The History of Sexuality is a trip through real Montrealers’ sex lives

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Photo by Erika Rosenbaum Photography

“I was just blown away.”

You don’t often hear a person describe graduate-level philosophy in religious terms, but for Dane Stewart, the moment he “met” Michel Foucault seems downright inspiring.

Two years ago, the then-Concordia student was sitting in a graduate seminar when the work of the French philosopher came up.

“I’m sure everyone has had that experience where you read a book or read a poem or see a movie and you feel your mind expanding,” explained Stewart. “That’s the sense I first got when I encountered Foucault. And I really wanted to share that with others.”

Foucault, born in 1926, studied the relationship between power and knowledge in society. As an academic, he led revolutionary causes like prison reform. As a gay man, he led a bohemian lifestyle, at some point indulging in the world of kink and BDSM in San Francisco. In 1984, Foucault would become the first public figure in France to die of complications from AIDS.

Stewart, obsessed and identifying with both Foucault’s work and his bohemian life, decided to develop a play for his thesis inspired by his writing, but also informed by real-life conversations with other queer Montrealers. Named for one of Foucault’s own titles, The History of Sexuality gets its grown-up premiere at MainLine Theatre this month.

We enter a classroom with six graduate students, led by their lecturer, Marie. There’s Alissa and Madeleine, who tango with anxiety and depression. Another couple, Darr and Talia, meanwhile, try to balance their studies with sex work. Craig and his dom partner Martin explore the power structure in a BDSM relationship.

Besides the autobiographical element, the dialogue and thoughts of the students are culled verbatim from intimate interviews Stewart conducted with real people.

He found and spoke to friends and acquaintances as well as strangers who answered appeals on social media. They discussed everything from sex to school to the experience of taking public transit as a queer person.

The sessions were done on campus in “focus groups” of four to six people, or in individual meetings. “Once I’m able to make them feel safe, and engage them — and sometimes I do that by sharing my own experiences — people are very filling to share their stories.”

At the end, Stewart was left with 12 to 15 hours’ worth of tape, which he set about transcribing in what he calls a gruelling process.

“I picked the parts that I thought were salient and interesting, and which presented an honest and intimate display of queerness in Montreal and I sutured that into a play about sexuality,” Stewart told me in an interview on CKUT radio last week. (He phoned in from a bathroom, ducking out of rehearsal.)

Craig, played by Captain Aurora composer and actor Trevor Barrette, is loosely inspired by Stewart’s own life, which includes work as an advocate for alternative sexual lifestyles. (Stewart is the 2018 International Puppy, a kind of beauty queen/spokesperson role for the puppy play community.)

Craig, he explained, “actually identifies as a bit of a kinkster, practising a lot of BDSM. But then he also does this graduate school to sort of gain the academic knowledge to back up his life experiences.” So if anyone were to question Craig’s predilection for kink, at least he would have the theory to defend it.

Then there is Alissa, played by Kayleigh Choiniere, who also wears the hat of costume designer and producer. Alissa is paying her way through school as a stripper while also developing her identity as a radical, feminist grad student.

At the heart of History are statements by real people who were willing to be honest about their lives, mental health, relationships and side work as sex workers. And so, with a young and big Montreal-based cast, I’m expecting History of Sexuality to be a cross of sex diaries meets academia, with a possibly eye-opening introduction into the lives of queer people who don’t always get mainstream exposure. ■

The History of Sexuality is at MainLine Theatre (3997 St-Laurent) through Sept. 30, $12 to $20

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