BWW Interview: Marc Hall And Stafford Arima Talk THE LOUDER WE GET at Theatre Calgary
In the lead up to Calgary's Pride Parade on September 1st 2019, I sat down with Marc Hall and Stafford Arima to talk about Theatre Calgary, The Louder We Get, and the LGBTQ+ community in Alberta, and across Canada.
The Louder We Get (opening on January 28th 2020 at Theatre Calgary's Max Bell Theatre) tells the true story of Marc Hall and the court case that allowed him to take his boyfriend to prom. Premiering for the first time under its new title (previously Prom Queen), the show will be directed by Lonny Price, choreographed by Sean Cheesman, and feature a cast of 40% local artists.
In 2002, Oshawa, Ontario's Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School asked students attending the prom to submit the names of the guests they intended to bring. Hall submitted the name of his boyfriend, and was denied on the grounds that 'homosexuality is incompatible with Roman Catholic teaching'. Supported by his family and the national community who caught wind of the situation, Hall took the school board to court. Two days later, the judge ruled in his favour and he took his boyfriend to prom that night.
The story of Marc Hall versus the Durham Catholic School Board is one that many Canadians are familiar with.
"So when the principal and schoolboard said 'no, I couldn't take my boyfriend to the prom'...obviously we were super upset but we really had no idea;" Hall told me "we thought that was pretty much it. What was I supposed to do, I was 17? But my friends saw how upset I was, so they ended up surprising me by creating a website where it talked about the situation and the public could voice their opinion on it." A radio host in Windsor, Ontario picked up the story and shortly after, it made national headlines. "It was just a whirlwind. I was doing media scrums on lunch time at school. People from different organizations like Pflag, came to my aid, and the Canadian Auto Workers Union came to my aid, my family was there for me the whole time. A lot of people need to know that everyone was there for me, too."
Hall's story, and the one he tells in The Louder We Get, share a universal message of community, acceptance, and love.
"My parents were always supportive right from the beginning...But I think the biggest piece with The Louder We Get, and the real life story, is that a lot of people saw me at the forefront of everything (and of course I was the one fighting) but what a lot of people don't understand is the background.
"It really was the community that came together that helped propel me forward."
The Louder We Get originally premiered at the Segal Centre in 2016 under the title Prom Queen and before that, enjoyed its first workshop at Sheridan College (who also hosted the original workshop of Come From Away) back in 2014, and later performed at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario as part of the High School Project.
"When students went to see the performance [in London], some actually messaged me on social media asking for advice on 'I don't know how to come out to my brother, do you have any tips?' someone asked how to come out to their grandma...there was another student at opening night of the Grand who came to see the show and she was so inspired that she came out to her family. I was a ball of emotions after that. And so stuff like that, I love about this whole thing."
It's that desire to give back to the community and make an impact that has brought The Louder We Get to Calgary. Stafford Arima, the Artistic Director of Theatre Calgary going into his second full season, spoke about the decision process.
"The first thing is that it's a story that is about a Canadian Hero and this isn't some fictionalized story that's been dreamt up by some amazing theatre writers. This happened here and it happened in this country and it's unfortunate that we're still, to this day, dealing with a certain amount of inequality not just in Canada but world-wide. So the relevancy of this story is urgently needed to be heard and digested by people."
Hall added "And we see discrimination [still] happening to the LGBT community - just the other week, there were the pride crosswalks that were vandalized, there's still talks about conversion therapy in Alberta even though we're making a lot of good progress on that front. But just look at the comments section on any LGBTQ+ article, we know that kind of stuff is still happening. I think it's good to reflect on the historical accounts, too, just so we know how far we have come."
Marc Hall, now a Research Associate in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary, also notes the serendipitous nature of the Alberta connection to this Ontario story.
