News

Jan. 22, 2020

Turn on your TV today (do people still do that?) and you’ll see singer, actor, and executive producer Jann Arden playing a sexually fluid character in her primetime TV series Jann on CTV. Change the channel (the what?) and you’ll find queer* show runner and actor Daniel Levy playing the unconditionally loved gay son of his real-life father Eugene Levy in the award-winning show Schitt’s Creek that they co-created for CBC. Watching these funny, poignant and successful series, it’s easy to think queer performers in our union are doing well. Yet, despite the well-deserved accolades these high-profile queer ACTRA members have received, let’s remember they created these roles for themselves.

For most of us, being queer and getting cast in this industry still holds many barriers, including limited and stereotyped roles, fear of discrimination and straight actors continuing to be cast as queer characters, even on Schitt’s Creek. Casting a white actor to play an Asian or Indigenous character today would cause a social media storm, and rightly so. Yet casting straight to play queer is still somehow accepted. (Casting straight stars to play queer has long been considered a path to an Oscar in Hollywood. In 2019, both the Best Actress and Actor Academy Awards went to Olivia Coleman and Rami Malek respectively for their roles playing queer characters). Queer performers in our union have had enough of the status quo and queer committees are finally popping up in ACTRA branches across this country. They’re looking for change, now.

 

 

ACTRA Montreal’s first LGBTQIA+ Round Table meeting took place on December 4, 2019. Pictured L to R front row: Michael Nangreaves, Katharine King So, Sylvia Stewart, Ryan Bommarito; back: Sagie Stewart, Charlotte Poitras, Michel Langevin, Dakota Jamal Wellman, Gabe Maharjan, Tristan D Lalla, Robert d’Entremont.

Believe it or not, Canadians have had queer content on our TV screens since the 1970s. Over the decades, we’ve seen exponential growth in queer-related content, but it’s been a slow build. Here’s a breakdown by decade of queer-related Canadian programs made and broadcast over the last 50 years:
1970s:
Over the course of this entire decade, there were two gay “news and views” programs on cable in Canada and they were only available in Toronto.
1980s:
There was only a small jump to five queer-related shows produced in the ‘80s but the impact was huge as it introduced Canadians to CODCO, The Kids in the Hall and the Degrassi series – including some ‘out’ performers like Scott Thompson and Tommy Sexton.
1990s:
The 1990s brought a slight jump to eight queer-related shows airing in Canada including two new dramas Liberty Street and Family Passions.
2000s:
The biggest jump in queer content on our screens happened in the 2000s. An explosion of gay-related content being shot and broadcast in Canada by local and U.S. producers encompassed over 40 series including Degrassi: TNG, Queer as Folk, Being Erica, My Fabulous Gay Wedding and Train 48. The 2000s also introduced Canadians to OUTtv (originally called PrideVision TV) Canada’s first 24-hour cable television channel targeted at LGBTQ+ audiences.
2010s:
In the 2010s, the numbers dropped only slightly to below 40 shows with queer characters but the programs garnered international success and included well-known series such as Bomb Girls, Lost Girl, Orphan Black, Saving Hope, Slasher, Baroness Von Sketch Show, and of course, Jann and Schitt’s Creek.
Daniel Levy plays David Rose with Noah Reid who plays Patrick in Schitt’s Creek. Photo: Danielle Levitt, Courtesy of CBC
The past 50 years of queer Canadian TV has featured performers like Tommy Sexton, Scott Thompson, Elvira Kurt, Maggie Cassella, Gavin Crawford, Dan Levy and Joanne Vannicola. Some have been outspokenly queer in their careers and have paved the way for younger queer performers to become active.

Joanne Vannicola (who’s pronouns are they/them) has gone beyond speaking out in their pursuit of equity for queer performers on screen. A Gemini and Emmy award-winning actor, Vannicola recently released their harrowing memoir “All We Knew But Couldn’t Say” as well as received AFBS’s 2019 Leslie Yeo Award for Volunteerism. For years, Vannicola has been pushing to form a queer committee at ACTRA Toronto. Thanks to their tenacity (and some help from me and Theresa Tova), in early 2018, outACTRAto was born with Vannicola as chair.

