Can the future be gender-free? Nick Green’s new comedy Happy Birthday Baby J wonders. Meet the playwright.

David Ley, Patricia Cerra (top), Chantal Perron, Mathew Hulshot, Cameron Grant in Happy Birthday Baby J, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

When Nick Green moved to Toronto 10 years ago this month, Edmonton theatre sustained a double loss.

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There was Green the charismatic young actor (and U of A theatre grad) we’d seen in Catalyst’s Frankenstein musical and Guys and Disguise productions like Two Queens and a Joker and Triple Platinum. And there was Green the playwright, who’d written a punchy and poignant award-winner of a triptych (Coffee Dad, Chicken Mom and the Fabulous Buddha Boi) and turned out a wild assortment of comedies, farces, vaudevilles and musicals for the vintage Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park.

A new play Dora Award (for Body Politic) and multiple Toronto productions later, including most recently Nightwood Theatre’s premiere of Every Day She Rose, it seems only fair (to us) that this 10th anniversary should be celebrated in Edmonton — and with the premiere of a new Green comedy. Happy Birthday Baby J, opening Thursday at the Varscona in a Shadow Theatre production directed by John Hudson, is that play.

It’s a sharp-edged, funny, and probing comedy in which a couple trying to bring up their kid without gender has invited friends and family to a birthday bash in honour of two-year-old J. Tensions — challenges, withering responses, zinging put-downs, readjustments and backfires in every angle and power dynamic of what it means to be “progressive” or politically correct — ensue. 

On the phone from Toronto,  Green, quick-witted and thoughtful, says that “Happy Birthday Baby J started for me from a question…. If you look at the story synopsis, it’s two parents raising a child without gender.” And there are distinct satirical possibilities in the parental aspirations and competitive go-for-the-gusto contemporaneity of that, to be sure. But, says Green, “My entry point isn’t gender non-binary. It’s not about that. It’s about gender expression and masculinity.”

“Masculinity,” he sighs. “It’s a convention that’s haunted me throughout my life. And it’s been a struggle…. I’m not someone who can effortlessly portray masculinity in performance. And that’s impacted my career as an actor.”

Playwright Nick Green. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Green is thinking of his drift away from acting towards writing when he made his move across the country. “Theatre as a career wasn’t bringing me joy any more; I lost my drive for it. So I just switched tracks.”

“When you move to Toronto, suddenly it’s about auditioning for beer commercials. Suddenly it’s getting your lunch shift covered so you can go audition for a commercial you’re never going to get cast for.… The casting director would ask me to butch it up a bit, and I’d say the line again and leave. And it was miserable; it made me feel ashamed and awful.”

Writing on the other hand was exhilarating. “I owe a lot to Guys in Disguise,” he says. “Trevor (Schmidt) and Darrin (Hagen) encouraged me early on to keep exploring that.… Those two are such prolific creators; I saw in them a way to exciting queer stories in in a contemporary way. They’re all about diving in, believing what you have to say, and pushing something on to the stage.” Wry and insightful about the coming-out of a boy, Coffee Dad, Chicken Mom and the Fabulous Buddha Boi, started life as separate monologues, submitted to successive editions of the Loud ’N’ Queer cabaret curated by Hagen. “It was an awakening for me…. “

And Fort Edmonton Park was an inspiration, too, for the emerging playwright, who partnered with director Amanda Bergen. For a couple of years “it was my writing school,” as Green puts it. “And we had a built-in audience…. We were putting up three or four new plays of mine a year!” Poof!, the musical he wrote with composer Hagen, stars a rebellious teenager with the classic coming-of-age dilemma: she’s torn between upholding traditional family values and sallying forth with her own choices. The wrinkle, a puckish one, is that she’s a witch. And the family tradition is spreading evil.

In Happy Birthday Baby J, “I was really interested in performances of masculinity, and the impact those performances have on women and femme-identifying people…. How do effeminate gay men ‘perform’ masculinity, and how do they gain access to power by dominating women?”

When Louise and Gary throw a birthday party for J, their friend Patrick brings his latest boyfriend to the festivities. Tensions of every cultural/social strip ensue. Patrick uses “effeminate gender performance on purpose in order to gain power over women,” says Green. He “out-feminizes them. And in doing that he’s almost colonizing women….”

Happy Birthday Baby J, Shadow Theatre. Photo supplied.

Is a future with no gender even possible? “I don’t think I hold a stance on it,” says Green, congenitally a man of many questions. “I think many people are struggling to manage the consequences of being raised in binary gender roles. And it would be very hard to (envision) a future without gender until we have dealt with the damages gender roles have had on us.”

Hard questions seem to be Green’s specialty; they shape his characters and sharpen his wit. In Every Day She Rose, for example which premiered this year in a Nightwood Theatre production at Buddies In Bad Times, he collaborated with fellow playwright Andrea Scott to explore the tangle of racism and power. “On the surface it’s the story of a white gay guy and a black straight woman, best friends, who go to Pride together the year that Black Lives Matter stops the parade,” says Green. Their friendship unravels. “So, an exploration of racism in the gay community. And then the play takes a step back into a meta-theatrical world that looks at a white gay writer writing a play with a black straight woman.” White supremacy, maleness, the patriarchy … “it’s a complicated play,” says Green cheerfully, as he details the pleasures of co-writing he learned from Schmidt and Hagen, and “which certainly make things feel less lonely!” 

And speaking of collaboration, he’s currently at work on no fewer than three musicals, in association with Toronto’s innovative Musical Stage Company. The Vancouver native says he grew up “knowing the stories of musicals,” not who was in the original cast and got nominated for a Tony and all that. “Such great stories get told in musicals, and not just corny love stories. They can be joyous and exciting, but they can be dark and layered, and tackle sensitive and complex issues in a way that’s accessible to people.” That’s what he’s undertaking at the moment. 

Meanwhile, he’ll be back in this town, happily, for the premiere of Happy Birthday Baby J. “It feels right to me to premiere this show in Edmonton 10 years after leaving, says Green. “A show I’m really proud of, one that’s quite challenging and asks a lot of questions….”

One thing he misses in his Toronto life is “the amazing sense of community in Edmonton. Such a supportive, loving community. People see each other’s shows; they cheer each other on.”

PREVIEW

Happy Birthday Baby J

Theatre: Shadow Theatre

Written by: Nick Green

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: David Ley, Chantal Perron, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Grant, Patricia Cerra

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Feb. 9

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org

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