House of the Cool Parents
Chandler Levack documents the life and death of Videofag, the tiny living room theatre that became Toronto’s newest art institution.
It’s December 8, 2012. Snow is falling and turning into grey sleet in Toronto’s Kensington Market. But inside a tiny storefront theatre just off Augusta Avenue, the windows are fogging up with sweat and condensation from dozens of gay men vogueing their asses off. Live concert footage of Madonna performing “Express Yourself” is projected on a wall.
JORDAN TANNAHILL, VIDEOFAG CO-FOUNDER: Salvatore Antonio and Adamo Ruggiero wanted to stage a reading of the transcript of Madonna’s Truth or Dare documentary, which featured maybe the most fierce gay men from Toronto’s cultural scene. It was a totally raucous affair, like this fanboy party meets experimental theatre performance.
BRENDAN HEALY, FORMER ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF BUDDIES IN BAD TIMES: We would perform a bit of the movie and then we would play a song and dance. It was great. But what was really crazy was that the neighbours underneath Videofag freaked out. Like, totally freaked out.
TANNAHILL: It wasn’t even that late, really. It was only 10 PM, 10:30, and we were wrapping up. They came and walked into the space and were indicating for us to quiet down. Then the wife of the downstairs couple started trying to unplug the speakers. And when she was not able to do so, she lay down in the middle of the floor and had what looked like a combination of a tantrum and maybe a panic attack.
So Will and I called 911 and there she is in the middle of the floor, with someone doing what looks like CPR or reiki on her. And there’s a million gay men just a little bit drunk, very high on their love for Madonna, and these paramedics come and it’s like a scene from a porno. These four brutally strapping men walk in the door in uniform and they’re like, “What, she didn’t like the music?”
The now-infamous Madonna performance was an early highlight for Videofag, then only two months old. But the theatre’s origins date back to 2010, when theatre artist William Ellis and future Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Jordan Tannahill were introduced by a mutual friend.
WILLIAM ELLIS, VIDEOFAG CO-FOUNDER: I did this summer show of Anne of Green Gables in Prince Edward Island. I played Gilbert. And the girl who played Anne went to Ryerson, so when I moved to Toronto we connected and hung out. She was like, “Oh, you should come to this play that my friend Jordan wrote and directed.” So I went and I met him there, and I was like, “He’s so cute.”
We kept making plans to hang out, and he had a boyfriend. An entire year went by until we saw each other again. We went for breakfast and that was our first ... it wasn’t even a date, it was just hanging out. And then we were inseparable. We were dating for a year and staying at each other’s house every night.
TANNAHILL: Will and I were planning on moving in together. Since we wanted to make our lives extra complicated—because moving in together with your partner is not big enough stakes—we thought why don’t we also run a workspace out of our house?
ELLIS: We wanted this space to be accessible to anyone. Anybody who had a project they were doing could just message us and say, “Can I work on this?” A lot of our friends were having trouble getting their work programmed.
TANNAHILL: It was Will’s idea really. At that time, we were quite inspired by Double Double Land and Feminist Art Gallery [in Toronto]: places where friends and strangers could congregate, talk, dream and create in a manner that circumvented traditional economic models. It just seemed like a hell of a fun way to live. So we just biked around, looking at possibilities. But there are so few affordable places to rent in the city.
In the summer of 2012, Tannahill was sleeping over at Erin Brubacher’s house in Kensington Market (Brubacher is a multidisciplinary artist who, along with Tannahill, is the co-artistic producer of theatre company Suburban Beast). It was then that he saw a prophetic “For Rent” sign go up in the window of a former barbershop.
ERIN BRUBACHER: In the morning, we came out of my apartment on Augusta and watched the sign to go into the window at [what would become] Videofag. He and Will had been looking at spaces in the Junction, like garage door kind of spaces. And man, it would be a completely different thing if it had happened somewhere else.
