Because It’s 2016? Boundaries of Propriety in Race, Experience, and Representation on Stage and Screen

Over in Vancouver, an unlikely controversy has sprung up over a small co-op production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2011 play The Motherfucker with the Hat, by a group of artists operating under the name The Haberdashery Company (Get it? Haberdashers, hats…).

The controversy doesn’t spring from the curse word in the title or the play’s themes of sex and drug addiction; instead a group of Vancouver artists have taken issue with the fact that the group of artists who originally came together to create this play are all white Canadians (or at least they all read as sort of white Canadians; at least one is part Middle Eastern and another appears to be mixed-race) despite the fact that three of the characters in the play are Puerto Rican (Haberdashery recast one of the parts with a Chilean-Canadian actor after the controversy first broke).

The artists who wrote and circulated an open letter have (in a charmingly Canadian way) not made any demands or called for a boycott of the show, but instead were trying to spark a discussion about casting practices in BC – although it’s quite clear that the implied demand is that no non-Latino ever play a Latino character.

The letter was covered in the Georgia Straight and then in The Globe and Mail, and eventually led to an open forum held to discuss the issue last week, which was livestreamed.

Photo of the Because It’s 2016 forum, taken from Chris Gatchalian’s Facebook.

My gut reaction when I saw all this was that it was all very silly, and was a very reductive view about how theatre is made and consumed, and what the work of the actor is, and I said as much in places where it came up on Facebook (and perhaps sometimes not very diplomatically). I was invited to watch the livestream of last Monday’s discussion and participate via Twitter and I did, although the questions and comments I raised online weren’t addressed in the room (very few online comments were taken; the event was not very well moderated and there was consequently not enough time for even the people in the room to all have a chance to speak). I found the forum to be generally constructive and informative, but it did leave some difficult questions unanswered.

So instead, I’m going to try to tease out some of the thoughts I had on this discussion in this space, by posing some open questions for consideration by all the artists involved.

But Why Do I Care?

Ok, ok, fair question. I’m a white guy in Toronto. Why should I care about this? And what right do I have at all to chime in on an issue of concern in the Latino community?

Well, for starters, this isn’t an issue that occurs in a Latino bubble. It’s intrinsically about constraining the artistic choices that non-Latinos can make. Everyone should have a stake in this discussion, even if priority should be given to the aggrieved parties. I bristle at the suggestion that anyone’s artistic expression should be limited.

But beyond that, this is a line of discussion about representation that is increasingly becoming relevant in other minority communities, including in the LGBT community. Hollywood movies about LGBT people are increasingly subject to criticism that LGBT parts are going to non-LGBT people. The same issues of “pinkface” or lost work opportunities for LGBT performers are routinely brought up. We haven’t yet seen this on the stage, but it could come. And this line of thinking is equally wrong.

Some Points that We Can Agree on

Yes, blackface minstrelsy is bad. All minstrelsy is bad because it by definition is performance that exists to demean another group of people. Minstrelsy can be done against any race or group of people.

Yes, I agree that visible minority artists are under-represented on the stage and they face challenges in getting onto stages that white artists do not face. The fact that not all white artists are handed opportunities and they have to struggle too is irrelevant to this fact.

Question 1: Who is allowed to represent “A Latino?” And follow-up: Where are the boundaries around what a performer can present?

This is a core question in this discussion, but it can be a pretty confusing one. We’ve generally taken it as given that if you’re presenting a Black character, you should cast a Black actor, and if you’re presenting an Asian character, you should cast an Asian actor – not that it’s always so clear cut.

Some people think Zoe Saldana (left and centre) is more authentic as a green-skinned Zen-Whoberian than as another famous Black woman, Nina Simone (right). 

But it’s not so clear what to do with a Latino character. After all, “Latino” is a status ascribed to about 600 million people who come from 21 countries across 2 continents spanning millions of square miles and with 2 major language groups. Latin Americans come in all races – even more diverse than Canada/USA, really – and have a very wide variety of cultures and experiences. Do you assume that a Latin American character is brown-skinned, absent any specific cues from the text? If the text indicates that the character is a specific nationality, say, Puerto Rican, is it appropriate for someone who is, say, Chilean to represent them?

When forming your answer, please consider that Puerto Ricans are statistically more likely (though obviously not exclusively) brown-skinned than Chileans, who are almost exclusively white-skinned or white-mestizo, and that Chile and Puerto Rico are 6000 km apart (approximately the distance from Marseilles to Nairobi).

Chilean-Canadian Playwright and Actress Carmen Aguirre has become the sort of figurehead of this discussion (although she co-wrote the letter, she says it was other artists who first raised the question to her; she said at the forum that she was uncomfortable being labelled as the person behind the group, although she’s the one whose name appears in the Georgia Straight headline, and she certainly seemed to be the leader at last week’s forum). She’s kind of an awkward figurehead, as someone who’s played the lead in this play before (at Alberta Theatre Projects, for which she won a Jessie award), and as someone who, after bringing this problem to the attention of Haberdashery, auditioned for a part in the show and then didn’t get it. One could probably be forgiven for thinking her big public stance is more than just a little self-serving or vindictive.

Aguirre seems to take the hard-line stance that it is not appropriate for a Latino role to be played by a non-Latino, and that a Latino of any national or racial background would be appropriate for any Latino role. Aguirre agreed that Latinos are not a race (using the unfortunate term “Aryan nation” to explain that some Latinos are blonde and blue-eyed), but stressed that Latino is still an ethnic identity, and a powerful, unifying one at that. Anyone who self-identifies as Latino, is therefore, more appropriate to playing a Latino than someone who does not, no matter what their race.

[Here we see a bit of inconsistency in Aguirre’s argument, because she apparently never argued that *all* the Latino parts in Motherfucker needed to be played by Latinos. Indeed, she auditioned knowing that only two of the three Latino parts were under consideration for re-casting, and in the ATC production for which she won her Jessie, she was the only Latino performer. The uncharitable view would be that to her it’s ok to cross-cast Latino parts as long as she gets a part in the show.]

At this point, someone in the forum (my apologies, I do not know Vancouver performers by sight), explained that despite the vast differences in cultures across Latin America, any Latin American performer would be able to access more authenticity than a non-Latin American because the performer would have access to “blood memory” that unites all the cultures south of the Rio Grande.

For those who don’t know, “blood memory” is a performance theory popularized by acting coach Larry Moss in The Intent to Live. It is a very popular theory in West Coast acting circles, although to be honest I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in Toronto. The idea is that a performer can and should draw on the experiences and stories of their ancestors and cultural roots to inform their performances. It is a tool in the actor’s kit, but it’s not Mjolnir. Indeed, in some senses, it’s a particularly regressive and reductive approach (it’s been a while since I read The Intent to Live and I don’t have it handy, but I vaguely recall a passage where Moss urges a Black actress to call on her blood memory to make her performance more sexual, for example). But what I do recall of the idea was that it was absolutely not meant to limit actors to playing within their national groups (another example was that Jewish performers could draw on their cultural memory of oppression and resilience when performing a character who has to be tough and overcome obstacles). It’s meant to be a tool that expands a performer’s range, not reduce it.

