By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Playwright Even Gilchrist was in full producer mode at home one morning last week, making a cake for his new play.
The play? Re:Construct, premiering Wednesday at the Backstage Theatre in RISER Edmonton’s 2022 series. The cake? “the coveted and illustrious rainbow cake mix from the Dollar Store…. Yes, Betty Crocker is coming through today.”
Be afraid, very afraid, for the cake. The two people we meet in Gilchrist’s Re:Construct have a jostling, playful, competitive relationship with each other and with The Onlookers (that’s us, the audience). Well really, you can’t expect their views on gender, or their pictures of perfect masculinity, to jibe; one of them is a trans man and the other is his idealized cis self.
A “queer, trans theatre creator and designer” by his own description, Gilchrist, who’s droll and thoughtful, explains that the impetus for Re:Construct came at “a weird impasse of my life.” In 2018, he got a lottery slot at the Ottawa Fringe. “I didn’t think I’d get it,” he laughs. “And then I said ‘O no O no…. Maybe this is a chance for me to write a play, not about me being trans but about a trans experience. And that’s what I did.”
Since Gilchrist immediately set forth west after that run, to do a master’s degree in theatre design at the U of A (Edmonton audiences have seen his designs in The Mountain Top and Bloomsday at Shadow Theatre), the play “became a document sitting in my laptop for a couple of years.” Until now. As he puts it, “he’s been re-investigating and re-delving into what the play was, and what it means to me now.” The “was” and the “is” of the play are very different, he says. And it’s mainly because his feelings about sharing his trans identity openly aren’t the same now. At the time “it was me being more stealth.”
“It was aways a two-hander, never just me onstage baring my soul onstage by myself,” says Gilchrist, who was in the original version himself. “It was always less about ‘the Even Gilchrist experience’, and more about coming to terms with being trans when you don’t want to be.” And the work he shared with the director/dramaturge in Ottawa was to make it “more of a play and less of a poetry slam dunk.”
“At the time I didn’t want to be known, or perceived, as trans,” says Gilchrist, who has a cheerful candour about him. His friends knew him as a queer artist, but a lot of them didn’t know the trans content of his story. “This was me coming to address and love that part of myself with that play — and sharing it with everyone else.”
He thinks now that the first version of the play was “very heartfelt and earnest … but way more saccharine” In any case it was a bold move, and brave, to take that personal tension onto the stage in a play. “I was at a crossroad in my life. I was so deeply unsatisfied with my relationships because I never felt people knew me — because I wouldn’t let them get to know me in a true way. A lot of things I couldn’t actually talk about with people because I didn’t want to be outed.”
By the time Re:Construct hit the Ottawa Fringe, Gilchrist’s family knew, and he’d come out to his friends. And the play, he says, was “the final push to say ‘I’m actually OK with being perceived this way’, to find a way to celebrate that part of the person’” It was, he says “so empowering, and I found such amazing, beautiful, wonderful human beings because of it.”
RISER, a national initiative dreamed up by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre to support indie artists, has been a wonderful boost to re-thinking his play (“it’s the only reason I can actually concentrate on being an artist and not everything else!”). And so is his cast (both Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam are innovative playwrights themselves). “They have a lot to offer, including their own experience.”
Under Sarah J. Culkin’s directorship (and dramaturgy) Re:Construct is funnier now than it was, says the playwright, who identifies, puckishly, as an “experimentalist” (witness his Puppet Pub Crawl at the Found Fest in 2021). “Before, there was levity, yes, but I would say not a lot a lot of opportunities to laugh.” And, when you think about it for more than two minutes, as Gilchrist says, “the conceit of gender and gender roles is very absurd” — and not just for queer and trans people.
The subject invites a comic touch, he says. “For me, gender isn’t by any stretch of the imagination dead. It’s not unimportant for so many people, and so not to be erased from conversations. But the appointment of gender by other people, for the convenience of other people, is just ridiculous! When people tell you what you are….”
Both characters in Re:Construct, the trans man and his cis self, “are trying to do gender capital-R Right. And it’s for the Onlookers to decide.”
Gilchrist sighs. “People are upset if you do things outside the box and they don’t how to label you any more. ‘You look like a girl but you’re saying you’re a boy, and I don’t know what to do with that, so you need to change something about yourself before I can understand’.”
As to whether society or not is finally growing up and out of its neediness about labelling people, Gilchrist pauses. “Yes and No,” he thinks. “With the age of information, there’s more access to understanding, more chances for people to understand things beyond their experience…. But at the same time there’s still so much anti-trans, anti-queer, anti-woman feeling, people digging their heels in” — arguably more and more, witness the relentless drift to the right across the border.
“It honours us as humans to address the complexity of human beings.”
RISER Edmonton 2022
Written by: Even Gilchrist
Directed by: Sarah J Culkin
Starring: Geoffrey Simon Brown and Émanuel Dubbeldam
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Wednesday through Sunday