in attendance gave QBS a standing ovation. Thanks to the energy and enthusiasm generated by the reading, I decided to develop the script into a full-fledged production. I entered my name into the 2010 Toronto Fringe Festival lottery, was put on a waiting list and two months before the festival opened got the call: “Queer Bathroom Stories is in! Do you want the spot?” I was thrilled!  Then, the panic set in.  As a sociologist I had little experience in arts-based methods or performance studies. I had no director, no actors and had never staged a play in my life. To say this was a huge undertaking was the understatement of the year! But, I was haunted by a vision, coming from an interviewee about how the research might become part of a travelling “installation…an experience…through film or audio or…re-enactment or theatre”. Like the interviewee, I was intrigued by expositional and performance-based writing (for the stage, radio, and so on). It was important to capture the emotional and visceral components of the interviews. I had only ever published my work in academic and textual formats but saw the value of theatre. So, I threw caution to the wind and wrote what became the first version of Queer Bathroom Stories.

My actors sought to perform these gestures and to tell interviewee stories.

I turned to interview-based theatrical productions like Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues and Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project's The Laramie Project as examples. They follow the aesthetic conventions of the interview to stage taboo or controversial subjects and stories in these two plays - vagina and homosexuality respectively. The Shape of a Girl by Joan McLeod (about the brutal death of Reena Virk in Saanic, British Columbia), and Talking to Terrorists by Robin Soan (about international terrorism), both utilize interview-based research to compose their verbatim plays which Denzin refers to as "documentary interview style" performance. This style, relying as it does on first person accounts, enables characters with radically different backgrounds and ways of thinking to find themselves in conversation with one another. "Many of these performances intentionally rely on the monologue form, using extended sections of interview texts representing the richness and complexity of participants' language and lived experience" (Snyder-Young 2010).

I intuitively felt comfortable with the interview-based style because the Queering Bathrooms book was based on interviews. The final script emerged after many drafts, consultations with friends and colleagues in theatre studies, directors, writers, and dramaturges who gave crucially important editorial feedback. I created 3 dramatic personae: female, male and trans to represent the binary poles of male-masculinity, female-feminity, along with a third identificatory sign. Each character enacts a dramatic departure from the prototypical stick figures on toilet doors. Monologues and multi-character dialogue are used to capture a range of gendered and sexualized experiences in the toilet. They include stories that span from the devastating to the sublime, the traumatic to the passionate, the mundane to the curious, the comic and everything in between.

I fictionalized the monologues while maintaining true to the spirit of individual stories. The dramatic climax in each monologue is taken from an actual interview or is a composite of multiple interviews. Names, dates, places, events and so on are changed to ensure anonymity and to respect confidentiality. As Kathleen Gallagher writes in her discussion of performance-based research, "respectful forgeries and faithful betrayals" can be closer to the spirit of interviewee testimonials than quotable sound-bites. Fiction may even animate an affective truth more poignantly than a verbatim transcription.

QBS features monologues that read like gripping stories. Emotion and affect saturated the faces of actual participants, in speech patterns, tears, stutters, slips of the tongue, downward gazes, pressed lips, furrowed brows, and abrupt changes of subject are all central to the interviews, and thus to the composition of the dramatic monologues. My actors sought to perform these gestures and to tell interviewee stories. Their words were largely unedited - except for a few instances where it was necessary for comprehensive and climactic effect - I obscured and changed identities, geographical locations, names, and dates.
After completing the script, I had the good fortune of meeting Megan Watson (Derailed/Summerworks), an exceptionally talented director who agreed to shepherd the first production. She had the wisdom to cast a dream team: Hallie Burt, who most recently co-created and starred in the much acclaimed Elizabeth - Darcy: An Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice; Chy Ryan Spain, who starred in Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical (EcceHomo) and pole dances under the stage name Axel Blows; and Tyson James, who acted in Daniel MacIvor’s Arigato, Tokyo and in Of a Monstrous Child and performs drag as Cassandra Moore. While queer theatre is not eagerly embraced at theatre festivals (and there is a trend to normalize LGBTQ lives on stage and to rely on cheap stereotypical representations to get a laugh or advance a conventional storyline), QBS won the Audience Pick Award at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival. Within a month I received invitations to stage the show at colleges and universities along with LGBTQ based community and activist organizations in Toronto.  

The toilet is a Queer icon. People die and have sex in toilets.

In 2012, I received a generous grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada  to stage the show as a professional production in partnership with Egale: Canada Human Rights Trust; SOY (Supporting Our Youth); PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network); YouthLink; and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.  My collaborator, Judith Rudakoff (who worked with Nina Arsenault on The Silicone Diaries) dramaturged the script.  QBS has become a more streamlined, visceral and theatrically compelling work.  I am proud to present the World-Premiere, at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, with the same director and cast who committed their time, artistic vision, and creative capacities to the Fringe production. The production team has grown to include a range of talented artists who share the vision and spirit of the show. Cory Sincennes, resident designer with Surreal Soreal Theatre/Edmonton and award winning international designer, is the production designer. Verne Good, who has worked on a range of productions including the Normal Heart (Studio 180), is the sound designer.  Charissa Wilcox, the Head of production at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is our project manager.  Finally, Tamara Vuckovic, our stage manager, has managed many successful productions across Canada. 

Queer Bathroom Stories prompts audiences to engage with people and spaces in new and ethical ways; it questions what we take to be 'natural' and 'normal' about the gender and sex of others in the public facilities; it asks us to consider how a binary gender divide is built into the architectural design of toilets. For example, Alexander Kira, an American professor of architecture, noted in 1966 that urinals resemble enlarged vaginas, whereas the oval pedestal enclosed by stall partitions resembles the anus. Heterosexuality is built into toilets, yet the same-sex designs also, paradoxically, give rise to gay and lesbian cruising cultures. The toilet is a Queer icon. People die and have sex in toilets. The receptacle is a dumping ground for all that is at odd with polite, heterosexist and bi-gendered culture, and the remains resurface on stage in QBS. It stages the unspeakable and captures our vulnerabilities in the realm of gender, sexuality, identity and desire. As Queer theorist Lee Edelman contends, the Queer takes shape in relation to the toilet, in relation to all that is socially abject in homophobic cultures. Queer Bathroom Stories is an invitation to think about how gender and sexuality operates in the toilet.

May 31 - June 15
Read our review of the production

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