Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bare: A Pop Opera

My WE cover story this week is about Fighting Chance Productions' 20th show, Bare: A Pop Opera and its relevance to gay youth.

Braedon Cox and Lucas Blaney

Baring It All

For the first time in weeks, the sun is shining, the sky is blue and — oh, there’s a used condom not three feet from the door of the building I’m about to enter. The respite from Vancouver’s dismal summer seems somewhat incongruous with this area of Vancouver, known mostly for its rundown warehouses, hookers and sketchy dudes cruising in rusted-out beaters. But in the middle of these shady surroundings, up two short flights of stairs, a crew of young actors are singing, dancing and sweating their way through a 10-hour rehearsal of Bare: A Pop Opera, Fighting Chance Productions’ 20th show in just four years.

Braedon Cox is in the middle of performing a powerful, gut-wrenching number. It’s his first show with the flourishing, volunteer-based theatre company, after recently returning from a scholarship stint in Los Angeles at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, nods and begins again, his voice soaring over the keyboard. As the rest of the cast joins in, the small room is suddenly packed with emotion, the harmonies drowning out the rev of motorcycles in the distance. Nothing matters except this moment, witnessing Cox and crew establish so clearly Bare’s central theme: the fresh hell that is being a teenager — more specifically, a gay teenager who believes in God.

Bare was first staged in 2000, eventually making its way to off-Broadway for a short run in 2004. Musically it follows in the spirit of Rent and Spring Awakening — rock heavy, with occasional detours into gospel and soul — but story-wise, it takes its cues from Shakespeare and Degrassi, with plenty of emotional torment, betrayal, sex and drugs. Cox plays Peter, a 17-year-old boy who has been having a secret affair with his roommate and best friend, Jason (Lucas Blaney) for years. After much soul searching, Peter’s ready to come out of the closet, despite his conservative surroundings. Jason has no desire to come out the closet and gives in to wild, pretty Ivy (Lena Dabrusin), with tragic results.

“I had people at school in Los Angeles who were quite successful in the film industry tell me never come out of the closet, you’ll always be typecast, you’ll never be taken seriously, blah blah blah,” Cox recalls. “I never agreed with them. What does it have to do with anything? If I’m a gay actor, I’m a gay actor. I don’t let being gay define me and it shouldn’t define who I am as an actor.”

Outside Waterfront Theatre, just 30 minutes after opening night comes to a close amidst thunderous applause, Cox is visibly exhilerated. At 21, the star of the show is himself barely out of his teens. He remembers his own angst well enough to identify with and convey Peter’s beautifully, though there’s a world of difference between himself and his character. Cox has left Peter’s awkward body language and hurt confusion on stage where it belongs. Here, he’s smiling and joking, speaking with the kind of clarity and peace typically reserved for those decades older. But, in spite of his confidence, Bare reflects a reality Cox knows all too well: the culture of shame and confusion that surrounds teens and homosexuality.

Messages like that make Cox grateful that shows like Bare exist, particularly in the current cultural climate. The last few years have seen religious beliefs crushing marriage equality in the U.S., not to forget our own Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s well-publicized belief that same-sex marriage is not a human right. Adding to the devastation: the recent influx of headlines about bullied gay youth committing suicide — which prompted Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project. Though it was written over a decade ago, Bare’s subject matter has, sadly, perhaps never been more relevant.

“It’s so important for us to do shows like this, to stick people in there and say, ‘Hey, you can’t look away.This is what’s happening. People are killing themselves,’” Cox says. “[Teens need to be told] just be yourself. Nobody has all the answers. Don’t look to a religion to help you out in these matters, look within yourself. There’s life beyond the walls of your high school or church or family’s house. You can live a fulfilling relationship with someone who really loves you and love them back, someone who will walk through life with you.”

It’s a powerful message that Cox is happy and proud to help deliver with each performance of Bare. He’s hopeful that people will take a chance on the gritty, controversial subject matter and see it as an opportunity to better understand the reality facing gay and questioning teens.

“I’ve had people in the cast tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to invite my dad because he’s not really into this kind of thing’ and I’m like, no, these are the types of people you need to invite,” Cox says. “You need to get them in the theatre. The way being gay is portrayed in the media and magazines is completely far off, so many things that are not defining who we truly are as people and Bare gets so much deeper than that. It really analyzes the heart and soul of homosexuals’ minds. It’s not just waving flags and Britney Spears.”

In fact, the experience has meant so much to him, he’s calling on the LGBTQ community to join him in reaching out to teens.

“As an accepted gay person, we owe it to go back to the teenagers and help them through the struggling phase,” Cox says. “It can be so traumatizing. Everyone in the community should come together helping these kids. We don’t need anymore deaths on our hands.”

Bare: A Pop Opera runs to Aug. 13 at Waterfront Theatre, 8pm. $20-$30 from Tickets Tonight.

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