By Grant Loveys
Special to The Telegram
Art is communication. It’s simple: the artist conveys his or her message through the medium — be it painting or poetry, song or theatre — and the audience, interpret that message through their own frame of reference.
But what happens when one half of the equation is missing? What happens when the artist and the audience don’t have an opportunity to meet?
According to Jenn Brown, local director, actor, writer and one third of local artist-run theatre company Engine Productions, that’s the situation the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) arts community face in this province. And that disconnect is something she’s trying to change.
“I moved to St. John’s a few years ago and realized that there’s no arts component to Pride Week whatsoever,” Brown says. “I was like, ‘What’s happening? I’m living in a city — Pride Weeks are supposed to be huge and fun.’ But there was just nothing. They had tons of events, but with the arts there was nothing. I was really surprised by that.”
So Brown, along with Kimberley Drake and Laura Huckle, her partners in Engine Productions, decided to do something about it.
They organized Short and Queer, a small pop-up show that took place in the space above The Sprout restaurant on Duckworth Street. Five established local artists and playwrights — Robert Chafe, Amy Anthony, Mark White, Meg Coles and Liz Solo — each wrote a short piece which was then performed in a different room in the space.
“The rules for the pieces were that they had to be written by queer artists or have a theme or relevance to the queer community, so they’d be super inclusive,” Brown says. “It became this moving thing that had a life of its own. It was amazing.”
Now, a year later, Engine Productions is doing it again, only this time its expanding its scope.
Last year’s shorts, which were originally conceived as dramatic readings, will be produced as full shows this year. Then, five new artists will perform in Short and Queer II, featuring a new set of short pieces which will function as a teaser for next year’s full shows. “This way,” Brown says, “we’ll always have this growing life for the pieces.”
In addition, Engine is partnering with Gemma Hickey, executive director of arts-based education charity For The Love of Learning, to bring a second show to the big stage. The charity’s Queer Monologues project, a series of dramatic monologues written and performed by local LGBT youth which will be published and made available as a resource to schools across the province, will kick off the festival on Friday night at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, along with a performance by a Queer Choir and an opening reception.
Though the festival is LGBT-oriented, Engine Productions set out from the beginning to make it inclusive as possible, regardless of gender or orientation. “It’s everyone’s festival,” Brown says. “I want to see what it means to people, what kinds of stories they think should be told and how they want to express them. I want them to have an open dialogue with us, to share with us, and I hope that that then continues on throughout the year. St. John’s is a place full of so many creative people. If they don’t have a project on the go, they want to help out.”
And, indeed, help is coming from everywhere. Engine has acquired some funding from the city, the Arts and Culture Centre is on board and they have the full support of award-winning playwrights like Robert Chafe.
People of all stripes are pitching in, like Sarah Murphy, a Newfoundland-born actress who cut her teeth in the thriving Montreal theatre scene.
“When Jenn asked me if I was interested in (working in the festival) I said yes immediately,” Murphy says. “An arts community means everyone lending what skills they have, what background they have, what training they have, what experience they have to make as successful a production as possible. Nobody owns it. Everyone just wants to make the most successful production they can.”
Both women agree the spirit of the festival is to set aside the things that divide us, and bring people together in a celebration of that which unites them: a love of theatre.
For Brown, her desire stems, in part, from an experience she had as a teenager.
“When I was a kid, maybe 13, the late Mercedes Barry who started Sheila’s Brush Company and the Mummers’ Troupe, came to Bonavista and her and a bunch of us kids did these shows about gender roles. That really opened my eyes. She said that theatre has a power: you share your story, but it doesn’t end there, it’s a living thing. When audience members leave the doors, they’re talking about what they saw.
“She was a very seasoned artist in the theatre, and it was one of the first times I had an adult treat me as an adult as a kid. I thought, wow, theatre’s a place where it doesn’t matter how old I am, or what my viewpoints are.”
“In Montreal, you’d look out in the audience and see people of different backgrounds and genders and orientations all in the same room,” she says. “People who might not necessarily be together under any other circumstance, and they were all there laughing at the same things, being inspired by the same things, enjoying the same things. It really gave you a sense of community.”
As of right now, Engine plans to cap off Pride Week with a full weekend of theatre, but several other events are in the planning stages for next year’s festival.
“My goal is to have a weeklong queer arts festival that coincides with Pride Week. A burlesque show here, readings here, drama here, everything,” Brown says.
Ultimately, she adds, the Queer Theatre Festival is not about simply filling a niche, or setting up a series of events.
It’s about a much deeper, more human, issue.
“At the end of last year’s show,” she says, “there was a woman who came over to me in tears, a middle-aged woman, and said ‘I have a transgendered member of my family and I’ve never been to a pride event. And all these people here think that that’s ok, and are really happy and celebrating everyone.’ ”
St. John’s Pride Week takes place July 15-21.
The Queer Theatre Festival runs the weekend of the 19-20, at the Barbara Barrett theatre in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre.
For more info check out @QueerTheatreFestival on Twitter or Facebook.com/EngineProductions