Steven Canals Spills It: The ‘Pose’ Co-Creator Talks Ballroom’s Exploitation and Previews Season 2
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I will never listen to Kate Bush’s famous track “Running Up That Hill” in quite the same way again. As the assigned song to the unassigned relationship between Evan Peters’ Stan Bowes and Indya Moore’s Angel Evangelista, the song inscribed extra meaning to the complex relationship between the two. Theirs is one of the most interesting arcs on FX’s new summer series Pose, co-created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals. The series just wrapped its first season and has been officially renewed for a second.
When Pose was first announced as a revolutionary new show from this dynamic team, there were high expectations. After all, Murphy and Falchuk brought us über-gay series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and the American Horror Story franchise. But how would a show based on the ballroom scene of the mid-to-late ’80s fit in with its true crime and thriller TV siblings?
The short answer is: beautifully.
A large part of that beauty is attributed to the glorious trans community finally receiving its due with some deliciously wonderful roles in Pose. While stomping the runway and turning fierce looks are a large part of the New York City ball scene recalled on-camera, there’s much more to Pose than vogue battles and throwing shade. The series breaks boundaries with the largest trans cast ever assembled and takes on issue like transitioning, the HIV epidemic of the time and sex work — all head-on in the most raw and real ways.
Hornet got the chance to chat with Pose co-creator, co-executive producer and writer Steven Canals about seeing the show finally come to fruition. We discussed the wide-ranging pop culture impact of the ballroom scene, the importance of showcasing the trans community in a real and honest way and, most exciting of all, what’s in store for Pose Season 2.
Pose absolutely took over the pop culture landscape this summer, and the LGBTQ community owes you a hue debt of gratitude for what you helped bring to our screens this summer. How does it feel to have helped bring the ballroom to televisions everywhere?
It’s an honor, and it’s a privilege. I am just so humbled. I grew up in the Bronx, in the projects in a working class family. I don’t think I could even tell you what my dream was for myself at that point. What I can tell you is that I never thought it would be the life I am living now. When I look back and reflect on life from there to where I am now, I am so grateful and appreciative to have the privilege to be able to tell stories and have collaborators like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, and to work with a network life FX.
I don’t take this opportunity lightly. I think we have an opportunity to tell really important stories. To not only entertain our audiences but to educate our audience. That has been my own personal ideology as well as a writer — I always hope to do both things. To have that opportunity, I am just so grateful.
You’ve brought a culture and scene to life that so many of us needed to see. What made you want to bring the stories of the house and ball scene to the masses today?
I think at its core Pose was constructed as a love letter to the ballroom community. When I first encountered the community I was in my early 20s in college. I was studying film, and I still had yet to come out myself. I was so moved by this incredible community that in the face of violence, disease and poverty still managed to stand in their truths and be their own authentic selves, while still creating community and a safety net for themselves.
If they could stand in their own truth, then I have absolutely no excuse for not being authentic. I took strength from their strength. They taught me resilience, they taught me how to love myself and how to be comfortable with my identity as a queer person of color. Pose was constructed as a way to say thank you — thank you for inspiring me — and hopefully I will do the same for others.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an area of “entertainment” that hasn’t been affected by or borrowed from ballroom culture, wouldn’t you say?
Through music, fashion and dance without a doubt, for decades, popular culture has — they would probably say “borrowed,” I would say stolen — from the ballroom community. Stolen from the community with zero acknowledgment or recognition. I think this show really, truly serves as a way to not only highlight the contributions of this community but to also say to the folks out there that we really owe this community a huge thanks.
You’re working with Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, who are legendary storytellers, particularly stories of the LGBTQ community. Your experiences in the industry, though, are starkly different. What’s it like bringing your perspective to the table alongside theirs?
I think with any writers room you want diversity of experience. I think it’s going to make the narrative just that much richer. I love that our writers room is small, but we have such a wonderful cross-section of lives.
I mean, beyond Brad — who we always say is our token ‘straight white guy’ — we have Ryan [Murphy] who is just a pioneer and a wonderful disrupter. You have me, who is coming with my own experience of growing up in New York City. Then we have Janet Mock, who is this incredible black trans New York Times bestselling author, actress and activist; and we have Our Lady J, who is one of the first trans writers and producers of scripted television after also working on Transparent. I think we all are coming in with our own very specific experiences.
