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Artists in the GTA: Trevor Copp brings edgy theatrical fare into the heart of a bedroom community

At first, this August evening in Burlington's Optimist Park seems like a typical suburban midsummer night's dream: Two adult slo-pitch teams compete on a diamond, a passel of dog walkers stroll lawns and a few errant balls thwack softly into tennis-court nets.
But in a two-storey cinder-block building at the edge of the park, history is being made.
Inside, First Dance, one of the first—if not the first—professional contemporary plays to ever originate in Burlington, is premiering to a rapt audience. The chatty audience hushes as the house lights dim to reveal a man shaving—a ritual interrupted by the arrival of another man who carefully proceeded to dip, twirl and lift the first while shaving off the rest of his stubble. 
Moving from this intimate moment to scenes set in salsa clubs, small-town backyards, Algonquin lakes and 1980s-era World Wrestling Federation matches, this funny, poignant play is far from typical summer stock fare. Tracing the story of a young gay man trying to determine a suitable "first dance" for his upcoming wedding, the production deals with same-sex marriage, homophobia, the politics of ballroom dance and (yes) real life in the suburbs.
"I've become fascinated with the problem of art in suburbia," says Trevor Copp, the performer and co-creator of Tottering Biped Theatre (TBT), which brought First Dance to fruition. "Suburbanites allocate their sense of culture to the city. They feel like we're just an adjunct of the city, that our life is just sort of a surrogate thing, a temporary life between commutes. And I have a problem with the sense that our stories are not legitimate."
Copp aims to change that, founding what he believes is the city's first professional theatre company. Over the two years leading up to the company's first original production, Copp and TBT have committed to presenting controversial, risky and award-winning scripts. They've tackled plays on incest (Home Free), mental illness (To the Ends of the Earth), sexual abuse (Blackbird) and terrorism (My Name is Rachel Corrie), topics that affect people nationwide, but that are usually only presented theatrically in larger cities.
When he launched TBT, Copp's peers in Burlington area encouraged him to do more established and mainstream work—romantic comedies like Barefoot in the Park. But his instincts took him in another direction. When it comes to button-pushing plays, he says, "I go, 'I'm here, I care about this work and I can't be the only one.'"
Copp's passion for theatre was sparked as a teenager, when he began acting in school plays. Soon, he was involved with Burlington Student Theatre and was logging 60 trips a year on the GO Train to see avant-garde works in Toronto. In his first year at the University of Waterloo, he took a dance class, which turned him on to the power of physically driven theatre. The interest sharpened during a couple of post-grad summers at Marcel Marceau's mime school in Paris. 
"Things that seemed so revolutionary to me were so normal to them, so commonplace," says Copp, "The body as inexhaustible metaphor onstage, that becomes anything and comes from anything and goes anywhere." It's a strategy he uses in First Dance, transforming his body into a tent frame, a projection screen and more.
Street-mime busking ended up being one of many gigs Copp juggled over the years to pay the rent and finish a master's at the University of Guelph. Others included playing Batman at malls ("Kids would tell me they knew my secret identity," he quips), doing sketch improv for corporate events, teaching acting at local universities and working as a ballroom dance instructor. As three-time regional Latin-dance champ, he has travelled to competitions in 16 countries.
In his first five years after undergrad, Copp also was also a resident actor with Theatre & Company in Kitchener-Waterloo. When the company suddenly folded, he considered giving up acting altogether.
"I'm really only comfortable working with people I have a relationship with," Copp says. That perhaps partly explains why he's chosen to stay in a city of less than 170,000 people. "When [Theatre & Company] folded, I hadn't really developed relationships with other theatres. I had no reason to believe I would ever act again."
Then, in early 2008, Copp got the phone call that changed everything. The caller was Lebanon-born, Kitchener-Waterloo-based director Majdi Bou-Matar. Founder of that city's MT Space, a multiculturally focused theatre, Bou-Matar wanted to work with Copp and others to create a work about the death of Syrian-American filmmaker Mustapha Akkad. He was killed by a suicide bombing at a Jordan wedding in 2005. 
The play that resulted, The Last 15 Seconds, won rave reviews everywhere from the Middle East, where the audience rushed the stage to hug the cast, to Queen West, where Toronto Sun critic John Coulbourn observed it did "a pretty good job of putting paid to the notion that Toronto sits at the very centre of Ontario's theatrical universe."
The experience had a deep impact on Copp. "That show gave me the confidence to found a company," he says. TBT debuted in 2009, with a budget of $4,500 for the season. 
Copp has drawn on a variety of resources to grow the company. TBT's performances are at the city-owned Burlington Student Theatre, where Copp studied as a teen and where Copp's husband, Rainer Noack, runs educational programs for youth. First Dance was co-created with Jeff Fox, a friend, champion dancer and ballroom instructor from Midland, along with Lisa O'Connell, founder of Kitchener-Waterloo's Pat the Dog Playwrights' Centre—a node in the extensive KW network Copp built during his student and acting days. More recently, Copp has received support from the Ontario Arts Council, the Trillium Foundation and Millcroft Financial. 
Still, the going is far from easy. Though the City of Burlington recently raised $36 million for a new performing arts centre, which opens this fall, it still doesn't have an arts council to fund local creations, theatrical or otherwise. 
"I'm at a grassroots level of advocacy on that," says Copp, who's canvassed local councilors and penned op-eds for Halton papers on the issue. "The greatest challenge for me is education, getting people to understand that an hour-long play can take two years to make."
At the moment, Copp is waiting to hear back about TBT's charitable-status application, which would boost fundraising. Meanwhile, he's pitching First Dance to other cities, and organizing a 15 Seconds staging in Burlington for February. In the long run, Copp wants to make original, socially aware physical theatre full-time, as well as create works that deal with spirituality.
It's a tall order. But as First Dance's first Burlington audience offered a standing ovation, it was clear that TBT has created a community—both personal and professional—which appreciates Copp's provocative approach.
"It's totally out of my comfort zone," says Midland martial arts instructor Hans Mayer. "I was anxious coming here. But that's why I came, because I need to understand what [these issues are] all about. And I enjoyed it."
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