While the news of the fire at the Roxy is upsetting in its own right, the realization that the fire happened the day previews for Human Loser’s Cheerleader! were set to begin, makes the loss even more poignant. But it’s a testament to what makes our community so special that The Timms Centre for the Arts at the University of Alberta stepped up to donate their space to Human Loser for a one time staged reading of the script this Sunday, January 18 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 (cash only) at the door. A release from Human loser says proceeds will go towards recouping their losses from the fire and towards an eventual remounting of the full production in the future.
With that in mind, I am publishing a preview of the show based on an interview with playwright Morgan Smith that was set to publish earlier this week.
While, in some ways, the world has changed a lot since Cheerleader! first premiered at the Fringe Festival 12 years ago, playwright and producer Morgan Smith, whose company Human Loser is remounting the show, says the play is unfortunately still relevant today. “Sadly [the play] is still very relevant and that’s sort of heartbreaking to me that it’s been 12 years, and for a lot of kids it’s the exact same for them as it was when I was in high school.”
Morgan says Cheerleader! is about, “four friends who are growing up in this small town high school, but it’s really about two main characters – the two cheerleaders. One is Tina who is the quintessential perfect cheerleader who has the perfect boyfriend, the perfect looks, she’s smart, and everyone likes her. Then there’s her best friend Sophie who loves Tina for all these qualities and also loves her because she’s gay and she’s slowly starting to realize that she’s gay. The realization that Sophie is having is starting to throw everything out of balance for Tina, so it’s about them trying to figure out how to reframe themselves and accept who they are and accept each other in the face of all the pressure that’s on them in terms of these very specific roles.”
The two main characters being cheerleaders makes the changing dynamics between Sophie and Tina and the tension that causes more difficult for the characters to openly address. Morgan says, “Cheerleading has a really shiny façade. It’s all about glitter and sparkles and [having your] hair back and very tight routines and accuracy and enthusiasm and bright smiles. At the same time cheerleading is one of, if the not the, most dangerous high school sports… Cheerleading is hard and can be very painful, but it’s all about: you don’t let them see you sweat, you don’t let them see you fall, you don’t let them see you in pain. It’s all about smiling and being enthusiastic in a very specific set of parameters.”
And, of course there’s also the stereotypes that one is put into as a cheerleader. “The show is about the roles that kids are forcibly shoehorned into when they go to high school… I love the idea that the cheerleader and the football star are the ultimate iconic images from high school in terms of what we see as the ideal high school person. And cheerleading is very much conceived with the male gaze in mind… So the idea of this girl who is realizing she’s not interested in men the way she’s supposed to be and to realize that she loves her best friend, and not in the way she’s supposed to, it flies against the expectations Tina has for Sophie and the expectations that society has of her… I think something that comes across more in this production is the specificity of the loneliness when you’re gay and you feel like you’re the only person who might be gay, at least in your small world… and the horrible consequences some people have to endure when they become honest with their friends or themselves and accept who they are, but other people in their lives don’t.”
Those who know Morgan Smith’s work won’t be surprised to find that while Cheerleader! does address these serious topics, there’s also moments of levity in the show. Morgan says, “In order to fully appreciate the good stuff that can happen on stage and the good things people can do, I think we have to explore the bad things people do as well. I am definitely a moral relativist… and it’s the classic line: good people are capable of doing terrible things and bad people are capable of doing good things.” With that in mind, Morgan and director Clinton Carew tried to cast actors who were highly flexible. “Cheerleader! goes from being a very light, very presentational, kind of vaudevillian comedy to very extreme scenes of violence and fear and tragedy and emotional vulnerability… It’s not as simple as ‘she’s gay and I find her disgusting’. No, [it’s] ‘she’s my friend and I’m not attracted to her, but I love her, but not in the way she wants me to. And at the same time, being friends with her could threaten my position.’ “
With that in mind, Morgan and Clinton cast Joleen Ballendine (Sophie), Lianna Makuch (Tina), Patrick Lundeen (Tina’s boyfriend Bobby), and Matt McKinney (Sophie’s boyfriend Burt) in Cheerleader! “[Joleen and Lianna] are real life best friends. They went to high school together, they went to junior high together and they acted together in [Excuse Me: This is the Truth! last Fringe] and I knew watching them that they could play it. Jo is mostly known as an improviser in town but she is a really talented performer and has this openness in her face and this hilarious sweet sense of humour which is really offbeat and works for Sophie. Patrick Lundeen… is actually Lianna’s partner in real life as well. I’ve worked with him before and he is incredibly likable and dedicated and he knows how far he needs to push. He doesn’t hold back when he needs to push something to a dark place. [Patrick’s character] Bobby goes from being a silly goofball to being very violent and turning on a dime. Matt McKinney [who plays Burt, Sophie’s boyfriend] is a wonderful actor and finding these little subtleties and depth and humanity when Burt actually does some very horrible things to people and he starts out, ironically, as the most sympathetic person in the play.”
PS – check out the What it is Podcast’s episode 61 for an interview with Morgan Smith and Joleen Ballendine.