Team Coostin’ – Presenting profile pieces on friends of ours, interesting people doing really cool things.
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Born in Pittsburgh but growing up in Lethbridge, Alberta, Tessa J. Brown has become a mainstay of Montreal’s art scene since moving here seven years ago. Her talents in writing and editing, storytelling, burlesque and drag, converge with her interest in the promotion of all that is sex-positive to make her one of the city’s most admirable and well-rounded performers. In her mission to create safe spaces and initiate discussion on the topics of sexuality and gender, Tessa acts as a facilitator for some very important conversations. Her unabashed approach and willingness to delve beyond the pale combine with her dynamic stage presence, drawing crowds in Montreal and beyond.
From May 31st – June 18th she will grace the stage in the upcoming St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival production of Peter Pansexual, a uniquely Montreal-based take on the classic tale, with a few gender role reversals and a great deal of gratuitous nudity. The show promises to be a standout at this year’s Fringe, and with Tessa playing the role of Captain Hooker, it is surely not to be missed.
What inspired you to become involved in the arts scene, is it something you’ve been into from a young age?
I did a Master’s degree in Philosophy and I think I had always assumed that I would just take an academic path – my dad is a professor of Philosophy. But my mum was always an actress and a children’s entertainer. [When I] came to Montreal seven years ago, I was teaching English as a Second Language, and I started taking some improv classes here and there, and doing some storytelling shows, and then through improv I met some people in the burlesque community and ended up doing some burlesque. Then through burlesque I got to know people in the drag community, and it all just kind of snowballed.
You seem to be involved in just about every artistic pursuit that exists. Do you favour one artistic form over the others?
It’s so hard to say. All of them are so different. For me, writing is always going to be my primary focus. I do all these things, but I am a writer. Even if I’m not doing anything else, I have to write.
How has life in this city shaped your artistic pursuits?
It’s a double-edged sword. In Montreal, it’s genuinely hard to make a living as an artist, so nobody’s really making any money, but that also means that people tend to be very open. There’s a lot of space here to just get up on a stage and try stuff. I feel like it’s a really generous artistic community in a lot of ways, and that’s really nice.
What are the benefits and challenges of being an artist in Montreal?
One of the things that I really love is the queer community in Montreal, that either hasn’t existed or that I haven’t found in places I’ve lived before. Finding that community and being part of that community has been really important for me.
Most of your projects seem to revolve around themes of gender and sexuality, is there a specific message you’re trying to convey in regard to these topics?
As a queer person, you necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about your identity and your sexuality, just as we do with any sort of identity that isn’t on an axis of privilege. When you’re straight, it’s not to say that you don’t think about your sexuality, but it’s that you don’t have to. [When you’re queer] you have to spend a lot more time fighting for that identity, and fighting to have that identity recognized; that you’re a real person and it’s not just a phase, I’m not just fucking around. Having spent that much time thinking about it, it informs the work that I do and the people that I talk to, which informs who I work with. So then I end up doing work that is aimed at people who have thought about similar things, or inviting the audience – even if they haven’t thought about these things before – to think about them. That’s something that’s really important to me. I grew up in the fucking 90’s, I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but not enough. As a kid, there was nobody really representing who I was. When you’re a young person, a teenager, and those things are all so much more fraught, and so much more difficult, I think it can be really nice to look around and be like, here are people who feel the same way that I do, and they’re okay, and they get to do fun, cool things.
I want to open up discussion. Openness in general is the thing. Acceptance, and taking people as who they say they are. Believing people and believing in people and giving them love and acceptance and the support that they need to be themselves and not have that tension and that trauma of having to fucking fight for it. We shouldn’t want the next generation to have to fight the way we fought. So when we say, “You kids have it easy”, that’s a good thing! That’s what we’re fighting for.
You run a monthly event called “Smut Slam”. Can you tell us a bit about the event and how it got started?
Smut Slam is a monthly storytelling event that was started by Cameron Moore. It’s fun, sexy stories. There’s a lot of openness in how that’s defined, and people’s comfort levels. You don’t have to tell super explicit stories. The idea is that people come to the show and [those] people actually make the show as well. It’s a sex-positive event. It’s about people being able to talk openly about things that our culture resists talking openly about. Sexuality is an important part of human life, and so it’s really weird that we’re not supposed to talk about it. I feel like it’s weird to be thrown into adulthood and be expected to figure all this shit out on your own. Smut Slam invites people to come and talk about their sexuality in an open, fun, warm environment.
You appear to be pretty fearless in terms of your self-expression and delving into some taboo topics – is there anything that still makes you uncomfortable when you are performing?
Everything makes me uncomfortable. Part of me is just like, well, I’m just going to have to do it. I think part of what gets perceived as fearlessness is me just being like, fuck it. There are so many things that are important to talk about, and I know that everyone else is stressed and nervous about it, so I’ll talk about sexuality, and I’ll talk about mental health, and I’m willing to take that leap because someone has to do it first.
What are the consequences of being a badass bitch who’s not afraid to delve into perhaps lesser-known territory? Is there a backlash from that, and if so how do you deal with it?
There’s a tension between people realizing that these are my personal boundaries, and when I’m doing things that push my own boundaries that doesn’t reflect a lack of self-respect. Women and femmes are often coded more as objects than as subjects, so what we see when women and femmes are open about their sexuality is that people think they are just making themselves objects for the consumption of others, which is simply not the case, and it’s a really fucked up thing about our culture. I find it really important to hold on to that subjectivity. When people think about women and femmes having sex, they think of it as something that’s being done to them rather than something that they are doing. If I’m having sex it’s because I want to, and if that’s not the case then it’s not sex.
What is the appeal of performing in drag? How did you first become interested and involved in the scene/House of Laureen?
The first time I did drag was a couple of years ago because some of my friends were performing in a show. I was broke and it was half price if you came in drag. So I thought, time to put on a beard! I used some mascara and painted a beard all over my face, and put on a blue wig. I had to come up with a drag king name for myself, and so I thought about it, and I just decided to come up with the most obvious pun I possibly could, and so I named myself Biggs O’Toole.
For anyone interested in getting acquainted with the scene, is there a specific ongoing production, troupe, or performance space you’d recommend? Have you got a favourite venue in Montreal?
House of Laureen does their monthly drag show at Café Cléopâtre. Check out the upstairs cabaret at Cleo’s, there’s always something going on. I really like Cleo’s, I feel very comfortable there. It’s like a home for our performances. We put a lot of effort into maintaining and improving the space.
You’re a part of the upcoming Fringe production “Peter Pansexual”. Can you describe the general concept behind this production, and your role in it?
It is a parody of Peter Pan that takes place in Montreal. It’s about the Darlings traveling with Peter Pansexual to Montreal, where they will have to deal with the evil Captain Hooker. I’m Captain Hooker. A lot of it is things we’ve experienced as queer people and performers in Montreal. It’s a really funny, sexy, ridiculous show. I’m so excited for people to see it.
What is the future of the artistic (performance/drag) scene in Montreal? How can we continue to push the envelope and challenge people’s ideas about gender and sexuality?
I see young kids getting started on the scene now, they’re so creative, so smart and doing such interesting things. I think it’s going to progress in really interesting ways that are hard for me to predict. I hope that by doing things like this we are going to be able to expand the scene and give them the space to do the things they want to do. Things are going to grow in ways that I can’t even imagine.
Catch “Peter Pansexual” at Café Cléopâtre (1230 St. Laurent Blvd), from June 1 – 16 (With a special guest performer each night).
Words – Anya Leibovitch