Witch Hunt at the Strand at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Witch Hunt at the Strand by Darrin Hagen
Strathcona Branch Public Library (8331 – 104 street) August 14 – 21, 23

An interview with Director David Cheoros.

Describe Witch Hunt at the Strand in five words.

Edmonton’s been hard on gays.

Okay, now that we’re intrigued… what’s the longer description?

In 1942, police began investigating a group of gay men in the Edmonton theatre scene. By midsummer, the sting had rounded up and charged a dozen high-profile men, shattering their lives. Building on real trial transcripts, Darrin Hagen weaves a tapestry of interrogations, testimony and backstage drama.

How did you learn about the 1942 prosecution of gay men and why did you decide this was a story that needed to be told in the theatre?

Nearly a decade ago, Darrin Hagen was working with Jocelyn Brown on a reading of some materials she was working on relating to Margaret Crang (another fascinating story that Jocelyn is still working on). Margaret was great friends with a lot of members of Edmonton’s nascent theatre community, and tremendously supportive through a period of persecution and fearmongering in the 1940’s. Darrin and Jocelyn did a public reading from this research at an event at the inaugural Exposure Festival, which Karen Simonson and I (the co-producers of MAA & PAA Theatre) attended. Karen and I were also struck by the power of the story of these gay men targeted by questionable police tactics. Darrin continued to work on the show in fits and starts over the years, and in the fall, Karen convinced him to let us produce a first version of what might become a much larger show. Everyone involved has commented on how much this story means to them, for a variety of reasons, and we hope that audiences also share in that sense of history moving through us.

You say that most of the evidence from the trials has been destroyed – how did you research this period in Edmonton’s history?

Karen works at the Provincial Archives of Alberta. While most of the transcripts of these trials have been destroyed, she was able to locate hundreds of pages of preliminary depositions, letters kept as evidence, and pre-trial motions that were retained. Darrin had also done extensive research in the newspaper coverage of these trials. We are grateful to the work of Mary Glenfield and other scholars who have also done research into these events.

Aside from documenting the history of Edmonton’s LGBTQ community, what else do you want to leave audiences discussing after seeing Witch Hunt at the Strand?

I’d like people to think about how quickly we ditch our beliefs when we get scared. To quote Jon Stewart “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.” In our time, we are being encouraged not to trust others because of their religion, because of their political beliefs, because of their financial situations. That’s crap. We’ve got to keep treating each other with as much kindness and respect as we can muster, day in and day out. That’s our job as human beings.

Anything else you want audiences to know about the show?

Darrin Hagen’s a lovely writer! A lot of audiences know him primarily for his broad comedies, his drag work, and his TV persona. But he’s also a playwright of great sensitivity, and the way in which he’s intercut original source material with new scenes and monologues in this is really moving.

Bonus question: Any names you want to drop who have been involved in your show (Edmonton arts people or otherwise)?

What a wonderful cast we have! Andy Northrup will be familiar to many Fringe audiences from his work in Linda Wood Edwards’ plays, and from his Sterling Award winning performance in A Poster of the Cosmos. Steve Jodoin is going to be best known to audiences of Edmonton’s francophone theatre, but he’s just terrific as Jimmy Richardson, a deeply closeted gay man who is also, ironically, a great and exuberant actor. And Philip Geller is just completing his training at the University of Alberta, but is already blowing my mind – I just hope that we can keep him in Edmonton to watch him continue to grow as an actor, director and playwright.

I would be remiss if I left out the fact that the Provincial Archives has been incredibly supportive of the work that Karen and I have done in bringing these original stories, these little pockets of Alberta history, out to a Fringe audience. The people there are the opposite of the stereotype of the musty and hidebound protector of documents. The team there, lead by Leslie Latta, Susan Stanton and Wayne Murdoch, have gone out of their way to encourage many local artists to dive into the holdings in search of inspiration. We are so lucky to have this kind of institution serving Alberta.

The 34th Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is August 13 – 23. Get your tickets at tickets.fringetheatre.ca.

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