Joanne Vannicola
outACTRAto meets monthly and has accomplished much in a short time including hosting queer panels at ACTRA Toronto’s members’ conferences and hosting a successful queer industry mixer. outACTRAto leads the union marching in Toronto’s Pride Parade, creating queer member ambassadors and, for the past two years, has hosted DGC members in the Toronto Pride march. In 2019, outACTRAto produced its first PSA, Queer Your Stories. The short film features a number of intersectional queer ACTRA Toronto members (me included) who speak to the camera and call on creators and the industry to “queer their stories” by creating more parts for queer performers, writing honest depictions of queers, bringing queers into casting rooms and casting queers in queer roles. Queer Your Stories has been playing to exuberant audiences on the LGBTQ+ film festival circuit.

 

Kiley May, one of the Toronto-based actors in Queer Your Stories, found another ally. May, an Indigenous, trans actor and screenwriter, has a recurring role as assistant pathologist River Baitz on CBC’s Coroner. Although Kiley May’s character on Coroner is transgender, she was impressed that her gender doesn’t specifically play out in her storyline.

“When I see script breakdowns of trans-specific or Indigenous-specific roles… I always read them with a critical lens and I’m really invested in how that character is going to be represented and whether or not it’s going to be something stereotypical or cliché or problematic, or is it something that’s fresh and original and more authentic,” said May.

Kiley May. Photo: Tanja-Tiziana

So frustrated was May with the general depiction of trans people on screen, she wrote an article for vice.com called There Wasn’t a Bechdel Test for Trans Representation, So I Made One where she refocused the Bechdel Test through a trans lens (the Bechdel Test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man).

Simon MacIntyre

In Simon MacIntyre’s, blog The Challenges of Being a Gay Actor in 2018, the UBCP/ACTRA Queer Committee Chair wrote about coming out to his agent: “…something odd happened, I went from several auditions a month to practically nothing. The few auditions I did consisted of several poorly written Gaysploytation films. When I confronted my agent about this she said, ‘oh I thought you would be more comfortable with gay roles.’” MacIntyre’s blog remains true today. Straight actors are still playing gay roles but queer actors, if they are “out,” are rarely cast in straight roles. Breaking this cycle is a big goal for ACTRA’s queer committees. MacIntrye (Timeless) explains UBCP/ACTRA’s Queer Committee’s history: “[We] started as a Diversity sub-committee over two years ago. During that time, we held numerous meetings with our members who identify as LGBTQ+ to find out how we could best serve them. A number of issues were brought up including fear of being outed, transphobia, homophobia, ignorance among casting, lack of resources and much more… Currently, we are working on some exciting initiatives for the coming year, including creating our own PSA and hosting industry mixers.”

Katharine King So

ACTRA Montreal is in the early stages of discussing issues facing their queer members. Katharine King So, who plays “Ginny” in the mini-series The Walk-In Closet, is ACTRA Montreal’s LGBTQIA+ representative. King So moderated the ad hoc committee’s first round table discussion in December 2019 and unsurprisingly, their challenges sound very familiar: queer actors being pigeonholed, lack of opportunity and visibility for queer performers, being asked personal and uncomfortable questions in the casting rooms, and straight actors playing gay and trans roles. Their round table discussion also included looking at possible solutions for queer performers’ challenges, such as creating an acceptable language best practices for the casting community, opening a dialogue with agents about how queer performers would like their career to be managed in relation to their queer identity and an open casting call for queer performers, to name a few.

2019 Pride in Toronto, ACTRA members, L to R: Samora Smallwood, Xavier Lopez, George Alevizos, Debra McGrath, Martha Chaves, David Gale, Joanne Vannicola, Theresa Tova, Ryan G. Hinds, Adamo Ruggerio, Kiley May, Sedina Fiati.

There are queer ACTRA members in every branch of this great union and many are facing the same issues across Canada. Unfortunately not all branches are big enough to form a committee. You’re not alone. The ACTRA branches with queer committees are a great resource and are happy to help. Don’t hesitate to contact me or any of the chairs if you have a queer-related problem. I asked Joanne Vannicola what they hoped for the future of our industry: “I’d love to see trans, non-binary, butch and people who are gendered across the spectrum and in terms of sexuality playing their parts… so we see true reflections of who everyone is. We’ve already seen a century of white heterosexual people and they’re not going to go away. Their parts aren’t going to go away, their stories aren’t going to go away. We’re just trying to expand the universe so all of our stories are included and there are so many that haven’t been told. There will always be great stories to tell. We just have to let everybody understand how rich it will be once we tap into those stories.”

FOOTNOTE:
In this article, “queer” is used as a catch-all term for all LGBTQQ2SIA+ individuals: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, 2-spirit, Intersex, Asexual and Non-Binary.

Original Source: ACTRA Magazine, David Gale