Is it wrong to interpret a Latino character as white, and then cast a non-Latino white person? Is it wrong to interpret a Latino character as Arab or Asian, and then cast a non-Latino Arab or Asian person? Is it wrong to interpret a Latino character as mixed-race, and then cast a non-Latino mixed-race person who frequently gets “read” as Latino? We all know someone who when we met them, we were unsure if they were Latino, or Filipino, or West Asian, or South Asian, or Italian (as Princess Isabella put it “ethnically hard to pin down”); should this person limit herself to only playing the nationalit(ies) that she is actually descended from?

When you get down to it, it’s kind of bizarre to say that a performer can’t play anything except what they actually are. The craft of acting is embodying that which you are not – whether that’s a Latino, or a woman, or a child, or a homosexual, or disabled, or supernatural, or a lawyer, or a drug addict, or a robot, or a Norse God, or a cat, or an inanimate object.

Or a knight, squire, and princess in medieval Europe.

Acting is the art of telling the truth while lying. As long as the performance is done well and respectfully — as long as you are telling the truth with your performance — what is the issue?

I am a gay, Italian-Jewish Canadian. What roles am I allowed to stretch myself to perform, if Latino is off the table? I assume Italians and Jews are ok, and probably Poles since that where the Jewish half comes from. I’m gonna just assume WASPy Canadians and Americans are ok, too. Is it ok for me to play Portuguese or Greek? Russian? Turkish? Israeli? Sephardic Jew? Armenian? Lebanese?  Unidentified Nationality In A Desert Somewhere That’s Probably In The Middle East (i.e., Scorched)? White Alabamian Klansman? White South African? White Trinidadian? What really are the boundaries around what a performer can get away with?

This isn’t just me being cute; some of the participants in the Because It’s 2016 forum were very rigid and restrictive about what was appropriate. A woman who identified herself as a representative of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (who was offscreen in the webcast, so I couldn’t see her face) went so far as to say that she didn’t think it would be appropriate for her as a Jewish woman to play an Italian. That sounds ludicrous to this mutt, and would probably be shocking to anyone who laughed at Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld.


[As a side note, there seemed to be a lot of upset in the room about the frequent casting of dark-featured Italians as Latino or Middle Eastern characters on stage and screen, because even though these people may have dark skin and coarse hair, they are European. There is very little outrage when casting goes the other way. As Haberdashery’s John Cassini noted, his Chilean-Canadian castmate Francisco Trujillo was prominently featured in a recent Firehall production of Mambo Italiano. Side-side note: The film Mambo Italiano features a cast of almost no real Italians, and while the inauthenticity sticks out quite a bit when Mary Walsh is playing a Sicilian, you can’t deny they do the script justice.]

Left, Trujillo in Firehall’s 2011 Production of Mambo Italiano, which seems to have been marketed as a drama about alcoholism and depression, instead of as a slapstick farce about parents trying to control their children’s sex lives. To be fair, there’s only like 5 Italians in Greater Vancouver. The producers of the 2003 film do not have that excuse. 

While this discussion has not been absent from Toronto theatre (arigato, Arigato, Tokyo), it seems that there really isn’t much concern when it comes to Latino roles. Motherfucker was produced here with only one Latino (an Argentinian-Canadian) in the cast in 2014, for which Italian-Canadian Sergio DiZio won a Dora Award for his portrayal of a Puerto Rican. And Chilean-Canadian playwright/actress Rosa Laborde is evidently much less concerned about about cross-casting than her fellow countrywoman; her breakthrough play, Leo, toured Canada and won much acclaim while featuring an all non-Latino cast (DiZio was also nominated for this one).

The 2007 Tarragon Theatre cast of Leo.

Question 2: Are there other legitimate ways “into” a role, besides race?

Part of the discussion hinges on a belief that authenticity can only come from the ethnic heritage of the performer. Another part of the discussion comes from the sense that cross-casting silences and denies opportunity to marginalized people. Both of these arguments have legitimate aspects, but they don’t tell the whole story.

There are an infinite number of reasons why we can be attracted to stories and characters beyond “they kind of look like us.” Indeed, most people would find it grotesque if a white person said, “I’m only interested in stories about people who are white.” Such a line of thinking is reductive and dehumanizing.

Taking the example of Motherfucker, beyond being a story about a trio of Latinos, it’s also a story about addiction, recovery, criminal stigma, fidelity, sexuality, and immigration (similarly, I’d say Mambo Italiano is a play about coming-of-age late, coming out, sexuality, and stepping out of your family’s reach before I said it was about being Italian. Sidenote: If we do start limiting actors to playing within their nationalities, we need more/better parts for Italians).

An actor who has dealt with substance abuse either personally or within his family/social circle, and wants to share a story about it, could do worse that land on the role of Jackie. An actress who deals with body image issues and aging (so, in other words, an actress) might find strength or comfort in Veronica’s monologue about just that subject.

Cousin Julio really steals the show with a long monologue about his experience as a young boy being lost in a new city and being unable to speak the language. Would this really be inauthentic coming from an actor who immigrated to Canada from Romania or Vietnam? Another “in” to Julio is his barely repressed homosexuality, which made him a target within his macho culture, which leads him to overcompensate with bodybuilding and tall tales about his sexual conquests. Do you think a gay Persian or Greek actor wouldn’t understand that?

If race is to be the prime consideration because non-white people are marginalized, does that limit the opportunity for expression of other marginalized voices: sexual minorities, immigrants, people dealing with addiction and mental health issues?

Of course, actors don’t generally wear their mental health issues or sexual orientations on their sleeves (because marginalization!), so it’s hard to judge the authenticity of their representation by anything other than their performances, which complicates the discussion. Or makes it much simpler.

Question 3: What does this mean for Latino/minority playwrights and stories?

The Because It’s 2016 forum really glossed over the issues of authorial intent and ownership, in part, I suspect, because they’re inconvenient (indeed, they spent several minutes arguing over whether it would be appropriate to even share Guirgis’ written note about the controversy, ultimately deciding not to share it until the very end, after which Aguirre dismissed his comments because he didn’t reach out to her group first before writing them).

Motherfucker is a strange example to draw on for this argument because its writer is not actually Latino. Guirgis is Egyptian-Irish-American. So an extremist might question why he feels he has the right to pen a story about Latinos, or to rule on issues about their representation. But in any event, the published script has a note about casting:

“The characters … are meant to be Puerto Rican. But if you get cast in the play, and you’re not Puerto Rican, don’t worry about trying to ‘be’ Puerto Rican. Just focus on living truthfully and fully through the circumstances of the play and of your character” (quoted from the Globe story).

Guirgis protested when white non-Latino actors were cast in Latino roles in a production in Hartford, but his criticism was somewhat nuanced. “I know there are parts of the country where it’s harder to find a lot of Latino actors. But this play was cast in New York City and in Hartford, and you can’t tell me that there weren’t qualified Latino actors to play characters who are Puerto Rican,” he told the New York Times.

