This year, the Hamilton Fringe Festival will be welcoming the Toronto-based duo Marcus Peterson and Jeffrey Canton in their production of Coal from Hades: The Story of ‘Les Mouche Fantastiques’, a telling of the true story of the lives and loves behind the first gay and lesbian periodical in North America, published in Montreal in 1918. I had a chance to speak with the artists about hidden history and forgotten queer heroes, literary detective work, artistic collaboration and the Hamilton scene.
Check out our interview (edited for length) below.
Bent Q: Can you tell me a bit about yourselves and your company?
Jeffrey Canton: I’ve been a storyteller for over 25 years and since 1998, a member of the Toronto-based storytelling collective Queers in Your Ears. While some of the original pieces that I have created have been drawn from my own life and experience as a gay man, I have also had a chance to play with history. I participated for a number of years in a program called “Fabled City” and created stories about a secret POW camp that was hidden from view in downtown Toronto, the life and times of our most radical mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, the growth of Toronto’s Jewish community amongst others. In the fall of 2015, I suggested to Marcus Peterson that we create an original piece for the Toronto Storytelling Festival using a moment in queer history and we decided to tell the story of the first LGBT periodical in North America, produced in Montreal in 1918, that did something truly revolutionary although little known. The rest has been an amazing collaboration that has seen our first offering of ‘Coal from Hades: The Story of Les Mouches Fantastique’ grow and develop in unexpected but always exciting ways.
Marcus Peterson: I’m a freelance facilitator, organizer, traveler, performer, artist, student, educator, and writer concerned with social and environmental justice issues through anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal, and anti-capitalist perspectives. Canton/Peterson Productions grew out of my and Jeffrey’s writing collaboration – we’re a unique Toronto-based performance art company telling original stories based on historical events that have shaped LGBTQ communities today. We were most recently part of the second Myseum Intersections festival curated by Myseum of Toronto in March 2017, collaborating with Queers in Your Ears to create an original series of stories around the 1981 Toronto Bath House raids, ‘No More S#%&!: Operation Soap Revisited’, which we performed at Glad Day Book Shop, the Gladstone Hotel, the 519 Centre for Nuit Rose, and even Spa Excess.
BQ: What drew you to the Hamilton Fringe Festival?
MP: It’s exciting to present our show – the first play either of us have written before – to a theatre audience as part of such a well-established festival. Each time we have presented ‘Coal from Hades’, it’s changed and deepened as a piece and we are excited by the new challenges that being part of the Fringe offers us as writers and performers. Given our recent show on the ‘81 Toronto Bath House raids, we are very excited to bring our queer production to one of the last places in Canada where there was a bath house raid (Warehouse Baths, 2004); clearly there is a rowdy enough of a queer community here to justify a police intervention! The more we have been sharing this new-found history with others, the more interest there has been around “Les Mouches Fantastiques” and the writer/poets behind it, Elsa Gidlow and Roswell George Mills, and especially what it means for our collective history. Already we have been approached by documentary filmmakers and those in the field of popular education who are fascinated by this hidden history – we hope we can spark the same interest for audiences in Hamilton.
BQ: Coal from Hades deals with LGBTQ+ history in Canada, do you think the queer folks who live here know much about our own history? What can we gain from learning about our history?
JC: The problem with Canadian LGBTQ+ history is that we think of it almost exclusively in terms of those heady moments in the 70s, 80s and 90s when gay rights came into existence, and don’t even make an effort to think about what the lives of queer people would have been like 100 years ago when Roswell and Elsa were concocting Les Mouches. It’s clear from Elsa Gidlow’s autobiography and the research that we’ve done that being queer, while markedly different from today, was part of the fabric of this country and it behooves us to dig deep and make sure that we know learn about these freedom fighters who are totally unrecognized by the mainstream. What’s been so exciting about working with Marcus is that we’ve become detectives, sifting through books and articles in an effort to try to find ways of making that history come alive!
MP: ‘Coal from Hades’ is based on true events, however there is very little research – professional and amateur – behind the publication and the people behind it. And while we took a few liberties in filling in the information gaps and making some reasonable assumptions, everything the audience will see really did happen between these people. But our show is also an ongoing project in literary archaeology. We are attempting, for the first time since their original publication, to obtain copies of all the issues of Les Mouches Fantastiques, searching in libraries and archives all over North America for them. We even have plans to go to the LGBTQ archives in San Francisco to discover more about this extraordinary trio of overlooked poetic renegades. And as we learn more about them, we to continue to grow and develop our show to do them justice. We have so few queer heroes in Canada, so why shouldn’t Roswell and Elsa have a place in the canon of LGBTQ greatness?
BQ: What sort of changes have been made in this newest iteration of Coal from Hades ?
JC: Originally we told the story of the relationship between Roswell and Graeme as the focus of the piece but in this latest incarnation, we have created a new storyline that traces our own creative collaboration and our process in developing this story – it runs parallel to the love story and it creates links between the past and the present through our imaginative reconstruction of this historical love affair but it is also about the power of creating works of art and the role that process plays in our lives as well as those of Roswell and Graeme. If they’re excited to find each other through this extraordinary little journal, we are excited not only in trying to find the best way to tell their story but also what we’ve discovered about them since we began this project. We have discovered six copies of Les Mouches, for example, and most recently we have found letters that Roswell and Graeme wrote to Elsa that make them so much more vivid to us!
BQ: What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in mounting this production?
JC: Trying to squeeze this big big story into 55 minutes has been an enormous challenge – we have had to leave out all kinds of little bits and pieces to make this piece as tight as possible and both of us have watched lines and phrases that we loved get chopped for the sake of making this piece come together – collaboration is always a challenge but we have been working to make this a piece that truly speaks to the heart. That it is the story of a deep and loving friendship between two men is both key but also incidental because how they feel speaks across the intervening years and we know will speak to audiences now as much as it speaks to us as writers and performers. The other challenge has been how to find out more about these two unknowns but I know that what we’ve created has real integrity. We may not have as much information as we would have liked but we’ve grown incredibly close to these two men and we have had an amazing experience creating this show.
MP: Queerness has never been and never will be universal, homogeneous, simple, or timeless. Language evolves, identities change. We don’t really know what these “inverts” would have thought of themselves or their thoughts on the larger homosexual “community” in general because it was still largely seen and treated as a degenerative condition of the body and of society. To be “out” and unapologetic was almost unheard of. To try to get into these men’s heads and really understand how they would have felt about themselves and each other is incredibly difficult. Our primary goal in this process has been to try to do justice to the courageous acts these men and women took to challenge the repressive world around them.
BQ: What else should our readers know?
Please come out to see our show! Tell your friends and share your thoughts on the show on social media. You can already buy tickets online and find our show dates on the Hamilton Fringe website. If you Like our page on Facebook (facebook.com/CantonPeterson) you can even get a free complimentary ticket to our opening night on July 21! Also check out all the other great performances from July 20-30, particularly ‘Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead’ produced by rejzndkliv Productions.
Hamilton Fringe is taking place between July 20th to July 30th, for more information visit hamiltonfringe.ca
For tickets to ‘Coal from Hades’ visit hamiltonfringe.ca/shows/coal-from-hades