Living in a fish bowl is nothing new to Sadie Epstein-Fine. As part of the first wave of children raised by same-sex couples, she is used to extra scrutiny and curiosity, especially given that her parents are LGBT Parenting Network coordinator Rachel Epstein and writer Lois Fine, both longtime queer parenting activists. And Epstein-Fine has taken a leadership role in that educational capacity, talking at schools and volunteering at Camp 10 Oaks, a retreat for queer families. But having her life turned into a musical by an actor/singer/composer/pianist/triathlete/PhD in psychology must give pause to even someone like Epstein-Fine.
“No way,” says the 22-year-old choreographer and theatre student. “It’s frickin’ cool. It’s our stories. We are really underrepresented out there. We need our stories told.”
The Common Ground, a musical debuting at the Toronto Fringe on Wed, July 2, began life as a doctoral dissertation by Ken McNeilly while he was a psychology student at the University of Toronto. “I knew I wanted to have kids myself,” says McNeilly, “so the dissertation was brought on by a curiosity about what my kids would face.”
McNeilly interviewed nine kids from across the province, including Epstein-Fine. He was most struck by how passionately the children identified with the LGBT community. “I was surprised at how strongly they expressed a connection. One kid even said, ‘I kind of feel a little bit gay myself.’”
But most of the children are straight, so there’s no ready-made place for them. “They’re caught between two communities,” he says. “I interviewed this one kid who wanted to join a queer youth group but got pushback because she was straight. The other kids were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ That made me sit up and take notice.
“The nomenclature is really complicated. As one of the kids said, ‘There’s no letter for us in LGBTQ.’”
Some kids like the term “gaybies,” some like “youth with queer-identified parents,” while others, including Epstein-Fine, prefer “queer spawn.”
“I’ve been interviewed so many times over the years,” says Epstein-Fine, “and nearly every media story is like, ‘Oh, wow, she turned out okay.’ Nearly every headline read something like, ‘Queer Spawn: The Kids are Alright.’ That’s what’s so cool about this. It’s a musical. It’s not trying to prove anything other than we have cool stories to tell.”
When she heard about the musical adaptation, Epstein-Fine jumped at the chance to participate. She’s now the musical’s production manager, dramaturge, choreographer and assistant director. “She’s fully on board,” says McNeilly, “a huge part of the process.”
“I organized a queer spawn panel for the cast with some younger kids,” says Epstein-Fine. “It was so sad. There were these two 14-year-olds who talked articulately about being bullied. And it struck all of us in the production that here are these two kids who, in less than 24 hours, would have to go back to that horrible situation. It made it real for us.
“I had a privileged childhood,” she says. “I was never bullied. I never had an issue about telling people; I told everyone. But I did feel pressure to be perfect. I felt I had to repress my own imperfections.” So when she realized she was queer, herself, she was terrified that she had somehow let down the whole community, that she proved the myth that gay parents make children gay. “I know that’s silly now,” she says, “but it was an issue for me when I came out [at 16].”
The idea to turn his doctoral research into a musical came to McNeilly after he graduated and joined the Research-Informed Theatre Exchange run by Tara Goldstein out of U of T. He’s been a teacher for 20 years and has written musicals before for school productions. “I had an inkling about the musical even before joining RITE,” he says. “The whole process of publishing academic work is very tedious and boring. And even if it’s in a respected journal, how many people are going to read it? I saw theatre as a better way of improving access. These stories are too good to waste.”
And an idea it might have remained if McNeilly hadn’t submitted it to the Fringe lottery. The Common Ground ended up number one on the waiting list. McNeilly was soon on the hook for an actual production. That was December of last year. It’s been a marathon since then, writing, composing and producing—but the peripatetic McNeilly, 45, is a triathlete.
“I feel really good about where we’re at,” he says. “I took every workshop the Fringe offered: fundraising, publicity, stage management. I just soaked it all up like a sponge. Because we did really well during phase one of fundraising, I could post a real audition notice. That helped me get a phenomenal cast. The Fringe has been doing this for a while, there’s a formula. Everything they suggest works.”
Playing four teenagers are Ben Chiasson, Fiona Sauder, Tegan Macfarlane and Julia Gartha. McNeilly will accompany on the piano, along with Suzanne McKenney on guitar; both also play a couple of characters.
The Common Ground runs Wed, July 2 to July 13 at the Randolph Theatre (736 Bathurst St). But before that, McNeilly has one last hurdle to overcome: He’s presenting the musical at his school. “I think the kids are going to be excited to see me in a different role.”
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE…
Growing up gay on a farm can be an udder disgrace. Especially when your best friend is a cow.
D Taylor Scott mines his prototypical Canadian childhood and eccentric family in the one-man show, Pardon Me Cow, opening Wed, July 2 at the Fringe. Scott’s family took up residence on his grandfather’s farm north of Oshawa when Scott was eight. “I was a town kid getting used to country life and a working farm as I was coming to terms with being gay,” says Scott, now 37. “As a young gay boy, I was a bit of a day-dreamer. And my siblings were older, so I was on my own a lot. I was interested in the animals. And there was one cow that I could get close to right away. We had a rapport. She was my sounding block.”
The writer/comedian stresses that Pardon Me Cow is not just about a cow. “I have crazy relatives. Whether it’s my personal life or the news, I reflect back and compare growing up then with the craziness of today. For example, I had a nutty uncle who ran for mayor with the slogan, ‘Vote for Stan. He’ll shovel the shit.” The comparison to Rob Ford is obvious.”
Pardon Me Cow runs Wed, July 2 to 13 at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse (79A St George St).
Other queer Fringe offerings include Komunka (left), an exploration of life and rights in contemporary Moscow, a collective creation based on the idea of cast member Yury Ruzhyev and directed by theatre veteran Sky Gilbert. Opening Thu, July 3 at the Helen Gardiner Phelan. Concrete Kid is Ray Jarvis Ruby’s lesbian coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Toronto’s nightlife. Opening Fri, July 4 at George Ignatieff Theatre (15 Devonshire Pl). And Salvador is Rafael Antonio Renderos’ investigation of gay rights violations in El Salvador. Opening July 3 at the Annex Theatre (736 Bathurst St).
The Toronto Fringe. Various venues. Wed, July 2-13. (416) 966-1062. fringetoronto.com.