TANNAHILL: I called the number and we booked a meeting with the landlords the next day. We were basically first in queue to nab this space. It was this old barbershop that our landlords, the Laus, had operated. They had been working in that shop for decades. It was very spartan. There were hair model photos on the walls, maybe from the eighties. It looked like they had been torn out of a book. A couple mirrors. Three barber chairs. White and grey square vinyl flooring. We moved in October 1, 2012. The rent? $2,800 a month. That freaked us out, because it felt like a lot.
ELLIS: We didn’t have very much hot water in the apartment. We’d have five minutes to shower essentially—not only shower together, but shower very quickly. We’re both naked and young and in love, but there’s absolutely no sexual energy at all—it’s strictly business. You have three minutes to get in and out before ice-cold water hits.
And when it came to setting up the theatre space, we didn’t know how to do anything. Like, hammering and nails? That’s tricky for us. I remember painting over barber hair. I remember that being significant, like, “there’s hair on the wall and I’m painting over it.”
NAOMI SKWARNA, ACTRESS IN ALL OUR HAPPY DAYS ARE STUPID AND FORMER ARTISTIC PRODUCER OF SUBURBAN BEAST: They did it all so incredibly fast. I feel like they barely lived there for a week and it was already a space with some stuff happening in it.
On October 19, 2012, Ellis and Tannahill officially launched their space with a retrospective exhibit of videos, costumes and assorted paraphernalia from Toronto’s beloved queer punk band Kids on TV. It was the perfect way to unify the different eras of the city’s queer culture.
ELLIS: I don’t even remember which one of us said Videofag, but it was instantly like, “oh yeah, that’s perfect.” We were interested in how offensive the word “fag” has been. And just the way it stands out and rings in your ear in a really particular way. And then with “video,” we were both working in theatre and I think we were both fascinated by things outside of it.
TANNAHILL: There was a moment where we sort of said: “Can we really call it that?” But it had a certain directness we were looking for.
We definitely see Videofag as part of a rich queer Toronto legacy that extends back through Kids on TV, [the late artist/DJ Will Munro’s] Vazaleen parties, Buddies in Bad Times, General Idea and Fifth Column. These were collectives and spaces that believed in inclusive, anarchic and non-hierarchical approaches to fucking with the norm.
ELLIS: We’ve never really had a mandate in terms of programming queer artists. But I think in a lot of ways, we’re looking at how queer is the work: the idea of being an outsider.
HEALY: I was running Buddies at the time, and Jordan invited me out to coffee. I felt like what he was doing was making sure that he wasn’t stepping on any toes. A space like Buddies is sort of trans-generational, if you will, but it doesn’t have the smallness and immediacy of something like a Videofag, which is a combustion—a small moment in time and space, boom. It is this expression of a generation.
TANNAHILL: Over the first few months, we programmed things every single day—to make rent, but also because there was just a lot of enthusiasm. We felt super charged to be serving beer out of our kitchen, staying up really late, painting the space until two in the morning and barely getting any sleep.
Videofag is commonly described as living room theatre. There are no fancy tech or other amenities that are found in most spaces. Performers wait in the kitchen to make their entrance. During intermissions, guests buy cans of Old Style Pilsner from Ellis and Tannahill, who use the proceeds to pay their rent. But there’s an alchemical magic to the theatre’s limitations—it can make performances intense and electric.
ELLIS: We don’t have a lighting grid. We have no sound equipment. We’ve been running for four years with a set of computer speakers. So it’s kind of fascinating to put that aside and be like, “a lighting grid is totally secondary to the actual work.” There’s no dressing room; the fact that you’re in our kitchen, it creates a lot of nice moments. Like we’re having dinner while someone’s putting on their makeup to do a drag performance. The intimacy is really key.
TANNAHILL: We wanted to just give artists time and a bit of space. We have nothing else to offer except an invitation into our home. We didn’t have money to give them—we would split the door with them. So there was something kind of levelling about that whole experience. There was no hierarchy in play.
