Half term pulse check (part 2)

Last week I wrote about the crazy blended learning experiment that I’ve been undertaking in my performance studies class this term, along with my colleague at Brock University Natalie Alvarez. This week, I offer a post about another half-term reflection exercise – this one perhaps with less “argh!” in it.

On the (extremely blizzardy!) Thursday before reading week, my 20th Century Theatre students and I had the enormous privilege of hosting three talented female artists from the Shaw Festival, the big modern theatre shindig that takes place down the highway from us every summer. (Not the Stratford Festival – that’s another highway, in another direction!). These three women – director Vikki Anderson, actor Fiona Byrne, and actor Julia Course – worked together on the Shaw’s terrific 2015 production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, a play about women fighting their way, sometimes quite brutally, up the career ladder in Thatcher’s Britain. (I wrote the program note for that production, I’m proud to say; you can read it here.)

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The ensemble in Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, 2015. Fiona Byrne (in the blue) and Julia Course (in the wig) are centre.

Top Girls is very dear to my heart; it’s probably my favourite feminist play of all time, and it’s definitely in my British drama top-10. (And yes, that means it bumps a good load of Shakespeare. Though not Titus Andronicus.) What I love best about Top Girls is that its feminist politics are in no way straightforward; in fact, far from being sisters in solidarity, most of the characters in the play are total bitches to one another. As another talented Canadian director, Alisa Palmer, notes in the documentary chronicling her celebrated production of the play for Soulpepper Theatre in 2007 (revived in 2008), even calling this play feminist is in no way a given. Its main character, Marlene, is a Thatcher supporter and, like her hero, a total patriarch both at the office and at home with her family.

(Watch the trailer for the documentary, called Girls on Top, below. It’s a superb, uplifting piece of filmmaking.)

Now, I do not support the line of argument that says women need to be nice to each other in feminist plays. In fact, I think it’s enormously instructive to write angry female characters being jerks to each other, because that’s one way we get to disrupt the tired, inaccurate argument that feminism is just another word for male-bashing. (Feminism pursues structural equality – political, social, economic… you name the structure – for all human beings according to gender identity and sexual orientation; part of that pursuit means understanding that “patriarchy” is not another word for “guys”, but is in fact a system of oppression that deploys both men and women as its instruments.) But I can get behind Palmer 100% when she explains that, for her, the most feminist thing about Top Girls was the staging of the play itself – and the welcome opportunity it afforded for a group of women artists to work closely together for an extended period of time, building a fictional community (however imperfect) and developing networks of love and support with one another in the process.

Imagine my delight, then, when Vikki, Fiona, and Julia reported the same experience making Top Girls for the Shaw, and explained at some length to me and my students what it meant to them to work in one another’s company through the 2015 season. Vikki noted how incredibly rare it is to work with an all-female team on any play anywhere, let alone on a play with a substantial budget at a major theatre festival. (Much more typical, she said, are situations where she is the only woman in the rehearsal room.)

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Vikki Anderson

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Fiona Byrne

She also made the point that the women of the cast and creative team behaved differently when no men were present to watch or judge; as she said, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the men in a rehearsal room are good, generous people or not, because human nature dictates that men perform for women, and women for men, in most social situations – and that women in particular carry the stakes of performing “well” in those situations close to the bone. Working on a show with all women thus meant a degree of social and emotional freedom for the actors on this project, and a welcome opportunity to experiment and play without worrying overly much about how things looked the first time around. Again, this is not to celebrate female “community” uncritically, paying no attention to the problems that arise within such communities (as in any others); it is, however, to mark both the rarity of getting to work on a team laden with talented women in an industry that still tips the scales heavily toward men, and the pleasures that come from knowing your coworkers have gone through similar kinds of embodied experiences as you have – and that they have your back.

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Julia Course

Having one another’s back is particularly important for those who work in the theatre industry, where actors put their bodies on the line constantly and must become vulnerable again and again in order to do their jobs well. Julia shared a remarkable experience on this score when she described what it was like for her to go from a heavily made-up role, that of the semi-fictional character Lady Nijo (a 13th century Japanese concubine and later Buddhist nun) in Top Girls‘ magic-realist first act, to the role of Angie, Marlene’s awkward and angry teenage niece (actually, daughter), early in the second act. Julia described a really tough quick change, in which she was divested of her wig and all her makeup, jumping into jeans and then appearing on the stage of the small Courthouse theatre as a gangly, uncomfortable teen wearing no makeup at all. For a female performer in a repertory company like the Shaw’s, such a situation is almost unheard of: the festival produces much early 20th century drama, and thus usually costumes its actors in the corsets and dresses more typical of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Julia talked about how exposed she felt in jeans and a simple top, her face bare, in such close quarters with the audience. To be revealed in such a way is excruciating for any actor, but it is especially so for a woman, who is judged throughout her career on her looks and is expected to conform to a relatively rigid set of rules governing physical attractiveness.

My favourite part of our chat with Vikki, Fiona and Julia arrived as class ended. Although we’d been a reduced crew as a result of the massive snowstorm, when the clock ticked over to 10:20 I realized that few students were prepared to leave. It was at this point, too, that Fiona had really energised the conversation, speaking about the challenges she faces as a working mother in an industry that doesn’t really care too much about stuff like who is looking after your kids while you rehearse (or how much it costs to pay them). Releasing the class, I invited those who wished to stay behind for an informal chat to do so; we gathered at the front of the room and Fiona, Julia, and Vikki offered some career coaching for anyone interested in pursuing acting or directing. One student shared a horrific story of discrimination based on appearance at her summer job the previous year; the group opened up as the artists made clear both that such experiences are in no way rare in the performance industry, and that it’s up to us not to tolerate them, to stand up together against them.

We finally broke up about 20 minutes after class officially ended – and then only to take Fiona and Vikki for coffee with most of the students who had lingered! (Julia had attended by Skype.) I cannot thank these talented women enough for giving so generously of their time to us, and especially for wearing their feminism so boldly and actively during our talk. Both men and women in the class were galvanised – and it’s a visit I certainly won’t soon forget.

With gratitude!

Kim

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