Waiting For It : Exploring Community Outreach through Play Development

By Curtis te Brinke

Waiting For It is a play that began with a surprisingly simple question: What happens when a gay teenager tries to lose his virginity in rural Ontario? The first draft was easy. It stopped being easy right after.

I wrote the play for Theatre Directs First Creators unit, and used it as a chance to write the kind of TYA show I’d loved to see have seen when I was in high school. Something funny and dark and unafraid of the vulgarities of growing up, and ideally I wanted it to reach a high school audience. Theatre Direct was the ideal company to develop the play with, as a theatre for young audiences company that has been dedicated to staging content that could be seen as difficult or controversial for young audiences, yet presenting them in ways that are engaging and palatable for younger folks.

With a first draft in hand the opportunity came to take the month of December to do further research and develop the play. I planned to conduct interviews and immerse myself back in the world I had written it from: my very small and very rural hometown of Clinton, Ontario. I relocated to my parents’ house for the month with the intention of making it up as I went along. The idea was to get my finger on the pulse of the rural queer experience in Huron County, to gain perspectives I didn’t have growing up there, and see how things had changed for queer youth. I wrote press releases, made a poster calling for rural queer perspectives, and emailed all the teachers in the district I could get in touch with. The recently formed Huron County Pride Network reached out enthusiastically, and invited me to host a roundtable discussion at their holiday open house. The public school board welcomed me with open arms.

 

I was ready for my preconceived notions of rural queerness to be blown out of the water, but wasn’t ready for the reality of what I was exploring. I approached the Catholic school in Clinton and told them I was interested in leading a round table discussion with LGBTQ youth in the school and anyone else who felt like speaking about the subject. I learned quickly that the subject matter was not something they wanted to open up in the confines of their school.

What I discovered upon spending time with the GSA in my old high school was that the notion of queer victimhood via outright bigotry was antiquated (which was the entire reason I had decided to conduct outreach/research on the play in the first place), but not obsolete. This “post-Glee” generation of queers was not immune to the high school bully style of bigotry even with gayness getting a tepid thumbs up from the masses. What I encountered was a more difficult and tangled form of oppression.

Teenagers are smart, in both their politics and their bigotry. They wear their identities and their identity politics on their sleeves. While there was only one boy there who identified as gay, the rest of the room was made up of young women who identify as queer, bi, bi-romantic, or asexual. They could recite to you the specifics of their identifications, and the myriad ways their parents and classmates misunderstood them. It was a far cry from the queer high school experience I grew up with, and that added much needed fuel to my writing process.

What shocked me was how this new form of bigotry was playing out. This GSA had recently begun flying their rainbow pride flag at the front entrance of the school, alongside the many banners and flags that coated the main foyer of the school. The reaction was instant, and aggressive. An Instagram account dedicated to rallying people to rip down the flag popped up almost immediately. The notion that “the flag must be removed now” swept through the school with a fervour only possible in a hotbed of teenage angst and hormones. The hatred continues, organized via social media, and normalized by the threats of violence against the members of the GSA in the hallways. “Curbstomp the GSA” began as a real threat, and continues as an acidic running joke through the school.

It was clear that the new narrative far more tangled than it used to be. I travelled around the county speaking with the young and the not-so-young alike. After each exchange I wrote what I hoped would provide a voice to their experiences. I wasn’t interested in giving any one person a voice over others, but in abstracting and amalgamating their stories into the characters I had created in my first draft.

Theatre is my default discipline when it comes to telling stories, but was also a deliberate choice in this case: I wanted to take the story directly to the people it effects. Once finished, I want to bring the play home and tour it through the high schools in the area. Getting the funding and resources to make this happen will be, as always, a struggle. But the notion of bringing this story directly into these schools remains at the centre of what I’m hoping to do with this project.  If it doesn’t effect change it will at least reflect this community back to itself. Give those kids a little bit of representation.

I am happy those young queers have a place to convene, finally.  That they were smart and artistic and theatrical in their own self-expression. That the art room had become their hideaway from the more corrosive aspects of rural high school life. But they will always need more artistic opportunities. The whole experience left me wondering if it is enough for the young people to be making these spaces and organizations for themselves. I think there’s an obligation from the school boards and the community at large to foster artistic spaces within their own town, and that it shouldn’t be left entirely up to the kids to pull these spaces out of nothing. As someone who cared about little else than artistic spaces like this at that age, the impact is enormous. My entire career has sprung out of it.

I’m going to invest more of my career on places like this. People like those kids. Because I can’t get them out of my head, and want to be the kind of person that excited me when I was their age. The kind of artist that invites you to collaborate, and be yourself, and discover what the hell that even means.

I’m going home this summer to lead the Blyth Festival Young Company. I’m going to do the best I can to bring out the queers and the weirdos and the young people who want to see a little bit of the world outside their home town. Show them what happens when you let a person, and the million different parts of them, take up more space than they’ve ever been allowed to before.

 

Curtis would like to thank the Ontario Arts Council, The Blyth Festival, Theatre Direct and The Thousand Islands Playhouse for their support. 

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