By contrast, Guirgis has given his explicit blessing to the Vancouver production and its cast (which includes several actors he knows from their time in New York), noting that Vancouver has a Latin population of under 1.5%.

Also relevant to this discussion is that this particular production is a co-op of actors who are putting a show on as a lark for very little money. It does not seem like they held auditions when forming their co-op – doing so actually runs contrary to the spirit of an Equity co-op. This is not a large, heavily resourced organization shutting people out of a lucrative gig. Naturally, online and at the forum, Aguirre has repeatedly denied that this is true or relevant, insisting that it is a Firehall Theatre production, when all evidence points to that being true in name only. (Why on earth would this group of actors form a company and name it after this specific production if it weren’t really a co-op?)

If this specific group of actors hadn’t come together and decided to do this show, it probably wouldn’t have been made at all in Vancouver. Would that be better – to not have a story written by a minority playwright, featuring Latino characters (at least) on stage? Would it be better if these actors just did another George F. Walker script about white people suffering from addiction and struggling with the law?

This seems to limit the rights and opportunities for playwrights of colour to tell (and sell) their stories. After all, you’re going to have a hard time finding actors of certain colours in certain parts of North America (Canadian cities may have a lot of non-white people, but each city tends to have a specific type of diversity; and there’s a whole range of places that are much smaller than cities where the range of diversity is very small indeed).

Do you really want to limit any script to being performed only in certain cities, or by companies with large enough budgets to cast out-of-province? Should playwrights be limited to selling their scripts only to interested members of their own defined ethno-racial communities?

Wrapping Up

By now I’ve written much more on this topic than I had intended to when I set out, and I’ve left some open-ended questions, so I’ll just wrap up with a few thoughts.

I don’t believe in many strict rules for making art, although generally, I would agree with the simple rule that art shouldn’t set out to demean the marginalized.

I don’t believe cross-cultural, colour- or gender-blind casting is always a good thing, or always a bad thing. It ultimately depends on the context and artistic statement being made. In fact, watching a performer straddle those borders between cultures, genders, and experiences, is often the site of the frisson of performance (think of Alec Baldwin’s Emmy-winning turn as Jack Donaghy role-playing as Tracy Jordan’s entire family; Robert Downey Jr’s Oscar-nominated role as a white Australian method actor performing a role in Blackface; Cate Blanchette’s Oscar-nominated performance as Bob Dylan; Idris Elba playing a (sort of) Norse God; Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall’s heartbreaking Oscar-nominated performances as gay cowboys; John Travolta in Hairspray or the Wayans brothers in White Chicks; Felicity Huffman and Jeffrey Tambor as old transgender people; to say nothing of stage, if only to keep this list to examples everyone’s familiar with).

I generally worry that pushing an emphasis on realism/naturalism on racial/ethnic casting – besides being a difficult shell game of constantly moving targets – will restrict dissemination of stories that need to be told. Turning performance into pseudo-documentary atrophies the craft of performance and restricts the ability for performer and audience alike to recognize difference and commonality. I worry that the long-term consequence of this trend will be playwrights limiting their dramatis personae to bland, racially and sexually neutral (read: white, non-trans, heterosexual) characters (or, ahem, continuing to do so), if only to make sure that their plays are infinitely castable in the flyover parts of North America.

But I recognize I’m not the final word on this. I’d really like to hear your thoughts – especially if you are a self-identified minority, ethnic, or person of colour performer – in the comments below.

Same-Sex Marriage Worldwide 2015: A Progress Update


2015 was a landmark year in the global equal marriage movement, with high-profile final victories in the United States and (to a lesser extent) Ireland, but progress was made in all corners of the globe. Equal marriage countries are now home to more than 1 billion people, and several countries are expected to join the equal marriage family in 2016-17.

Let’s take a look at the progress in 2015. Skip to the end for the new chart of populations of countries recognizing same-sex marriage. And of course follow me on Twitter to keep up-to-date with #equalmarriage progress throughout the year.



The Americas

United States

Progress on LGBT rights in the United States has been incredibly dramatic. Bear in mind that in 2003, sodomy was still illegal in 13 states. The equal marriage movement scored its first victory in 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Expansion of marriage rights was sporadic, halting, and subject to severe setbacks until 2013, when the US Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act. By the time the US Supreme Court delivered its final judgement on same-sex marriage in June 2015, marriage rights had already been extended to 38 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam.

The Supreme Court ruling brought equal marriage to the whole country, as well as to four of the five US territories – Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. At current time, there is legal controversy over whether the US Constitution Applies in full to American Samoa – if that question is resolved in the affirmative by the Supreme Court next year, then this territory will be subject to the Supreme Court judgement as well.

Another small but significant exception also applies to the US Native Reservations, which are not entirely subject to US and state law on marriage. While a few dozen have explicitly passed laws allowing same-sex marriage, many continue to ban it. Some of the largest Native nations are now facing challenges to their bans, but with more than 600 Native governments in the US, expect this battle to go on for quite a while.

The US Supreme Court ruling is particularly significant in the global movement because several other nations – particularly those in Latin America – use judgements from the Court in establishing precedent and forming their own legal opinions.

Of course, as the country heads into an election cycle, Republican leaders are pledging to undermine the US Supreme Court judgement somehow. Throughout the country, state legislatures have reacted to the judgement by passing “religious freedom” bills that appear intended to legalize discrimination against LGBT people, and by passing laws that restrict local governments’ abilities to pass non-discrimination ordinances. Democrats have responded pledging to extend civil liberties to LGBT people at the state and federal levels, but this movement hasn’t yet gathered the momentum the marriage movement had toward the end.


mexicoWhile Mexicans have had effective access to equal marriage since 2010 due to nationwide recognition of marriages performed in the few states that allow it, 2015 saw some major steps in the expansion of the right to perform a same-sex marriage in the country.

Equal marriage rights were officially established in Chihuahua, Guerrero, and Nayarit, bringing the number of states that perform same-sex marriages to 5 (out of 31), plus the federal district. In total, they’re home to about 21% of the Mexican population.

In June, the Mexican Supreme Court published a jurisprudential thesis that established that same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional, and that civil unions were not equal to marriage. While this didn’t directly invalidate state bans, it created a mandatory process by which individuals could get an injunction to be allowed to be married. Under the Mexican legal system, individual cases do not form binding precedent, however, five cases in each state with the same outcome can lead to a law being struck down.

States across the country have issued injunctions for same-sex marriage, and a number have even issued enough to have the law struck down, but the status of same-sex marriage remains unclear in these states for now. Several states are also midway through the process of updating their civil codes to allow for same-sex marriage. Some more clarity ought to come in 2016.


southamericaThe path to equal marriage has been rocky in Colombia, where the Constitutional Court had already established the right of same-sex couples to form some kind of unspecified union in 2011, and then this year established the right to adopt children. Over the objections of the Congress, both the president and the attorney-general came out in favour of equal marriage in 2015.

