Some context for the Long Table and the situation with Sky Gilbert
The following is the text of an email interview conducted by Kelly Nestruck with Buddies Artistic Director Evalyn Parry for a column that appeared in the Globe & Mail on November 21. The column was about our decision to replace a reading of Sky Gilbert’s Drag Queens in Outer Space with a Long Table conversation (click here to read the Globe & Mail column). Kelly also shared the full text of the interview in a Facebook post on November 22. A lot of folks said they found reading this interview helpful in understanding the situation, which is why we’re posting it here.
There is one update to the original exchange that responds to new information about Sky’s production of Shakespeare’s Criminal that was not available at the time of the original publication.
You can also read our original statement about the programming change, read Evalyn Parry’s opening remarks from the Long Table, and watch an archived video of the entire conversation.
Kelly Nestruck: Can you clarify who the statement [about replacing the reading of Gilbert’s Drag Queens in Outer Space] on Facebook was written by/is from? Is it from you as AD or the whole team of Buddies (and does that team including the board or no?)? Whose voice or voices are represented by it?
Evalyn Parry: The statement is from Buddies. It was written by our executive and communications teams following consultations with members of the board, community members, and artists involved in the reading.
KN: The Buddies statement characterizes the poem Sky Gilbert wrote addressed to Vivek Shraya as “highly problematic” and “in opposition to our values and current leadership”. Can you be clear about what that means? Does it mean transphobic?
EP: There is a lot to unpack inside in his two posts on the subject. Sky’s “poem” targets and attacks a trans woman of colour, blaming her for his sense of persecution, and levelling accusations of being discriminatory and hateful. This is a work that has caused many of the most vulnerable in our community harm and gives ammunition to those who seek to harm them.
In it, he is refusing to accept that as a white man he occupies a position of privilege inside the queer community, and is punching down at anyone who points that out. It revives tired ‘not all men’ narratives that are used so commonly to silence marginalized voices.
Most importantly, members of the trans community have come to us saying they find it hurtful and offensive, and we respect that experience.
KN: Sky has been outspoken for a while (on his blog anyway) about where he believes the values of trans activism are in opposition to some of his values as a self-described drag queen and gender non-conforming gay man. Some of his blog posts have been, based on my reading, more directly critical of the trans movement in the past. I guess what I’m wondering is what it was about the Afraid of Woke People poem that was the straw that broke the camel’s back here. (Online, a lot of people say it is that he directed his poem at an individual – but I want to know Buddies POV on what it was.)
EP: We don’t regularly read Sky’s blog. But we were aware before this that Sky doesn’t hold the most progressive views on some subjects. What changed for us in this instance was being made unambiguously aware of the harm his words were causing to members of the trans community.
After becoming aware of this, we reached out to Sky to engage him in a dialogue. Sky is not on social media, so we hoped that bringing this to him would provoke some constructive conversation. However, he was defensive and unreceptive to hearing critique of his piece, instead turning the conversation into being about his fear that we are trying to silence his ideas, and accusing Buddies of not being a space where diversity of thought and opinion is welcome.
It was after that interaction that we began to question how we would move forward with the reading of his play.
We have been working to make Buddies a more inclusive, safe and supportive space for queer folks of colour, trans and gender non-binary folks. We still – as many cultural institutions do – have lots of work and learning to do in this area.
Sky is an artist who continues to be associated with the company and has a significant voice in the community that carries a lot of weight (despite his fear, expressed in his poem, that this is not the case). Posting his poem one week before a fun and celebratory reading of one of his plays from the 80’s that we had programmed felt like open sabotage of that work.
We felt that to continue on with the play reading – as if Sky had not just levelled a misguided attack on a trans woman of colour in his most recent public statement – would be a clear signal to the communities we are trying to include that they are not important to us. Given the amount of attention generated by his original posts, silence for us wasn’t an option.
KN: The update on Facebook said Sky’s latest work is still in the season. Can you explain why this reading is cancelled, but his play is not? I assume it has to do with the word “celebratory” attached to the reading but would love to have it spelled out more clearly.
