Homophobic violence inspires collective creators Jonathan Seinen (left) and Cole J. Alvis.
STILL LIFE by Cole J. Alvis, Indrit Kasapi, James MacLean, Jonathan Seinen and Alisha Stranges (lemonTree). At 519 Community Centre (519 Church). Friday and Saturday (July 16 and 17) at 8 pm. $15. 1-800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com. See listing.
How do you make queer theatre personal? You create a collective.
That's what lemonTree theatre have done for their latest work, Still Life, which has a workshop run at the most appropriate of spaces, the 519 Community Centre in the heart of the gay village on Church .
Dealing with the bashing of two men and the reactions of their friends, Still Life is in process even a week before opening.
"Last year we presented Jean Genet's Deathwatch as a Pride-sponsored event in the city's west end, but this year we wanted to do something creative in a different fashion," says company member Jonathan Seinen, who functions as the group's outside eye for the show.
"We began with the idea of the unexpected death of a gay man who hadn't come out to his family, and what it was like to grieve when your dead partner hadn't mentioned you to his family."
After working on several other storylines, the team of five - including performers Cole J. Alvis, Indrit Kasapi, James MacLean and Alisha Stranges - began a creation process that used the experiences of those in the room.
"The murder of Christopher Skinner last year was one source of ideas, which led us to the theme of homophobic violence," recalls Alvis, who performed in Deathwatch and was part of Buddies' youth program. "Regular media reports show that it's still a problem."
The company's challenge when they started working in earnest last January was to use members' stories, not news reports.
"That's the strength of a collective," adds Seinen, who directed The Red Devil. He's the co-artistic producer of Architect Theatre, which presents Highway 63 next season at Theatre Passe Muraille.
"The creators have an ease of connection with the material," he says. "We've drawn on personal stories of coming out, love, growing up around the country and moving to Toronto. And even more deeply, we're talking about what it means to be queer, here and now, supportive of others in the community."
The show's narrative involves Andrew and Steven, the pair who are attacked, Steven's ex, Matt, and Sarah, a friend of Matt's who witnesses the bashing. Memories and flashbacks contextualize the relationships.
It's the first time that Andrew and Steven have been in love, so the play includes all the drama around that, notes Seinen.
"Andrew has been out for a while," says Alvis, who plays the role, "and part of the research has been around how out you can be and feel comfortable. One of my sources is queer icon Quentin Crisp.
"Andrew gives Steven something different from the fraught relationship he had with Matt; he opens the doors a little bit to what Steven can choose to do with his life."
What does lemonTree, this fresh company of queer artists, want to offer Toronto?
They staged Deathwatch in the basement of a gallery on Ossington to bring queer audiences, young and older, to an area outside the village.
"We want to present works that speak about our history and our current situation," says Seinen. "It was exciting to work on a piece by Genet, and just as vital to create something contemporary and recognizable to queers in their 20s.
"We pulled out of this year's Pride events because of censorship issues. The discussion about Israeli apartheid has created a greater sense of community involvement, of taking ownership and investing in the community in a new way."
The arts offer another way to continue the discussion, he feels.
"Theatre is an opportunity to imagine a new world, a different way of seeing things or relating to people and issues. In Still Life, we're not talking about victims but rather about survivors, about people moving forward."
Cole J. Alvis on developing theatrical ideas collectively:
Jonathan Seinen on jamming with Layne Coleman and collective creation: