What's a diva to do?
Sky Gilbert and Buddies in Bad Times were long seen by many, Sky included, as indistinguishable, a single organism. It was part of Buddies' mandate -- in writing, insisted on by Sue Golding -- that the company would always produce "the plays of Sky Gilbert."
No longer. That one creature would clearly become two (or three, counting Jane): separate entities rent asunder; parting ways. Those ways not the same. A cut, as you might imagine, not painless.
Some -- even the sort Sky had once made fun of as "sweater fags" -- also ended up on Buddies' board. And bucks then were not big. Buddies was still deep in debt, the new space taking it deeper. Finances were a mess, auditors called in, Xtra's cubs poking about too. (At the MCC as well, lest you think press and pulpit were in cahoots: "objective" Eleanor was an equal-opportunity destroyer).
Tim Jones got the worst of it, spared "merciless trashing" not even by his friendship with Xtra's publisher and editor-in-chief, later on Buddies' board -- and long a critic of Sky. "I have to admit that I gloated a bit," Sky writes, "when [Tim] ran into my office and said, 'Can you believe David Walberg sanctioned this?' I said, 'Xtra said I was fat and boring, and you told me to take it like a man. Now do you know how it feels?'"
They'd been "fighting like crazy," Tim "the lightening rod for all my anger around Buddies." Soon, Tim was gone. Sky admits he "wasn't that upset."
Tim was gone. Sue was in England. David Pond was dead. So was Ken MacDougall, his 1995 death made a play, then a film, Ken in both. Dying. (The Last Supper showed "a man with AIDS carefully orchestrating the last moments of his death." I saw it, by then not sanguine with what I had come to call the "tyranny of the dying" -- sanctified by the grief and guilt of those around them. My dying friends, bless them, had been nothing to the tyrant Ken played.)
In the autumn of 1996, just a week before Sky's play Crater was set to open The Chamber's season, bookkeeper and board said: "Stop. We can't put on your play. We don't have any money." Sky "cajoled, cried, stamped my feet" -- the show must go on! It did. Buddies' savior that time was Gwen Bartleman, who had once stood guard outside Dungeon parties, baseball bat in hand.
The board had an eye to other sorts of security. Buddies' mandate, or rather Sky's sure place in it, had been questioned in Xtra. Board boys and girls defended the mandate but began asking Sky if he'd pondered a possible successor should he ever... well.... "Of course we all love Sue," Sky reports them saying. Sue, who had secured his place in that mandate; Sue who "had always treated me like a permanent fixture." Sue Golding -- no longer there to protect Sky Gilbert.
He said to Gwen: "They'll have to kill me first." But Buddies -- his creation, his protection -- looked likely to kill him sooner.
In the break of Christmas 1996, "on the verge of the same old nervous breakdown" and at last having time to think, Sky envisioned, as he'd learned to in therapy, what he might do to improve his life, how that vision made him feel. "I imagined myself leaving Buddies. It felt great."
Sky bid Buddies his final farewell on June 1, 1997, passing artistic directorship to Sarah Stanley. She had been on the scene since the late 1980s -- and, Sky says: "My God, she looked so much like Sue. That same lean, mean, compact butch dyke energy." (I've always thought so, too.) Two years later, she would pass the reins to Buddies' current director, David Oiye.
Gwen stayed on for some years as Managing Director, Eddie Roy as Associate Artist and Company Dramaturge. Sue Golding became Professor of Philosophy in the Visual Arts and Communication Technologies at the University of Greenwich, London, also teaching in Masstricht; she's now known as "johnny de philo."
Buddies is successful, financially secure. It still produces good work. But, some say, it's not the same the place. Some buzz, some edge, is gone.
Visions, once "realized" -- made things, begin to die. It is in the nature of organizations, even the most visionary, to get stiff, sclerotic, forgetful; to lose passion for, even memory of, their founding purpose. What's left of will is often no more than the will to survive.
