Arts & CultureCampus & City

Edmonton writer Darrin Hagen is the new Lee Playwright in Residence

While in residence in the University of Alberta department of drama, Hagen plans to work on a play about the prohibition-era Pansy Craze.

A playwright, drag performer, Queer historian, and more, Darrin Hagen has spent his career writing about the Queer experience in Alberta. With over 40 plays to his name, Hagen will now work on his next project as the Lee Playwright in Residence in the University of Alberta department of drama.

Primarily, Hagen is working on a play about the Pansy Craze. During prohibition in the United States (US), which lasted from 1920-33, there were few places to find alcohol. Queer bars became one of the only places to sell alcohol. As a result, Queer and drag entertainment suddenly became “top of the list” for people from all walks of life.

“It meant that Queer entertainment rose to the height of popularity 100 years ago,” Hagen said. “When prohibition ended, they actually completely squashed and discouraged all Queer entertainment.”

When Hagen began working on the play, drag was not yet a subject on the minds of legislators. Now, particularly in the US, several legislators have proposed anti-drag laws. These laws intend to restrict or outright ban performances.

“It was like ‘Oh, imagine 100 years ago when drag was illegal.’ Well, since I started writing the play, guess what happened all over North America.”

Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is tracking 25 anti-drag laws. Five of these bills are advancing. In September 2023, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) declared a national state of emergency for 2SLGBTQIA+ Americans. Anti-2SLGBTQIA+ bills, including anti-drag bills, were the reason.

“It’s shocking to me and worrying, but also strengthens my resolve as to why this play is not only relevant, but necessary at this time. We’re living through this again, and we’ve already been through this,” Hagen said.

“I think it’s a call to action for all Queer activists and gender-fluid performers. You need to be vigilant about the rights that we are in the middle of having challenged by our own governments.”

Hagen draws inspiration from his own experiences and Queer history

When Hagen moved to Edmonton from Rocky Mountain House, he planned on starting a career as a composer. Then, he saw his first drag performance. Hagen adopted the drag persona Gloria Hole and performed for the next 10 years. The first play Hagen ever wrote was a drag show with a play in the middle. He premiered it at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 1987.

“Everything that I write now comes from what I learned in that subculture and in that underground scene. It just changes the way you look at the world.”

Almost 10 years later, in 1996, Hagen premiered his one-person show The Edmonton Queen. He wrote the show about the AIDs epidemic in Edmonton through the eyes of the drag scene. The Edmonton Queen “changed my career completely,” Hagen said.

Living through the AIDs epidemic, Hagen said it became clear to him that he was witnessing a “huge moment in Edmonton’s Queer history.” 

“I’m one of the writers that was born of the AIDs epidemic. That’s the first time we found a reason to write, was to share those stories. Ultimately I will never lose that essence,” Hagen said.

“I spent almost a decade in the Queer underground in Edmonton in a very straight city, in a very conservative province. There’s no way that I can’t be informed by that experience for the rest of my life.”

For Hagen, art is an instrument of radical change. Part of that is ensuring everyone, especially Queer writers, know how to find their voice and the impact it can have.

“For change to really occur, artists, thinkers, and rebels have to take the reins and challenge the ideas that are out there,” Hagen said. “Helping writers find their voice and knowing that their words can be the instrument of change, as opposed to waiting for someone else to do it — that’s an empowering thing for all artists and for all people.”

Dylana Twittey

Dylana Twittey is the 2024-25 Managing Editor at The Gateway. She previously served as the 2023-24 News Editor. She is a second-year student studying history. In her free time, she enjoys watching 90s Law and Order, cooking, and rereading her favourite books for the fifth time.

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