CHEAP QUEERS a cabaret series presented by the Hardworkin' Homosexuals at Buddies (12 Alexander). Wednesday (June 22) to June 24 at 9 pm. $4.62. 416-975-8555, www.cheapqueers.com. Rating: NNNNN
If it hadn't been for the date from hell, Keith Cole, one of the movers behind Cheap Queers, might not have been involved in the successful cabaret series at all.
Cole met "a totally hot Italian guy" at a straight bar and was surprised when he invited Cole to join him for the weekend with his het friends.
"I hung out with the girls in the kitchen while the guys did guy things," recalls Cole with his infectious laugh. "This man and I slept in the same bed, but nothing happened."
Only at the end of the weekend did the man admit that he was dared by his bar cronies to bring Cole along. And he won his bet.
"But he wouldn't share the money with me," says Cole in a mock miff.
Cole embellished that anecdote and made it his first presentation at Cheap Queers in 1996. The next year he joined the Hardworkin' Homosexuals collective that produces the annual fest involving queer and queer-friendly performers. The cabaret series is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
"That's what I love about Cheap Queers," offers writer and performer Mariko Tamaki, who's been involved in five of the events, both solo and with the group Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off.
"If that story were mine, I would have been in tears. But Keith laughs about it and sees the straight guy as ballsy."
Cheap Queers, spearheaded by Moynan King with seed money from Buddies, was a response to a gay performance scene that idolized entertainers from other countries, says Cole.
"Why should we have to pay $90 to see someone like Ellen DeGeneres at Massey Hall? There are people in Toronto who are as talented, and audiences shouldn't have to pay inflated prices to see them."
For its first five years, Cheap Queers charged $3.99 for admission. Since then, it's built the annual rate of inflation into the ticket price.
That puts the price for the show, which returns to Buddies after several years of roaming about town, at a whopping $4.62. As Tamaki deadpans, that's the cost of a coke in some bars.
This year Cole and drag king Deb "Dirk" Pearce host one of the fest's three evenings, the same night that Tamaki and Lindy Zucker are performing.
The bill is always a flexible thing. In fact, it's only during the interview that Cole tells Tamaki which night she's appearing.
New this year is a video installation curated by Cheap Queers regular RM Vaughan, with videos by Jubal Brown, Fastwürms, Andrew Harwood and Lisa Pereira.
What stays the same is the blend of anecdotes, songs, readings and performance art that's hard to define or predict.
In previous fests, Tamaki read from her diary, Sonja Mills presented her angry e-mail correspondence, Salvatore Antonio riffed on Burt Bacharach and Dmitry Chepovetsky offered a sign-language and interpretive dance presentation of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse Of The Heart.
Among the queer-positive performers taking part have been Indian dancer Nova Bhattacharya, writer/performer Toby Rodin and funny lady Shoshana Sperling.
"Sometimes it's fun to have a party that's simply about having a party, rather than defining your identity as do cabarets like Strange Sisters or Where The Boys Are," says Tamaki.
"And there's often a formula for cabarets that involves a running theme or a style. That's too safe for Cheap Queers, where there's no concern about being uptight or that what you're doing might not be art."
Both Cole and Tamaki remember a number that Ellen-Ray Hennessy did involving a container of red liquid that Hennessy drank, having "peed" it into a glass.
"The audience went bananas," remembers Cole. "But that's the thing about Cheap Queers - its unpredictability is one of the things that keeps bringing audiences back."
And what's Tamaki doing this year?
"Lindy and I are thinking about doing something on our respective Jewish and Japanese identities, where one will hurt the other emotionally and talk about the upset that results.
"Then," she says with a hint of a smile, "there'll be a message about love so it'll feel like a three-minute DeGrassi episode.
"This festival is the perfect venue for experimentation. These days some queer art has become tasteful, informative, soul-searching and right-wing, but Cheap Queers focuses on what artists want to talk about and do."