The Constitutional Court was expected to deliver a final ruling on same-sex marriage in November but as of press time, no ruling has been issued.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s gone back-and-forth on this issue since 2013, when legislators accidentally created a legal loophole allowing same-sex marriage. The first civil marriage was authorized by a Costa Rican judge in June, but it came with several catches: only young people can enter in these marriages and they need a judge’s order after three years’ cohabitation. Later in the year, a lesbian couple and their lawyer faced criminal charges when they used a clerical error to enter into a same-sex marriage.

The president came out in favour of equal marriages in the summer, and sent a common-law civil marriage bill to the Congress in August. In December, several deputies introduced a same-sex marriage bill to Congress.


In February, Chile officially renounced its opposition to same-sex marriage in a case that is now on hold at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but has not actually moved to resolve the issue. President Michele Bachelet had pledged to introduce equal marriage when she ran in 2013, but two years later, little progress on this file has been evident. She’s running out of time in her mandate.

Chile did introduce same-sex civil unions in October, however — one of only three countries to settle on the half-measure in 2015.

Other Developments in the Americas

Ecuador greatly expanded its civil union legislation, although same-sex marriage remains constitutionally banned there.

carribeanActvists in Cuba, started an equal marriage campaign independent of LGBT activist Mariela Castro’s work.

Bolivia began discussions on civil partnerships with the support of both the government and the opposition in September, although the constitution bans same-sex marriage.

An openly gay legislator in Peru tried to get a civil partnership law introduced, but it was shelved in April after receiving very little support.

Venezuela elected a new centre-left coalition to its Congress in December to replace the ruling socialists. Among the winners was the country’s first trans legislator, who has pledged to make legalizing same-sex marriage a priority.

There was also progress in a number of the dependent territories; see UK, Denmark, and Netherlands below.





One of the most dramatic and symbolic recent victories for the movement came in Ireland, where an equal marriage referendum passed with 62% in favour in May. Ireland is thus far the only country to pass equal marriage by referendum (though some US States did as well), which has been both a positive and a negative for the movement. On the plus side, it demonstrated that even in a country thought to be as conservative and Catholic as Ireland, there’s empirical evidence of popular support for our rights. On the other hand, conservatives who want to hold up the expansion of marriage rights have used it as an example of why we ought to welcome further referenda on our basic family rights (see also, Slovenia, Australia, US, etc.).

In the wake of the victory in Ireland, several other European jurisdictions began having public discussions about equal marriage, particularly in the UK, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Italy. It may have even helped move the needle in Cyprus and Greece (see below).

United Kingdom

Parliament passed a law for equal marriage in 2013, but this only applied to England and Wales. Scotland passed its own law in 2014. That leaves Northern Island, the crown dependencies, and the overseas territories, all of which took steps to advancing equal marriage in 2015.

Northern Ireland (pop. 1.8 million) has seen huge debate over the past few years on this issue, but the NI Assembly does not seem able to resolve it. The political structure in NI allows representatives of either the Protestant or Catholic communities to veto legislation unless a majority of the representatives of both communities vote in favour. While the Catholic bloc (perhaps ironically) has been very supportive of equal marriage, it is the Protestant bloc, controlled by Evangelicals that is opposed. The Assembly voted on equal marriage for a fourth and fifth time in 2015, finally achieving majority support in November. Unfortunately, the Protestant (DUP) bloc vetoed. This has proved to be something of an embarrassment to the NI public, who have moved overwhelmingly in support of same-sex marriage in the wake of the referendum in the Republic. The matter has now been taken to the courts, which are expected to rule sometime after Christmas on a) whether NI must legalize same-sex marriage, and b) whether it must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other parts of the UK.

The three crown dependencies all took steps toward equal marriage in 2015. The Chief Minister of the Isle of Man (pop. 85,000) came out and said it was a priority to equalize marriage by June 2016; a bill will begin debate in January. Jersey (pop. 100,000) and Guernsey (pop. 66,000) both led public consultations on the issue, and their local assemblies (the States) both passed resolutions supporting equal marriage. They are expected to pass actual legislation by early 2017.

Among overseas territories, the tiny Pitcairn Islands (pop. 48) surprised the world by announcing that same-sex marriage was legal there in May. The Falkland Islands (pop. 3,000) conducted a review of their family law that recommended legalizing same-sex marriage in May as well, but conclusive action has not yet been taken. In November, Gibraltar (pop. 29,000) re-elected a government that pledged to consult on same-sex marriage by June 2016; just before Christmas, the government released its “Command Paper” on same-sex marriage, kicking off three weeks of public debate on its draft bill. Bermuda (pop. 64,000) spent a big chunk of the year holding public consultations on the issue, which now has slim majority support. In November, a Bermuda court ruled that the government must give some recognition for same-sex couples for immigration purposes, and the government is now trying to figure out how to proceed. Meanwhile, another case is going through the courts asking for full marriage rights. In the Cayman Islands (pop. 55,000), the issue has been very live, although the local government is very strongly opposed. The Cayman government has pledged to introduce some kind of recognition for immigration purposes in reaction to a court case earlier in the year, but is publicly hostile to the idea of marriage equality.

All of the British Overseas Territories are subject to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled against Italy this year for its refusal to grant any kind of family rights to same-sex couples. While the ruling doesn’t directly affect other states (and notably doesn’t require “marriage”), citizens of those states could bring cases to the ECHR using the same precedents. The ruling has inspired much discussion in the BOTs. Ultimately, as the signatory, the UK is responsible for upholding an ECHR ruling, and theoretically, the UK government could pass an order-in-council requiring its overseas territories to recognize some kind of civil partnership or marriage legislation (as it did in 2000 to strike down local sodomy bans), but the current Cameron government has not indicated it will do so.


Denmark’s 2012 equal marriage law did not apply to its territories, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Greenland (pop. 55,000) passed its own equal marriage law in May, which awaits approval from the Danish Parliament. The Faroe Islands (pop. 50,000) had an election in September, in which equal marriage was a live issue; pro-equality forces won out (including the country’s first out legislator) and in November introduced, though not yet passed, an equal marriage law.


And here’s our first big setback of 2015. In a somewhat surprising move, the Slovenian parliament passed an equal marriage law in March, making it the first post-communist and first Slavic country to do so. The law was immediately challenged under provisions of the country’s constitution that allow citizens to initiate petitions for referenda, as long as the issue doesn’t deal with fundamental rights. A protracted political and legal battle ensued, with Parliament blocking the petition as invalid on rights grounds and the Constitutional Court ultimately ruling in November that the referendum must proceed, with the question of its legality to be decided at another time. The referendum was held December 20, and the results were decisive: 63% voted against the marriage law, meeting the 20% turnout quorum. Slovene activists and legislators have vowed to bring the issue up again, but it will likely be some time before we see it.

Other Developments in Europe

europeThe German-speaking public seemed to solidify its support for equal marriage. Germany’s parliament has a theoretical majority in favour, but the governing coalition (led by Merkel’s Christian Democrats) is refusing to pass an equal marriage law. Nevertheless, the German Federal Council passed an equal marriage law in September. However, the governing coalition blocked consideration of a different equal marriage bill in the Diet in December. Expect the issue to continue simmering through the 2017 federal elections.