EP: This reading was one event in a series that we had programmed and that, aside from some early consultations during programming, Sky has no involvement in. In the case of the show in the spring, this is a new work that Sky is creating in collaboration with other artists and producing on his own, so obviously requires more consideration and conversation. Tonight’s long table, we hope, can be a part of that conversation.
UPDATE: Since the time of this interview, Sky posted on his blog that he was withdrawing his workshop of Shakespeare’s Criminal from the Buddies season. He has yet to be in touch with Buddies directly. We note that Sky also recently penned a lengthy essay for Jon Kay’s new Canadian wing of content on Quillette, published the day after he posted his statement pulling the work from our season, entitled “If That’s What It Means to Be a Writer, I Quit”.
KN: This is sort of the inverse: Can you be clear about why a poem Sky published online led to the cancellation of the reading of a classic play of his? Why replace it with a Long Table, rather than add a long table as others have suggested?
EP: The idea behind the Long Table discussion is to help us as a community unpack big ideas around intergenerational differences and the importance of allyship within the queer community. And Sky has been invited personally by me to participate tonight. It is a chance for us to attempt to build more understanding and hopefully find a path forward.
Some of my answers above also speak to why we felt it important to not give a platform to Sky’s words at this time.
KN: What of the artists who had been contracted to read Drag Queens in Outer Space? Will they still be paid? Are they supportive?
EP: Yes they are all being paid their full fees. To be clear, it was to be a one-night event, the cast were being paid for a one-day rehearsal and reading in the cabaret, all of which was scheduled to take place today. Yes, they have been unanimously supportive, and in several cases have expressed relief. Several of them have also expressed gratitude to me for my leadership on this matter, and pride in Buddies taking this clear action.
We also made this decision because we did not want any of the actors or creative team to be put in the same awkward position that Sky had put us in.
KN: Finally, if you have any response to Sky’s accusations that you have bullied him, feel free to respond. Do you disagree with his characterization of your dialogue?
EP: Yes, I strongly disagree with Sky’s assertion that I am bullying him.
A written attack toward vulnerable members of our community – especially in a moment when trans identity itself is under fire from our provincial government – is unacceptable and does not align with Buddies values in 2018.
Sky takes great pride in his reputation as a shit disturber and provocateur of his queer generation. We are now exercising our responsibilities as stewards of this space, and standing up to address an important and contentious issue for this queer generation. We cancelled a one-night play reading (a reading that I curated, to begin with) in order to have a conversation with our community. It seemed to me to be the more productive thing to do.
We’ve also been getting a lot of questions from folks in the community about the event of the last few weeks. Here are answers to some of the more common ones.
Was Sky invited to the Long Table?
Yes, Evalyn reached out to Sky personally with an invitation. He did not attend.
What happened at the Long Table?
A lot of incredible conversation. The provocation for the discussion at the Long Table was: In these increasingly polarized times, how can we, as an intergenerational queer community “cherish all that makes us different, and conquer all that makes us afraid” (quote by Vivek Shraya).
The Long Table was then followed by a Q&A with Buddies staff and board, who came together to answer questions from the gathered community arising from our decision. Click here to watch an archived video of the Facebook Live broadcast.
What are the plans moving forward?
In regards to the conversations around intergenerational tensions, political divides within the queer community, and creating better space for trans and POC communities at Buddies, we are scheduling additional Long Table discussions for the Winter and Spring of 2019. We’ll be posting those dates soon. We plan to continue to find ways to bring our community together – or, at least, to bridge some divides – and it would be great if Sky was a part of that conversation, but that’s a decision he has to make.
What was Sky’s involvement in the original reading?
Very little. Evalyn consulted Sky early on about a choice for director, but aside from that Sky had no active involvement in the reading. This was something fully programmed and produced by Buddies as one of two readings of canonical works in our 40th Anniversary Season, the other being a reading of Sonny Mills’ Dyke City in January.
How does this impact your plans for the celebrating the 40th anniversary?
The celebrations will go on as planned. We’ll be unveiling a small historical installation in the new year and there is a big party planned for May 31. We will also be launching a new project on January 1 that aims to continue making space for important issues facing Buddies and the queer community as we enter into our next 40 years.