It is often said that writers should write about what they know. Many writers have such dull lives that they end up putting undue strain on their imaginations. Brad Fraser - who writes wildly successful, provocative plays about the fun and horror of sexual adventure - does not appear to have that problem.
He is an intellectual who wears shirts that show off his muscles. He shaves his head. He likes to smoke a joint before going to the gym. He enjoys hanging out in scuzzy bars. He has a house in Edmonton where he keeps his collection of 10,000 comic books in a special room. He commutes from Edmonton to Toronto to Los Angeles without calling anywhere, or anybody, home. He is proudly Canadian. He is enthusiastically gay. He has slept with women, but prefers men. He does not believe in monogamy. He says he has several partners, including a married man who visits him twice a week, for two hours at a time. He talks passionately about sexual freedom and emotional honesty. He writes morality plays full of nudity, sex and graphic language. He was abused as a child, but has reclaimed his anger as an artist. He is in show business now, breaking taboos, outflanking the status quo. And he has written a movie for Disney. Yes, Disney.
Brad Fraser is having it all. He is, at 35, Canada's hottest playwright. His first hit, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, has been performed all over North America, as well as in England, Italy and Mexico. He won a Genie for scripting the film version, directed by Quebec's Denys Arcand. Poor Super Man, a play about the fear of intimacy, first opened in Cincinnati last April and landed on Time magazine's 1994 Top 10 list. Hyperbolically, the London Telegraph called it the most sexually explicit play ever staged. And with media sensation filling its sails, Poor Super Man - mounted in October at Edmonton's Roxy Theatre and last month at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre - is now playing at Toronto's Canadian Stage Company, with productions planned for Montreal, Washington, and Sydney, Australia.
Its director, the esteemed Derek Goldby, says Fraser is "without question the liveliest playwright in the country. He's got an instant contact with the audience that is fairly rare. He's plugged in to the way young people feel." Adds Goldby: "My suspicion is that he will desert the theatre and go into film and TV."
Fraser does in fact have his eye on new horizons. He just completed a screenplay for Disney's Touchstone Pictures, a Generation X science-fiction tale titled Beauty. He is in the thick of writing Our Man in Manila, a script based on the true story of Bryan Johnson, the former Globe and Mail reporter who ended up running a brothel with teenage prostitutes in the Philippine capital. He is also creating a TV soap opera, inspired by Jean Genet's The Balcony, for the U.S. cable channel Showtime. And he is planning to direct an Alberta-produced movie based on his 1992 play, The Ugly Man. "Film is where it's got to happen," says Fraser. "In the theatre, I'm preaching to the converted. I want a wider audience."
The director-playwright has already secured his reputation as the enfant terrible of the Canadian stage. He is known for bullying director and lambasting critics. He tends to be described as "abrasive." But during an interview in his Toronto apartment last week, Fraser was utterly cordial. Having just arrived from Edmonton, he apologized for having nothing in the fridge and put the kettle on for tea. His apartment, which he shares with a friend, is a nicely furnished place in a shabby midtown building. "I use it like a hotel," said Fraser, surveying the room, with its large oriental rug and white sofa. "Most of this stuff isn't mine. I would never have a couch that color."
With his pumped-up physique, shaved head and dark, liquid stare, Fraser is an imposing presence. His image is partly contrived to get attention, he admits. "Vanity became an issue once I hit my 30s and started ballooning up to 225 pounds and looking like Elizabeth Taylor. And when so many people around me are sick or dying [of aids], I feel I have to hang on to my health." He adds, "It's like what they say about black people in America. If you want to be a successful homosexual, you have to be twice as strong, twice as talented, and twice as ambitious, because it is going to be twice as hard."
Fraser is now routinely called "controversial." While he appreciates the box-office value of the label, he considers it spurious. "What's controversial?" he asks. "To my mind, homosexuality is not controversial. It exists. It will continue to exist." The sex in his plays, he says, is less graphic than the straight sex in many R-rated movies. Fraser acknowledges, however, that "something happens when you see naked people onstage that is completely different from seeing them on-screen. You don't have electronic equipment interpreting it for you. So you're forced to come to your own conclusions - is this body attractive, are these people doing a good thing? It pushes a lot of buttons." The nudity in Poor Super Man, Fraser points out, is mostly male, "and that violates a huge taboo in our society. We have such a thing about penises."