In modern corporate ideology, survival demands growth. Get bigger! Expand or die! Most expand and die. They get bigger, grow older but no wiser, no more true to the values that birthed them. Usually less.
Unless there are people around who never stop asking: What's this for? Why did we do it in the first place? Are we still doing it? Swamped in the struggle to survive, those can be hard questions to ask. To have time to ask, even to think to ask. And even harder to hear. But occasionally some do. And some listen. And then, even a tired and cramped institution can look up from the grind, see the light it was born to -- and rise to greet it again. Partly, at least.
A visionary project born in 1971, to which for a decade I gave my life, is now just one more business on Church Street. Buddies, if no longer fully true to Sky's vision, is still much more than just another theatre.
Divas are seen as solo acts (leaving aside the Three Tenors, or a one-off duet by Barbra and Celine). Buddies in Bad Times survives as more than just another theatre largely because Sky's long act was no solo.
Buddies was never really just Sky Gilbert. His book brims with other names. Other theatre companies: Augusta, Nightwood, Necessary Angel, Hillar Liitoja's DNA, many more -- not all "gay," if "alternatively" queer.
Other writers, directors, performers: Diane Flacks, Moynan King, Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor, Jason Sherman... many now famous in their own right. ("I had always thought Jason was too prettyboy perfect and handsome to be a real artist," Sky says, "but boy was I wrong!") Names of ongoing festivals based at Buddies, featuring these and many more artists and companies: Rhubarb! Fourplay, Strange Sisters, Queerculture and beyond.
In a single paragraph Sky rhymes off nearly forty names -- from Ann Holloway and Conrad Alexandrowicz to Kim Renders to Park Bench to Death Waits (Jacob Wren) "and this," he says, "is a partial list" -- of artists who need more support. Buddies and 12 Alexander were "meant to hold all their dirty, crazy, funny, experimental / avante garde dreams, to house their failures and successes, their false steps -- and their brilliant ones."
Among those named is Franco Boni, who began at Rhubarb! on George Street. "A startlingly beautiful dark haired, dark eyed Italian boy at the time (he's grown up a bit since!) -- passionate about gay theatre." He would write a big piece of its local history, Rhubarb-o-rama!, a resource Sky credits as vital to his own book.
Franco would go on to other Buddies collaborations; I've been privileged to work with him in three. However grown up, he is, I can tell you, still passionate.
THANKS TO SKY
FRANCO BACKS KIDS
When Sky asked Sue Golding on board in 1983, she saw The Body Politic going down, as in time it did. She hoped to ensure Toronto would have another thing that was "alive, intellectually challenging, provoking new ideas." She told Sky: "I want to reinvent The Body Politic in the name of aesthetics."
She did. They did. That's what Buddies is, still, if not entirely. But if there had been no Buddies, no Sky, there would have been no reinvention.
I've had occasion, three times and happily, to recall Sue's words, working with Buddies' Summer Youth Projects in 1999, 2000 and 2001. With Franco Boni, Florencia Berinstein, and other old activists like me, I got to help nearly three dozen queer kids find history, much of it my own. I got to watch them -- smart, inventive, imaginative -- make it their own.
As you'll see in the final chapter of Promiscuous Affections, it was sheer joy. And for that I -- and those kids -- have Florencia, Franco, Ken MacDougall, Eddie Roy, David Pond, Gwen Barlteman, Tim Jones, Sue Golding especially -- and, most especially, Sky Gilbert -- very much to thank.
Sky has not faded away. He has published poems, three novels; he's made films of his own and appeared in others'; he still writes and produces plays. And he's still a pain in the butt. From his column in the local weekly eye he goaded "respectable" homos still, and flew in the face of "AIDS orthodoxy."