ANDIL GOSINE, YORK UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR AND PERFORMER: I’ve never known them to charge their artists a fee. Which is crazy, right?
As Videofag finished its first two months of programming (featuring twenty events in total), Tannahill and Ellis tried to balance the pressures of managing a theatre in their living room while maintaining their personal relationship.
ELLIS: It was really intense. It was like our relationship was starting as well as this space. We didn’t really know what it was or what it would be. And then we had all these artists staying here. Before that, I’d always been a private person. So there was a huge personal adjustment to living almost in public.
TANNAHILL: There was just a complete erasure of any distinction between public and private space. There were many mornings where you would come out of the shower and there would already be a group rehearsing in the front room. And then you’d walk into the kitchen in your bath towel and there would be two actors by the kettle making tea. Then you’d come home and the whole kitchen would be just full of props and set pieces from the show that was installing. And your bookshelf would be totally emptied out to hold people’s wigs and costumes. “Oh, so where are the books?” “Oh they’re in the backyard, under a tarp or something.”
ELLIS: It was also the beginning of this strange relationship we have with our neighbours, where we’re always sort of negotiating. They essentially hear everything that happens in the space. So we didn’t want to impose ourselves in their lives. But also we’re stuck in this space—we have a lease, we have to do performances.
BRUBACHER: I was really nervous for them at the beginning. Like, “Oh God, this is bad, this is a bad situation with the neighbours.” I was simultaneously in total support of Jordan and Will and wanting to advocate for these people who suddenly had all this noise above their heads.
TANNAHILL: After that climatic, memorable [Madonna incident] we agreed that we wouldn’t rage into the early morning. And that has kind of set us apart from other spaces. Because once our shows are all finished, the space closes. And that allows us to have a little private life as well: have tea and go to bed, like the grandpas we are.
The space’s location in Kensington Market also places the theatre in the middle of a bustling—and utterly unique—neighbourhood. Videofag’s big picture window overlooking the main street soon became a permeable barrier, allowing the theatre to interact with the outside world.
TANNAHILL: There’s actually been a few tenants who have installed their entire apartment into Videofag. [Transgender performance artist] Nina Arsenault was the first to do it. She used all of her stuff and her exercise bike and did this piece called “Ophelia/Machine,” which, among other things, deconstructed her relationship with Luka Magnotta that had come to light several months earlier. And it was just so funny for the Laus, who lived upstairs from us, to come home and see this naked trans performance artist self-flagellating herself on an exercise bike as images of Luka Magnotta were projected on the walls. They would just sort of smile and wave.
ELLIS: We did this one show, there was an orchestra that was playing in the back and the audience was facing the sun going down. But then there was this huge crazy fight that happened in the park. All these cops came and there was this dramatic takedown—and it was completely unexpected. This beautiful orchestra was playing while the audience was watching this crazy police takedown. It was beautiful.
Videofag’s first year was filled with film screenings, plays, readings, curated comedy and art shows. For their second year, they moved on to even more ambitious works, including two of their most acclaimed performances: the three-hour punk rock opera Feint Of Hart and Sheila Heti’s play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid.
TANNAHILL: I think we may have approached [Henri Fabergé] about resurrecting the Feint of Hart series at Videofag. Because he’d already done it at Hart House and that was such a success. The idea was just to do a piece that brought together a bunch of the extant narratives and elaborate on them a bit.
HENRI FABERGÉ, CREATOR OF FEINT OF HART AND ACTOR IN ALL OUR HAPPY DAYS ARE STUPID: We went from doing Feint of Hart with two hundred people at each show to thirty people at each show. And there were around fteen of us, including special guests, onstage.
JULIANN WILDING, ART DIRECTOR OF FEINT OF HART: And a live band. We even discussed rigging the drummer to the ceiling to save space.
ELLIS: That was one of the first shows where it was like, “Oh, this is really invasive. This is really taking over our personal space.” And even while they were building the space, Juliann was sleeping here. She was working all night and just sleeping for a few hours.
