NotaBle Acts presents the first of several queer theatre productions coming to New Brunswick stages this season.
NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s artist in residence Rob Kempson will close out this year’s festival with the first public reading of his latest work in progress, Queen James, a research-based play that examines the under-documented life of seventeenth century British monarch, King James.
“Queen James is a play that I’m working on that is an imaging of history,” said Kempson. “There’s a great tradition in Canada of playwrights imagining history in the sense that they are true to the events and characters, but they invent and imagine the motivation behind those events and characters. And often in these cases, we as playwrights are often highlighting a particular aspect of that person or that history that has been overlooked. In the case of Queen James, what has been often overlooked is that James was gay.
“There’s a school of thought around queer history which is that when you read any sort of documentation of that history, half the writers are going to say, ‘He was gay! He was totally gay! Look at all the gay things he did! This is how gay he was!’, and the other half are going to say, ‘He definitely wasn’t gay. These letters suggest it, but in that time these words meant this and this meant that.’ ”
While the sexual preferences of certain figures in history were deliberately overlooked, ignored or downplayed for centuries, that all began to change around the midpoint of the last century. If this slant was to be understood as fact, it would seem no one was gay until the 1960s.
“Being gay was new in the 60s in that it became an identity for some, where it hadn’t been previously,” said Kempson. “King James for instance wouldn’t have thought of himself as gay because that didn’t exist in 1603. The idea that one might have same sex attraction or single gender attraction is not something that would have even been a concept that you could wrap your head around at that time.
“The joke in Britain at the time was that they had a kingly queen in Elizabeth and later, a queenly king in James,” said Kempson.
King James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and would eventually succeed Elizabeth I as ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland. He is also the same King James responsible for the King James Version of the Bible, a project he commissioned in 1604.
“I’m particularly interested in the period of time when he had three major lovers in his life, and there’s a period where the second and third lover overlap,” said Kempson. “There’s lots of reasons for that overlap, politically, and the role that his wife played in positioning potential lovers in more favour than others is also really interesting.”
Kempson has been working on the research side of this play for a number of years now, but only began to write his story after arriving in Fredericton earlier this month. Queen James is one of seven new scripts to receive readings as part of the festival’s Play Out Loud series.
“I like a deadline and I work really well towards a deadline,” he said. “My process has always been that I will think about an idea and research it for a number of years and then I will sit down and write it all in a short period of time.
“With a research play or a play based on true events, you really have to be steeped in those events, so for the first five days I was here I really just read books endlessly and took a lot of notes.”
Queen James is one of two queer plays being presented as part of this year’s NotaBle Acts lineup, one of three queer theatre events happening in Fredericton this summer, and one of at least six queer stories to hit New Brunswick stages in the next eight months.
The festival opens with Alex Rioux and Sam Crowell’s physical theatre play Fruit Machine and later in August Theatre New Brunswick will be presenting the live-action-queer-anime-drag-adventure, The Princess Show as part of this year’s Pride celebrations.
Earlier this summer Theatre St. Thomas (St. Thomas University) announced plans to host a queer theatre festival this fall, and Theatre New Brunswick’s Young Company will be touring two queer-based plays to New Brunswick schools this coming winter.
“I think people are finally starting to realize that these are voices of people within our communities,” said Alex Rioux, who is also directing Fruit Machine. “It’s really exciting to see this explosion of queer voices coming out. With TNB especially, and their Young Company touring the shows, It’s A Girl! and Boys, Girls and Other Mythological Creatures, to be taking these stories and sharing them with youth across the province is so important. And that’s something I want to continue to do in my work – empower queer voices and queer youth around the province. I think producers and artists are starting see the value and the validity in hearing the voices of people who have felt like outsiders for a long time.”
Kempson has been involved in creating queer theatre in Canada for years and sees the current growth in popularity of queer voices on stage as a direct reflection of today’s culture.
“Being queer has become more mainstream and normalized,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that there is not oppression and it does not mean that there still isn’t fear and that I can feel safe walking in lots of places in the city that I live in. All of that is still true, but I think particularly because theatre culture tends to be left-leaning, we tend to think of queerness as just, ‘oh yeah, sure’. It’s not even a thing. But also, there are just more queers in the theatre scene than anywhere else. We’re all misunderstood misfits.”
He also credits younger generations for being more accepting and supportive of individual differences. There are more opportunities for support now than there was 20 years ago, even if for some, that support only exists online.
“I think we’re in a moment right now where we are talking about queerness a lot more than we have in the past,” he said. “I think that part of that is because there are now more people coming out earlier in life than ever before, and we are getting a fuller demographic representation as society ages beyond the AIDS epidemic.
“We know there is a whole population of men who would be in their 60s and 70s who don’t exist,” said Kempson. “And we also know that that population of men used to be in their 40s and 50s so there’s been an absence of voice in a certain age bracket for the last 40 years. Now we’re getting post-AIDS gays, people who grew up in the 90s who are now aging into their 50s and have had 30 or 40 years of being queer and that of course has led to the rise in things like Rupaul’s Drag Race.
“The internet is also allowing people to connect in a way they couldn’t connect before. As a result, gay culture is becoming more mainstream, there are more examples of it and I think we’re seeing people who are younger being able to come out earlier. I think that’s what’s driving this emergence of culture because young people are everything.”
Both Rioux and Kempson credit a growing acceptance of our individual and cultural differences, particularly within the arts community, as part of the reason more and more queer voices are finally being beginning to be heard.
“What’s exciting about this change that’s happening in the world right now is that we’re acknowledging more and more just how important representation is,” said Kempson. “We need to hear these voices. It’s important for people who are queer and people who are indigenous to see themselves represented in the culture of their community.
“One of the guys I’ve asked to be in my reading is queer and he told me this is the first time he’s ever been asked to play a queer part and said it would take an act of God for him to not be there. If you just think about what that means, if you’re an actor and your whole job is playing other people and you’ve never played a person who is also queer like you. I mean, what does that feel like?”
Fruit Machine | July 23-25 | View Event
Queen James | Aug. 3 | View Event
The Princess Show | Aug. 8 | View Event
The Plain Site Theatre Festival | More Info
It’s A Girl! | TNB Young Company | More Info
Boys, Girls,and Other Mythological Creatures | More Info