It was the perfect storm. The last performance night at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre before they close for renovations and The Rainbow Lounge was to be that last show. The night before, Stewart Borden and I send out our last plea to friends and family to purchase tickets and then BOOM, the lights went out at the theatre. With condo construction happening all around Buddies, power had been inadvertently cut from the building which meant that nobody, including theatre staff, had any control over the situation. Making matters worse, the outage had disconnected the online ticketing system and because theatre staff were off work because of the construction, finding a solution was not going to be easy. But hopefully quick. And then Mark Aikman from Buddies stops everything he was doing on his day off to fix the ticketing situation, while other staff monitor the power until presto, the lights went up in Georgia!
Speaking of lights, our technician for the night was Steph Raposo, a favourite to work with among many in the room because they are as clear about the rules of the theatre as they are open to making everything technical happen. More than knowledge of the equipment, Steph is constantly solving my staging problems and managing my exceptions in a way that makes me know my back is covered. On the day of the show, only a few hours before the doors open my plans for a large scale piano set fell apart leaving me with a keyboard and eight-foot folding table. Not quite the “giant piano” we had promised in our marketing and so when we mentioned it to Steph, out comes a perfectly sized riser that we saddled up to the keyboard which worked so perfectly a number of guests commented that they only noticed they weren’t leaning own an actual piano until partway through. This is all the more appreciated since Evelyn Perry, the theatre’s director has been very generous with us by providing the space, staff and front of house services like ticking for free, allowing us to donate more to Rainbow Railroad.
Continuing with my cheese-ball analogies, “many hands make for light work” and “it takes a village” are truisms that permeated my experience with The Rainbow Lounge. Whenever I asked for help I got it, yet the real magic was when people just started to offer support. In the weeks leading up to the event, there were seven scheduled practice sessions not to mention countless individual practices to prepare for the show. An accidental scheduling error led to Amy J. Lester showing up for practice only to find herself an unwitting therapist to my personal life dramas. But she stayed to listen and let me know in no uncertain terms that she sees and accepts me in spite of my struggles.
Preparing for a performance is the easy part. Hell, you can dedicate years to getting ready for a show but no matter how much organizing, rehearsing and planning you do most events, like ours, only get a couple of hours in the theatre prior to the show to set up the all of the equipment, decorate, run tech and get dressed. With so little time, it can be a high-anxiety situation, yet with this crew, it was as electric as it was loving.
“Hi doll, I was going to help out and order pizza for the gang, is that okay?” read a Facebook message I received from Mark Stenabaugh. And he did, boxes and boxes of pizza just showed up just before the start of the show. My best friend Rolyn Chambers has been going through a period of self-reflection, making him less social than his regular self, yet he still sends me a text saying, “I’m here in main room if you need assistance”.
Our opening song was a variation of “Those Were The Days” by David Bateman who I consider to be part of my family of queer people. We met while working on Hamlet In A Hot Tub, and in less than five short years we’ve worked on more than twenty shows together and I have learned as much about art though Bateman as I have about the politics of being a better person. What may look like a wacky family of characters to an outsider, is actually an impossibly caring group of people that are as thoughtful as they are creative. Speaking of creativity, Paul Bellini has been part of the Hamlet gang since the beginning and he’s become everybody’s person cat father figure. Not because he’s old or anything like that, but because he has the most recognized professional career in film and TV among us, meaning he knows stuff about working in the big league that the rest of us have only tasted. Paul just got a gig teaching comedy at Second City so by all counts he wasn’t going to make it to the show until the last thirty minutes, if at all but what actually happened is when he finished teaching he raced home to transform himself into full drag and showed up to sing one of his own creations, “Girl On A Mountain”.The genius of this song is that the room was singing along to the melody hook on the first time they heard it. Magical and very, very funny!
Earlier in the day song host Johnny D Trinh’s grandfather took him to the cemetery in an attempt to make a final attempt before his imminent death to convince Johnny that being gay was not what he wanted for his grandson and while painful, Johnny didn’t dismiss this man his life, but instead incorporated the experience into the next, which was The Rainbow Lounge which he came to with an open, if not slightly wounded, heart. There were many gaps in the show that I simply ran out of time for, one of which was starting the show with a land acknowledgement, something that has become fundamental to showing respect for the multiple histories Canadians struggle with. Johnny didn’t ask to do it, they just did it which can be another way of saying, “this is important, and not something I’m willing to negotiate over.” Amen!
The act of publicly doing the right thing, despite what others may think sends a message to the rest of us that integrity matters to this person. And that in of itself perpetuates the safety of the space around us by reminding us that we are all directly linked to the land below us which is also indigenous territory rooted in sharing. The traditional name for the area we were in is called “Dish With One Spoon”, a metaphor for an agreement between describing an agreement for sharing valuable hunting territory among two or more nations. But unlike the dish that ran away with spoon, this agreement is based on working together towards for a common interest which in this case is the protection of the very resources that are being shared. This is one of the reasons the land acknowledgement is significant because it serves as a reminder that regardless of who thinks they own what land or resources, we are all bound by an obligation to protect it, as well as one another.
