MacEwan University has chosen a dazzling new writer-in-residence — local queer legend Darrin Hagen. And a new exhibition at Mitchell Art Gallery on campus celebrates his famous mermaid costume, as well as many other local drag and burlesque outfits through the city’s history.
But, first, let’s talk about the residency. The playwright and performer of the long-running production The Edmonton Queen will be MacEwan’s 28th body to fill this position, which typically runs for a year — and this time is co-funded by MacEwan’s department of English and the Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Hagen has created more than 40 plays and was named one of 100 Edmontonians of the Century in 2005. Past MacEwan writers-in-residence include last year’s Anna Sewell, Richard Van Camp, Lynn Coady, Tim Bowling, Alice Major and Gloria Sawai back in 1992.
The 56-year-old performer, queer historian and activist was also writer-in-residence at Edmonton Public Library for 2018.
“Queer history is something I work on non-stop,” Hagen says over the phone, noting the perks of the new position. “Now, I feel like I have an organizing principle, a framework within which I can move forward with more of a distinct sense of purpose. In my life I’m kind of like, ‘Squirrel!’” he laughs, imitating every distracted dog.
To kick things off, Hagen will contribute costumes — including his 1987 mermaid tail, “the piece of drag that I have owned longer than anything else in my life,” — to the exhibition at the downtown campus’s Mitchell Art Gallery, Dress and Escapism: Performance of Identity Through Drag and Burlesque Costume.
Curated by Josée Chartrand, it opens virtually Tuesday, running through March 27.
It’s a sartorial showcase of stunning examples of social and political art, with artists besides Hagen donating outfits including Holly Von Sinn, Claudia Hartout, Rusty Strutz, as well as Guys in Disguise, Send in the Girls Burlesque and Trevor Anderson Films — his magnificent dress from his short film, The Little Deputy.
Chartrand, who teaches drama design at MacEwan, assistant-designed that deep red beauty.
“I was wanting to be able to have people to see the work up close, to be able to see the construction details,” she explains as curator. “So much of performance art is supported by the costumes designed for them and worn by them. In particular, with drag and burlesque, if you have the right costume, it allows you to see that story through.
“I just feel so honoured to showcase costumes as art,” she says with palpable enthusiasm. “If there’s a tear on it or a stain, that’s part of the life that reflects the stories it’s told.”
Hagen’s mermaid costume came to her in a taped-up garbage bag, most of its beading shaken loose in years of storage, so Chartrand got to work.
“Hot glue is a quintessential tool in construction in the drag community,” she say. “I could see where the beads had once been, so I stitched them back into place following that pattern. But the material itself was just fine, and it was so much fun to put legs inside that tail.”
Another gorgeous piece in the show is Holly Von Sinn’s Send in the Clowns costume, made by Elise Troung of Sweet Carousel Corsetry.
The show also has body-diverse corsets made by Truong, intended to be worn while walking through to experience the weight and feel of the costumes. But, alas, pandemic safety has insisted the show be completely virtual, at least for now. A link will be up starting Tuesday at macewan.ca, and there’s a discussion panel with some of the artists March 3.
A streamed walkthrough is in the works and we’ll keep you posted when more content is available, or if the gallery is allowed to open its doors before March 27.
“It’s a snapshot, really, of Edmonton history,” says Chartrand, hoping people get to see it in person.
Meanwhile, for his writer residency, Hagen will bring expertise to MacEwan’s slice of Pride Week in March and will help initiate further projects through the Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
One of his plans is to flesh out and humanize a day of infamy in Edmonton’s queer scene. Although homosexuality was already legalized in 1981, 40 members of the Edmonton Police Service, six RCMP officers and two Crown attorneys raided the Pisces Health Spa.
“It’s the 40th anniversary on May 30. The Edmonton raid was part of a national campaign of raids that year. When gay people created safe spaces for themselves, the powers that be decided to invade those safe spaces and make life miserable for them. It feels important that the Edmonton story is brought into the national conversation,” Hagen said.
Hagen moved to the city in 1982 and, “I met some of these people, they were friends, and they had been through something awful. It forever influenced the Edmonton I stepped into as a young, queer man.”
Through the residency’s term, Hagen will be available for discussion, consultation and editorial comment every Monday through April 12, with the exception of the Feb. 15 holiday. Appointments are open beyond the MacEwan community to all members of the general public and can be booked by emailing email@example.com.
“Ultimately, a writer-in-residence is there to be a resource for the writers that are up-and-coming. Here’s the thing — as a writer, you work in solitude, and you work in a bit of a vacuum sometimes.
“So it’s great to find reasons and moments where you interact with other writers. I’ve found it to be one of the most beneficial things, to actually be in that position where someone’s looking for advice — you end up learning as you find the information that they need, or you go through their work. Working with other people’s words makes me a better writer.”
Reflecting on his trajectory with a laugh, Hagen says he never intended to be a writer. “I was going to be in a rock band. None of this was planned! But, I remembered there were people who believed in me when I first started writing. They took a real chance on me and gave me an opportunity — and that’s really what being a writer-in-residence is about — finding those people who just need that opportunity, that one door that you can open for them and make a huge difference in their life.
“The impact of that generosity of spirit is something that I’m thrilled to be able to provide where I can.”