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Blue Jeans Theatre: Putting Dickens in drag

By Ava Zardynezhad, January 4 2021—

It’s not Christmas in the city without at least one theatre production of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, and this winter, Calgary had not one, but two adaptations of the novella.

As Theatre Calgary took its annual favourite online, Calgary’s new queer theatre collective, Blue Jeans Theatre, showcased a very different version of A Christmas Carol — one in drag. 

When I first heard of Christmas Carol: A Drag Story, I was intrigued by the company behind the vision. This was the first time I was hearing about Blue Jeans Theatre, but not the talented individuals involved with it. The Dickens’ adaptation was written and directed by Shannon Murphy, a Calgary-based actor trained in Toronto, whom I’d first had the pleasure of watching in Theatre Calgary’s Shakespeare by the Bow production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona

When I asked about the origins of Blue Jeans, Murphy explained that she felt “there is a hunger for something queer [in Calgary]” which influenced her decision to return to the city and “take that responsibility on, to try and create a space for queer people in theatre.” However, she emphasised that “the company is a collective. I led this production, but I won’t be leading every production.” She does not consider herself the head of the company — simply “a facilitator.” 

That being said, she played a great role in the establishment of Blue Jeans. Murphy told me that Christmas Carol: A Drag Story was actually the beginning of the company.

Interestingly, Blue Jeans has a secret connection to the Gauntlet and the University of Calgary, according to Murphy. On an internet search of gay history in Calgary, Murphy stumbled across a 1991 article published by the Gauntlet covering Blue Jeans Day, a university-wide initiative encouraging students and faculty to wear denim in support of gay rights.

“It was pretty funny because everyone wears blue jeans,” said Murphy. “That’s where the name came from. I just love the idea of blue jeans, Calgary, denim, and I love the idea of just [saying] come as you are, you don’t have to get fancy for our theatre, we’re just blue jeans.”

Due to circumstances brought on by the pandemic, many productions and seasons throughout various performing arts media, specifically theatre, were cancelled this year. Murphy saw this opportunity as an opening for the presentation of something different — a heartwarming show with an important message. In addition to the advantage given by the vacancy created due to the lack of other theatre productions, not being attached to a large company gave Murphy the ability to be more creative and daring with her production. 

“I think […] so often we theatre people put up shows that we individually want to see or do because we just like them and that’s not serving the community. I think you need to serve the community with what you produce. Why this show? Why now? [These are questions] I always ask myself, because otherwise it can lead to theatre that has no real meaning or no real purpose. This company is very purposeful. It was created very purposefully,” Murphy emphasized. 

So what was the purpose of this show? Why Christmas Carol: A Drag Story, and why now?

The concept of the play was conceived from a conversation between Murphy and her mother over the summer of 2020, where they evaluated the shows that they liked to watch. This list heavily featured self-discovery shows such Queer Eye and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

“The reason that I enjoy watching them or I find them very easy to watch or easy to be there is because they’re just so genuine. It’s a show that’s genuinely trying to create change,” Murphy explained.

Somehow, brainstorming landed them on a version of A Christmas Carol, a personal favourite of Murphy’s, where the ghosts are drag queens and the rest of the characters queer.

“I saw an opportunity to bring a perspective into the story that isn’t often told — where do queer people go on Christmas? In Alberta we have a youth homelessness problem and 40 per cent of homeless youth are from the LGBTQA2SI+ community. I saw a need for this show, a need that has been prevalent for many years in this community and a need to reveal other sides of the Calgary story.”

Telling “the Calgary story”, however, was not an easy feat. The COVID-19 pandemic posed many limitations in the production of this play.

“When we started the show — the process for it — and the company, we originally even thought that we could do an in person show. This was in August and we had a different mindset then, the world did,” Murphy explained.

The final product ended up being a digital, pre-filmed version of the play. Each actor was filmed individually for the majority of the scenes as to follow municipal and provincial social distancing guidelines. Despite the limitations, Murphy sees the silver linings in this situation.