Get him started, and Fraser easily slips into an uninhibited rant. He likes a good target. He gives the impression of being a militant sensualist, impatient for the rest of the world to catch up. He may have mellowed since writing the acidic Unidentified Human Remains, but the anger is still there. And he can trace it right back to his childhood.
He is the eldest of four children born to nomadic, working-class parents in rural Alberta who never finished high school. They were just 17 and 15 when Brad was born. His father worked in construction. "My mother," he says, "had four kids and two miscarriages before she was old enough to get into a bar." Fraser, whose parents divorced when he was 12, talks with reluctance about his abuse as a child. Long estranged from his father, he still sees his mother and remains close to his two sisters, who live in Edmonton. He says his first disclosure of the abuse, in a 1992 Saturday Night article, "opened up a lot of really painful wounds in my family."
He revealed then that his father beat him repeatedly, once leaving him with a severe concussion. "My father was a tyrant," he says. "He was one of those men who think women and children are chattels, that you can do whatever you want to them. He drank. He had a very short temper." Fraser adds that between the ages of 3 and 10, he was also sexually abused by an older male relative. "How do you address this stuff?" he asks in exasperation. "For me, being asked to sit in a car at the age of 7 while my parents went into a bar and drank for three hours on an Indian reserve in northern B.C. was normal."
By the time he was a teenager, Fraser says he was "a suicidal, depressed, lonely kid." With his family constantly on the move, he did not live in the same town for more than a year until the age of 16. "We grew up literally along the side of the Trans-Canada," he recalls. "Television and comic books were my touchstones - no matter where we were, we could see The Beverly Hillbillies. Pop culture became our physical landscape. A lot of people say, 'Your stuff reminds me of sitcoms and comic books,' and I say, 'Exactly. That's exactly where it comes from.' "
Inspired by comics, Fraser developed a passion for writing stories as a child. At high school in Edmonton, he trained as a graphic artist, then enrolled in a drama program with a view to becoming an actor. Once he started reading the plays considered fit for teenagers, he decided he could do better. His first script, Two Pariah at a Bus Stop in a Large City Late at Night, won first prize in an Alberta play-writing competition. At 20, Fraser mounted Mutants, his first professional production, at Edmonton's Walterdale Playhouse - a story of institutionalized teens rebelling against abuse. Alarmed by the script's sex, profanity and drug use, Walterdale's board narrowly voted against cancelling the play at the last minute - setting a pattern that would recur throughout Fraser's career. The show went ahead, and it was a hit.
His next play, Wolfboy, about a teenage werewolf, starred a young Keanu Reeves in a 1984 production at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille. Fraser unleashed more monsters in Chainsaw Love (1985) and Return of the Bride (1988). Then, with Unidentified Human Remains, a sexual drama grounded in his own experience, his career took off. But once again, the play's launch was almost scuttled - when its original director quit in a rage one week before the 1989 Calgary première. "I'm sure the theatre, if they'd found a way, would have killed it," says Fraser.
Fraser relishes testing the tolerance of the arts establishment, especially in smaller centres. "It's easy to be an out-homosexual in New York or L.A. or Montreal," he says, "but you end up appealing to a special interest group. Being in Edmonton and having to come up against that conservative, homophobic thing is good for me. People react." By opening Poor Super Man in Cincinnati, the city that put Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs on trial, he was tempting fate. The theatre tried to cancel the play, and on opening night the police vice squad watched from the front row.
The Poor Super Man script is what attracted Disney's attention. And the idea of Fraser and Mickey Mouse under the same roof is not as strange as it seems, he says. "They were the first people to go, 'ok, this guy's subject matter may not work for us, but we like his writing.' A lot of people think that Bambi and Thumper are running the joint, but there are a lot of very canny business people there, and some of the most literate people I've met in L.A." Before scripting Beauty, Fraser spelled out his bottom line to the producers. "I said, 'You want me to write a film about the art world, the fashion industry and the movie world, and you don't want any homosexual characters in it?' And they said, 'Oh no, have gay characters - whatever you like,' and I did."
Brad Fraser has an ambitious agenda. He wants to humanize homosexuality for a mass audience. He wants to direct his own movies. He wants to make serious money. But, despite the lure of Hollywood, he is not ready to give up writing plays. His next stage work, he says, will be about his childhood abuse. "It's going to be the hardest thing I've ever written. I just don't know if I am emotionally equipped to write it yet." But he knows one thing: "For it to work, it will have to be at least as comic as the others, and ultimately far more bleak." Sounds like a job for Super Man.
Maclean's February 13, 1995