Babylon, P.Q.: Cool for cats

Cool for cats

A portrait of Sherwin, by Sherwin

"Are you gonna show your balls? If you show your balls, I’ll show mine!" – two "straight" boys, stripped down to their skivvies, overheard in the lobby of Mainline Theatre last week during the intermission of Strip Spelling Bee.

The ever-more-popular Strip Spelling Bee (spell a word, get it wrong, remove an item of clothing… repeat) is the exhibitionist wet dream of whimsical impresario Sherwin Tjia. It’s but one of many outlandish, improbable and wholly enjoyable entertainment events – events that are as much large-scale performance art as they are interactive party – that Tjia has staged in recent years, such as perennial pleasers Crowd Karaoke and personal fave Slow Dance Night.

"I’ve done a whole litany of even weirder events," says Tjia. "I did a thing a few months ago called the Idea Adoption Agency… Everybody has an idea for something, whether it’s a band name or a recipe or an idea for a TV show, that they’ve never had the time or ability to bring about."

I’m still waiting to get my glam band, The Stanley Cup Riots, off the ground.

"Oooh, that’s actually a great name! So yeah, you should’ve come to the Idea Adoption Agency. Somebody would have adopted it and promised that within two years they’d do something with it. I have adoption papers and everything written up, and if at the end of the two years there was no verifiable progress made on it, then the idea reverts back to you."

I don’t suspect that many of Tjia’s own ideas have felt compelled to find foster families – he tends very much to nurture them to maturity and put them into action. "I like to play, essentially," he explains. "When I was growing up I remember always wanting to mess with things. So many events are, like, you go, you drink, you sit, you watch and you go home. That is overwhelmingly what events are in this city. So I’m interested in playful, participatory events."

But Tjia takes it an extra step. It’s not just about breaking down the proverbial spectator/performer barrier – he also encourages audience members to interact with each other. It’s as though the audience becomes the performance.

"Yes, absolutely," he concurs. "It’s meant to be kind of like a sandbox, where I provide a sandbox with very particular props which encourage a very particular interaction, but within that there’s a lot of room for personal improv."

The only problem with sandboxes is that there’s always some cat that’ll come along and take a crap in it.

"It’s true! There’s always someone who’ll come out to one of my events and shit all over it. For example, it might be a heckler. Say someone is being brave at Strip Spelling Bee, and someone starts booing. That’s not… It’s tough, because when you invite audience participation, you invite all kinds of audience participation. And that’s interesting too, ultimately. But I have a very firm focus, which is to keep the event safe and comfortable."

Safety in all its social, emotional and personal permutations has become one of the more visible, and strictly non-negotiable, hallmarks of all of Tjia’s events.

"Any time you ask people to do stuff – other than sit and drink and watch – you’re asking them to take a risk, and so you absolutely have to have rules to make them feel comfortable enough to take that risk. And if you have no rules, then no one will come, because it becomes scary."

Among the myriad other events that Tjia has co-ordinated – as stated, the boy’s not short on ideas – was a Love Letter Reading Night, wherein people could read love letters that they’ve written or received. "It was kind of like an open mic night, and it was really well attended. People read some startlingly beautiful things, and some startlingly creepy things…"

Right up my alley. My first girlfriend was a 16-year-old Goth chick, and she burned out the dots on every "i" of every cheerfully suicidal love letter she wrote me with a lit incense stick.

"Whoa!" he starts laughing. "That’s fantastic! Did you keep all those letters?" Yep. "Oh my God, that’s awesome – that’s so dark!"

Tjia’s also organized Advice Night (people submit questions which he then reads to the audience which in turn brainstorms the answers), a less-successful Queer Speed Spooning evening (only one person signed up) and The Bawling League (i.e., weepy people got together to show or tell each other tear-jerky things that also made everyone else cry, like, for example, "I grew up in London, Ontario" or something like that).

"I played a YouTube video of this cat trying to wake up its dead friend, another cat, and it’s just a heartbreaking video."

You have, from my perspective anyway, a bit of an unnatural relationship with cats, Sherwin. Just sayin’… "I love them so much!" he says, his voice evaporating like a summer snowflake.

Upcoming events include Crowd Karaoke (March 24 at Le Cagibi, 5490 St-Laurent), Slow Dance Night (March 26 at Mainline Theatre, 3997 St-Laurent) and a Queer Prom (April 9 at Sala Rossa, 4848 St-Laurent), that’s "not just for queers, but for anybody who just wants a prom." There will be a live cover band, Ron’s Fantasy, and the crowning of a prom "Kink" and a prom "Queer," fake fights between jocks and nerds, "and the sounds of someone sobbing all night in the girl’s bathroom."

For info on all Tjia’s events, go to

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