Down in the subterranean boardroom of Buddies in Bad Times theatre, there is a single window through which light slithers in from an iron grate at street level above. Sitting there conducting an interview, you feel a bit like you've penetrated the secret sewer lair of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
That would make Brendan Healy, the soft-spoken, bearded thinker recently appointed Buddies' new artistic director, the Splinter of Toronto's queer theatre, the calm guiding sensei behind all the exuberant, avant-garde chaos that goes on in the two theatre spaces above him.
Healy, 35, was hired in September, beating out a couple of big shots a decade or two older than him. (Playwright Brad Fraser and Dora-winning director Ed Roy were the also-rans.) He now finds himself the youngest artistic director of an established theatre in the city - a fact that led to an outpouring of gleeful blog posts and tweets from many of his twenty- and thirtysomething contemporaries toiling away in Toronto's indie theatre scene.
"It does feel like some generational veil has been pierced, and I think that's a good thing," says Healy, his body illuminated in strips of sun. "It makes sense for me that Buddies would be the organization to lead that."
While Toronto's younger theatre artists, of course, have very diverse approaches to theatre, Healy's two top priorities at Buddies seem representative of a generation who have moved well beyond Canadian playwrights telling Canadian stories.
The first is a focus on new play development that looks beyond playwrights and gives equal opportunity to types of performance that think outside the text-based box.
In his presentation to the Buddies search committee, Healy argued that collective creations need as much time to grow as new scripts, which will often get work-shopped over several years. "I love writers and will continue to support writers, but I want people who work in other ways to have a space where they can develop their work," says Healy, whose acclaimed collaboration with Independent Aunties, Breakfast, will be remounted at Buddies in March.
The second thing that clearly marks Healy as a member of the younger generation is a perspective that is international rather than nationalist. "Buddies is a unique institution, not just in the city and the country," he says. "It's the largest queer theatre in the world - it's really, really important for me as an organization that we capitalize on that."
Healy won't tip his hand on future seasons, but he would like to invite more artists from abroad to play at Buddies. Likewise, he'd like to take Buddies productions outside of Toronto, where sexuality is such a minor issue that a lesbian can run for the provincial legislature under the Conservative banner, to the rest of Canada and the world, where gay rights are not as well entrenched.
Which brings up a question about the purpose of a queer theatre in Canada's biggest city on the eve of the year 2010. Take two right turns as you exit Buddies and walk a few blocks along Yonge Street and you'll find Mirvish's commercial production of My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding playing to packed houses. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and characters of indeterminate sexuality regularly pop up in hits staged elsewhere, such as Brad Fraser's True Love Lies at Factory Theatre or Hannah Moscovitch's East of Berlin at Tarragon Theatre.
Like his predecessor David Oiye, Healy's definition of the word "queer" reaches beyond sexuality - to him, it is a philosophy that is about questioning norms and being suspicious of all binary approaches to identity.
"I think that a play can contain characters identified as gay and lesbian and be totally not queer," he says. "And you can have a play that has straight people, but is completely queer. I really strongly believe in that."
The Silicone Diaries, the solo show Healy is currently directing at Buddies, is an example of a truly queer show. Starring transsexual Nina Arsenault, it is not afraid of delving into the complexities surrounding sex changes. "Nina's very interested in going beyond the typical trans narrative of 'I'm a woman trapped inside a man's body and now I'm finally that woman,' " says Healy. "The investigation in her life story contains more ambiguities than that."
As much as Healy is invested in a broader definition of queer, he emphasizes that Buddies will have a place for more straightforward LBGT narratives, too, such as Waawaate Fobister's Aboriginal coming-out story, Agokwe, which swept the Dora Awards this year (and embarks on a national tour next year).
That hit grew out of Buddies' youth program - an aspect of Buddies that Healy definitely intends to keep strong. Healy still remembers how much of a lifeline theatre was for him growing up as a gay inner-city kid with a single mom in Montreal. Participation in a summer theatre program called Creations for disadvantaged youth "put me on the right path," he recalls. "I was a gay kid and very uncomfortable with that fact. Theatre was definitely a place where I met my first gays who were out and proud."