THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE
by Nick Fracaro
We started the workshop of The Marat Sade with an anti-psychiatry group of ex-mental patients in Toronto called On Our Own. It turned out some of the members of the group were also members of the punk music scene in the city. Soon we were editing the script around the lyric sections of the play, with the Wild Things and lead singer Mike Nightmare writing original music for it. We opened a successful after-hours place. By the time we brought “actors” formally into the piece, the reality was that the rehearsal space had become the performance space of the Wild Things, the Barf Puppies, the punk singer Zero, and other bands. The non-stop “rent party” and liquor sales were literally producing The Marat Sade. The after-hours site known as The Marat Sade started to “get a name” in underground Toronto. Not really underground, because the authorities often turned a blind eye to the after-hours places. You can’t really expect everyone to go home at 1am.
One of the ex-mental patients who was there throughout the nine-month “production” of The Marat Sade called himself Tootsie. He was a 6′ 5″, 300-pound, forty-year-old man who wanted a sex change and talked about it all the time. Each evening after rehearsals and performances, he would walk circuitously along Queen Street the mile or more back to his halfway-house home. Along the way, he would write on every wheat pasted poster with a crayon he carried. Eventually the crayoned words “The Marat Sades are coming!” appeared on virtually every poster that went up west of Younge Street.
Tootsie would carry two very large and heavy suitcases wherever he went. He could bring the most amazing items out of these suitcases. He had all these toy instruments. He’d play along with the Wild Things on his plastic saxophone. Mike Nightmare didn’t care for it much, but, after all, this wasn’t music; it was The Marat Sade, so Tootsie became part of the band.
Except for three consecutive midnight performances at Theater Centre, we never actually did The Marat Sade “play” anywhere except in the piecemeal music and rehearsal/performance sketches at the speakeasy. Maybe 500 people saw those three shows, and yet from all the after-the-fact notoriety it achieved through hearsay news articles, radio talk shows, and letters to the editor, you would have thought the whole city had seen it. The Marat Sade after-hours site of our rehearsal/performance was conflated and confused with The Marat Sade play we barely performed. Hearsay and rumor described one as the other and vice versa.
If you look at any of the historical posters for the traveling show that Col.William F.Cody created, you see the billing as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” never “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.” Cody’s contention was that he toured not a “show”, but the actual WEST itself, complete with “real” cowboys and Indians. The line between representation and lived experience was never clearly drawn in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. That ambiguity gave this touring WILD WEST its power. Performance and history were seamlessly intertwined. The Buffalo Bill story gained credence from the fact that it had actually been lived in part–a claim made not just by Cody, but also by the Indians who toured the WILD WEST with him.
Many of the Indians who attacked the Whites in the WILD WEST would later join in the Ghost Dance phenomenon and eventually fight Whites for real in the slaughter of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890. Some of the Sioux who attacked Custer at the Little Bighorn would later attack him nightly in the WILD WEST tour in England.
The most dramatic example of the complicated interchange between theater and life is in the Yellow Hand incident. In June 1876, Buffalo Bill left a stage in Wilmington, Delaware, where he was the star in a touring melodrama called “The Prairie Scout,” to take a commission as scout with the Fifth Cavalry. He was in the field when Custer was defeated and in a battle that July, Buffalo Bill killed and scalped the warrior Hay-o-wei, translated as Yellow Hand. The engagement had been staged, in that instead of the Whites and Indians sending their full forces at one another, it was decided each side would send one warrior. The Cheyenne sent Yellow Hand and the Fifth Cavalry sent Buffalo Bill. As Yellow Hand was putting on his war paint Buffalo Bill was putting on his stage make-up. He also dressed in his showman’s costume before going to meet the enemy. The next year a melodrama starring Buffalo Bill toured the country called ‘The Red Right Hand; or the First Scalp for Custer.’ Each night Buffalo Bill would kill Yellow Hand in the same theatrical costume and make-up he had worn at the real battle. Repeatedly in theaters across the country, he would take that “first scalp.” The actual scalp of Yellow Hand was on tour with the play and on display in the lobby.