A similar dynamic is at play in Austria, where a citizen’s initiative is now gathering support for an equal marriage law. At the end of December, a Vienna court rejected an appeal for same-sex marriage, which used the interesting tactic of having the children of gay couples sue because the state forces them to be considered illegitimate. The court found illegitimate children are not discriminated against in modern society. The children may appeal in the new year.

Switzerland will have a referendum on Feb. 28, 2016, to effectively ban same-sex marriage; the government is campaigning against it, and has indicated that if it fails, it will likely move forward with another referendum affirming equal marriage (as required under the Swiss constitution).

Portugal amended its 2010 same-sex marriage law to allow same-sex couples to adopt.

The Netherlands has been pushing its Caribbean countries (Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten) to pass equal marriage, but as yet there is little evidence of the agenda advancing. All three pledged to equalize treatment of same-sex couples in April, but thus far, only a bill to introduce civil partnerships in Aruba has come forward.

Slovakia successfully defeated a referendum in February that would have further banned same-sex marriage, but it remains illegal there (notably, voters were 90% in favour of banning same-sex marriage, but campaigners convinced supporters to stay at home, denying the referendum quorum). Meanwhile, for the first time, polls showed majority support for same-sex marriage in the Czech Republic.

A small setback happened in Estonia, where a new governing coalition has refused to pass enabling legislation to enact the civil union law passed last year by the previous government. The law will still come into force in January while the government tries to sort this out, which may cause some legal troubles for couples.

Same-sex marriage was also a major topic in national elections in Israel; the pro-equality parties were defeated at the polls. An NGO filed a case for same-sex marriage with the High Court in November.

Cyprus passed a civil union law in December, and Greece followed with its own civil union law a couple weeks later — this resolves an ECHR case against Greece for non-recognition of same-sex couples. Italy’s government has been pushing for a civil union law to be passed by the end of this year (partly in response to the above-mentioned ECHR ruling), but an opposition filibuster is holding it up. But in late December an Italian court upheld the right of same-sex partners to adopt their stepchildren, which may take the wind out of some opponents’ sails. The government of Monaco has also pledged to introduce some form of civil union (along the lines of France’s PACS) for debate in 2016-17, in order to meet the requirements of the ECHR ruling.

Minor parties also submitted no-hope bills for marriage and civil unions in Hungary and Romania, respectively.

All these changes are having an effect on the European Union, whose Parliament has made repeated calls for greater LGBTI rights in and out of the Union. At present, members that do not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions are not obligated to recognize marriages/unions from other members, but this will no doubt come under increasing pressure given a) the ECHR ruling and b) the union’s fundamental freedom of movement for members. Currently, 11/28 member states representing 47% of the population have passed same-sex marriage laws (though Finland’s does not kick in until 2017); 21/28 will have either marriage or civil unions on January 1, representing 72% of the population. (Italy will bring the number to 22/28 or 84% of the population). Eventual union-wide directives on marriage/unions will have an effect not only on current members, but may also impact prospective members (Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine) and associated countries.



pacificSame-sex marriage continues to be a political football in Australia, where despite massive public support, the current right-wing federal government remains officially opposed. New PM Malcolm Turnbull, previously a staunch supporter, now insists that equal marriage will be put to a plebiscite after the next federal election in early 2017, in order to placate the Nationalist members of his coalition government. The opposition Labour party is now strongly in favour and pledges to pass it within 100 days if it wins the next election. It’s theoretically possible that Turnbull sells out the Nationals in 2016 to remove the issue from the upcoming election. Look for this battle to dominate English-language news coverage of the equal marriage movement for the next couple of years.



No state in Asia legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, but significant movement happened in this region. Four municipalities in Japan created same-sex couple registries, in a move to pressure the national government to act on equal marriage. Public opinion is now leaning in favour, and the government has said it wants to clean up its record on LGBT rights in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (after the Sochi backlash). An equal marriage law would require a constitutional amendment. If introduced, Japan would be the third-largest country by population to equalize marriage.

A formal public consultation on the issue in Taiwan also found majority support for equal marriage laws. Three cities there opened up same-sex couples registries this year, and the issue has been live in the presidential election, scheduled for January 2016. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party is expected to win, and it has supported same-sex marriage in the past. Meanwhile, in mainland China, a man has filed suit against the government hoping to have his same-sex marriage recognized.

Discussion of equal marriage also continued in South Korea, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, The Philippines, and Cambodia. Look for this region to become the next major frontier in the global equal marriage movement.


Populations of Countries with Same-Sex Marriage











     Greenland (forthcoming)


Finland (March 2017)














    Carribean Netherlands


    Carribean Countries that Recognize Netherlands Marriages Only (Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten)


New Zealand






South Africa






United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Pitcairn Islands only)


United States + territories (excluding American Samoa)






Countries Most Likely to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage in 2016-17


Countries Most Likely to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage in 2016-17






Costa Rica




Faroe Islands


Falkland Islands






Isle of Mann






Northern Ireland






Longshots for Same-Sex Marriage 2016-2020






















Grand Total


Countries without Same-Sex Marriage, but with Some Other Form of Recognized Same-Sex Union











Costa Rica






Czech Republic


















San Marino






Rest of UK + territories




Countries Most Likely to Legalize Same-Sex Civil Unions in 2016-17









Cayman Islands


Turks and Caicos


Virgin Islands




Stay tuned to @robsalerno on Twitter for #equalmarriage updates throughout the year.

A Case for Public Funding for the Arts

[What follows is a response to a post by playwright Daniel Karasik which lays out the conservative position against public funding of the arts in Canada. Karasik’s post was a response to a widely circulated open letter written on behalf of Canadian artists calling for politicians to put a greater emphasis on the arts in their plans for Canada’s future.

Karasik’s response is a lovely rhetorical device in which he adopts the position of (what I assume are) his ideological opponents on the issue, so as to aid artists in refining their pitch for greater public support. He mainly points out how the discussion around arts funding seems to mischaracterize the views of those who are opposed to greater public arts funding, which in turn makes artists’ arguments less convincing in the sense that they are being aimed at the wrong target.

In the spirit of Karasik’s post, I too am adopting the voice of a position I don’t (entirely) hold, as I tend to skew a bit more conservative than the usual arts advocates – or at least, more conservative than the sort of cartoonish, entrenched arts elites and undereducated young aspiring artists who tend to be the loudest advocates for the arts. My goal: to respond to the (fictional) conservative argument against public support using the language (actual) conservatives would understand.]

Dear Canadians and, in particular, Canadians who lean conservative and Conservative Party voters,

There’s been some recent discussion on the Internet about the value of public funding of the arts and why conservatives tend to oppose public support. It’s true that this is an issue that is poorly understood by a lot of Canadians and we’d like to take some time to clear the air and state our case for greater public support for the arts.

No, no, don’t get up. We promise this isn’t going to be a fire-breathing screed about the Conservative Party or a hail of snarky ad hominem attacks on conservative voters. Our goal is to build a consensus among all parties of the public value of the arts, so that would be counter-productive.

