Erin Purghart is sharing Queer experiences through comedy

Erin Purghart always loved the performing arts.

They began to dance at the age of two, and in grade nine, they started doing improv. “I need more, I need more stage time,” Purghart joked in an interview with The Ubyssey.

The next year, they started to act. Though Purghart loved the stage, they didn’t consider attending acting school until their senior year of high school after their theatre teacher brought it up to them.

Purghart told their father, expecting to hear “Oh no, don’t do acting!”

“You’re conditioned to believe ... that it’s not an actual worthwhile pursuit,” they said.

But instead, their father was encouraging.

So they got to work, applying to UBC and prepping their program audition. During the first round of auditions, Purghart learned acting is what they wanted to do.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to do French. I don’t want to do general arts. I want to do acting,’” said Purghart.

Throughout Purghart’s acting career, they’ve seen the gender binary represented on the stage. The now-UBC alum is demolishing the binary while creating spaces for Queer artists through their comedy show That’s Gay!.

In the classroom

In 2017, Purghart began their BFA in acting at UBC — a four-year degree that combines acting training and theatre history in a small cohort-based program.

For a 2019 commedia dell’arte theatre mash-up of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, Purghart played Ariel. Ariel was the only Queer character Purghart ever played at UBC.

Purghart’s cohort made the “executive call to not address the character’s gender.” Ariel was originally gendered as a man but popularized as a woman, according to Purghart.

“They’ll just be non-binary, or they’ll just be a nymph. It’s really not important,” said Purghart. “That was one of the first times I was like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t actually matter whether this character is a man or a woman ... They just are.’”

Purghart said “We just kind of assume that characters are straight unless we say they’re Queer,” but while characters might not have a visibly Queer storyline, “something about seeing a Queer actor in a role, makes the role Queer. You carry your identity with you.”

Starting to stand-up

Purghart’s introduction to stand-up comedy wasn’t all positive. The first shows they went to showed “straight comics making horrible jokes that were offensive.”

This led Purghart to ask themself an important question — why are there no spaces for Queer comedians to share their experiences?

“[Queer comedians] go and see lineups and [witness] a homophobic joke and transphobic joke in one breath,” said Purghart. “[We’re] not safe to access these spaces, and so people need to stop hiring stand-up comics who make homophobic and transphobic jokes ... and make an effort to hire Queer comics.”

Purghart also said the stand-up scene can be nepotistic, leaving out marginalized communities.

“What happens is the bros hiring the bros and you see all these lineups for only these people ... aren’t being given the space or tools to start doing stand-up comedy,” they said.

It was becoming increasingly clear that traditional theatre and comedy spaces weren’t making space for them — casting directors wouldn’t see them for female or male roles because of their gender presentation. Roles reinforced gender stereotypes and left Purghart out­­­ — they were “pigeonholed” into comic relief characters.

But then they had a revelation. “I knew that space wasn’t for me. And that’s okay. You can push your way.”

“Above all, I love making people laugh. I love entertaining people.”

So Purghart decided they’d take matters into their own hands.

They founded That’s Gay!, a comedy group that showcases Queer comics. Originally a one-time show for Pride 2022, the group has evolved to put on regular shows by popular demand.

Purghart doesn’t just tell jokes or do improv at That’s Gay! shows, they also host, produce, market and organize each event.

Before each show, Purghart also sends out an email to the comics to relieve some pressure before the show. Specifically, to make sure comics know their set doesn’t have to be about their Queerness. The comics “just all happen to be gay.”

“That’s really not the most important thing about us,” said Purghart. “But it has made us … really funny.”

Unapologetically Queer

Purghart said that many Queer stories can romanticize suffering and tragedy, leaving the audience with the idea “‘Oh my god, it’s so sad to be gay.’”

“It’s not,” said Purghart. “It’s this beautiful thing.”

With That’s Gay!, Purghart wants to break this pattern and “make light of [the] shared experiences with the Queer audience members.”

“Queer people are more than just Queer,” said Purghart. “The show is called That’s Gay! comedy … but I want the comedy to hold just as much weight as the gay ... They’re Queer, but they’re also comedians and we’re really damn good at it.”

Purghart emphasized staying true to yourself, whether that’s with comedy or in traditional theatre circles. “You’ll have a much happier life and career … being unapologetically yourself,” they said.

Before they graduated from UBC, Purghart wanted to cut their hair but was conflicted. “Should I keep it long?” questioned Purghart. “Does it make me more castable?“

So they decided to talk it through with a professor.

“You won’t have a good career off of trying to be something you think they might want,” said the professor according to Purghart. “Just be yourself and the roles will come.”

Purghart cut their hair.