An Urge to Speak

Kent Stetson C.M., playwright

Kent Stetson worked as a lifeguard and taught swimming on Prince Edward Island to put himself through school. He appreciated one of his students, Graham, who was 14 when they first met.

Fifteen years later, in 1984, Stetson had moved to Halifax. One night, he and his partner went bowling. Across the alleys, Stetson recognized Graham. He was with his partner, a man named Bob, “A great, lovely guy.” Graham remembered Stetson taught him swimming when he was a kid. They became friends.

Graham died six months later. He was 29 years old. He died of AIDS.

“Society started getting very ugly. The way the world was treating people with AIDS, and gay men, in particular, was horrible. Especially people who were sick,” Stetson says. It was the 1980s. Stetson was losing friends; gay men were falling like flies. Some, too weak to take care for themselves, lost their jobs, apartments, families, and friends. “How could I help?” Stetson remembers thinking. He felt an urge to speak.

He wrote the most crucial scene of his first play, Warm Wind in China, in one night. It became the first Canadian play about AIDS.

It “really was about putting a human face” on the disease, he says. It also became one of the most important Canadian plays dealing with gay issues. Productions occurred across Canada, the United States and in England. Stetson was interviewed on CTV where, as part of the segment, he came out on national television.

Society started getting very ugly. The way the world was treating people with AIDS, and gay men, in particular, was horrible. Especially people who were sick.

I met Stetson in his cozy apartment on Christophe-Colomb Avenue. Inside, we could hear kids playing across the street on Sainte-Arsène primary school’s playground. I could smell lentil soup cooking. “A vegan friend is coming over for dinner, so I need to make her something good!” he says with his usual enthusiasm. The 67-years-old man leads me to his study. Portraits of long-time friends cover one forest-green wall, facing bookshelves filled with so many books I wonder how come the whole thing isn’t falling apart. He sits in a Victorian chair after dislodging the big, hairy, neighbour’s cat from it. I sit in a leather recliner, facing him.

I notice the numerous award certificates in wooden frames on the wall behind him, between a large window and the shelves to his left. To date, he has received, among others, the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Canadian Author’s Association Award for his play The Harps of God, the Queen’s Jubilee Award, and he is a member of the Order of Canada. “It’s a humbling and inspiring honour... if a bit confusing. You never know who nominated you,” he says, “so that element remains a mystery forever. But it is such a complete surprise that like all major honours one feels he must double-check the name to see the committee got the right guy! Then you hear from friends and colleagues that though it may be a surprise to you, it comes as no surprise to them.”

Before becoming a full-time writer, Stetson was a stage, television and radio director. The job required him to read a lot of bad scripts. “They took the young guy because somebody has to read it. And I told myself ‘I could do better than this,’” he says. So he started to work as a freelancer, churning out half-hour dramas for the CBC, broadcast across the country. Playwriting was for him the natural next step in his career.

They took the young guy because somebody has to read it. And I told myself ‘I could do better than this.

But the screenplay practice came out to be useful, as shown by his latest project Northern Lights / Lumières du Nord, the multimedia bilingual show projected on Parliament Hill that premiered this summer. Nathalie Gélinas, vice-president, and producer for the Montreal firm Idées au cube who got the commission for the show, says that working with Stetson gave them access to a particular kind of poetic and dramatic vision. She says that he is a demanding, passionate man, and that “he put his colour throughout the project.”

The show wasn’t his first writing collaboration. He co-wrote the crime novel Meat Cove with his older brother, Paul Stetson, a retired RCMP officer and now manager and senior investigator of the Prince Edward Island Office of the Police Commissioner. “Aside from the sibling rivalry in the early days we have had a great relationship over the years. I consider Kent to be my best friend and confidant,” Paul Stetson says. “I no longer say ‘How hard could it be for an author to write a few pages a day?’ The hardest part was the long distance collaborating, but it was a great learning experience for me.”

Kent Stetson is indeed far away from his native Prince Edward Island. When I ask him why he chose to move to Montreal, he exclaims jokingly “Well, for the sex!” He says, laughing, that he finds Toronto to be boring, and that Halifax was too small for his ambitions, and appetites. He has strong Scottish roots and Montreal’s culture appeals to him. “I love Montreal,” he says, “and also, there is a history in my family that when they run away, they run to Montreal.” His aunt, and his mother did.

He says his greatest challenge in life has been to remain hopeful and optimistic “but not in an idiotic way.” He lost his teaching jobs at McGill and Concordia University to budget cuts, and his two book publishers collapsed. But he set up a bookstore on his website with some success. “I am not going to make a fortune out of it…” he says, “or I might! What do I know?”

Kent Stetson's work is available on his website: