“I wanted to stimulate people”: Canadian playwright Brad Fraser on provocation, the theatrical establishment, and his new memoir

All the Rage by Brad Fraser
“The theatre doesn’t have to be a boring place where you turn your mind off and sleep.”

Despite more than four decades working as a playwright, director, and screenwriter, Brad Fraser balks at the notion that he is part of the Canadian theatre establishment. Fraser, who won a provincial playwriting award as a student in Edmonton in the 1970s – for a one-act play called Two Pariah at a Bus Stop in a Large City Late at Night – an Alberta Culture Award for best play, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award (twice), and has twice been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Best English-language Drama, nevertheless considers himself an outsider where Canadian theatre is concerned.

“I haven’t worked in the theatre in Toronto for ten years. I haven’t worked in the Canadian theatre for seven years now. It’s always been like that,” he says on the phone from his home in Toronto. “I feel a lot now like I did when I was first starting out, which is that these people are never going to let me in and the only way it’s going to keep working is if I keep doing what I’ve been doing all along.”

What Fraser has been doing since his early days as a high school student in the performing arts program at Edmonton’s Victoria Composite High School is producing a string of the most provocative, abrasive, exciting plays this country has ever seen. It’s a history that he unfolds, with all the candour and forthrightness for which he has been equally praised and vilified, in his recently published book, All the Rage: A Partial Memoir in Two Acts and a Prologue.

The volume opens with a brief overview of Fraser’s childhood – born in 1959 to a sixteen-year-old-mother and an eighteen-year-old-father – including living in poverty, experience with bullying at school, and a seventh-grade teacher who was the first person to encourage the youngster’s interest in writing. Fraser’s father, a labourer who worked on the final stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway, was emotionally and physically abusive; Fraser credits his youthful defiance of his father’s authority with giving him the fortitude to confront critics and bullies in later life. “After I stood up to my abusive father, I never really feared things in the same way again,” he says. “I realized the adult world was every bit as fucked up as anything else. They didn’t necessarily know more, they were often horrible people, and if they wanted my respect they would have to earn it, it wasn’t going to be there simply because of who they were.”

The attitude stood him in good stead as he started to see his work produced in places like Calgary and Toronto, beginning in earnest with the 1981 play Wolfboy (a Toronto revival of the show in the 1980s was notable for featuring a young Keanu Reeves as one of the two leads). Other shows would follow, including Rude Noises (for a Blank Generation) and Chainsaw Love, before his breakout hit, 1989’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. The shows were characterized by uncommon energy and emotional depth, as well as copious amounts of sex, profanity, drug use, and violence.

Fraser mined inspiration from his love of comic books and pop culture, as well as his own experiences as a gay man in Canada. But equally, his impoverished family’s nomadic existence instilled in the young playwright an understanding of the way economic circumstances can serve as a barrier to being taken seriously in his chosen field. “When I started attending the theatre, I realized I was completely from the wrong class of people,” Fraser says. “I wanted to show those people that their stories had a place in the theatre too and they had every right to be there.”

In addition to being on the ground floor during the development of a vibrant homegrown landscape, including Theatre Network in Edmonton and Theatre Passe Muraille and Tarragon in Toronto, Fraser’s subject matter, directness, and use of vernacular dialogue helped appeal to a brand-new audience that had previously felt ostracized as a result of the artistic and economic elitism of the country’s theatrical community. “The thing I’m most proud of about my career is that with every play that’s been done, the theatres that produce them come back to me and say, ‘Who are these people coming to see this play? These are not our usual audience members. Where are they coming from?’ ”

The astonishment on the part of entrenched theatre producers and financiers was not a surprise to Fraser, for whom issues of class – both onstage and off – have always been front and centre. “People of privilege can go to university regardless of what race or gender they are and talk about how bad they have it and how persecuted they are without actually having to deal with people who live with the reality of persecution and poverty every day,” he says. “I think that’s what bothered people most. What they were really trying to do was keep me in my place, which was not in the theatre but somewhere else where people from another class were meant to be. And I always enjoyed that conflict.”

Brad Fraser
“Our sexuality is contextual and to suggest that it is not really messes with a lot of people’s ideas of who they are and what the rules are supposed to be.” (Photo: David Hawe)

Another locus of controversy among self-consciously refined theatregoers and critics was Fraser’s use of frank sexuality, including full-frontal nudity, in many of his plays. Though he disclaims any kind of uniqueness or novelty in his use of nudity onstage, mentioning shows like Hair, Oh! Calcutta!, and I Love You, Baby Blue as popular before he came along, he is adamant about the integral nature of sex in general – and gay sex in particular – to his work. “When you write about relationships, when you write about intimacy between people, between characters, if you don’t talk about sexuality, you’re not doing your job,” he says. “I think what people have a problem with is you go to the theatre and you expect your brain to be the most stimulated part of the experience, and your body and your emotions less so. Whereas I work the other way around.”

