Grad’s adoption story set stage for poignant play that is part art, part life and all heart

Liam Monaghan graduates with an MFA in theatre practice that helped him create an award-winning play about being a queer, adopted kid — and come to terms with his identity.


Liam Monaghan earned his master of fine arts degree in theatre practice by writing an award-winning, partly autobiographical play about growing up queer in an adoptive Catholic family and coming to terms with his identity. (Photo: Supplied)

The 2023 premiere of Liam Monaghan’s autobiographical play was a powerful, if bittersweet, rite of passage.

Strange/Familiar, written for his MFA in theatre practice at the University of Alberta, is what he calls an “auto-fictional” depiction of growing up queer in an adoptive Catholic family, and coming to terms with his identity.

Didi’s Playhaus, where it premiered last June — run by a queer theatre company called Theatre Outré — was a place Monaghan says introduced him to queer community and culture as an undergraduate. He began experimenting as an artist and creating work that responded to southern Alberta’s climate of homophobia.

“Lethbridge is a pretty Bible Belt city. There was a lot of strong sentiment around queer and gender-diverse people, as in Alberta generally, and the theatre company definitely ran up against some strong bigotry as a result of the work they were doing.

“But I also think that repression is what made the company’s work so vital.”

Monaghan was born in Edmonton and adopted by parents who lived in Lethbridge. They worked in health care — a career path that Monaghan, on discovering his own affinity with the arts, couldn’t imagine himself following.

He was enrolled in a Catholic school from K to 12, but there was much about the experience he found hard to take.

“Some of the beliefs and ideology drilled into me there were pretty damaging,” he says, especially their regressive views of healthy sexuality.

Moved around to find himself

Monaghan began performing in cabarets, soon writing and producing his own work with the encouragement of Theatre Outré’s former artistic director Jay Whitehead.

He went on to earn an English degree at the University of Lethbridge, followed by a master’s in English at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, where he examined queerness and childishness in the works of Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol.

He then spent a few years in Vancouver, working as a writing centre professional at UBC, but around the age of 28 began feeling a strong compulsion to return to Alberta for “unfinished business,” both personal and professional.

“I had a strong intuition that, in order for me to move forward, I had to return to the scene of the crime,” he writes in the program notes for Strange/Familiar. “I had to unlearn the habit of fear, including my fear of my artistic inclinations, which I learned growing up as a queer adoptee in southern Alberta’s Bible Belt.

“I needed to deal with stuff I’d been running away from.”

He chose the U of A’s MFA in theatre practice because it offered him the best opportunity to explore a range of theatre arts — from writing to performance to staging — even singing his own music.

The play gestating inside him was so close to home that he would need to be involved in every aspect of its production, he says. Parts of it were fictionalized, but the lead character was essentially himself.

“I wanted to be in a department where I’d be actually making theatre (as opposed to just studying it), where I could act and perform, because I don't think anyone else could ever perform this play.”

Art and life

The premise of Strange/Familiar centres on a queer musician, adopted at birth, who has just moved into a Vancouver apartment with his boyfriend. He receives a letter from his birth mother in Alberta who offers him a gift, and he spends the duration of the play struggling with whether to accept it, while working through his formative influences.

The situation is based on a similar letter Monaghan received a few years ago from his own birth mother: “I wanted to see if I could write a play about this scenario.”

We never find out whether Monaghan’s character meets his birth mother. He deliberately leaves it open-ended to allow the audience to reflect on what "family" and "belonging" mean to them. But there is a culminating scene in which, through song, he confesses his deepest insecurities to his adoptive parents.

“What was so vulnerable for me was voicing how we’re misunderstanding each other — not quite getting it right — because there are some differences between you that maybe wouldn’t be there in a totally biological family,” he says.

“When my family came to see the play, those nights felt very raw, like a second, public coming out.”

Strange/Familiar garnered Monaghan the Alberta Playwriting Competition’s Sharon Pollock Award for the most outstanding unproduced play by an Alberta writer. It comes with a $5,000 cash prize, the biggest award for a playwriting competition in Canada.

He can’t say where his life in the theatre will take him from here. For now, he’s happy to be working as a programs specialist at MacEwan University Writing Centre, a role that draws upon his expertise as a writer, researcher, and educator. He’s also embarked on a new project exploring archives of materials relevant to local Edmonton queer history.

And as he crosses the convocation stage this week to celebrate his MFA, it will be with a deep sense of closure.

“It’s like putting a bookend on things. It’s me saying, life isn’t going to be about anxiety, fear or shame anymore. It’s about closing the loop on my experience in a loving way, affirming how I’m going to live my life.”