The night of our show I felt confident going in that it’d be a fun show, and it was, but it also was heart-warming to see every performer take on their role as if this was their very own cause. A theatre packed with people who are selflessly sharing their talent, vulnerabilities and differences which is the essence of a community, people seeing one another for who they are and reflecting back to one another how much we each matter in the larger system.
Highlights for me include Katherine Janicki who had people in tears, including me with her rendition of “She Used To Be Mine”, Peter Lynch who turned Eartha Kitt’s “Where Is My Man” on it’s ear and Henry B. Higgins who channelled George Micheal right from the grave. Then there was the incurable showmanship from Charlie C. Petch who gave their performance is if this were, in fact, a Broadway production. Not to mention it was Charlie’s birthday and so to make the choice to spend it with us speaks volumes.
The legendary Bitch Diva pulled no punches (but threatened to) with her kick-ass sass talk and complete dominance over the room.“I can’t see shit!” exclaims David Ramsden who while on a quick washroom break from playing the piano, drops his eyeglasses in the toilet. Not losing without a struggle, Ramsden plunges his arm after the spectacles only to feel them slip through his fingers and down the drain. After months of rehearsals, a broken keyboard and neighbours that find all noise offensive, Ramsden shows up at The Rainbow Lounge all smiles because he’s about to play a marathon of music, and he does. He pushes himself to almost exhaustion while continuing to rile up the crowd with his crazy tales of being the Pink Flamingo mafia and pounding out tune after tune of unparalleled piano playing.
Lacking an intermission or any structured pauses, Ramsden and fellow pianist Stewart Borden worked together to ensure every performer was supported in their song choice which sometimes meant they traded off so the other could grab a drink, go the bathroom or have a quick conversation, while other times it meant all four hands on the piano. Or Stewart’s Name That Tune round which had everyone shouting guesses as if they were on The Price Is Right when the only prize for getting it right was a shot of booze, or cranberry juice as the winner saw fit. But it was leading up to the event where Stewart’s role morphed into that of a musical director by acting as a song coach which helped everyone find better ways of doing what they were already good at. Even me, I am possibly the worst singer in the city, yet he still found a way for it to work for me and even though my attempt at channelling Keith Cole was only semi-successful, it was liberating to have tried.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Amanda Forest’s plan to explore drag through her “Bohemian Rhapsody” number was thwarted when her eight-year-old daughter got a sudden bout of phenomena forcing them to stay at home. It’s always sad when someone prepares for a role only to be forced into not doing it however, we also experienced the flip side when Shelly Hamilton, who had attended a couple of rehearsal dinners purely as a spectator, showed up to sing and she tore it up! Like a stage musician who had been performing all night, Shelly took the mic and was met with thunderous applause as her, and pianist Stewart Borden went into overdrive.
Prior to the event, David Roache had attended a funeral for a dear friend, an effort that is draining at best, yet Roache showed up styling a power-piano bar suit and matching debonaire fabulousness eager to entertain us with his kitty storytelling and wordplay. Phillip Cairns lived up to his song choice “I Am What I Am” by dressing in their usual gender-fluid formal wear, a visual reminder that we have a choice and agency in the gender roles we assume. Joe Hume reimagined “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” by covering himself in google eyeballs which he pulled off and stuck to the other performers which was only matched by the cleverness of Brock Hessel’s Carole Pope impersonation. Hélène Ducharme is better known around town as an Operatic force and tonight, despite working insane hours over Pride weekend jumped on stage as if she were the original bull-dyke dancing lesbian. For three separate numbers that stage belonged to Hélène as the audience watched, mouths gaping at the powerfully angelic voice coming out of this person. Hélène is also the partner of Patricia Wilson, Buddies bar manager and a very close friend of mine. Patricia is a straight-shooter, and despite coming off the most intense working period of her year, she welcomed us with the usual warm hug and dry wit right up until the end of the night where she allowed a small group of us to act like idiots for just a while longer. Patricia, like this event, is all peace and love which by any measure is the antidote to all conflict. Danny Nashman helped finish the night off with an explosive rendition of “Maybe This Time” as did Sarah Hunter, another one of our communities most involved, caring and effective leaders.
Thank you for helping us raise over $3,000 to support our refugees through Rainbow Railroad!
And so this was our pot of gold at the end of The Rainbow Lounge, a neon rainbow of talented artists, all under one umbrella. After so much time under a cloud of uncertainty with our refugee situation, I was reminded that without those clouds, our rainbow could never have existed in the first place and while the analogy may be corny, the sentiment is anything but. This is my pot of gold, the understanding that when we openly struggle together, the struggle itself becomes lighter. So while our friends Rahim and Amir anxiously wait in Turkey, there’s a large community swelling with love for these two so that by the time they arrive in Toronto they will no longer bare the title “refugee” but instead they’ll be “loved newcomers”. This journey is not over for The Rainbow Lounge because so many of us want to do it again. Neither is the journey for Rahim and Amir, but I’m confident that they’ll be able to join us at the next one! To stay in loop visit us here or like our facebook page.