Let us begin by addressing your point that Canadians have not articulated a clear desire for strong support for the arts. While we may partially concede that Canadians are not (yet) taking to the streets demanding increased support for the arts, the record of Canadians interacting with domestic arts is pretty clear. Canadians are voracious consumers of arts products, including locally produced news, movies, television, books, documentaries, theatre, music, arts festivals, museums, and more.

Even within the political sphere, Canadians are electing local governments that are making record investments in local arts. Cuts to arts funding have started to spark movements to save the CBC, or protect the Nova Scotia film industry. We are getting the message out there and are starting to be heard.

We recognize that this alone may not be enough to completely justify public funding for the arts, but it clearly points to a great public desire for Canadian art and media.

Let’s take a moment here to clarify what we mean by the arts, because it’s a term that’s often confused and abused in order to satisfy whatever point the speaker wants to make. The arts as a whole is a huge sector, in which thousands of Canadians are employed in jobs that many people might not actually equate with “artists.” Given how the term is used, it seems to include everything from the lead tenor in the Canadian Opera Company to the person who built its website; it includes the CBC’s Republic of Doyle and The National, and the person who sells ads on both; it includes the Edmonton Fringe Festival and Toronto Pride (but we’ll be fair and *not* include the hotel staff who house the thousands of visitors who attend both); it includes Trailer Park Boys and Polka-Dot Door; it includes Macleans and Chatelaine and Oryx and Crake; it includes Degrassi and Drake and Celine Dion and Metric. It includes Porky’s and Air Bud and Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch and The Barbarian Invasions and the Les Boys franchise and everyone who worked in, promoted, and distributed those movies. It includes the AGO and the sculptor who leads a crafts workshop in your kids’ school. It includes high culture, pop culture, youth culture, minority culture, aspects of education, and some entirely private enterprises.

Public support for the arts comes in myriad forms, from direct grants to artists (which, by the way, are a much smaller amount of spending than you probably believe), to construction and maintenance of public arts infrastructure (e.g., theatres, opera houses, museums, libraries, a broadcast network, etc), to market-correcting regulations (e.g., Can-Con quotas, mandatory carriage, signal substitution), to publishing and distribution support for magazines, to operations grants to institutions, to tax credits to subsidize production/labour costs in the film/media industries.

We’d like to take a moment to stop and thank the public for all of this support so far. We probably don’t say that enough, but we really do appreciate all of these forms of support. It’s no excuse, but to explain, we work very hard and most of us have precarious incomes, and sometimes it slips our minds to just acknowledge how lucky and grateful we are for the help.

Despite this, contrary to the typical image presented of us, we certainly don’t feel entitled to your money, nor do we feel we are owed any special treatment compared to you. We certainly don’t expect to receive a public income and the adoration of millions of Canadians simply because we’ve picked up a paintbrush or walked on a stage and called ourselves artists.

We understand you work hard, and you value your tax dollars. So do we, by the way! Most of us work multiple jobs and pay taxes, despite the “starving artist” stereotype. We, like you, want to make sure our tax dollars are well spent.

We believe, as most people do, in individual liberty, in freedom of choice, and freedom of enterprise (we’re all entrepreneurs, at least at some point in our careers). We believe that government resources are best used towards two main general purposes:

  • Creating public goods that are enjoyed by the general public, but which would not be efficiently or equitably produced by the private market. Roads, hospitals, parks, schools, police, defence, and water works are the classic examples here.
  • Mitigating the tyranny of market forces that may limit consumer options or create unwanted outcomes. Anti-trust laws, tariffs, environmental regulations, etc.

When we talk about public funding for the arts, we are generally talking about programs that satisfy one or both of the above criteria.

While it’s true that art can be a private good (in that it is most enjoyed by the individual person who is being entertained by it, whether they’re a concert ticket holder or the person reading a novel), it has aspects of public importance. Art – the telling of Canadian stories – helps shape the public notion of what Canada is in very real ways. It tells us who we are as a nation by reflecting our commonalities and differences. In very real ways, it helps us experience aspects of our shared Canadian life that we individually are unlikely to see or experience directly. Millions of people who’ll never set foot on Newfoundland learned about it by watching Republic of Doyle; millions more got a window into Canada’s minority communities by watching Da Kink in My Hair, Kim’s Convenience, and Steven & Chris. Millions of Canadians formed a common bond through their earliest years by reading the books of Robert Munch, or by watching educational shows like Mr. Dressup or Téléfrançais. Canadians in my age group have a common musical frame of reference thanks to Our Lady Peace, Chris Sheppard, Maestro, and I Mother Earth videos on MuchMusic.

This is how I learned that Newfoundlanders are dreamy.

There is a value to forming these common bonds with each other, to knowing what our identity is. There is also a value in showing our fellow Canadians that creativity and talent is valued here – it encourages all of us to be creative, entrepreneurial, and take risks. These are the building blocks for a successful society.

Beyond our shores, Canadian art also has the benefit of telling the rest of the world who we are. The success of our authors, actors, comedians, painters, musicians, etc., tells the world a lot about Canada. The artworks themselves often paint a picture or tell a story about Canadian life, certainly. But perhaps even more important is that they let the world know that Canada is a place where work like this gets made. Where people are free to be expressive, to take risks, to perform, to be creative – and where people are educated or nurtured or predisposed to be talented and entertaining. That Canada enjoys this reputation is a great source of pride for Canadians.

If we can take a moment to speak in more mercenary terms, this is also a great tool for Canada. Our public identity as an exciting, inspiring place is part of what attracts thousands of tourists and immigrants to come here. It attracts business investment from people who see value in a creative nation, and who want to be part of the action. On a more instrumental level, this strong and positive sense of our identity in the world is a kind of soft power that can be used to help achieve our diplomatic goals.

If Canadians can do this, we can do anything. (From Cirque Du Soleil, TOTEM)

But like we said, it’s not enough to simply say that art is desirable. We see value in public support for the arts because we truly believe that we would not have the art scene we do without that public support.

Now, we’re not speaking in apocalyptic terms here. Artists aren’t going to stop writing or painting just because the grants dry up – after all, the vast, vast majority of artists don’t receive direct public support but keep on working away. What public support does is help create the critical mass of art that creates the shared Canadian experience that we value.

Essentially, we’re arguing that market forces do not and cannot produce a large quantity of Canadian art. This is true for a number of key reasons:

  1. Canada is enormous geographically yet a rather small market, population-wise. This makes distribution and touring of art prohibitively expensive for most ventures. It also makes it difficult to spread the cost of creating expensive pieces of art, like a television show or film, across a large number of patrons.
  2. Canada sits next to the enormous US market that dumps its cultural products here for much less than the cost to produce them (private Americans can afford to invest more in arts enterprises because their large, highly concentrated market affords greater rewards for big risks).
    1. While the US market also poses as an opportunity for Canadian artists to see additional income and exposure, it is effectively closed to most artists because of its highly concentrated market structure in many fields (i.e., media concentration), and because of poor labour mobility across the border.
  3. Sharply rising real estate costs in our largest cities are making it very difficult to open and maintain cultural venues in our largest markets, while charging rates that are consistent with what patrons can afford and are willing to pay.