TANNAHILL: It was just crazy. Juliann Wilding installed a forest of twenty-nine saplings, a ceiling of branches and a canopy of three thousand paper leaves.
WILDING: I destroyed their walls. I really did. I fixed them after, but it was a real intensive install.
KAYLA LORETTE, ACTRESS IN FEINT OF HART AND ALL OUR HAPPY DAYS ARE STUPID: The entire backstage life of Feint of Hart was insane. It was in the middle of a heat wave. We were all dressed in heavy costumes. It was nearly impossible to keep my moustache on my damp, damp face. We’d blast the AC for as long as we could, but had to shut it off for the show. Henri would go through two or three shirts a show. The whole room must have just smelled horrible.
FABERGÉ: We would be thrashing around and sweat would be dripping off our performers onto the audience. It was kind of like this wild, orgiastic, theatrical ...
WILDING: It was a wet show. And that became part of the character, like the whole presentation: the audience and the cast, everybody was sort of in this murk together.
LORETTE: Everything seemed like a bad idea but in a way that made everyone laugh and want to do it over and over again.
In 2010, after reading Toronto writer (and Maisonneuve contributor) Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be?, Tannahill emailed the author to see if the unstageable play at the centre of the book actually existed. It did, and the two began talking about how to mount a production.
SHEILA HETI: We didn’t plan to stage the piece at Videofag. Jordan had this idea of finding some off-site place for it, maybe a used car lot or dealership that had gone out of business. We thought of staging it in a park. Using Videofag was sort of the last thing he wanted to do but it ended up being perfect.
TANNAHILL: With Sheila Heti’s play, we basically had as many people onstage as there were in the audience. The kind of uproar of the space would really embody this idea of trying to do it all, with basically no money, no resources, but bursting at the seams with potential. I think those shows that feel a little bit impossible to do are the most fun.
ELLIS: It was such a large cast. It was the same feeling, like “Oh there’s no room, I can’t make dinner for the entire month.” There wasn’t even room for the couch; they had to stand it up in front of the stove.
HETI: The play had never been performed, so I didn’t have any ideas about it that the space itself altered. The most important thing that happened was that Jordan said he didn’t want me to do any edits on it, but that I should give him the draft that I was most happy with and he would make it work. It felt kind of radical for a theatre to say, “I’ll make the problems work,” rather than, “you have to change the play to address my problems with it.”
BRUBACHER: I remember the rst read in that space, and I remember thinking, “Oh this is gonna be so much fun.” You don’t always feel like that at the beginning of a thing.
FABERGÉ: It was almost like a camp for adults. It got weirdly emotional sometimes. There was some clandestine drinking of whiskey out in the backyard. We had a weird kind of pop-up tent out front where people could go and get changed. You have four people crouched in this little front entrance in costume, tired and smelly and waiting to go on, and this poor person’s coming in like, “Can I get into my apartment?”
In October and November 2013, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid’s eleven-day run sold out almost instantly and received rave reviews from the Globe and Mail and Now magazine. But as the show moved to Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre for a brief stint in February 2015, followed by nine performances at the Kitchen in New York City later that month, something became lost in translation.
BRUBACHER: Doing the show [at Videofag] was really different from how it ever was afterwards. Although there was one show at Harbourfront that felt like that again: it was the midnight show, there was the same kind of equivalent of passing the ask around in the Videofag kitchen.
HETI: I liked the Videofag production best of all, about a hundred times more than I liked the Harbourfront show or the one at the Kitchen. It was so intimate, such a risk, so bizarre to have the audience two feet from the cast. We didn’t know if anyone would like it. It felt like a leap, like a huge guess, an act of faith. For me, it was delightful—especially because of Jordan’s faith in the play. I was used to ten years of directors and producers saying there was something fundamentally wrong with it, so it was a joy to have Jordan come in with the opposite conviction: that there was nothing wrong with it, but something wrong with the system that had been holding the play in limbo all those years.
