By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In February of 1983, a kid from Rocky Mountain House, newly arrived in town, went with a pal to the theatre. The play Darrin Hagen saw that winter night would linger in his mind over the years, in every detail. And it’s come back to haunt him periodically, as a writer and actor, ever since.
Which made Hosanna, a 1973 groundbreaker by the star Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay, a perfect Hagen choice for the debut edition of Theatre Network’s new online Book Club (for plays!) he will moderate this weekend. The monthly series is designed as a meet-up of theatre-lovers led by notable Edmonton playwrights, to discuss a Canadian play that’s been important to them. And Hosanna, Hagen points out, is still contentious, politically important,” still regarded by some commentators as a metaphor for Quebec separation.
Is the story of Hosanna’s humiliation at the hands of his lover and their friends a portrait of a society? Hosanna is multi-faceted, juicy raw material for discussion. “It’a measure of a great play that everyone finds themselves in it,” says Hagen.
Hosanna was “one of the first plays I saw in Edmonton,” he says of the Workshop West production (starring Richard Gishler and Jack Ackroyd) in the Rice Theatre downstairs at the Citadel. “I’d never even heard of Michel Tremblay. It was the first play I’d ever seen that fractured stories, and played with time.” A landmark for Canadian theatre, it came at a seminal moment in Hagen’s own life. “It was about a drag queen. And I was on the verge of starting my own career,” says Hagen of his entrance, in sequins and size 14 pumps, into the entertainment scene at Flashback, the late lamented gay club.
A decade later Hagen saw Hosanna again, this time in a David Mann production starring Glen Gaston and Timothy Sell. And it felt different to him. By this time “I’d been through everything and come out the other side,” says Hagen of the trials and triumphs of his drag queen family life. “It marked two different periods in my life.” The arc that forces the beleaguered Hosanna to think about “who I am underneath?” as Hagen puts it, “resonated with me differently…. The meaning keeps changing for me.”
By 1990 Guys in Disguise, Hagen’s drag troupe that had evolved into a bona fide theatre company, had produced other Tremblays, La Duchesse de Langeais and Damnée Manon Sacrée Sandra. And at Theatre Network artistic director Bradley Moss had given Hagen Tremblay novels — News From Edouard and The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant among them — that flesh out the lives of the characters in Tremblay’s plays. And Hagen was struck by them.
Then, in 2005 at Theatre Network, Hagen starred in Hosanna alongside Jeff Page as Hosanna’s biker-stud lover. It was a capital M moment, “my favourite acting experience of my life!” Hagen declares.
“It’s visceral, it’s truth — so real and so truthful,” says Hagen of the play. And it took bravery in the early ‘70s, in a country that had only recently de-criminalized homosexuality, “to talk about the violence, the cruelty, the meanness of that world…. And Tremblay does it without judgment,” says Hagen in admiration. There was an important playwright’s lesson in that, he thinks. “Yes, you can show the foibles, the cracks, without judging the characters…. Let them be wrong; let them be flawed; let them be angry!”
Meanwhile, in this pandemical year, Hagen, one of E-town’s premium sound designers and theatre composers (you can hear his latest theatrical work in Northern Light’s online production of The Look), is “writing music for me,” he says. A series for piano and string quartets is his quarantine venture: “a chamber suite?”. And he continues his deep-dive into queer history, that’s already resulted in two plays, Witch Hunt at the Strand and The Empress and the Prime Minister. A total-immersion researcher, he’s transcribing interviews and assembling documents and social context for his upcoming play (and book) — working title Pisces — about the ignominious 1981 police raid on the Pisces Bathhouse.
And through April, Hagen is the writer-in-residence at MacEwan University an appointment that follows his year as the U of A’s writer-in-residence and before that a writer’s residencies at the Edmonton Public Library). It’s an appointment timed to coincide with Pride Week, and to sync with The Queer History Project based at MacEwan. “Residencies are fascinating for a writer,” Hagen has found.“Working with other writers is good for your own work!” His Zoom office hours (by appointment) are Mondays.
Next up for Theatre Network’s book club is a play to be picked and introduced by the playwriting team of Hunter Cardinal and his sister Jacquelin Cardinal. Register at theatrenetwork.ca (it’s free; donations are encouraged).