Darrin Hagen leveraged his thorny experience of growing up gay in Rocky Mountain House into a successful theatre career.
The activist actor, director, and musician, has lived to see society come around to respecting gay rights — and it feels a little like vindication, because “even back then I knew I was right …”
His more difficult childhood memories have been softened by the realization that the 1970s weren’t a tolerant time for homosexuals, whether they were raised in Rocky or Toronto.
“Now I have mostly nostalgic memories instead of hard memories … I think, whatever I went through, boy, we also sure had a lot of fun!”
Hagen was ahead of his time, tackling gay issues on stage in the 1980s and ’90s before Will &Grace, RuPaul, and The Ellen Show.
He had joined Edmonton’s alternative theatre scene by performing in drag shortly after moving to the city in 1983. Five years later, he co-founded the Guys in Disguise theatre company with his now husband, Kevin Hendricks.
By the mid-1990s, Hagen was ready to go mainstream. He took his play The Edmonton Queen: Not a Riverboat Story to the fringe. If Alberta was the redneck place it’s assumed to be, the play would have flopped, said Hagen. Instead it won a Sterling (Edmonton theatre) Award for outstanding new work — the first of seven wins for his 20-plus plays, many of which deal with gay issues in exuberant, comic style, including BitchSlap!
Hagen became the first openly gay host of a national TV series (Who’s On Top? for the Life Channel), and received an AMPIA award for his work. He was named one of 100 Edmontonians of the Century in 2005, and was inducted into the Canadian Q Hall of Fame for contributions to the LGBTQ community.
Most recently, he was named one of Alberta’ 25 most influential artists by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
“It’s quite an exceptional honour,” said the 52-year-old. “It shows it’s not about how successful you are… Although I’m considered quite successful, let’s face it, I’m poor! I’m doing theatre in Edmonton,” he said, with a laugh.
Among Hagen’s latest works are Klondykes, co-written with Trevor Schmidt, and Witch Hunt at the Strand, about police persecution of the gay community. Hagen also performed in Flora &Fawna’s Field Trip.
The writer/star of Tornado Magnet: A Salute to Trailer Court Women (a tribute to his mom and neighbours in Rocky), credits the respect he learned for others while growing up in a small town for being able to create sympathetic characters and bring them to life on stage.