"I think one of the connections is because Dennis Garnhum (who directed the London production) used to be the artistic director of Theatre Calgary and Stafford [Arima], he's been following along from the beginning... Kent Staines, the playwright, is originally from Edmonton, Colleen Dauncey (Composer) and Akiva Romer Segal (Lyricist) are originally from Calgary; they went to Henry Wise Wood which is why we did the Henry Wise Wood video."
While The Louder We Get is based on Hall's story, it is still a fictionalized account of his time so I had to wonder how accurate the performances on the stage really were.
"Of course, there are things that are a little dramatized" Hall confirmed "but for the most part, it takes me back every time I watch it. There are actually some lines that are word-for-word what happened in real life...When we went to the Segal Centre for its world premiere, I remember sitting beside my mom and there's this song called Mother Mary where my mom struggles between her values as a Catholic and raising a gay son and my mom was sitting beside me and just holding my hand and she'd just keep looking at me and we'd cry together while watching the song."
His parents have attended every opening night performance, but they will be unable to attend Theatre Calgary's premiere in January. However, his brother and his family will be flying out to support this new production of their story.
Though this show is not making its world premiere (which occurred in Ontario in 2016), this will be the first time it will be known as The Louder We Get - named for an iconic song in the show - and it will feature a new creative team as well.
"What really excites me is that we're really bringing together a global team." Said Arima. "We have an American director, a British choreographer; we have Canadian designers, we have American designers. Bringing those friends who aren't from Canada to now understand this Canadian story to me, is how we can tell a story that isn't just about 'well we can only do it in Ontario because it takes place in Ontario'."
Rehearsals don't start until December but there is still one more minor role that they have yet to cast: Marc Hall himself.
"There is a responsibility to make sure that in every situation - but more specifically in this - we represent who Marc is and who that actor is. It's not just a triple threat in the sense of sing, act, and dance, but you add another element where you're dealing with age (make sure the age makes sense), and you're dealing with a real live person so you want to make sure the essence of that actor naturally is who Marc is, so you're essentially a quintuple threat. So it's been an exciting challenge."
When The Louder We Get opens in 2020, it will be the first time in 29 years that Theatre Calgary presents a production with an LGBTQ+-centric story. Next year also marks the 29th anniversary of Calgary's first pride parade.
"That in itself says to me that it's time." Said Arima. But he is already gearing up for the discussions that The Louder We Get could prompt. "I'm looking forward to the dialogue and the discussion that will come out of this production. Theatre is not only meant to entertain it is meant to enlighten people...I hope that we will, through this experience of having this on our stage, learn more about our audience, more about our city and its current lens on LGBTQ+ stories, and keep moving forward. Even if it's not what I as the AD want to experience (nay-sayers), we can still learn from that and I don't think it's something we're going to shy away from." Theatre Calgary will frequently be hosting talkbacks with special guests (including Marc Hall) to engage the audience in conversation.
The Artistic Director adamantly assures that The Louder We Get is an incredibly accessible piece of theatre for all audiences.
"The show, at its core, is entertaining. It's heartwarming, it pulls at your heartstrings, it tickles your funny bone. And the score is just incredibly infectious...I'm very hopeful that all of our audiences and subscribers will connect with this piece."
As for Hall, whose story is still ringing true half a lifetime later, he wants to ensure that the core message of the show is being heard.
"What I really want people to take away from this is: always be true to yourself. And one of the big takeaways, too, is to know that no matter what struggle you're going through; if you feel alone, you aren't. There is help somewhere, you might just have to look for it sometimes.
"The other piece too is, a lot of people look at this story and think 'I want to create change in the world but I can't do something like that - take on the court - and for me, sure it's great to have those big things that enact change but it's also a collective of small stuff, too."
"And what we keep saying is that when people come together, they are louder together. When we come together, our voices are amplified; when we come together, we're heard more. And that's really what it's about."
The Louder We Get will hit the Theatre Calgary stage in January 2020 and tickets are available now.
Below are some Calgary and Canada links for LGBTQ+ readers.