“When I started writing this play, I was trying to write a comic two-hander,” Shawn Macdonald admits. “It just didn’t work.” Macdonald is referring to Demon Voice, which will receive its premiere production from Touchstone Theatre on Saturday (November 21) and runs till November 28 at Performance Works. Instead of a chipper, two-person show, Macdonald has ended up with a dark and often surprising six-character exploration of intimacy.
Because much of the play’s power rests on revelations, this article won’t reveal characters’ names. But it will disclose that one of the script’s most powerful women discovers that she likes to be dominated, and a straight-identified man sings the glories of his sexual love for another guy. Then there are the enmeshed twins, the kept husband, and the woman who says that she is melting. Some of the characters are wealthy; others are marginalized to the point of homelessness. In a series of scenes set in downtown Vancouver, Demon Voice explores their attempts to achieve—and avoid—emotional closeness.
Chatting with the Straight in Carousel Theatre’s office building, across the street from the Playwrights Theatre Centre where Demon Voice is rehearsing, Macdonald says of his play: “It really is about the terror of relationships and the way that our longing for intimate connection unearths all of the shit we’re afraid to look at—or that we’ve compartmentalized and ignored.”
He describes the woman who likes to be dominated as “somebody who has taken the compartmentalization of her life to an extreme”. During the play, she goes from being sexually shut down to reaching for what intimacy means to her.
“I read about people with Type A personalities who are in really high positions of power—like politicians or businessmen—and they’re often the people who, in their sexual expression, need to be dominated, to be able to relinquish their responsibility,” Macdonald says.
In the script, it’s startling when the most macho male character declares that sexual love between men can heal the world. “I’m not sure where that idea came from, but when I hit upon it, I found it compelling,” Macdonald begins. “In our world, masculinity is often expressed through violence,” he goes on. Then he posits the notion that the sexual expressiveness of gay male society might be an antidote. Speaking as a gay man, he says: “We have the whole culture of bathhouses and all that. And it struck me that that’s someplace where married and bi men go to get tenderness from another man—or to give it.” Macdonald adds he feels that male-male love has been ghettoized as homosexual. “I think there needs to be a relaxation of that ghettoization. Those boundaries need to be blurred a little bit. I think men in our culture need to find ways to express tenderness without necessarily being homosexual.”
As well as emotional and sexual interdependence, Demon Voice addresses class relationships. In one of the play’s most memorable images, well-off lovers in a downtown condo observe the poor through binoculars. We’ve come to see one of those characters as particularly empathetic. Macdonald says, “The image of people looking down is about the fact that, as much as we might think we understand, we really have no clue.”
Asked what he hopes audience members will take away from Demon Voice, the playwright answers simply: “Despite the darkness of the play, it’s really hopeful. You can look at your crap and it will be okay; you can come out the other side of it and be accepted.”