Dinner party politics

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday January 22, 2019
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Playwright Jordan Tannahill. Photo: Alejandro Santiago
Playwright Jordan Tannahill. Photo: Alejandro Santiago

Jordan Tannahill was 23 when he wrote "Late Company," the emotionally explosive drama now in a regional premiere production at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. It was 2011, and Tannahill, a native of Ottawa, the Canadian capital, recalls writing it in a fury.

Jamie Hubley, the 15-year-old son of an Ottawa city councilman, had committed suicide after years of homophobic bullying. "I hate being the only open gay guy in my school," the boy had written in a Tumblr post. "I really want to end it, it's not getting better if there's 3 years of high school left."

Shortly after Hubley's death, a group of Parliament members from the ruling Conservative Party of Canada (with which Hubley's father was affiliated) cobbled together a slapdash video, in which they dutifully faced the camera to offer their "It Gets Better" reassurance to other bullied teens.

"There weren't even any LGBT people in it," says Tannahill, recalling his anger at the time. "This is the party that had cut off funding that would have benefitted queer youth. I just thought it was so cynical and hypocritical. It made me think about dinner parties I'd been at where there was this tacit notion that everyone there supported certain gay issues, but I could also tell there was a lot going unsaid. It became like a splinter under my skin that I needed to work out."

As it happens, Tannahill's splinter worked out quite well. During the seven years since it was first performed, "Late Company," which takes place over the course of a cathartic dinner party in the home of a politician whose gay son killed himself, has become the prolific writer's most widely produced work, mounted across Canada, in several U.S. cities, and on the West End in London. During the play's run at NCTC, another production will open in Singapore.

"It's funny," notes Tannahill, "this play has introduced me in so many cities. It resonates very deeply with audiences. I remain proud of it. But I wrote it when I was 23, and it's a very different piece than I would write now."

Indeed. Tannahill, who lives in England with his British partner, is currently working on "Draw Me Close" at London's Young Vic. "It's a completely bespoke performance," he explains, "performed for a single audience member at a time. For the first half of the show, you put on a headset, enter a virtual environment, and move through an immersive, interactive world. There's an actress in a motion capture suit who is performing for you and alongside you."

What the two shows have in common is a sense of extreme intimacy. "I'm particularly interested in theater where things happen in real time," says Tannahill. "And I like to explore the relationship of technology to the body." While far less overtly than in Tannahill's virtual reality piece, technology has an important role in "Late Company" as well.

Prolific and a polymath, Tannahill also works as a visual artist, choreographer, filmmaker and, as of last year, a novelist; his book "Liminal" is among several recent works across media in which Tannahill grapples with mother-son relationships in the wake of his own mother's death.

"There are certain ideas," he says, "that are better expressed in each medium." But across them all, "I try to do work that I would like as an audience member. I imagine my audiences as intelligent, informed and politically engaged."

Late Company plays NCTC through Feb. 24. www.nctcsf.com