"In my view," he said, "AIDS is a metaphor, not a disease." He and I might argue that last point -- but I won't here, my AIDS politics made clear in Promiscuous Affections. With the first I (and Susan Sontag, in AIDS as Metaphor) hugely agree. I wrote in 1985:
"AIDS plays" like As Is and The Normal Heart ("I have contempt for them," Sky writes), wallowed in "thrill-addled promiscuity" even as they sighed, "the party that was the '70s is over... thank God! At last we've grown up." Gee: and all it took was staring death -- and life -- in the face. As if none of us ever had. This is what Sky, in "Why I am not a Post-AIDS Fag," labelled "gay self-loathing." I once tagged its most egregious sufferers "fuck-pigs turned finger-waggers."
AIDS, if a disease, is clearly much more. No mere "medical condition" has ever had such impact on health politics (true health the health of communities, we've learned, not just individuals), on perceptions of ourselves -- and perceptions of us. Still.
That's from The National Post, January 15, 2001, a columnist on about "How stable relationships benefit society" -- so let's grant those suffering sex-crazed homos the stability of "gay marriage."
That we may be promiscuous out of free will and desire; that it can liberate us from the need for "socially approved outlets" and the risks of "jealous rage" (tarring us with their brush!) -- all that has faded from modern liberal discourse.
Even, and especially, "gay" discourse. That columnist wrote in supposed support of gay people. And with the apparent approval of "respectable" homosexuals. Her critique of our "promiscuous lifestyle" was quoted just days later, uncritically, in a local gay rag called fab.
Sky remains, notoriously, not "respectable." In its March 16-29, 2000 issue fab took him on for castigating its readers as "gay men who hate themselves."
fab had reported next to nothing on summer 1999 busts at The Bijou "porn bar," Sky behind the counter there for one. Xtra decried them as "raids," recalling new Toronto top cop Julian Fantino's role in the London, Ontario "kiddie porn" panic a few years before. fab cozied up to Fantino with a sympathetic interview. Their piece on Sky began: "Carrying on the tradition of giving a forum to all voices in the community -- not just the ones we agree with -- fab asked Gilbert to talk."
Sky occupied that issue's entire cover, looking stern, the drawline below him: "Sky Gilbert: Why is he so bitter?" Why, I'd ask, would Sky be so willing to let John Kennedy play him for a clown? A jester? "I really can't be bothered," he says. I think he bothers too much.
Court jesters, as we know from Shakespeare, do get all those great lines no one else dares speak. But "court" is telling: they jest for, and survive only at, the pleasure of powers that be.
Sky claims "outrageousness" like an inalienable right. Faced with a critic saying Sky thinks he invented outrage, the only one allowed to lay claim to it, he says: "I deserve to call myself outrageous." His critic, Sky points out, never had the nerve to wear a dress in public.
Deserve? Well: "Coming from the middle class means that I rebelled against it." If, apparently, having preserved its sense of middle-class entitlement (he is still painfully aware of being Schuyler Gilbert, Jr). In particular, a bourgeois sense of shock -- that delicious frisson at being "outraged." Or "outrageous." Sky insists on being Very Bad, I suspect, because he remains a Very Good Boy. Still.
Interviewed in The Body Politic's 100th issue, January 1984, Carole Pope had refused to calm speculation, long rampant, about her sexual orientation.
That sort of talk, too familiar from "stars," endlessly irritated openly gay activists. Still, we did run that piece, and two others around the same time on women we knew to be lesbian but who at the time wouldn't say: sexy Lorraine Segato (even gay boys think so), her Parachute Club's "Rise Up" a movement anthem and big radio hit; and mad comic Sheila Gostick. Sky tells a lovely tale of Sheila, on her bike catching him coming out of the now-vanished Romans sauna:
Sheila has since come out; so has Lorraine. And of course Carole. Now we have her word on the people -- lots of them -- who really have slept with her. No one has to guess anymore.
Much as those pieces rankled some Beepers and not a few people beyond, I'm glad we ran them, even featured them on the cover. Especially the one on Carole. Its author had also once faced our reservation: when she first arrived she didn't want to use her real name.
