Writing to the future

New Writer-in-Residence Darrin Hagen uses words to move himself, and others, forward

Donna McKinnon - 16 September 2019

When Darrin Hagen first moved to Edmonton in the early 80s from Rocky Mountain House, he intended to make his way as a musician. Faced with the same homophobia in the local music scene that had driven him out of small town Alberta, Hagen's accordion would take a backseat as other talents emerged - some that brought him fame, some necessary for survival.

The moment he saw his first drag show, Hagen knew he had found his world. Over the next decade, he perfected his wildly popular drag queen persona Gloria Hole in the gay bars of his adopted city. For the first time in his life, Hagen experienced an authenticity and a power that had previously eluded him.

"Gloria was the unseen, unspoken part of me," says Hagen. "There was a fierceness that I had never experienced as a man, which I could as a woman."

Hagen documented these experiences in his first play, The Edmonton Queen: Not a River Boat Story, which debuted at the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival in 1996.

The Edmonton Queen was a huge hit, winning the Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award for outstanding new work. A year later, it became a book.

"I'm one of the writers created by the AIDs epidemic," he says. "That was the first piece of writing I did, and it was because I watched everybody around me die and realized that an entire slice of Edmonton's queer history was going to be gone. Drag history specifically."

Since then, Hagen has written or co-written over 40 plays. His most recent Theatre Network production, The Empress & The Prime Minister, tells the story ofted northe, a drag queen and activist who was the driving force behind Bill C-150 which decriminalized homosexuality in Canada. Hagen timed the release of his play to coincide with the 50th anniversary of this landmark bill, and in August, wrote about the profound, and uneven impact of Bill C-150 for Avenue Magazine.

"One of the reasons I love focusing on drag is because people think that drag is this extreme of society, this outlier, but ted northe now has a street in Vancouver named after him. I love putting drag at the centre of the story."

The playwright, performer, musician, sound designer and self-described queer historian is now starting a new gig as English and Film Studies' Writer-in-Residence, which he began on September 9. This role comes fresh on the heels of a residency with the Edmonton Public Library, where Hagen says patrons from all walks of life entrusted him with intimate details of their lives.

"Humans need words," he says. "They need to be able to wield words effectively to help them get across the border, to help them break up, to help them propose, to help them get a landlord to see their side of the story. One guy needed to convince the immigration people that his wife had to come too. We had to get it right, or his wife might not make it to Canada. It was so moving, and so huge to be able to help people move forward in their life."

Whether he is at the EPL or the University of Alberta, Hagen is open to whatever his clients bring to the table, but one thing he knows for sure, working with writers has made him a better writer. He is also a big proponent of reading words aloud, or preferably, hearing them read aloud by an actor. "Stage readings are my thing," he says. "Whether it's a detective novel, a crime novel, a personal memoir, a short story, a political essay, or a poem or a play, if you hand it over to actors and let them read it while you sit there in the audience and be helpless about what's happening, it teaches you a lot about your words. Writers who I have turned on to that experience have been forever changed."

Though he feels embraced by academia now, it wasn't always that way. In 1984, he and his drag mother Lulu got a call from an instructor requesting that he and Lulu perform in drag for a class discussion on deviant psychology. They were Exhibit A.

Ten years later, after his book The Edmonton Queen came out, scholarship in queer studies had transformed the conversation, and Hagen was invited back on multiple occasions to speak to students about drag, queer history and variations of gender.

"It was wild," laughs Hagen. "I had some very forward thinking people who knew that what I was writing about would be necessary, even if nobody knew it yet. They had the insight to know that even though I thought I was writing about my past, I was actually writing to the future."

In 2005, Hagen was named as one of 100 Edmontonians of the Century to mark the city's centennial, and in 2017 was named one of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts 25 Most Influential Artists for the last 25 years. In 2013Hagen was inducted into the Canadian Q Hall of Fame for his contributions to the national LGBTQ community.

Reciprocity has always been a strong motivator in Hagen's life, which is why he calls being the new Writer-in-Residence a 'beautiful gift." An inveterate researcher, he will use some of the time to work on his new play about another infamous event in Edmonton's history, the Pisces Bathhouse Raid of 1981. Mostly, however, he will be available to help mentor emerging writers of all genres.

"I think that as artists, one of the things we must do is look for the ones who need you," he says. "I'm always searching for people whose story or voice is so unique, I just need to elevate it however I can. Our job as senior artists is to pass that opportunity forward because I'd be nowhere if people like Ron Jenkins, Brad Fraser and Candace Jane Dorsey hadn't taken a chance on me. I'm just a drag queen who got lucky!"

Join the Department of English and Film Studies for a Meet & Greet with Darrin on Tuesday, September 17 from 11:00 a.m. -12:30 p.m., 3-95 Humanities Centre.

Darrin Hagen is available on Mondays and Tuesdays, from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., Humanities Centre Room 3-91. Phone: 780-492-7811. Email: dhagen1@ualberta.ca

Darrin Hagen named the new Faculty of Arts Writer-in-Residence