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The power of culture 

The organizers of Halifax Pride’s Queer Acts Theatre Festival talk definitions, theatre, community and standing outside of the mainstream.

click to enlarge Stephanie MacDonald takes to the Queer Acts stage as the star of Short Skirt Butch.
  • Stephanie MacDonald takes to the Queer Acts stage as the star of Short Skirt Butch.

Sometimes an interviewer has to work very hard to draw information from the subjects of a story. It can require the sensitivity of a therapist, the easygoing ways of a best friend and the analytical focus of a detective.

Well, that's certainly not the case for this story. It seems that when you get Hugo Dann, Tanya Davis, Adam Reid and newcomer Aisha Sommer together in one room to talk about queer theatre, the interview practically conducts itself.

The players arrive at the Barrington Street meeting place, dripping and shivering from one of this summer's many flash downpours. They represent a broad range of ages from Dann, who's 54 and a veteran on the Halifax theatre scene, to Sommer, who's 17 and about to premiere her first play at the festival. Reid, 32, is the director of the Queer Acts Theatre Festival, and Dann, Sommer and musician/poet/performer Davis (32) all have shows in this year's line-up.

They've come together to talk about the importance of having a theatre festival included in the Pride Week activities, but end up touching on a wide variety of subjects from Magic Mike---"The audience was made up of a lot of screaming ladies and a few groups of gays"---to the pros and cons of performing in one's own work.

A good portion of the interview is spent on exploring the meaning of the word "queer," in all its glory. And the definition appears to be much broader and more inclusive than one might expect.

"I hated the word. I only thought that it meant negative things," says Sommer, a remarkably poised and expressive teenager who has recently come out to her friends and family. "But then we looked at it as just meaning 'unusual' or 'different.' After exploring that definition in our theatre workshop, I fell in love with it."

The workshop she refers to is Acting Out!, an intensive two-weekend program put on by DaPoPo Theatre Company back in June. It encouraged queer youth to come together and explore their identities through theatre, dance and music, and was the incubator for a youth theatre component in this year's Queer Acts fest.

The "queer" conversation continues with Dann pointing out the broadly-encompassing nature of the word. "Its advantage as an identifier for the community is that it's non-gender-specific and non-sexualized. It can just mean standing outside the mainstream."

"You can be straight but queer," explains Sommer. "There were people in the workshop who identified that way."

Davis and Reid chime in with comments about its inclusivity, about how it can take in so much more than the LBGQT label. Davis says, "I like to look at is as a kind of opening up. The meaning becomes more complex and inclusive, not less." Ditto for Reid: "I like it because it doesn't just encompass sexuality. It takes in any viewpoints that are out of the norm, including sociological or political."

Talk turns to the important contribution that the Queer Acts Theatre Festival makes to Halifax's Pride Week schedule.

"Life looks at itself through art. It's a place where a community can tell its stories," muses Dann. "It also broadens a Pride festival so that is not something solely defined in people's minds by the parade."

For Davis, who explains that there's a mainstream in the gay community, Queer Acts is another way to embrace left-of-centre queerness. "It's a great way to inject a little bit of queer into Pride," she says. "It's a way of expanding a festival that already has a lot of gay-friendly things going on."

Queer Acts, held at the Bus Stop Theatre on Gottingen from July 19 to 22, is entering its fourth year and has grown to include six shows and a couple of epic parties. It is a place to premiere what Davis calls "super-fresh works" as opposed to set-in-stone pieces, and artists love the opportunity to get instant feedback from the audience. 

And, as Reid points out, for the first time since its inception, the shows are all by local theatre artists. "We're trying to be as many things to as many people as possible: lesbian, gay, trans. We've got emerging artists like Sommer and veteran artists like Hugo and Bryden [MacDonald]. The idea is to highlight the talent that we have here in our own community and to show that our community has created really strong queer artists."

As the group disperses onto the now-sunny Barrington Street, Dann pauses to sum up the crux of the discussion.

"Culture is the most powerful force in the world, and that is why Queer Acts is so important."

Kate Watson is The Coast's theatre reviewer and a freelance journalist.

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