It was a point of principle at TBP that we did. In just the first few issues, back in the early '70s, a few did drop their last names -- a blow against The Patriarchy, some women claimed, some men following suit. But it smacked on the page of closetry. (In a few cases it was, in life.) We did let people use pseudonyms; few ever did -- and they had to admit their deception, and its reason, in print.
For some time Carole's interviewer had. Had she not been allowed to, she likely wouldn't have stuck around. As you'll see in Promiscuous Affections 1982, she did. And -- when she was ready -- she signed a book review with the name her mother had given her. "And the world didn't come to a screeching halt. What the hell, I thought, and wrote another one. And told my mother."
Thus, people reading the paper got not yet one more screeching order to COME OUT! -- but got to watch Edna Barker, once "Maggie Midd," find her own way out. Edna was an early fan of Rough Trade, of a sort she insightfully described.
"Certain people" would send Carole notes. "Most of my fan mail is from women. They always say 'Thank God for you -- you've changed my life. You've made me think more of myself. I think I'd be dead right now if it weren't for women. I think women are great.'"
Out as a pervert, if not as a lesbian, Carole had had her effects.
Carole's an out dyke now -- just in time for what Bert Archer called (in his book of the same name; see Promiscuous Affections 2000) "The End of Gay." Bert quotes there Sandra Bernhard (who once at a movie "snaked her arm" around Carole: "I froze -- I wasn't attracted to her body; I was attracted to her unfaltering ego"): "It's a lot more sophisticated and interesting not to be dead on. It's not really an issue anymore in my circles."
Carole could easily have stayed "sophisticated and interesting"; in time she lived in L.A. -- where so many are. She didn't. Neither did she burst out with Ellen's media bang. ("...hanging with the A-list of showbiz royalty ... the Ellen de Generes of old walks by with a boy date pretending to be straight; we all laugh at that, and wonder where Jodie is.") For Carole, I sense, it was more a glide, an easing of herself into the world. And an opening of herself to the world.
She plays the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. In the years of Rough Trade they couldn't have stomached the sight of her -- or she them. No men allowed ("for years, my boy band from Toronto had been begging me to get a gig at Michigan so they could dress up in drag and infiltrate the place"). She finds rustic paradise, "a babe utopia," and says "I'm now a Michigan convert." She even uses "womyn" for "women."
In 1998 she checks out Lilith Fair -- even if Sarah McLachlan is "the Princess Di of non-threatening babe music." She finds countless clones of Sarah.
But she says: "My first problem with Lilith was that due to some glaring oversight by all concerned, I wasn't in it -- but I'm over it, I don't care. If it wasn't for me there wouldn't be any blatantly sexual chick singers in Canada, but fine, I can live with that." I'm relieved: Carole Pope is too good for kisses to the hem of a sap-soaked Princess.
Mostly, she watches. Near the very beginning of Anti Diva she says: "I've been watching people forever and apparently I've been taking notes." In that TBP interview, 17 years ago: "I'm a watcher. I watch everything and everyone."
She has watched many close to her die. Mostly men, of AIDS, some young; one, for her, much too young. But before all of them her mother, Celia, dying of cancer. Carole was afraid. She says so, perhaps as Celia had been afraid, as she told her, "hiding under her flimsy kitchen table, listening to the whistle of the German V-2 missiles as they flew over London."
It took her too long, she says, to face that fear. But she did.
Why did Carole Pope write Anti Diva? Why this book, now? "I hate having to answer that question," she wrote. "After years of silence, a dam broke within me and I had to spew 80,000 words or so out of my brain...."
She was, at long last, ready.
Go back to Diva Diaries / Contents page
Or to My home page
Go to Promiscuous Affections / Introduction
From 1982, AIDS inevitably pervades Promiscuous Affections. The section covering 1982 to 1986 is titled "A mysterious disease of unknown origin." From 1986 until 1993 I worked with the AIDS Committee of Toronto. See in particular:
1986, Part 2 & 1989, Part 2 -- for critiques of "AIDS education" work (including my own)
Cameo shots at the top: Carole by George Whiteside, from Anti Diva.