A month of significant openings and closings lies ahead for Jordan Tannahill.
First, the Governor-General's Award-winning and Dora-winning playwright has two brand new one-act plays premiering at Toronto's Canadian Stage: Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom. Then, next month, Videofag – the tiny but influential storefront theatre and art gallery that Tannahill and artist William Ellis have run in Kensington Market for the past 3 1/2 years – will shut its doors forever after the run of a play called Sheets by Salvatore Antonio (who is starring in the Canadian Stage plays).
The Globe spoke to the 27-year-old Tannahill – also the author of the recent book Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama – over the phone.
Let me get that on the recorder … Okay, you were saying while you're at Videofag right now waiting for the interview …
A minute before you called, this huge pack of schoolchildren, probably Grade 5, stampeded past the front window. And when they saw me in the window eating this kale salad in my pyjamas, they all pointed and laughed, "Videofag!" [Laughs]
Are you still living in the space at the back of the theatre?
Yes, in the squalid back rooms.
When you close down the shop, does that mean you're moving, too?
Yes. Family and a new love will be having me split my time between three different cities. … My mother has cancer at the moment, so I'm going to prioritize spending time with her in Ottawa.
I'm sorry to hear that.
It's been quite the year – that combined with my breakup with Will. We have a great time running Videofag together – but so much of the space was a manifestation of our relationship. The first four months of our breakup we were still sharing a bed together, because we had an artist-in-residence.
Videofag may have had a short lifespan, but so much vital work passed through, from Sheila Heti, Karen Hines, Rob Kempson, and went on to Vancouver, New York, Montreal … I never got used to saying the name out loud, though.
Incorporating "fag" into the title for me was really about reclaiming a word that has been used as a weapon against queer people – but also all sorts of people of different genders and sexual orientations. For me, being queer, being a fag, is about acknowledging that being somewhat on the periphery can be a place of power.
That seems a good segue to your debut at Canadian Stage – one of the biggest companies in Toronto. Most of your work has premiered on the peripheries.
Botticelli in the Fire – one of the two one-act plays – is actually all about the way in which this big commission by [Lorenzo de'] Medici is the undoing of [early Renaissance painter Sandro] Botticelli. The play's very much about the artist's negotiation with power and the establishment. In some ways, it's a self-portrait – perhaps not a very flattering one. There is the worn narrative that I'm really wary of falling into – the indie upstart gets picked up by the establishment and falls flat on his face.
What did you enjoy about working with Canadian Stage? These plays were written as part of a two-year residency, right?
It was so exciting to initiate a process knowing that a production would be at the end of it. [Artistic and managing director] Matthew Jocelyn presented me essentially with an exciting puzzle. He said: We have two directors, now graduates, of the [Canadian Stage/York University] MFA program; we need two one-act plays for them to direct, in the same evening, so they have to be the same cast, same set, more or less. I do find constraints are liberating; I think they make for better art as more innovative solutions are required for them.
These came out of something you were already working on?
At the time, I had just finished a play that I knew would never be produced. It was this sprawling, messy, epic called Botticelli in the Fire. There were 18 actors. It was my hackneyed attempt at Einstein on the Beach meets Angels in America, a sweeping epic about the relationship between the Abrahamic faith and homosexuality through time, as embodied by this shape-shifting character named Botticelli who existed in multiple time periods. I parsed out the thread of the original Botticelli narrative – set in the Renaissance – and the one about Sodom.
What about Sunday in Sodom? What do you want people to know about it going in?
I just read this Sarah Ruhl quote that resonated with me. She says, "Write a play as a gift for someone you love." That's really true of Sunday in Sodom, which is a play for my mom. As a child, my father would read the Bible as a bedtime story. I was really fascinated by the story of the destruction of Sodom – long before I knew I was a homo – and what would really keep me up at night, or what I would dwell on, is what it would feel like to see your mother turned into salt. My mom turned her back on the church, left my father and basically raised me as a single mom. … I had always imagined Lot's wife as my own mom and I began writing the play around the time of her cancer diagnosis. Everything I'm writing at the moment is all about my mom.
And will she be able to come see these plays?
She is. She's coming on closing.
This interview has been condensed and edited.