“I think what we talked about is how gender and sexuality, they can be so many different things, maybe theatre can be so many different things too.” But she also told me that she is “ready for theatre to go back to what it was.”

I asked Murphy what to expect from the show.

“I would say you’re going to expect a very charming, spontaneous, committed group of actors that really play with the [digital] medium that we’re [using],” said Murphy, and I agree. The show was charming and spontaneous, and despite everything, the actors didn’t seem to doubt the production for even a second. 

The concept of the show was absolutely genius. Set in modern day Calgary, Ebenezer Scrooge, portrayed by Michael Rolfe, is, as Murphy put it, an “[Albertan]…white collar capitalist, money centred young […] businessman. This guy who has achieved something, but it’s just been given to him by the ways of just being a white man that has power.”

But what’s more is that in Murphy’s version of the story, he is a closeted gay man in love with his work associate Jacob Marley, portrayed by Roel Suasin. In addition, to tie it back to issues of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, Murphy’s Scrooge is a real estate tycoon. She also made some major changes to other characters. Bob and Fred live together, and Tiny Tim is a sickly LGBTQ+ youth, ousted from home by unaccepting parents, who had found shelter and friendship in Bob and Fred. Last but not least, just as promised, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come are all in drag.

However, as Murphy told me they were “drag performers from different types of drag, so not just your classic drag queen.” She explained that she has “always felt a little outside of drag being a woman, so it’s kind of fun that we’re exploring the different types of it.”

Fun and much appreciated. Conrad Belau, the mastermind behind Mono Man Mia!, brought to life a sparkly Ghost of Christmas Past. Talented actor and drag performer, Marshal Vielle, portrayed a warm and playful Ghost of Christmas Present. Finally, Kristy Benz played a brooding and ominous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Each ghost also graced the audience with a holiday-themed musical number, to give a little taste of the “full drag experience.” 

In short, the concept of Christmas Carol: A Drag Story was marvelous. Murphy discussed many important issues that are rarely brought to light to such an extent in our city, especially in an artform such as theatre. I will not deny that the circumstances under which the production was put together hindered the delivery to a certain extent. But, as Murphy put it “people loved the little magic. People like when it’s kind of homemade looking; just those little bits of magic, like me passing something through the screen to you.”

I couldn’t agree more. The home video aspects — the use of green screen and background noises to give a couple of examples — made the show comfortable and humorous. However, some parts felt somewhat disconnected, which could easily be attributed to some delays in dialogue delivery, or even to the cross-cuts between characters in conversations — a choice that must have been made, as rarely could two actors be on screen together. Moreover, due to what I imagine was a one-hour time limit, certain parts of the screenplay seemed rushed and dare I say, underdeveloped. Despite it all, the cast and crew persevered. Regardless of all the limitations, the product did not lack the important things: commitment, enthusiasm, sincerity, faith, joy, unity, diversity, courage and most appropriately, the spirit of Christmas. 

According to Murphy, the show was well received — and rightfully so. Audiences were more diverse than what Murphy is accustomed to in the world of theatre and, thanks to the digital format, younger too. 

The journey has only begun for this small, yet significant company. In their endeavours, they have demonstrated the utmost perseverance and boldness. They beat all the odds, and in a limited amount of time, managed to put together a most heartwarming and necessary show. Yet, Blue Jeans does not merely aim to be a theatre group, but to create a community. For Murphy, at least, that is the hope.

“We have an initiative that we want to do called the Congregation,” she said. “We would meet on Sundays, we’d have a drag brunch, a TED talk on any issues we’re facing in our community and then everyone would leave with a donut.”

In addition to the donut, creating a network is a point Murphy heavily emphasised.

“By bringing people together, mentorship would happen and connections could happen.”

When implemented, “the Congregation” would serve as a much needed network for many members of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as a valuable resource, both in connections and education.

Though yet small, Blue Jeans Theatre is a much needed step for the LGBTQ+ community in Calgary, a company that is devoted to bringing queer stories to the spotlight or retelling stories we’ve heard before through a different perspective and promoting and supporting queer individuals in performing arts. 

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