The raw talent and pure rage of Brad Fraser fueled the rise of the famed and famously abrasive Canadian playwright to great acclaim on stages around the world.
Best known for his international hit plays Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love and Poor Super Man, Fraser came of age as an out and proud queer man after suffering an impoverished and abusive childhood, all of which he unflinchingly chronicles in his compelling new memoir All the Rage (Doubleday Canada). With his trademark wit and candour, Fraser also recounts his artistic triumphs and monumental battles against censors in the age of AIDS.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Fraser is excited about two new movies – one from Canada, the other from South Korea – adapted from his play Kill Me Now, and hopes to return to Montreal where he had great fun partying as a young man. “Montreal and Quebec also gave me some of the best productions of my plays that I’ve ever had in the world,” he says.
Brad and I recently sat down for a candid Q&A.
How was writing your memoir different?
When I write a play or a screenplay, it’s all what you hear and what you see. But when you’re writing a book, you can write about what you think and what you feel. You don’t have to bury those things in the subtext. It was also much more autobiographical than anything I’ve ever written for the theatre, film or TV.
What is your central theme?
I like themes and messages to be something the readers find for themselves, not something I point out. But I think that my life story is predominantly one of facing adversity and finding a way to come out on top.
Your memoir is called All the Rage, but those who follow you on social media are familiar with your anger. How has this emotion affected your life?
There’s no denying that when you grow up the way I did – when you have an abusive father who beats and belittles you – that you are going to grow up to be an angry man. I had a lot of anger in me. I had to find a way to deal with it that was not destructive as it is for most people, and so for me that was creativity. That was writing, acting, directing, painting. And the idea that anger can be a force for positive change, a way of expressing yourself — my whole journey throughout my adult life has been to find a way to use anger in a constructive rather than a destructive fashion.
Your play Wolfboy figures prominently in your memoir. That play has taken on mythic proportions since Keanu Reeves co-starred in the 1984 production. But in your book it sounds like John Palmer was a disaster of a director.
I have no idea why it has legendary status beyond Keanu Reeves having gotten one of his first jobs in it. It’s a very promising play by a 20-year-old but I don’t think it really holds up to my standards of what a play should do now. And John Palmer was a lovely man, I had great respect for him and I liked him. But he sort of worshipped at the foot of boyish beauty to the detriment of perhaps asking actors to do what they are required in order to do the job properly. And I think that got in the way. As I say in the book, if I had had a gay director who was really experienced and forthright, or a dramaturge, it may have been a better play.
I was surprised to read in your memoir that you worked on a sitcom based on Remains but without the darkness.
I wish it would have panned out but my experience in my career has been that anything I’m pitching, anything I’m writing, I should probably just put in a drawer for five years. While I’m doing it, it shocks the hell out of people. And five years later, someone else is doing the same thing when people have gotten used to the idea. That’s been consistent throughout my career. I think I am a little ahead of the curve looking at what’s going on. I also think I’m more willing to go into dangerous territory that frightens people.
I always think of you as in control, but was the off-the-charts controversy over Poor Super Man in Cincinnati overwhelming?
It wasn’t as difficult for me as the experience with Remains in Calgary because Remains was the first time that I’d faced that kind of adversity. By the time we get to Cincinnati, in 1994, I am an old hand dealing with that shit. I’ve been literally attacked by just about everybody and I’m very used to this kind of thing. You know, the wonderful thing about it was in those days when these attacks happened, it generated more press and publicity for the show. But it was a double-edged sword because those are real battles, and I’m a real person and I have real feelings, and I have to get out there and listen to these horrible things people are saying about me and my work and find constructive ways to counteract. And that has never changed. That has been a universal truth from the beginning of my career and probably will still be true of me when I die.
Why are our cultural gatekeepers so conservative?
Well, I think a lot of people are invested in keeping things exactly the way they are now – keeping white people supreme, keeping rich people supreme and keeping the people who serve the rich people very comfortable. A lot of people are very invested in that. And despite the fact that it’s not working for about 90% of the population, the 10% have a great deal of power. So when someone like me comes along, who challenges that kind of thing very rigorously, I think it makes a lot of them just kind of shut down. In Canada, they just stop arguing with you and shut up and ignore you. When that happens, I’m not the kind of guy who walks away and says, “Okay, they’re ignoring me”, I’m the kind of guy who blows the building up!
