Power to the female creators

I’ve been thinking this past week about the powerful shifts that occur in popular culture when the means of artistic production are given to those previously denied them, or those who typically don’t get unfettered access to them. Of course I’ve been inspired by Beyoncé’s album drop last Saturday, and the gorgeous film that makes Lemonade what it is; everyone on the planet with a social media account should now know (I hope) that there’s this talented, political, stunning, forceful black woman from the American South who is changing the conversation around feminism and black women’s roles in it, about black participation in contemporary pop culture, about which #blacklivesmatter, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides. (Here and here you’ll find just two of the many excellent commentaries I’ve read about Lemonade in the past few days; the second one features my friend and colleague Naila Keleta-Mae, who teaches a fantastic course on Beyoncé at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.)

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Beyoncé is an exceptional talent with a lot of money and incredible mojo, but she also proves a basic rule. Give a disenfranchised person (like an ordinary black American girl) without a voice some tools, some money, and some amplification, and incredible things emerge. That’s because disenfranchised people are very rarely disenfranchised as a result of some kind of internal lack – of talent or interest or ability or chutzpah. They are disenfranchised because other, often far less talented and motivated people, are well served by keeping them quiet.

I was thinking about this stuff even before Lemonade was released, because last week in my university’s official weekly, Western News, I and several of my colleagues shared the spotlight to talk about the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Not one keen to celebrated the already celebrated-to-death, however much I love Mr Stratford, I decided to use my contribution to the Shaks400 special issue to talk about the risks of continuing blindly to revere a playmaker whose work often features incredible violence against women (because, you know, it was, like, 1600 or something), and what it would mean to enable more women directors to grab hold of the reigns of those plays and investigate that violence as it is transported into our contemporary contexts.

Because when women tell stories that men have historically been privileged to tell, just as when black women tell stories white women and black men have historically been privileged to tell, new ideas emerge, and new worlds come into being. And surely we all want to live in a bigger, more beautiful world, right?

With kind permission of general editor Jason Winders, I’m reproducing my Western News piece below, along with the cheeky and joyful picture of me that ran alongside it. And if you’ve not got hold of Lemonade yet, it’s just $17.99 on iTunes, £13.99 in the UK. Download and be moved.

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Women need freedom to shape narratives for a new century

It’s no surprise, then, that the plays Shakespeare wrote tend to include a lot of complex men, and far fewer women overall (as well as far fewer complex female roles). This reflects the material reality of his context: Shakespeare’s England was structurally patriarchal, and for a good portion of his life was led by a female ruler, Elizabeth I, who took no husband and enacted the role of the ‘Virgin Queen’ in part to shore up her authority as a woman in a man’s job. This does not mean, of course, that Shakespeare’s canon does not include compelling women and complicated issues of sex and gender, but it does mean that his context was very different from ours, and that the historical differences between his world and ours need to be respected, and reflected carefully upon, when we approach the plays today.

I’ve spent a lot of my career reflecting on this issue. What does it mean when we, in the early 21stcentury, call Shakespeare “our contemporary”? How do we reconcile the general lack of female characters in the plays, and the stereotypical nature of a lot of those characters, with modern cultural contexts in which women are presumed to be equal citizens and subjects of power? (I say “presumed to be” because, of course, there’s a difference between the theory of women’s equality, in which most of us believe and invest, and the reality of women’s lives in what is still a pretty unequal world.)

Most urgent of all, for me, is this question: what do we do about those plays that revolve around plots driven by violence against women and girls – plays like Othello, in which Desdemona is murdered by her husband after he is duped by Iago into believing his wife unfaithful, or Titus Andronicus, in which the daughter of the titular character is brutally raped and maimed in the second act, then left traumatized for the remainder of the play?

Contemporary theatre practitioners take a host of different approaches to this fundamental problem with the plays and our love for them. The first is to take seriously the fact of Shakespeare’s historical and cultural difference from us. This often involves setting the plays in Shakespeare’s time, or in a time equally historically distant, and then paying precise attention to the kinds of details that demonstrate to an audience the differences that separate us from the plays and their worlds. This logic partly lies behind the recent interest in ‘original practices,’ a style of mounting Shakespeare that attempts to recreate the conditions under which Shakespeare’s actors lived and worked. (Original practices is not without its own challenges, however; it runs into the fundamental problem that there were no women on stage in Shakespeare’s day, nor any actors of colour. Excluding women and non-white performers from the stage under any circumstances today is, of course, both ethically wrong and politically inappropriate, making ‘authentic’ original practice work very hard to achieve.)

