By Jessica Lovell
It’s an ordinary story. And in some ways, that’s what makes it seem a little out of the ordinary for a playwright whose other titles include Drag Queens in Outer Space and I Have AIDS!
Sky Gilbert’s St. Francis of Millbrook, which opens tomorrow (Aug. 16) at 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, Ont., tells the story of a teenager growing up gay in rural Ontario.
The original title for the play was Ordinary, says the University of Guelph theatre professor, but he noted “the purpose of this play is also to some degree to challenge” ideas of ordinary.
Gilbert was commissioned to write the play for the rural theatre in the town outside of Peterborough.
Originally, he was asked to write a play documenting a historical incident that had happened in the area.
“It didn’t interest me that much,” says Gilbert. “Partly because the incident was just another tragic gay story.”
Instead, during the process of interviewing people for the play, he talked to a friend who grew up on a farm outside of Guelph.
“We had a long talk and I was so inspired by his story,” Gilbert says. It soon became the basis for St. Francis.
It is an unusual setting for Gilbert, who more often writes for theatres and production companies in Toronto or Hamilton and admits to knowing “next to zero about farming,” but he is used to writing plays for odd spaces, and this is no exception, he says.
“I do (plays) in odd spaces, and I often try to shape plays around the space,” he says.
In this case some elements are written for the outdoors and the barn that makes up the unique farm setting of 4th Line Theatre, he says.
The play also addresses a theme that is common to many of his plays.
The main character is an animal lover, obsessed with St. Francis of Assisi. He looks forward to one day taking over the family farm, but as his homosexuality emerges, so too does the conflict.
“He’s a true farmer and his father doesn’t want to hand the farm over to his gay son,” explains Gilbert.
The theme of homophobia confronted by a young gay man has added importance for young people, says Gilbert.
“To me, sexuality is a very important part of the bullying issue,” he says. “It would be an important play for young people to see.”
But he hopes the audience for the play will be reasonably universal. “I really tried to make it a play that people can relate to,” he says.
But at the same time, he doesn’t hold any grand thoughts about the play having the ability to change any prejudiced attitudes.
“The people who are open-minded will like the play,” says Gilbert. “The people who are homophobic probably won’t go.”
But beyond the serious theme, he hopes people will also enjoy the play for what it is – an ordinary coming-of-age story.
“It’s a drama, but it has a lot of funny stuff,” says Gilbert. “It’s not a sad story.”