A partner in producing The Marat Sade with Thieves Theatre was Paul Kelman. As an actor Paul had achieved some success as a leading man in a couple films, but when we started together the after-hours place, the fashion clothing store, the antique furniture business and The Marat Sade, it had been awhile since his agent had called. His most substantial acting history had been with Theatre Pas Muraille (“Theater Without Walls”) — not just a great name, but the premiere alternative theater in Toronto for at least twenty years. He was a mover and shaker, and when he attached his ambition to The Marat Sade everyone knew the theater was going to be a success as surely as everyone knew the after-hours place, the fashion clothing store and the antique furniture business would go bust sooner than later.
The punks brought in the studded leather pants, shirts and accessories they designed at home. In the storefront part of The Marat Sade site, Kelman sold these on commission, along with other fashion pieces he or others had made. This “store” never really paid the rent, but the landlord and Kelman were friends and some other personal deals were going on. We also had scads of antique furniture we took on commission. Every weekend we would take the furniture down to the antique flea market at the harbor to sell. Kelman also liked to paint rocks with Indian symbols. He signed them Chief George — a deliberate and harmless dishonesty, and not just because the dumb rocks didn’t sell. The other thing, spending both our commission on what we sold and the other half that belonged to the consignee of furniture or fashion, was slightly more dishonest, but then only the first time. It came down to the simple necessities of food, shelter and the absolute need to do The Marat Sade. When someone showed up looking for their half of the sale, more than likely we didn’t have any hard cash. It had long been spent on some part of the production. Depending on how angry or insistent such a person was, he could barter for just about anything at The Marat Sade site. So it was borrow from Peter to pay Paul until there were no Peters left. There is nothing really crazy or dishonest in doing business this way, it’s just different and eminently viable for a venture such as The Marat Sade, a celebrity in creation that everyone wanted to be around while it was hot and which wasn’t going to last forever
Sometimes I believe good theater has to be bad business. More precisely, the big site-specific arena that is our system gives no value to The Marat Sade, so you have to re-invent the values and means of barter in a temporary autonomous zone as Hakim Bey suggests. The system also dismisses the voices and knowledge of individuals like a Tootsie or a Mike Nightmare. Mike once told me the story of how he escaped a mental hospital. And even though it was all behind him at that point, he still found himself fantasizing sometimes about stalking and kidnapping the psych doctor who had ordered his electroshock treatment. He fantasized putting jumper cables from his car battery on the doctor’s temples. I still remember his distinctly deep, crackling voice telling me this. The good doctor or Mike, or both, were lucky Mike Nightmare found the Wild Things and temporary autonomous zones like The Marat Sade to sublimate and stage his rage.
I’m sure that Peter Brook and RSC gave the definitive production of “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.” That script was written for an audience similar to the play-within-the-play’s genteel 1808 Paris audience that watched the inmates of the title perform. Site-specific for Peter Weiss’s play is in the largest granted and subsidized theater Western Culture can create.
The Marat Sade in Toronto found a different site-specific venue somewhere just outside what it viewed as the Western Kultur. The punks represented part of that site. The actors in an alternative theater scene represented another part. Tootsie and the other On Our Own ex-mental patients represented still another.
When I call up in my mind a defining image of The Marat Sade, I think of Tootsie saying goodnight to me after our opening night performance at the Theater Centre. Walking east on King Street, alone with his two huge suitcases, he appears in my mind more heroic and larger-than-life than any other real person I’ve ever known. But then I remember that somewhere on his walk home to his halfway house, he probably found the last poster in 1984 Toronto without a crayon graffiti on it. When I think of him scrawling “The Marat Sades are coming!” on that last poster, my belly laugh becomes so violent it turns into tears. It is then that I realize that Tootsie wasn’t a larger-than-life hero, but just crazy like the rest of us.