Other directors and producers imagine historical settings for the plays, but find ways to build modern understandings of their most difficult elements, like violence against women, into the representations they fashion. This was one of the most remarkable features of British director Deborah Warner’s 1988 production of Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner’s Lavinia (the character who is raped) was played by Sonia Ritter as a woman suffering visibly from post-traumatic stress disorder, something that threw into comic but also critical relief the ways in which she is ignored or misunderstood by her male relatives throughout the third act.

Canadian director Peter Hinton took a parallel approach with his 2008 production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival, setting that play in the late Elizabethan period (it was written in the early 1590s) but creating a fresh, feminist framework for it that allowed audiences to see for themselves how ‘shrew-taming’ devices like the ‘ducking stool’ worked to traumatize and silence outspoken women in Shakespeare’s time.

To my mind, however, the most effective way to approach the challenges posed by Shakespeare’s gender imbalance is simply this: to give more of the plays to women to direct, especially at the most prominent Shakespeare venues around the world.

Throughout the 20th century women have had far too few opportunities to direct Shakespeare’s major plays, but thankfully this trend is changing:

  • Last year, Emma Rice, an experimental physical theatre artist and former artistic director of the Kneehigh theatre company, was named the new head of Shakespeare’s Globe, the most visibly important venue for his works in the Anglophone world and a theatre with a very strong educational mandate as well as a populist sensibility;
  • Flipping Shakespeare’s gender imbalance on its head, Phyllida Lloyd recently directed two all-female productions (of Julius Caesar in 2012 and Henry IV in 2014) at the Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End. Both were runaway hits, made possible in no small part by the support of another prominent woman in the theatre business, Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke;
  • In summer 2014 Erica Whyman, the Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), staged a season of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (artists like Thomas Middleton, John Webster and Thomas Dekker) that all featured powerful female mains. Titled Roaring Girls, the season was held in the RSC’s smaller Swan theatre venue, but nevertheless made a huge impact on reviewers and audiences alike; and
  • Closer to home, Jillian Keiley, who heads the National Arts Centre’s English company (and who visited London, Ont., in March as part of our Public Humanities initiative), is directing a Newfoundland-inspired As You Like It on the Stratford Festival’s main stage this summer.

Shakespeare’s female roles can of course be incredibly empowering for female actors even in the most conventional productions: Portia shapes the climactic scene of The Merchant of Venice; Lady Macbeth is the original Claire Underwood; even Lavinia gets to take control of her own body and narrative in the fourth act of Titus Andronicus when she uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to explain what happened to her, and a stick held between her forearms to spell out the names of her attackers.

But just as we learned a couple of weeks ago at the end of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, it’s often not enough for women to be given ‘a voice’ on a public stage. For true gender equality to obtain, women need to be given equal access to the means of theatrical production, and the freedom properly to help shape Shakespeare’s narratives for our new century.

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On Reckoning (an activist classroom performance review)

When new acquaintances find out I teach at a university, the first thing they want to know is what, exactly, I teach. Usually, I say “theatre”. Sometimes they ask for details, and then I explain that our program is academic, not conservatory, and that technically I teach “theatre studies”, not acting. But usually we don’t get that far. “Theatre” seems enough for most people – it’s cool, seems fun, and is largely self-explanatory.

But teaching theatre, for me, isn’t just about introducing students to plays and performance – the obvious stuff. When I explain to my classes at the start of the semester what it is we’re going to be doing together, I often tell them that we’re going to be learning how to be critical, self-aware, thoughtful audience members. This is not just a useful skill for when you find yourself at a live performance; it’s an essential life skill. Being a thoughtful spectator allows you to read the world with care, parse competing sets of information astutely, and examine the things you’re seeing and hearing from multiple angles, in their critical context. In other words: it allows you to bear witness, with care, to our world and the many different peoples in it.

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend a piece of theatre that demanded I bear witness to a very specific, urgent set of experiences: those of indigenous survivors of Canada’s residential school system, their families, and others who have been touched by the official process of truth and reconciliation that took place between 2008 and 2015. (For those who don’t know anything about Canada’s TRC, the archive of its findings is available here. If this seems a bit overwhelming, start here. If you know nothing at all about Canada’s residential school system, read this first.)

