Gender, sexuality, identity: Elena Belyea’s Cleave asks questions

Cleave, Tiny Bear Jaws/ Fringe Theatre Adventures. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Elena Belyea thinks about the punchy title of her new play with a certain unmistakeable satisfaction. Cleave, after all, has two completely opposite meanings: to pull together and to wrench apart.

Families, those repositories of contradictory impulses, spring to mind, right? And yes, Belyea’s new “comedic drama,” premiering Thursday in a Tiny Bear Jaws production that cleaves to the Fringe Theatre Adventures season, takes us into the cleft heart of a family — and the fortunes of Aaron, who’s 17 and intersex.

Belyea is the fiercely energetic playwright/actor/creator who co-founded a festival, Found, devoted to letting audiences discover theatre in non-conventional, surprising places. Her muse naturally gravitates to theatre outside formal settings. For Belyea’s solo show Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, slated to tour Alberta and B.C. in May, the theatre is a classroom and we are her cowed and earnest class.  Everyone We Know Will Be Therewhich premiered at Nextfest 2017, invited us to a teen party, in honour of a 17th birthday, at a big suburban house (and back yard) in Westridge. 

For that site-specific bash, the parents (thank god) weren’t home. In Cleave, though, the parents are present, and they’ve got secrets of their own. In the six-character play, happening (in a departure from usual Tiny Bear Jaws practice) in a bona fide theatre, the Fringe’s Backstage venue, Belyea takes us into family life in all its  layers of secrecy and complications of gender and identity. 

Its origins lie in Belyea’s time in the playwriting program at the National Theatre School in Montreal, and the 2015 New Words Festival there. “The inspiration was a curious news article about a husband in China who’d sued his wife for having plastic surgery without telling him, and then producing ‘ugly children’,” says Belyea. “The play has moved away from that, and the article turned out to be a hoax. But the family in the play came out of that.”

Meanwhile, Aaron, the “side character orbiting the family,” increasingly got dramatic traction and “moved to the forefront” of a play the author calls “an ensemble piece.”

“Our hero,” as Belyea describes him, is an intersex kid from rural Alberta who’s moved to Edmonton to continue transitioning to male. “He collides with this family (the parents and a couple of siblings) in ways he did not expect at all!”

Belyea describes Cleave, which won the 2015 Wildfire National Playwriting Competition (and was shortlisted for the 50th anniversary Alberta Playwriting Competition), as an exploration of identity, self-actualization, how we create alter-egos, versions of ourselves — for work, for self-preservation..… Who are we actually?

Aaron has had to consider the question explicitly, viscerally. But all the characters, including Aaron’s “gender therapist,” are up against it, too, in a variety of ways.  

And so is the playwright. Questions like “how do I challenge myself and grow as an artist?” and “who has the right to tell what stories, and portray what characters?” are crucial to Belyea, who identifies as queer. She hired a consultant to assist in verifying the transitioning particulars; she submitted the script to Interact, an American intersex advocacy group that scrutinizes scripts for stage and screen. And she set about casting a trans actor, Jordan Fowlie. “I’m very interested in having a variety of experiences in my work,” she says. 

“What does it mean to feel like you’re on the outside? I feel like all the characters are going through a version of that….”

PREVIEW

Cleave

Theatre: Tiny Bear Jaws and Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Elena Belyea

Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin

Starring: Jordan Fowlie, Dave Horak, Emma Houghton, Natasha Napoleon, Elena Porter, Luc Tellier

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through April 7

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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