You’ll notice that nowhere do we disdain market forces for tending to lower the quality of art through their bias toward popular or “low” tastes. We’re suspicious of elitist arguments like that. We value the work of all our fellow artists and the tastes of all audiences. Moreover, history has shown over and over that pop culture is one of the most important binding forces of a society, and that it often stands the test of time better than “high” culture that has a more limited appeal. In fact, believe it or not, most of us are very concerned with what market forces are telling us that audiences want, and market metrics help us gauge how well we’re reaching our audiences.

Public support helps mitigate these market forces that would tend to keep us from getting our work out at all. Some are relatively low-cost, like Can-con regulations on radio and television – these regulations help ensure that there will be a demand in the distribution network for Canadian art, and consequently that Canadians will have the ability to find Canadian art. We can see how these regulations have worked, because Canadian radio and television are full of original Canadian content; on the other hand, Canada has never instituted cinema quotas like European countries did, and now the English Canadian film industry is virtually invisible in cinemas.

Other policies – such as building and maintaining venues, grants to artists and companies, and tax credits for cultural production – are admittedly more expensive, but they have proven just as necessary to get Canadian art produced and distributed to Canadians. Virtually every artist who has earned mainstream success in Canada – even Canadians who have achieved such success abroad – has done so with the direct or indirect support of public funding along the way.

We want to emphasize again that we don’t feel entitled to this support, or for support to continue in the same way forever over time. As our patron, we expect you, the public, to evaluate your options and needs from time to time and adjust your types of support with changing times and necessities.

Heck, most artists could give you an earful about how they’d like to see the granting and support systems changed and evolved. Maybe conservatives are right that the CBC distorts the television market by competing with the private sector for advertisers – perhaps a solution would involve eliminating ads entirely so it can focus solely on a public service mandate? Or maybe it’s time for the CBC to get out of broadcasting altogether and focus on content creation and delivery along a lines of a (free) Netflix-like service? We’d certainly like to see the CBC take more risks with its dramatic programming.

Some would really like to see the granting system refocused on emerging and early-career artists and minority artists, rather than on the established artists and organizations who seem to dominate the results lists, as these organizations are better placed to find other patrons and revenue streams. Some artists are very strongly critical of the support that seems to go to well connected (and well paid) people at large arts organizations like Luminato, when smaller arts organizations go wanting. And you know, sometimes the public spends huge sums of money building big cultural venues of dubious value that are wholly inappropriate to the community needs (the Sony Centre in Toronto is a good example) – that sort of thing should really be addressed.

At least one politician has proposed creating a complicated tax scheme that would make life a little easier for some artists at great public cost and at the risk of creating exactly the type of entitlement that we have been telling you we don’t really believe in.

The important thing is that we want you, the public, to understand that the actions your government takes with regard to arts funding have actual consequences on the things you enjoy. We would like to see parties come forward not only with plans to spend less or spend more, but with a positive agenda for the arts – because there is something of value there that Canadians want to see nurtured and shared with their fellow citizens and with the rest of the world, and there is an important role for government to fill.

How would your government help improve all Canadians’ access to Canadian stories and art? What can be done to increase the presence of minority, youth, and Aboriginal arts in the Canadian cultural landscape? How would your government improve access for Canadian artists into foreign markets? How would you help artists develop more secure incomes? How would you help develop more Canadian talent?

Thanks for your time and support. We look forward to hearing your plans.

Justin Trudeau: Wolverine is an Iconic Canadian Hero and Mass Murderer

The following is a campaign e-mail received from the Justin Trudeau campaign office earlier today:

Justin-TrudeauDear friends and supporters,

I’m writing to issue a correction for a grave error I have made. At a rally yesterday in Sudbury, a reporter asked me who my favourite Avenger is, and I gave the following response:


“I’m a bit of a comics geek, I think I like the core integrity of Captain America. I like the ingenuity of Tony Stark. But ultimately I think I might have to go with Hulk, just to mix it up a bit, because he wears his passions on the outside and he is someone who is… green.”

But I must now admit the truth is that my favourite Avenger is Wolverine, because he’s a proud Canadian, an excellent teacher at the X-Men’s mutant academy, and a mass murderer.








Yes, it’s true that due to competing copyright claims, Wolverine does not appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he has been a core member of the Avengers in the Marvel Comics since 2004, where he has proved his mettle in combat alongside Captain America and Iron Man and has killed and maimed hundreds of people with the razor sharp knives that extend from his hands.

I have always had a special appreciation for Wolverine, due to his deep love of the Canadian wilderness and murder. Whether he is camping in Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park – one of Wolverine’s favourite places in the world – or extra-judicially executing hundreds of alleged terrorists in a HYDRA compound, Wolverine perfectly embodies all of the qualities that Canadians admire and are admired for around the world. And let’s face it: when this remorseless death machine who knows all forms of martial arts eviscerates his way through a compound of ninja terrorists, soldiers, or woodland animals, it’s just freakin’ cool.


The truth is, Wolverine and I share a lot in common, and not just because we were both engineered in a laboratory by the Pierre Trudeau government to protect Canada via unrelenting carnage.


In recent years, Wolverine has taken over as headmaster of the X-Men’s mutant academy, and just like I did when I worked as a drama teacher in Vancouver, Wolverine has embraced the responsibility that comes with being a mentor to young people, guiding them to be responsible, community-minded adult killing machines ready to decapitate a roomful of enemy henchmen whenever the need arises.


Wolverine wasn’t always accepted by the other Avengers. Other heroes would mock his hair, and in fact, at several points when they crossed paths, the stodgy old Captain America called Wolverine’s heroism into question, even saying that he was just not ready to be an Avenger.


But when a crisis struck and the Avengers were in disarray, Wolverine stepped up and has been the team’s most reliable assassin. In this analogy, the Avengers are Canada, Captain America is Stephen Harper, and I am the hero you call on when you need a compound full of ninjas dispatched with a maximum of bloodshed and a compelling internal monologue.


I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak directly to you and clear this up. At the time, I didn’t think that Canadians would judge me on my first answer. Perhaps it was naïve. But perhaps the responsible thing to do in this time of politics of attack and division is to acknowledge the great Canadian hero who has saved the world multiple times alongside the other Avengers by ruthlessly slaughtering any opponent he perceives as a threat.

On October 19, remember to cast your ballot for someone who will not only fight for the middle class, but will disfigure and murder thousands and thousands of people for the middle class. Bon soir.


Justin Trudeau
Leader, Liberal Party of Canada

Rob’s (Belated) 2015 Fringe Festival Preview!

It’s Fringe Festival time in Toronto again, and I am late getting this article up. Sorry. Blame the confluence of putting on my own show which only closed on Saturday, working a 9-to-5 job, and keeping up a busy schedule of freelance journalism.

This is an interesting year for me on the Fringe – I haven’t done a Toronto Fringe since 2012, and I can’t think of a year when I’ve received fewer invitations to Fringe shows on Facebook. I wonder if I’m “aging out” of the cohort of artists who are doing the Fringe Festival, or if it’s just luck of the draw.

