By Mary Elizabeth Clark
There’s a new Canadian play premiering in Cobourg, To Shut the Mouths of Lions, by Dave Clark. Jack Boyagian, Artistic Director of Northumberland Players, hopes Clark’s play will encourage other writers to use the unique and intimate Firehall Theatre to showcase their new works in future. “Ideally we’d like to premiere a great new play every year. We’ve done this in the past, twice.”
Clark began writing Lions from the starting point of an autocratic father with a gay son. Much to his surprise, he got a play exploring gender roles, inclusion, fatherhood, political fairness, social justice and male silence. Although these sound like lofty themes, the dialogue is gritty and down-to-earth. There are awkward pauses, angry and comic explosions, clumsy attempts at communication and expressions of love that exist in any family. “The orienting of gay couples and ‘family’ has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Gay people are now our neighbours, friends, professional colleagues, educators, political leaders, even the parents sitting across from us watching their kid’s soccer games. Yet, despite this new normal, it can still be difficult coming out as a young gay person, especially in a small town. Traditional attitudes, especially in some church groups and among older citizens, still linger,” says writer Clark.
Boyagian considered this when choosing the play. “It’s fitting that the Players perform a down-to-earth play with this theme in our town. Theatre groups have always provided acceptance and community for people of all gender identities, young and old in smaller places.”
The gay son in Clark’s play drives the action, but some things are “flip-flopped” within that potential stereotype. The crusty patriarch who cannot accept his son’s sexuality actually has more in common with that son than with his straight son. The two men share conservative politics, traditional high-powered jobs and a love of hockey; whereas, the straight son is left-wing and possesses gentle sensibilities. Boyagian says that the Player’s reading committee of twelve play-readers had near-unanimous enthusiasm for Lions when they recommended it be produced last April. “They wade through dozens of plays a year and this one really hit a chord.”
“I liked the way Dave took the play way beyond ‘the gay issue’,” says Boyagian. The Lions script examines the traditional “strength” men are expected to project to the world. It alludes to male silence and male reticence in revealing inner feelings that could be sad, embarrassing or even traumatic from their past experiences. To further complicate this issue for men, women can also find themselves being turned off by men showing too much emotion and not remaining strong and silent. This double-edged conditioning still requires some shifting in our world.
Many thoughts and experiences helped to gel this play in the author’s mind. The connection between the world of men’s sports and the sublimation of emotion was an influence as he wrote, especially when reflecting about sad news items like the tragic and very public death of Brian Burke’s gay son Brendan, the sexual abuse of teenage hockey stars Theoren Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy at the hands of their coach, and the smattering of gay athletes who are beginning to come out in their respective sports. “The male locker room that said ‘grin and bear it’, don’t show emotion is being challenged by society,” says Clark, “and the play transfers these societal changes to a family level in tense scenes about social justice, the political economy and competition. Characters square off over issues of poverty, equality and “race to the bottom” policies that pit corporate greed against people.
To Shut the Mouths of Lions opens “April Fools Day” which has already sold out. It has a limited eight-performance run over three weekends. Jack Boyagian hopes to fill the Firehall each night, fill it with patrons challenged by its ideas and emotion, and with writers, inspired to submit their scripts to the Player’s reading committee. “We have a unique venue with eager actors and directors. All we need are good scripts.”
For more information and details about performances, see To Shut the Mouths of Lions.