Ten Foot Pole Theatre, founded by Rob Salerno in 2007, is dedicated to examining subject matter most people wouldn’t touch with, you guessed it, a ten-foot pole. Their latest show First Day Back takes on homophobic bullying. Directed by Steven Gallagher, it is a fine and sensitive contribution to an important discussion happening presently in this country.
After years of homophobic bullying and torment, Ollie, a Grade 9 Oshawa student, has committed suicide. The art teacher Mr. McKenzie opens up his classroom after school as a safe space for students to grieve and process what has happened.
Salerno plays Mr. McKenzie as well as a group of Ollie’s peers. Their reactions to the tragedy are complex and varied, each with their own story to tell and their own take on the situation. “He should have defended himself better.” “He dragged me down with him.” “He was girly.” “He was courageous.” “I’ll make a speech.” “It’s not my fault.” “It’s not fair.”
Salerno is extremely likeable as an actor and watching him flip between characters is a pleasure. He manages to capture each teenager’s reality and he brings to life the intense emotional reactions that surface in the wake of such an event. He has an impressive range and displays some real vulnerability, particularly as Jesse, a hockey player who was one of Ollie’s tormentors.
The versatile Storefront Theatre is set up as a convincing art classroom, complete with blackboards and inspirational quotes posted on the wall. The audience is seated in standard school rows and as we get settled in, the feeling of the first day of school is undeniable – nervous, excited and a little exposed.
There is no simple answer to the problem of homophobic bullying. But what we do know is that exploring how and why these things happen, and how to prevent them, is always worthwhile.
I tip my hat to Salerno for creating an engaging piece of theatre that unravels an important issue in such a meaningful way.
First Day Back runs at the Storefront Theatre until June 27. For more information visit www.tenfootpole.ca.
photo credit: Dahlia Katz