Fraser came of age during the sexual revolution, when notions of sexuality, gender fluidity, and free love were a pervasive part of the zeitgeist. His memoir, like his plays, contains a good dollop of sex, including anonymous hookups in bathhouses as well as longer-term, committed relationships. But there is a dark undercurrent to all this, as anyone who lived through the 1980s knows well. “A lot of that experimentation that was going on in the ’70s ended decisively when the AIDS crisis started.”

The spectre of HIV/AIDS hovers throughout All the Rage, especially given its proximity to the theatre and arts communities, which were hit especially hard by the ravages of the disease. In fact, the crisis forms the organizing principle for the book.

Fraser had been approached numerous times in the past about writing a memoir, but he hesitated, thinking he was too young or that any life story he was interested in telling remained unfinished. It was not until Bruce Walsh, then publisher of the University of Regina Press, got in touch about the possibility of writing a memoir dealing with the people in Fraser’s life the playwright lost to AIDS that he began to consider the idea seriously. “I thought, ‘Well, that makes sense to me,’ ” he says. “It makes it about more than just me.” Focusing on the AIDS crisis also gave the book, which eventually landed at Doubleday Canada, a definitive end point: the year 2000, by which time a diagnosis was no longer an automatic death sentence thanks to the development of antiretroviral drugs such as AZT.

The scenes in All the Rage involving friends, colleagues, and lovers lost to AIDS are unsurprisingly sad, in part because of Fraser’s brutal honesty in his depictions. It is the same honesty that has discomfited many people in his work. When, in his 1994 play Poor Super Man, he included a sexual relationship between a gay man and a heterosexual man, he was greeted with opprobrium from gay and straight critics alike, something that Fraser feels is not entirely unexpected given the position the play requires its audience to adopt. “I think it forces a lot of people to look at themselves and say, ‘In a certain context, could I be the same way?’ And if they’re going to be honest about it, the answer is yes,” he says. “Our sexuality is contextual and to suggest that it is not really messes with a lot of people’s ideas of who they are and what the rules are supposed to be.”

Of course, messing with people’s ingrained ideas is one of Fraser’s greatest pleasures, and one of his most enduring attributes as an artist. It goes hand in hand with his unrepentant forthrightness about everything from class to gender to queer representation. He is not hesitant to call out the Canadian theatre community as far more conservative today than it was when he started – in part, he says, because the upstart independent theatres that gave him a stage to perform his work have since become the establishment. Nor is he shy about identifying a particular malady in the national psyche that may help explain the kind of artistic conservatism he notes. “I think we’re very happy to let other people tell us what to do in Canada,” he says. “We’re a very smug, complacent people. As long as we can tell ourselves that we’re progressive and we’re this country where prejudice doesn’t exist, we’re very happy with ourselves. But in fact all of those things are bullshit.”

But Fraser, who is as quick to turn the critical spotlight on himself (he blames his own screenplay, for which he won a Genie, for what he sees as the shortcomings of Denys Arcand’s film adaptation of Love and Human Remains), is not simply intent on getting in people’s faces for its own sake – at least, not entirely. “I wasn’t trying to shock audiences,” he says of his intentions with plays like Remains and Poor Super Man. “But I was certainly trying to wake them up.”

Shaking people awake is perhaps the best description of Fraser’s approach in his plays, his activism, and his memoir. On one level, his entire career has been a campaign against boredom. “The theatre doesn’t have to be a boring place where you turn your mind off and sleep,” he says. “I wanted to stimulate people. And I wanted to stimulate people on all kinds of levels.”

In this, he has unquestionably succeeded, whether people are stimulated to joy or to anger. One suspects it doesn’t matter to Fraser what the end result is, so long as his audiences feel something. And even the relative success of his work in Canada – he grudgingly admits that Remains, at least, has become a canonical work in this country’s theatre history – doesn’t mean that he is in any way complacent or done with provoking people. He’s still waging the same guerrilla campaigns that have always impelled him. “It’s never gotten easier. I’ve never been rewarded for being who I am. It’s always been something that creates conflict and invites criticism,” he says. “But I don’t care what people think.”  

“I wanted to stimulate people”: Canadian playwright Brad Fraser on provocation, the theatrical establishment, and his new memoir
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