S. theatre circles. Denis Arcand’s 1993 film version has still not been widely seen in this country despite a well-reviewed debut at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.But the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati’s artistic staff can be very persistent when it comes to snagging up-and-coming playwrights.
Mark Mocahbee, associate artistic director of the theater, arranged to meet Fraser while visiting the Alberta Theatre Festival, and persuaded the writer to send his newest work down to Cincinnati for a possible production under Mocahbee’s direction (“much to the chagrin of my fellow Canadians,” remembers Fraser). Artistic director David White immediately put the play on the premiere-heavy Ensemble Theater season, alongside brand new works by Edward Albee and Lee Blessing. All was going well until the middle of last November, when one of the board members happened to pick up a draft of the script.
The gay character is a single artist but his (initially) straight friend is newly married.”The five-character play is about how the relationship between the two men affects the women in their lives,” says Fraser. That ultimately) sexual relationship is depicted in the script in terms graphic enough to make the ETC board decidedly nervous.There may never be a good time for a Brad Fraser play in Cincinnati – a city still notorious in artistic circles for the Mapplethorpe prosecution – and this past fall was a particularly unfriendly time for theatre even remotely connected to gay affairs: Imitating the voters of Colorado, the people of Cincinnati passed a resolution in early November denying civil rights protection to gays and lesbians.
In that unfriendly environment, the theatre’s 28-member board initially voted to cancel the production, because, according to Managing director John Vissman, they feared that the work would be “used as a political football.” After some desperate cajoling from White, the board agreed to simply postpone the show until the political climate improved.Fraser countered by contacting the national Canadian press, which obligingly ran stories accusing the Cincinnati board of censoring artistic content. The Canadian Broadcasting Company ran radio spots about the fracas, and the playwright arranged for several of Canada’s leading artistic directors to send letters to the Ensemble Theatre explaining that initial opposition invariably accompanies any decision to produce Fraser’s work – controversy that usually dissolves into healthy box-office receipts.
The playwright’s efforts had the desired effect. Within about 14 days, the board found its collective nerve of steel and reversed its decision, rescheduling Poor Superman for a April 27-May 15 run. The company realized that the unhappy Publicity was alienating the theatre,s core progressive constituency, and probably doing more long-term damage than could ever be afflicted by the far Right.White, who fought long and hard for the production to go ahead as planned, says that he is now immensely proud of his board of directors.
“You get scared living in a community like this,” he says. “But we decided to hold to this theatre’s mission and do the project. And now we’re going to let the political chips fall where they may.”
Unidentified Human Remains has attracted every kind of critical response from the euphoric to the nauseated. The show has played in Tokyo, Milan and London, where it won the Evening Standard Award for best new play after the Traverse Theatre of Edinburgh’s production was remounted at the Hampstead Theatre. But New York and some Chicago critics proved less enthusiastic about the play’s casual nudity, realistically simulated sex and bloody violence. And some gay commentators have also criticized Fraser’s work for spending too much time in the gutter of sexual depravity, giving gay-related theatre a negative image.
Thrills and spillsLove or hate Fraser’s work, productions of his plays invariably attract large audiences of young people – straight as well as gay – who have rarely attended the professional theatre. These members of “Generation X” seem to respond to Fraser’s clipped cinematic penchant for short scenes, cross-cutting-and, of course, all kinds of voyeuristic thrills and spills.”My mandate is to bring my generation into the theatre,” says Fraser. “I speak in the language of my generation.
Theatres that have done my work always ask me: Who are these people who are coming to see your play? And how do we get them back?’ “In addition to working on Poor Superman, Fraser is also currently at work in Alberta developing and workshopping Outrageous: The Musical, based on the 1977 Canadian film directed by Richard Benner. A commercial run of this rock musical drawn from a cult movie about drag queens and gay bars is already planned for Toronto.A co-production of Poor Superman is also scheduled for early 1995 by Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company and the Manitoba Theatre Center in Winnipeg. So why is Fraser pushing the issue in southwest Ohio?”Because I wanted to play Cincinnati,” says Fraser.
It’s important to invade enemy territory.”