A glance through the schedule this year seems to show that the increasing presence of sketch comedy in the festival is continuing apace – almost to the extent that it makes me question if all these huge sketch troupes are gaming the lottery by having every member enter separately. And with the possibility of winning new awards for sketch comedy this year, it’s no surprise that there’s even more interest than usual.

OK! Moving swiftly forward through my picks.


I can call these shows sure bets because I’ve actually seen them already.

Since this is late, I can say I saw Gavin Crawford’s “Friend” “Like” #Me last night at the Annex Theatre, and can attest that it is yet another brilliantly funny, insightful, and surprisingly poignant take on how social media is changing the world for the better and worse. Get your tickets fast because this will sell out.

Australian comedian Jon Bennett is one of my favourites on the Fringe circuit, and he’s finally brought his show “Pretending Things Are A Cock” to Toronto. I saw this ages ago – I want to say in Winnipeg in 2010 – and yes, it is pretty much what it says on the tin. Bennett presents a slide show of pictures of him and his fans (yes) posing with objects, monuments, and people, and pretending they’re cocks. But all that’s really just a springboard for Bennett’s hilarious stories and sharp observations on modern life. He’s got three other shows that have toured the rest of the circuit, so hopefully a successful run of Cock will see him bring the others here in due course.

(He also sells a book version of “Pretending Things Are A Cock”, which I own and cherish.)

If you didn’t see “Morro and Jasp Do Puberty” when it was at the Fringe in 2008, shame on you. The clown girls are hilarious and this is among their best shows. This show is already selling out from what I hear, so do book your tickets in advance.


I want to give some prominence to my recommendation for Jem Rolls’ new show “The Inventor of All Things” as he’s a late addition to the festival (as in, this week), and thus he’s not in the program and has no publicity. He’s well known to fringers though, from his annual visits to do his performance poetry. His shows are always a great experience, and if you’ve seen any of them, surely you’ll want to be back again. He’s on at the Tarragon Mainspace, replacing “For Better or Worse” on the schedule.


I’m Right Here” is a song-cycle about social media and online dating, directed by Steven Gallagher (the genius who directed my show “First Day Back”) and featuring among others, the always brilliant Ryan Kelly. I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

Jeff Leard is a dynamo of a physical comedian, as seen in his previous hits “The Show Must Go On” (which I dramaturged) and “Sperm Wars.” This time, he’s performing a solo show written by hitmaker Ron Fromstein (“The Big Smoke”), with a familiar sex-and-sci-fi bent: “Zach Zultana: Space Gigalo.” Can’t wait to see it.

I’m going to give a tentative recommendation to “Let’s Start A Country” – an improve comedy by a Montreal duo. I saw this in Montreal in 2012 and thought it was hilarious, but it’s being performed here by two other guys using the same basic set-up (i.e., the entire theatre secedes from Canada and the audience is parliament, and the two guys are the leaders), with Jeff Leard guest-starring. It was a lot of fun with the other guys, but it’ll come down to how the replacements, whom I’ve never seen on stage, handle it.

Past Fringe New Play Contest Winner (2008’s “Wake”) Rachel Blair is back after a long absence with “A Man Walks Into A Bar,” a tense and comic look at gender dynamics. I met Rachel at last year’s Banff Colony and have been consistently been impressed with her wit and theatrical daring. This should be great. A warning: this show’s opening night sold out, so book your tickets in advance.

The Orchid and The Crow” is a new one-man show by Daniel Tobias, better known as Otto Rot of the faux-German Australian punk rock duo Die Rotten Punkte. The show is based on Daniel’s experience as a cancer survivor which sounds like heavier material than we’re used to from him, but all the reviews talk about “comedy gold.” Dan’s another one of those guys who is just incredibly smart and compelling on stage, so this is surely a can’t miss.

Everyone Loves Marineland Sealand” features most of the cast of last year’s brilliant sketch show “Everything’s Fine” and it’s a musical about Marineland Sealand. How could this possibly be anything but awesome. You may have already heard that actual Marineland has threatened to sue the show out of existence already (which, c’mon, they must have expected with that title), so you may want to get to the early shows just in case.

Peter n’ Chris Present: Here Lies Chris” is the latest by the three-time Canadian Comedy Award winning duo. Their shows are always brilliant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they sell out the Randolph Theatre regularly.

Ok, I’ve never seen the “Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl” shows, but everyone loves them. She’s back with “Adventures of a Redheaded Coffee Shop Girl,” so it’s on my list.

2 Ruby Knockers, 1 Jaded Dick: A Dirk Darrow Investigation” is the latest in Australian magician-comedian Tim Motley’s series of one-man noir detective parodies. I saw his last one in Victoria in 2012, and it was wall-to-wall jokes and deft sleight-of-hand. Truth, your mileage on his schtick will likely vary with your tolerance for puns, which range from brilliant to groan-worthy (see the title). I personally think even the worst puns are great, so I highly recommend this.

Cootie Catcher” is the latest by NYC comedian Lucas Brooks, last here with “5’4” VGL Top.” This one is a comic look at STIs.

Hamlet… A Puppet Epic” is the latest Shakey-Shake Production, which, despite being in Fringe Kids, has a reputation for entertaining adults just as much.


I tend not to see productions of published plays at the Fringe, but it is a good opportunity to get a cheap ticket to a good script.

Some of the productions from the canon include: The Woolgatherer (Annex Theatre), Twelfe Night (St. Vladimir), Ninety, and Skunkweed (Theatre Passe Muraille), and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Victory Café).


How could you pass up shows with these titles? Presented without commentary: Johnny Legdick, A Rock Opera, Jizz Sock, Porn & Pinochet, You and that Fucking Gorilla, and Two Girls, One Corpse.

In all likelihood, I won’t be able to catch all 22 of these, what with the commitments listed above, but I’m going to do my best. And failing that, I’ll see you around the Fringe Tent. Break legs everyone involved!

First Day Back premieres at The Storefront Theatre, June 9-27

I’m so proud to announce that my latest show, FIRST DAY BACK, will be making its official premiere this June at The Storefront Theatre in Toronto!

FIRST DAY BACK is Rob Salerno’s searing and heartfelt one-man show about high school, bullying, suicide, and compassion. Previously workshopped at the Victoria and Vancouver Fringe Festivals and at the One More Night Festival, Ten Foot Pole Theatre is extremely excited to premiere this powerful and relevant show in Toronto, under the direction of award-winning playwright and actor Steven Gallagher.

Rob Salerno in First Day Back. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
Rob Salerno in First Day Back. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

In FIRST DAY BACK, you enter a school the day after a gay ninth grader, Ollie, killed himself following years of bullying and abuse. There’s an eerie hush in the halls as Ollie’s friends and tormenters gather to figure out who’s responsible. As you take your seats in the art room, be prepared to have your prejudices about school, homophobia, bullies, and teenagers shaken to their core.

FDB - Rob Square2Playing at The Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor St W – map – TTC: Ossington)
June 9-27, 2015
Tickets $10-25. Available soon. Limited seating for each show.
Join the Facebook Event.

For more information, click here.