Rural Roots Take Centre Stage

Sky Gilbert’s new play tells the story of growing up gay in the countryside

Sky Gilbert

Sky Gilbert: teacher, writer, director, drag queen and – farm boy?

Think about the U of G drama professor and you might envision an urban intellectual shuttling between his Guelph classroom and theatre productions in Toronto and his adopted hometown of Hamilton, Ont. Sure enough, there was not a hayfield in sight when one of his most recent plays, Hamilton Bus Stop, was staged at a new theatre just steps away from Gilbert’s home in the core of the “Hammer.”

But city will meet country in a new Gilbert play this summer being staged by 4th Line Theatre, an outdoor company in Millbrook, Ont., near Peterborough. Produced on the company’s Barnyard Stage, no less, St. Francis of Millbrook will relate the coming-of-age story of a boy growing up gay in the countryside.

Or maybe it’s less about a city-country encounter and more about erasing the lines between them. “I want people to think about how this young man’s life and issues are like any other,” says Gilbert, whose working title for the play was Ordinary.

In earlier works staged mostly in Toronto, he has often thrown his characters into a kind of crucible of urban gay culture. There, it’s more about separateness or a culture apart, he says. Referring to his new production, he adds: “Here it’s about ways in which we are the same.”

That’s what he believes makes the work pertinent to U of G’s BetterPlanet Project, including the “community” pillar of that fundraising campaign. Asked how theatre helps make a better planet, he replies: “You could ask that question about the arts in general. One of the basic elements in us becoming better people is the arts. Arts are about the human spirit.”

He argues that gay bullying is a community issue wherever it occurs – in the real-life case of an Ottawa teenager driven to kill himself in late 2010 or on a fictitious farm as in the case of Gilbert’s young protagonist, Luke.

“My play chronicles the life of a gay teenager who is beaten by his father because of his sexuality. It has an important message for all of us in Canada, and especially for those in rural areas,” says Gilbert.

That is exactly why 4th Line Theatre commissioned Gilbert to write the play. “I felt it was important to explore these issues,” said artistic director Robert Winslow, who also recruited Gilbert to present a playwriting workshop in Millbrook later this month.

Probe most city-dwellers and you soon find a link to the countryside, perhaps a couple of generations back, maybe not even that far. Gilbert, who holds the University Research Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at Guelph, was surprised to learn how many of the students in his course on “Sexuality and the Stage” claim rural roots. “People forget that people in the country are gay, too.”

Plus, for all his urban sensibility, Gilbert claims to be a little bit country.

Not that he ever worked the land or tended livestock. But consider it one degree of separation. “I come from farm folk – my mother grew up on a farm and my grandfather died in a barn fire in Maine.”

And there’s something of the playwright in the Millbrook play’s lead character – something that Gilbert volunteers about his own relationship with his father, Schuyler Sr.

Sky was 30 before he came out to his parents. He had had girlfriends – even spent seven years with one woman. He finally told his father when they met for lunch one day at Union Station in Toronto, where his dad had come in by train from Buffalo.

Sky recalls trying to share his news early in their meeting. His dad kept diverting him before finally hearing him out – to a point. “He wouldn’t let me say the word gay.”

In St. Francis, Luke’s parent in the play reacts violently, even beating his young son. Nothing like that happened to Gilbert, but he says he remembered his father’s evident discomfort as he worked on developing his characters. His dad, now 86, visited again this year to attend an early reading of the play at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre.

Funny, says Sky: “My father took it badly and came around.” The opposite thing happened with his mother, Patricia, during a separate revelatory lunch date with her. She appeared to receive his news with equanimity, but Gilbert read various shades of meaning in her seemingly glib line, delivered in the back of a Toronto cab: “Don’t flirt with the waiter.”

She died early this year. Gilbert explores her character in in a new memoir called The Mommiad to be published in spring 2012.

Gilbert was born in Norwich, Conn., in 1952. The family moved to Buffalo when he was five; he and his sister, Lydia, moved with their mother to Toronto after his parents divorced when Sky was 12.

Patricia had spent many years living at the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto. Says Gilbert: “She reminds me of a character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Holly Golightly.” Recalling his mother, he says, “She was beautiful. She always acted like a rich lady, always dressed beautifully.”

She ensured that none of her Toronto acquaintances would have seen the farm girl in the city mouse, he says. (His mother’s family was descended from Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee: hence Gilbert’s own middle name, “Lee.”)

Gilbert has lived in downtown Hamilton for seven years with his partner, an artist. There, he has established a company called Hammertheatre and has staged his own works in a century-old hall a few blocks from their Victorian home.

That performance space is part of a growing cluster of galleries, artist studios, cafes and restaurants that is helping to rejuvenate that part of the city. Gilbert says theatre – and the arts generally – have proven a catalyst for revitalizing a formerly down-at-the-heels neighbourhood. At the same time, he worries that gentrification and its attendant increases in property values and rental rates may push out low-income residents and even some of those artists.

This year, Gilbert will publish his sixth novel, Come Back, a dystopian fantasy about a 138-year-old Judy Garland. He has also published a novella, a memoir, two poetry collections and numerous plays. He will also play a role in fall 2012 in a contemporary adaptation of Antigone, produced by Small Wooden Shoe in Toronto.

St. Francis of Millbrook runs Aug. 13 to Sept. 1 on 4th Line Theatre’s Barnyard Stage. In his Jan. 29 workshop, Approaches to Playwrighting for Adults, Gilbert will discuss some of the pitfalls and risks faced by playwrights and share tips for stronger dialogue.