All the Rage is a witty and vividly written memoir. Were you always naturally witty?
There’s nothing in my background that would indicate this kid is going to grow up to be literary or witty or even smart, for that matter. I remember reading Mad magazine when I was in seventh grade and they had an article on how to be witty. I remember thinking, “Being witty is important.” Like being able to engage people in conversation is important. And I made a concerted effort. When I was young I started thinking about saying things in a way that people will remember, saying things in a way people will laugh at, about saying things in a way that have impact. Once I started working on that, it just kind of came naturally after a while. I read somewhere that wit is a combination of humour and pain, as opposed to humour on its own, which is why it stays with us, and why it affects us in a certain way.
Is your ear for dialogue a gift or acquired?
When I teach playwriting, the first thing I teach is the art of listening. Listening is not something you do just with your ears, but something we also do with our eyes, with our sense of touch, our entire holistic being. If you really want to hear, you have to listen with a lot more than your ears. I was taught to listen at a young age. I became aware that people from different classes express themselves in very different ways. I became very fascinated with that.
Another thing I teach in my playwriting classes is what we say and what we mean are often very different things, and what someone is saying and what they’re trying to convey are often completely at odds with one another. That kind of dichotomy and power within speech have always been fascinating for me. So when I was in high school or riding the bus I eavesdropped and listened very carefully to people around me. Not just to what they’re saying but how they say it. What is the rhythm of what they’re saying? What is the syntax they’re using?
So when people talk about my dialogue, it’s not because I’m gifted at writing dialogue naturally, but because I really work at trying to take apart the way people express themselves and understand the mechanics of it.
You once told me you were over being called the “Bad Boy of Canadian theatre.”
For a long time I took it as, “Gee, that means I’m gangster, a rebel.” But when people still called me the bad boy of Canadian theatre in my forties and fifties, I realized most of this was coming from homophobic theatre reviewers. What they’re actually trying to do is minimize my message. When I realized that, I wanted that to stop.
That being said, I’m very glad I was the bad boy of Canadian theatre. As one theatre critic pointed out when I asked him to stop calling me that, he said, “Well, no one else has come along to take your place.”
I think that’s kind of crucial to understanding my place in the theatre and in Canadian arts. I felt like I had opened the door for a lot of people, a lot of queer people of different types to come in and be understood and have their voices heard as well. But what I saw was a lot of those people being taught to express themselves the way everybody else did, taking away what made them original and interesting. And I think I was too strong a personality for that to happen early in my own career.
Do you identify as a gay writer or a writer who happens to be gay?
I don’t know if the two can be divided. My whole point from the beginning was that I didn’t want to be put into a gay ghetto. I wanted to have a larger audience than that. We live in a world where 90% of people are straight or straight-identified. I have to live in and work and make money in that world, and I found when you leave straight people out, you don’t make a lot of money and you don’t have the larger audience. That’s been the problem for all kinds of gay businesses historically. So, yeah, I’m gay. Gay is a big part of my identity and in many ways is the most interesting part of anyone’s identity, particularly in comparison to straight people.
Will you write another memoir if this one does well?
That is the plan. This one goes up to the year 2000 which for me is basically where the AIDS crisis as we knew it in the 20th century ends. That seemed like a really good place to end the first book. Of course, over the next 21 years I worked on TV shows, made movies, have had a very happy career at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and most importantly, I met Shirley (his elderly friend and neighbour) who has really made me examine my life and my career and my purpose as a person. In some ways I feel like taking care of her is the most significant thing I’ve done in my life. I really think helping anybody changes our lives for the better. Having to develop compassion and understanding for someone who can’t do the things that we all take for granted. Putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own changes our lives for the better.
How do you feel about being called a living legend?
I think if I was a legend I’d probably be making more money. Fact is, once you get legend status, once you get icon status, once people start saying that shit, it’s kind of like they’re writing you off: “You have nothing more to accomplish, you have nothing more to offer.” But I still have a great deal to offer. And I’m still learning all the time, trying to get better and not afraid to fail, because when you fail too much, you lose your legendary or icon status. But frankly, I would rather keep working and fail than be known by a title that means very little to me in my actual life.
INFOS | All the Rage: A Partial Memoir in Two Acts and a Prologue by Brad Fraser, published by Doubleday Canada (available May 18)