David Bateman

There’s something gently regal about David Bateman. Here we are, on a balcony that’s swaddled in delicate floral fabrics and dotted with potted plants, 10 storeys up. We sip fizzy drinks. The honking and din of Toronto is distant but palpable. The city is out there somewhere, behind the flowery divide.


It’s important, I suddenly realize—this feeling of sitting here above it all. Of rising up and out of circumstance while simultaneously knowing it’s all still there. This is part of what Bateman brings forward in his poetry and performance.


Besides being an intelligent, gentle spirit, he has a hilarious mind. His relentless dry wit sings of flaunting, hiding, adapting, telling off and making do. It’s the writing of a tough-ass, counter-cultural survivor, and the work has often found a home at alternative performance spaces like Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto.


Performance pieces like I Wanted to Be Bisexual, But My Father Wouldn’t Let Me and A Brief History of White Virgins or The Night Freddy Mercury Kissed Me give you a sense of the riotous humour we’re talking about here. But unlike so much social commentary in the realm of funny, each seemingly breezy word is polished and carefully chosen.


Once called a “glorious chameleon,” David Bateman is known for mining the hilarity and hard luck of his own life, and performing it with a characteristically lush, graceful femininity. Though it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call it drag.


“Femininity has always been a part of my identity. Before I was writing poetry [books], I performed a lot more. I did long, feature-length monologues, and they often touched on those parts of me. Some of the early ones were in semi-drag, but it was never about becoming another gender. It was never about moving from male to female. It was always about integrating all those things into the biology that I was born with. My experience of gender is that there’s a fluidity. It’s always moving back and forth, from one to the other.”


In one of his most recent performance monologues, a 2009 creation called What’s It Like?, Bateman responds to the inane (but all-too-common) question about what it’s like to live with HIV. The text was inspired by a conversation with a friend on the topic and strips the experience down to such razor-sharp images that many of them cut you to the bone.


“It’s like waking up every morning, for the rest of your life, looking in the bathroom mirror, smiling sweetly, and saying ‘Oops.’ Over and over and over and over again, softly. ‘Oops.’ With a slow, rhythmic build until ‘Oops’ becomes a scream on a bridge in Scandinavia with your palms clasped firmly against your cheeks.”


By the end of the piece, Bateman asks a catty but apt question of his own.


“But now, it’s my turn to ask you, ‘What’s it like?’ And she said, ‘What’s what like?’ And I said, ‘You know, what’s it like? What’s it like to be some kind of uninfected, arrogant buttwit who thinks they can just walk up to anyone, smile, offer them a garden roll, re-freshen their cocktail, and ask them what it’s like to be one of the millions of people affected by this unfathomable pandemic. What on earth is that like?”


Bateman has always had a strong relationship to solo performance. In fact, his PhD, called Four Dresses/Four Monologues: Performance and Performativity in the Performance Monologue, concentrated on the topic. His training and research was done in three parts—starting with course work in the Drama department at Tufts University in Boston and continuing at U of T’s Drama Centre, then homing in on his dissertation topic and completing his PhD at the Creative Writing department of University of Calgary.  While he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in solo performance, his long-time interest in the monologue was sparked by two performers that he encountered while living in the States.


“I went to school in Boston in the late ’80s to start my PhD, and I saw Karen Finley there. I was also just becoming aware of Spalding Gray. They were doing a similar thing, but in a very different way. She has a much more radical feminist edge than he had. I wrote my first performance monologue, What Dreadful Things to Say About Someone Who Has Just Paid for My Lunch, soon after seeing both of them—him on video and her live. Those are the influences. Though, even as a child, I was always drawn to a kind of solo self-expression. Being a young, queer, feminine child who was often ostracized, I wasn’t integrating; I wasn’t being allowed to integrate in a classic, heteronormative way.”


The autobiographical bent of Bateman’s writing has continued to inspire him in his newest projects. Right now, he’s working on two novels—one of which he received a year-long Chalmers Fellowship to write—and putting the finishing touches on a new book of poetry, due out in the spring of 2012.


In the end, it’s Bateman’s own poetry that describes his work best:


“These are the sad, gay, wild, long journeys into quiet.”