Alistair Newton’s audacious theatrical cabaret, Loving the Stranger or How To Recognize an Invert
, frames the life of the late Peter Flinsch, gay Holocaust survivor, German expat and painter. It’s an exploration of how liberal times breed the most intense hatred and violence toward those who are different.
Michael Lyons: What was the creative genesis of Loving the Stranger?
Alistair Newton: Like most of my work it started with me being angry about something. With all of my previous pieces, invariably, somebody would say some version of “Oh, come on: gay issue plays, in Toronto, in 2,000-whatever-year? Really?”
When Christopher Skinner was killed, everybody said, “I can’t believe this happened in Toronto.” It happened because of Toronto; it’s reactionary violence. It happens in liberal times. You can’t get complacent and just sort of throw up your hands and say, “Well, we can get married; everything is great now. There’s no reason to keep fighting because everything is fine and it’s Toronto.” It’s exactly in that moment of complacency when crazy reactionary things occur.
I met with a man named Karl-Heinz Steinle at the Schwules Museum, the gay museum in Germany. I said, “I’m working on this project. I know that there’s only a few gay survivors of the Holocaust; I’d like to speak to one.” And he said, “Well, of course, you have already spoken to Peter Flinsch. He lives in Montreal.” So I reached out to Peter, saying, “I’m working on this project,” which at the time was just meant to be about Dr Hirschfeld, Prop 8 and Paragraph 175. And he said, “You must come see me right now. I’m very sick.”
It totally changed the piece. It was this amazing, life-changing moment of meeting this incredible person that reframed the piece to be Peter’s story because the way that he looked at his life was that he had been quite lucky, even though he had been subject to Nazi military prison and arrested, and his hardships. He still considered himself to be a lucky person because he lived through so much history. He basically existed through the entire 20th century.
Do you consider your work gay-issue plays?
You can’t even get people to admit that they’re gay artists anymore. They’ll be like, “Well, no, I’m an artist who’s gay.” I’m always suspect of people who say that because I think they either aren’t a serious artist or they’re not a serious person, because being gay just has an effect on the way I interact with the world. If there was no homophobia, then that wouldn’t be an issue; I would just be an artist who happens to be gay. But until that happens I am a big ol’ gay artist.
You choose, in your work, to put lots of beautiful male bodies onstage. Why do you make that aesthetic choice?
I fill the stage with these gorgeous men in various states of undress, including total. My goal always is to engage people during the show, but much more importantly, to force introspection after. What I’m interested in is to get people really wrapped up and seduced by the beauty of it and then to catch themselves and go, “Oh,” and really interrogate why and how it had that effect. Is this always successful? No. It’s a bit like the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue is horrifyingly problematic and really despicable and presents so many dangerous, fascistic images, but it’s also really hot. For this piece in particular, it wouldn’t make sense to not cast beautiful, naked men because that’s Peter Flinsch’s world.
Why should gay audiences, specifically, go to see Loving the Stranger?
High emotion, high drama and lots of beautiful naked men. Even if only one person were gaybashed in a year, that’s one person too many. If there was no homophobia in Toronto, which there is, I would still make this work just to make sure it didn’t come back. Because it’s about vigilance and not just going, well, someone yells, “Die, faggot” at me only once a year, fine. No. Too many times, right? If it happens once a decade, that’s too many times. Keep fighting. It’s important to keep fighting.
Michael Lyons is a
fab writer who has a predilection for intelligent and arousing theatre.