After two years of cohabitation and putting on performances at Videofag, Tannahill and Ellis broke up in November 2014. It marked the beginning of the end for the theatre.
TANNAHILL: There was no space for us between work and romance and personal life. It was always on, all the time. So at the end of the day, we’d come home from rehearsal but there would be ten Videofag things that we had to talk about. And there’s a way that your relationship can sometimes feel like you’re just collaborators or business partners.
We were shoving in our personal life amongst all this programming. Sometimes it felt like we were always having dinners with artists who were coming into the space and constantly having to share each other with others. And I think that’s hard.
HETI: I am just impressed that after Jordan and Will broke up, they continued to live in the space together, happily. I can’t imagine ...
TANNAHILL: I think Will’s done a lot of work, especially in the last year or so. I would say he’s done the lion’s share of the work. And I’ve always been wary of the fact that I’ve often been the physical face of Videofag. And I think we have equal say over what happens in the space and who gets programmed, but I do think it ultimately contributed to our breakup.
ELLIS: When you’re in a relationship and you break up, it’s such a huge loss. It’s like losing a family member. So we gave our notice to our landlord. We’ll move out, live in different places, do other things. Which is kind of funny, because it’s also scary. I don’t want to nd myself in an apartment, living on my own. It’s so sad, being normal.
Videofag’s final season is their most ambitious to date, running the gamut between dance, theatre and art installations from the likes of Walter Scott, Aisha Sasha John and Lido Pimienta. In May 2016, its doors will close for good.
ELLIS: It always felt like the end was just around the corner. We talked about the idea that maybe we’d get operational funding and it would grow into this thing that would be salaried. But I think in the back of our heads, we were always thinking, “Oh this is going to end, this is not going to be forever.”
TANNAHILL: There’s a queer politic that I think we’re espousing as well, which is the temporality. You know, it’s not a legacy project. We don’t want to become a kind of calcified institution with a board of directors and a programming agenda that’s set three years out. We’re interested in being this potentially legendary thing that happened for a few years in the 2010s that went away and hopefully it makes space for other artists to fill that gap.
The primary objective when we started Videofag was to pay our first month’s rent in October 2012. On that front we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
SKWARNA: Jordan and Will put an enormous amount of energy into running that place. And I think there’s probably some relief in letting it go.
TANNAHILL: I think we still want to keep Videofag alive, but maybe not as a space. We have collaborated with larger institutions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and Dirty Looks in New York City to curate exhibitions. Like in the way that Feminist Art Gallery operates: they have one major exhibition or project a year.
No matter what the future holds, Videofag’s indelible influence on performance and queer culture in Toronto shows that you can make something beautiful happen even with a shoestring budget and a few hundred square feet of space.
BRIDGET MOSER, PERFORMANCE ARTIST: It’s always been in those kinds of spaces where it felt like I could get things done. Because those spaces have always been created to ll the gap for projects that other institutions aren’t willing to take risks on.
GOSINE: Videofag went through the Rob Ford years, which is the story of Toronto. And I think Videofag was one of the places that demonstrated the complexity of being in a city where those two tensions exist: Rob Ford does exist in tandem with Videofag. Toronto is many Torontos with many different people.
FABERGÉ: I think now, maybe for the best, queer culture is not so punk rock and in the margins. It’s become more out in the open. The need for queer creative space in Toronto is huge.
HETI: You don’t just need people to play with, you need a place to play. It’s like being a teenager: there has to be one house that welcomes the kids and lets them do what they want: lets them congregate, do drugs, have sex, talk, just be there together. It’s the house of the cool parents. Videofag is that place.
Correction: The article incorrectly stated that All Our Happy Days Are Stupid had runs at the Harbourfront Centre and The Kitchen in February 2014. The play was actually performed at these venues in February 2015. It also stated that the play had a nine-day run at The Kitchen, when it should have stated there were nine performances in total. Maisonneuve regrets the errors.