Last Thursday evening I stood at the back of a packed cabaret space and watched and listened as Sky Gilbert took the stage and sang these words:
Buddies of mine in bad, bad times —
I’m on my way!
Box office receipts have been too small.
It’s all my fault, yes, I’m completely in the wrong,
I should have listened to you all.
I should have played “The Handsome Poodle” —
that always goes down well.
But I followed my inclination…
It was a truly magical moment: Buddies’ co-founder and first artistic director taking the stage and singing the beautiful, bittersweet lyrics to the Jacques Prevert song that gave the theatre its name 35 years ago. How fortunate for all of us that Sky—and, over the years, so many others like him—have followed their queer inclinations. Later in the evening, as revelers sliced into a massive cake in the shape of Buddies’ iconic neon sign, the feeling in the air was similarly electric. We’ve come so far, everything seemed to buzz. And we’re going much, much farther.
In 2009, then Rhubarb Festival Director Erika Hennebury penned a Director’s Statement-cum-love letter to the festival she’d helped shape for many years: “Something changes when you turn 30,” she wrote. “You learn to take better care of yourself. You always have clean sheets and toilet paper and you’re a way better listener. ” While I can’t seem to verify these comments on a personal level (Note to self: put in load of laundry when you get home…), I confess they’ve never failed to tickle me. So if general bathroom cleanliness and freshly laundered linens symbolize 30, what stands for 35?
I don’t think I can necessarily answer that question in a satisfactory way. I promise to poll some of my older, wiser friends on the issue—let’s hope this isn’t my last post…What I think I can do is offer up some personalized birthday wishes for the next 35 years. I’ll spare you listing 35 wishes, and instead stick to 3.5…one for every decade, in the name of efficiency.
BUDDIES, I WISH YOU…
From the 1980s: The Boldness and Innovation of the Rhubarb Festival
Despite its occasionally jerry-rigged beginnings—case in point: writer Peter
McGehee dubbed it “a dicey affair”—Buddies’ festival of new and experimental works quickly became known as one of the country’s most exciting annual artistic events. The early years alone showcased new works from a diverse group of artists including Kim Renders, Cynthia Grant, Daniel Brooks, Daniel MacIvor, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Robin Fulford, Jim Millan, Hillar Liitoja, Sally Clark, Ellen-Ray Hennessy, and a myriad of others. Buddies, may you continue to push as many limits in the future as you did then!
From the 1990s: The Courage and Tenacity of Jane Storming The Toronto Sun’s Offices
In 1994, after Christina Blizzard wrote in one of her columns that “Toronto gay theatre Buddies in Bad Times […] plan[s] to use taxpayers’ money to put on an exhibition of sado-masochism,” Sky’s alter ego Jane appeared at The Sun’s downtown offices, resplendent in a white pantsuit and heels (“Subsidizing Art”). One thing is for certain – the showdown proved that queer artists were a cultural force to be reckoned with. It was some well-deserved mayhem in response to Blizzard’s vile campaign to have Buddies defunded. And as we have seen in the wake of this past year’s struggle with Canadian Heritage, the issues of artistic freedom and support for arts organizations, particularly those that identify as queer, remain as topical as ever. So may you continue to have the passionate politics and general fierceness of Jane’s battle with The Sun. Once more unto the breach, my queers…
From the 2000s: The Spirit and Integrity of a Whole Community
The “aughts” saw Buddies partner with an unprecedented number of community
organizations and theatre companies; the true collaborative nature of the medium was reflected in an institutional way. And after the disastrous global recession of 2008-2009, artists and patrons alike pulled together in order to ensure that Buddies withstood the economic pressure. May you continue to be a locus of community engagement, positivity, and teamwork.
From the 2010s and Beyond: The Vision and Joy of a New Generation
Over the years the theatre has continued to attract and nurture an amazing number of young artists. From the Young Creators Unit (YCU) to Pride Cab, Buddies has consistently invested in a new generation of playwrights, performers, directors, and technicians. I felt like this was marked by another event from last week’s gala celebration: the announcement of the inaugural winner of the new Queer Emerging Artist Award, Jordan Tannahill. It was so heartening to hear not only about Jordan’s well-deserved honour, but also about the large number of exciting nominees who were considered for the award. And so I wish you all the vision and joy of a new generation of distinct queer voices.
Buddies, I wish you all this and so much more. Many happy returns!
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Images courtesy of Greg Wong and Kyle Burton