How do you get a group of teenagers to discuss homosexuality, bullying, and teen suicide? It would be difficult to be in that room without witnessing nervous laughs, sweaty hands, and sideways glances. Playwright Paul Dunn and the Roseneath Theatre have come up with a good starting point for discussion, a play entitled Outside about a young gay man who comes out to his peers. Watching this play and participating in a short question and answer period afterwards is a great way to move past the awkward feelings that might typically be experienced during this discussion.
The Roseneath Theatre operates out of St. Anne’s Church at Dufferin and Dundas. The theatre has existed for 30 years and moved to this place in August of 2008. The founding/former artistic directors, Robert Morgan and David S. Craig, created the company while living on a tiny street called Roseneath Gardens (near St. Clair and Oakwood) in 1983, and David has been living on the edge of Dufferin Grove Park since the late 80s. Andrew Lamb is the current artistic director and the director for the play Outside.
Roseneath Theatre tours schools all over Ontario. I was fortunate enough to see a dress rehearsal for Outside in front of its first audience. City View Alternative School, Grades 7 and 8, joined me for an engaging hour to preview this inspiring new play. Gretel Meyer Odell, the Education and Marketing Manager of Roseneath, lives in Brockton Village and invited me for this unique opportunity. Starting the week of April 13, 2015, Outside started touring high schools and middle schools across Ontario.
Meyer Odell: “The play will be performed 55 times for approximately 50 schools (20,000 teens!) not just across Toronto, but in Simcoe County, the Sudbury Area, Marathon, Thunder Bay, Ottawa, North Bay and even Red Lake (a tiny Ontario municipality which is almost at the Manitoba border, a 22 hour drive from Toronto).”
I was interested to find out how this particular play came together. Was it Roseneath’s idea to introduce this theme around homophobia or did it come from the playwright?
Director Andrew Lamb: “Paul sent in an application to Roseneath and we were quite taken by what he proposed to explore, which resulted in us recommending funding for the project. After reading the play, which was very compelling even at this early stage, I then invited Paul to participate in developing the piece further from Jan-Dec 2014.”
I asked Paul why he decided to write a play dealing with this theme.
Paul Dunn: “I wanted to contribute to the dialogue happening in this country around homophobia and bullying in schools. I was particularly inspired by the Gay-Straight Alliance movement, and the young people who are struggling to start and maintain clubs in their schools. This play is a bit of a love letter to those kids.”
The first scene begins with Daniel, the main character (played by G. Kyle Shields), talking to the audience as though they are a “GSA” or a “Gay Straight Alliance”. So right from the outset, the audience is engaged and is an integral part of the play; this strategy works beautifully.
Dunn: “I deliberately cast the audience in the role of Daniel’s allies; he speaks to us as if we are fellow members of the Queer-Straight Alliance at his new school. This allows Daniel the freedom to share the details of his story with us, and for the students in the audience, the opportunity to hear his story from a unique angle, and perhaps a new perspective. I wanted to reinforce the idea that the students in the audience are part of the solution.”
Daniel begins to tell you about his experience of homophobic bullying at the school he previously attended and introduces his friends there (Krystina and Jeremy, played by Mina James and Youness Aladdin) through flashbacks and parallel time sequences. It was the flashbacks that were the hardest part of moving the play from paper to the stage.
Lamb: “Locations and flashbacks were probably the biggest challenge in bringing Paul’s script to life. We worked closely with Michael Greves our set designer and Lindsay C. Walker our costume designer in advance of rehearsals to address these challenges. This resulted in the creative and seamless way we were able to deliver these shifts with clarity to audiences.”
The set is a series of chain-linked triangles that spin into different configurations. Some of them include classroom doors (one turns into a hospital bed), and some show lockers. These lockers have screens mounted on them that mimic a smartphone screen. It is on these screens that we see the nasty texts Daniel receives from his peers. The play shows how smartphones and texting have now become one of the most prominent ways in which teens are bullied currently in schools. The actors put on and take off articles of clothing with the chain link sprayed on them (reminiscent of something Arcade Fire might wear on stage) to distinguish at what point in time we’re watching.
Krystina and Jeremy, Daniel’s old friends from his previous school, are setting up a GSA after the events Daniel went through there. These two are the only ones in the group at the moment and they are trying to find ways to approach others to join up. Through their candid and often humorous discussion, the audience learns how to become an ally. Krystina, the “good student”, is quick to support Daniel, while Jeremy, “the jock”, struggles within his crowd to express his friendship towards Daniel. All these characters have depth, although it is often Daniel who is the most honest about his feelings and opens the door for the audience to enter.
Dunn: “Jeremy is the way into the story for a large portion of the audience. I created him to bring humour into the play, but also to have a character that can ask the questions many of us might be afraid to ask. It’s okay to feel ‘stuck’, and I want the audience to know that. Jeremy is also the voice for forgiveness in the piece, for giving people a second chance, because he knows what it’s like to act out of peer pressure, and to make mistakes.”
This play deals head on with some dark issues, and eventually Daniel attempts suicide. The play is very powerful because it talks to students at their level and in their language. I asked Paul what was it like to write a play for teenagers versus some of the plays he might have written for Buddies in Bad Times.
Dunn: “The best advice I heard about writing for teenagers was to not worry about trying to ‘target’ my play to a specific age group, and instead to just focus on telling a good story. So, in the beginning, I didn’t worry about tailoring the play to teens, and instead just wrote the play I wanted to write. In the development process, we did get feedback from educators and people who specialize in dealing with the issues of homophobia and bullying, and we adjusted some language and story points to ensure that the play was an effective and useful tool in a school setting. There was also the time consideration (it needed to be under an hour), which meant choosing carefully the points that I needed to make, and questions I needed to raise.”
Bill 13 just passed in 2012 paving the way for students to create Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. This kind of play with this kind of content could not have toured Ontario schools previously. Homophobia is an important topic that affects the lives of many teenagers. 30% of teen suicides are from LGBT youth. After I watched the play, I thought to myself “THIS is what theatre should be about.” There really is no better way for students to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone going through what Daniel suffered than through the medium of theatre. A book wouldn’t engage the same way because reading is a private experience; a speaker doesn’t allow for the same vicarious experiencing of emotions. Watching actors play out this story does engage because it provides the necessary distance for students to be able to get it, to think about it, and to discuss it. I asked Andrew about what it meant to experience this play being viewed by such a large audience.
Lamb: “As an openly gay man who married my husband in 2011, it is difficult to put into words what producing and directing this play means to me personally. Even though July 2015 marks the 10 year anniversary of gay marriage being legalized across Canada, there is still a lot of work to be done around homophobia. My hope is that this production will help keep the conversation going, which I truly believe is the one thing we can all do to improve our communities and become allies for those in need of our support – to call out bullying, discrimination, homophobia and transphobia when we see it and work together to create a better and safer environment for us all.”
‘Outside’ received two Dora Mavor Moore nominations this week in the Theatre for Young Audiences Category!