There are local treasures.
And there is Mark Tewksbury.
The one-time Olympic Gold Medal-winner, author, inspirational speaker, LGBTQ and human rights activist is perhaps one of this most recognizable, beloved and genuinely likeable individuals this city has produced.
Now he’s part of one of the most beloved festivals this city has, One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo, which runs until the end of January.
For a handful of dates, Tewksbury is remounting his autobiographical one-man production Belong, which grew out of a previous work to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his very public coming out, and which premiered in Calgary last year with the help of another phenomenal city organization and institution, Wordfest.
Before Belong’s Rodeo revival, Tewksbury took time to speak with theYYSCENE. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: So Belong is back. Is it better than ever? Has it changed much?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s changed a lot. Primarily I took the reviews and some of the criticism that I thought was really good, and reworked the whole thing. The big difference is that before I approached it primarily from my instinct, which is as a public speaker, and wanted to have an uplifting piece, but it was mostly narration, very little dialogue. And I went back and created a lot more dialogue, so it’s a lot more engaging and acting on my part …
I definitely needed the criticism (laughs) because I just don’t know what I don’t know. I’ver never written quote, unquote, a play or a one-man show before … I don’t know how to write a theatrical piece. So the criticism just got me on the right path, it helped me flesh out one particular scene that was mentioned and from that it opened my eyes as to how to go back through the whole show and find little moments where instead of telling I’m showing what happened.
Q: What is that moment?
A: The actual moment that was first mentioned in the review was when I came out to my parents. And I really did just kind of, “And then I came out to my parents and they were upset.” (Laughs) Like I didn’t flesh it out very much and I thought, “Well, that’s a really valid point.” And it was so exciting to flesh it out because not only did the scene get created but a whole new character got created — my sister ended up being featured in this particular scene. And she was the one I bullied. My show has the bully, the bystander and the bullied, and early in the show I had two of those points of view — the bystander and the bullied — but I wasn’t the bully. And so the whole fleshing out of that scene enabled me also to become, for a moment in the show, the bully, which is important, I think, that all three are represented by me. It was really cool, I really enjoyed that process.
Q: Other than the reviews, did you work with someone who offered you tips and comes from a more theatrical background.
A: Absolutely. I’m a one-man show onstage, but (Wordfest CEO and Creative Ringleader) Shelley Youngblut was a great dramaturgist who helped me with the script and (Wordfest
Operations and Production Director) Sandra Grills is directing me, and she’s just terrific, we have a really good synergy together, similar instincts and she absolutely has the theatre chops to help me understand little things. Like doing a conversation in a scene, “Do I move, do I stand here and do two voices, how do I do this?”
Q: People love their easy summaries, so how would you describe Belong and what do you want people to take away from it?
A: Hmmmm. I’ve got to figure this answer out … (Laughs) I guess at the end of the day it explores the complicated nature of belonging and the, I guess, almost contradictory nature of it. Sometimes we might belong somewhere but in doing so suddenly we can’t belong somewhere else. And at the very end of the day I guess I take a stand for seeing differences as strength in people, belonging becomes about possibility, because people are free to be themselves. So the onus is on us to also think about what kind of world do we want to belong to because we have to create that space to make it happen …
I think that what’s cool about the show is that very softly, very subtly, my arc is LGBTQ different, but it definitely speaks to being a woman in a male-dominated coaching world, it speaks to being a person of colour when there’s mostly no people of colour around, it speaks to being a person of intellectual disability or any disability and feeling a sense of belonging. I was able to broaden it and that’s maybe what the appeal was, and why I was so happy it was so well received because people — obviously the audience isn’t all LGBTQ — people really saw themselves in it or saw someone they know. It’s really relatable.
Q: How did you find the time for this? You make me feel so goddamn lazy.
A: (Laughs) I’m usually really lazy, I promise. There’s lots of lounge time and I watch trashy television, I have time for that, too. It was just the right time. I think that I’ve learned in my life of writing — the last thing I wrote was maybe nine years ago or so, and I thought that was it for me and then suddenly I had a vision of these stories for the first show and it was easy to write. I’ve been in places where it can take three years to write something, you know that experience where it just doesn’t flow. So there was just something about the timing of it all, it was smooth and relatively fast and so it didn’t require an enormous amount of time. The hardest part has been going back and learning the show, because I wrote it in April, performed it in May, and it was so fresh, it was just on my mind. So leaving it for five months and going back to it, that’s amazing, it’s taken a lot of time to relearn it.
Q: Could you ever have imagined that you and this piece would be part of the High Performance Rodeo?
A: No, I mean, I just remember going to see Denise (Clarke, from One Yellow Rabbit) when I was a kid and just being in awe. Not a kid, she’s just a couple of years older than me, but being a teenager, in my early twenties and being a sport guy and having lots of artistic friends, and having this amazing festival as an outlet, and One Yellow Rabbit I was such a big fan, so, yeah, I kind of pinch myself. I’m totally immersing myself, too, like I’m going with Denise and gang to Western Canada High School for a meet and greet with students, just doing everything I can, like, when am I ever going to be part of a festival again. (Laughs) This is an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Q: Do you want it to stop? Is Belong your baby right now or is this your baby and one you could see yourself living with for another year or however longer?
A: Yeah, I mean I would encourage Belong to become a teenager. (Laughs) Even a young twentysomething. So for sure, I hope these are early days, I truly enjoy doing the show, so as long people keep enjoying it and I get asked to do it, I’ll keep doing it.
Mark Tewksbury’s Belong takes place Friday, Jan. 10 and Saturday, Jan. 11 at the DJD Dance Centre. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.hprodeo.ca/.