Playwright and director Mael Cheff’s The Adoption, a show about addressing changes that can destabilize a chosen family, sold out at the 2022 Fringe Festival. Mael is back with a new production, HeartBeast, the second in a trilogy around the theme of trauma related to gender-identity and queerness and how to heal. This show focuses on a teenager going through a mental health crisis / gender identity exploration into their own personhood between two worlds. In one, they are helped by their mom and a counselor who inhabit a realistic world. In the other is a shapeshifting creature, the Beast, whose silent, experimental world offers drag and a different form of exploration.
“It’s a bigger team, a longer play,” says Mael. “It’s so much more ambitious.” Among the things Mael says to expect in the show are Flow Gall, a whaacking performer in the role of the Beast and live music created for the show by Sarah Rossy. And, of course, an incredible team of actors (Leigh Ann Taylor, Thom Niles, and Philip Sawaia) who were invited into the roles. “It’s an honour to work with them,” says Mael.
The themes are bigger too. “It touches on eco-anxiety, climate change, everything that’s going on. I am very much interested right now about how kids are… and the young people aren’t doing so well, says Mael. They also add that one theme is about how the mental health system is failing. “How, if you’re left on your own, do you deal with that?” Further, Mael asks, “How do we inspire hope?”
In particular the play looks at how a family can behave and go through a crisis as a unit. “How do you trust others to go to darker places without involving yourself too much,” says Mael. “Not being indifferent or absent, but being able to trust and be shown new ways of looking at things. It’s more poetic.”
But, Mael would never let go of their signature humour. “Oh, it’s still funny!” they say. “I couldn’t approach deeper subjects without it.” At the same time, though, every rehearsal has gone from laughter to tears because, as Mael says, “the catharsis is so intense. There’s some magic going on every rehearsal.”
Mael conceived the show when thinking about teenagehood and “healing the inner teenager.” “There’s inner teen rage,” says Mael. “I have all these observations about teenagehood and I have teenagers myself.” But Mael also drew on their own experiences with family and trans-identity, though they deliberately avoided writing an autobiographical show. “It’s not autobiographical at all,” they say. “It’s about things I would have wished happened and things my inner teenager could connect to.”
Over the past year, Mael has felt their identity as a writer blooming. “I think I’m a late bloomer in most things,” they say. “I don’t want to sound like a victim, but I’ve had a lifetime of cis-heteronormative barriers. I transitioned late in life and it changed my life for the better. I’m more confident. I have more self esteem. I trust in my voice a lot more. So all that kind of opened something up in me.”
“These days I like to say I create queer Love stories, love being with a big capital L and queer meaning outside of a norm,” says Mael. “I write about how we come together as a community and family can be a community and how do we do this. For example, the non-binary identity law that passed in Quebec which makes it legal to identify as a gender of X on different forms. There are new pronouns. I think there’s a part of me that wants to participate in the inter-generational conversation that’s going on around this. I want to normalize trans and queer identity and its vocabulary on stage.”
“The Adoption and HeartBeast are in the same lane. They address how acceptance can happen within the family and around trans-identity. But I also want queer youths to see and know that there is a very joyful life ahead of them too. I want to put joy on stage for that reason. The theme of radical kindness is very important to me and is very much in the play.”
Mael also notes that in the performance world, the structural barriers that delay integration are changing too. Being a late bloomer or being trans don’t necessary stop one from having a place in the industry and being recognized as an emerging artist. “They’re opening up in so many places now. Yes, there are still systemic problems to be addressed. But there’s also a different trajectory.”