What is lovely is that anyone who asks what kind of conversations we are having in that writers room, I always tell them, “Just watch the show.” Anything that we have discussed in our room is on the screen. What is said in the writers room stays in the writers room; it’s a sacred space. Each of us, though, have come and brought our full selves. We have opened up and talked about very private, personal and important experiences in our own lives, and we’ve used that as the fuel for these stories. It’s been a wonderfully collaborative experience and has been super positive. I am overjoyed.
There are people of the younger generation to whom ballroom culture is still very new. What do you want them to be able to pull from the show?
I want them to see that the balls are about community. They’re a safety net for young queer and trans people — primarily people of color — to support one another, to provide moral and social support and occasionally even shelter for young people who have been rejected, not just by their families but by society.
Ballroom culture is important. I hope the younger generation can see past the glitz and glamour of what happens on the ballroom floor. There are categories during the balls that are rooted in fashion and music and dance, but it’s so much more than that. It’s so heartbreaking — you have these young people here that are competing, and essentially what they are doing is representing a person or a culture that has rejected them.
Pose seems to be one of the first times we’re seeing behind the glamour many associate with the ball scene. Instead we’re seeing the raw truth.
Absolutely. We have that moment with Blanca and Damon where she tells him, “You’ll never be walking the red carpet at the Oscars.” I think about that in relation to our task. We have this incredible opportunity for these actors to showcase their talents, and I think about our actors and what the reaction has been.
Whether it’s Pose or another show down the line, these are lives that were looked at as “less than.” Through this show we’re highlighting their tenacity and the beauty and the breadth of the trans experience, and how incredible it was to see them on the pink carpet at our premiere. To think about the juxtaposition of the ballroom creating the fantasy and us actually living it.
In some ways the response to Pose has been similar to the response that RuPaul’s Drag Race got when it first premiered. Many people had simply never seen anything like it. During the construction of Pose, was it surreal to see a show like Drag Race become so popular while also borrowing heavily from the ballroom scene and culture?
No, I was actually excited by it. I think there’s a difference between what RuPaul is doing versus what people do when they “borrow” from the community; RuPaul is actually highlighting the ballroom community. If you go back and watch seasons of Drag Race, they talk about Paris Is Burning, the balls and house culture. I think in that sense they are paying homage to the community. They are also acknowledging where it comes from.
Whether or not the discerning viewer is paying attention is a whole different conversation. I think it also goes well beyond Drag Race. You can watch videos from Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and see how the influence of the ballroom completely permeates popular culture.
How important was it to be as authentic as possible when telling the stories of Pose?
We had an opportunity with Pose to tell the story and to actually bring ballroom culture in with us to tell the story. We have multiple consultants from the ballroom community, both while we shot ballroom scenes and in the writers room. When you watch the show, most of our background actors are coming from the ballroom scene.
If you watch those ballroom scenes, our judges panel is made of icons of the ballroom community. A couple of them even were in Paris Is Burning — Freddie Pendavis, Hector Xtravaganza and Jose Xtravaganza. We had an opportunity to have them help us tell this story, and in addition to that make a little money while doing it, and I think that’s great.
The show has been renewed for Season 2. As you continue to serve up episodes, what stories do you want to tell more of?
Pose is rooted in what is actually happening in New York City in the ’80s. One of the things I’m excited about discussing when we get back into the writers room is the activism that was happening in the ’80s at that time. We are at a point now where ACT UP and the work of Larry Kramer was becoming prominent. I would really love to dig a little more into that piece — how that activism took shape, what it looked like within the ballroom community. That’s a story I would love to tell.
With Pose you’ve helped bring a sense of dignity and pride to a community finally receiving its due. What gives you a personal sense of pride?
One of the things giving me pride is that when Pose debuted, it was Pride Month. I view Pose as the perfect mix of education and entertainment. I am so hopeful that through the show, our audience will recognize the beauty and the breadth of the trans experience. I hope they will also walk away seeing that we are all much more alike than different — that we all want the same things. We want to be accepted, we want to be loved and we want to be affirmed for who we are.
An extension of that is seeing all the people on social media who are living their authentic lives. I love seeing my queer, my trans and my gender-nonbinary as well as my allies who are so excited for this journey, celebrating the beauty of the LGBTQ community.
That does not just give me pride, it gives me hope moving forward — that more of us who are out and open and taking about our experiences will only help inspire more young people, and older people, too, to live authentically and truthfully.