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PJ Prudat as the daughter

The work I attended is called Reckoning, by playwright and actor (and, I’m proud to say, my friend) Tara Beagan and designer Andy Moro, in conjunction with their company Article 11. It’s at the Theatre Centre in Toronto (an amazing arts hub and incubator) until Sunday 24 April.

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Andy Moro; Tara Beagan

Reckoning is composed of three short plays: a dance-movement piece with recorded sound, (Witness) in which John Ng performs the role of a TRC commissioner, coming steadily more undone as he encounters the brutal testimony he is meant to synthesise; a realistic scene (Daughter) in which PJ Prudat plays the child of a former teacher accused of rape who seduces her father’s accuser (played by Glen Gould); and a truly hilarious, incredibly poignant monologue (Survivor) by Jonathan Fisher, who plays a survivor recording a note for his family as he prepares to commit suicide on the steps of parliament in an act of protest against the insufficiencies of the reconciliation process.

These are the bare bones. This show’s power, however, resides in the ways it asks us, over and over, to look again – to look deeply into and engage thoughtfully with seemingly simple, spare scenes. Reckoning is elegant, gorgeous to watch, expertly composed. But it is not at all beautiful – and in this contrast its truth lies.

In the first scene, Ng’s official witness enters his office tentatively, slowly; soon, he begins to contort as the language of the commission’s official documents (transmitted through the space’s sound system) hits him literally in his gut, snakes across his body. He removes pages and pages of testimony from his briefcase only to feel, too, their violence; he grabs his task lamp and turns it into a gruesome, angry eye, staring hard at words that could scarcely be more viscerally draining. The virtuosity of his movements contrast sharply with the contortions he must undergo, dancing with the angry, bright light as he struggles to get out of the room. His body bears literal witness to the demands of bearing witness to the material we are all encountering together. He trains us in the act of witness as we prepare to continue Reckoning‘s journey.

Prudat and Gould have an even greater challenge: to “act natural” as they embody two people whose experiences of the residential school system are both historical, distant, and yet profoundly present and immediate. Prudat’s character was born at a residential school, her mother a student and her father a teacher; Gould’s is a survivor preparing to give testimony to the TRC. When the play opens they have just had sex; they then begin drinking and talking. Prudat’s daughter has been torn apart by the accusations against her father, who has since died; she has invited Gould’s character home in order to see him in the flesh, but also, it appears, to see her father again, and to demand he/they (both?) witness her suicide in the face of his accusations, her loss.

The naturalistic set-up of this scene makes it gut-wrenching: as always with Beagan’s plays, naturalism is here a vehicle for profound intimacy onstage that goes painfully awry, and that requires audiences to squirm through the anxiety and discomfort witnessing others’ bodily intimacy can impose. Here, I found myself fascinated by Prudat’s gorgeous body, dressed only in a slip, but pulled sideways by the sheer complexity of her lived experience as a child of the residential school system, a woman trapped by her love for her father despite the wreckage of her origins, able to see both sides of the commission’s work (supporting survivors, suing for justice for both survivors and accused) and yet unable to see her way clear of the implications of the commission for her family, her future. Even as they ask us to revel in Prudat’s beauty and Gould’s charm, Beagan and Moro here require us to look beyond them, into the unexpected difficulty of this daughter’s relationships, coloured as they all are by her colonial present, and to recognize the “reconciliation” process as uneven, inadequate, ugly, deeply damaging.

Daughter ends with a moment of violence aborted, and a glass of wine flung sideways. When the lights come up Jonathan Fisher appears to mop the deck, makes light of the work, and everyone (at last) can laugh, unburden a bit. At the performance I attended Prudat caught a chair as it nearly fell from the platform stage; this became our opportunity to applaud, since applause had felt quite wrong at the end of her and Gould’s performance. I found this accident instructive, powerful: does bearing witness at the theatre mean applause, bravos, or boos? Not really. Those are acknowledgements of work, declarations of approval (or not). Witnessing human experience, human bodies in pain, at the theatre requires something very different. When we clap, we thank the actors for their labour, and then put it to one side; when we do not clap, as in instances like this, it is (I hope) because we are doing our own work, prompted by the work of the actors and production team to labour ourselves in their stead.

Fisher’s closing monologue is, like Ng’s piece, an exercise in virtuosity; so damn deadpan-funny I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying it – after all, he’s recording a suicide note! OR, was I? Fisher’s survivor obviously wanted the people for whom he was recording his message (Charlie, his nephew, and Trina, his sister) to feel both his joy and his sadness, to hear his funny as well as his hurt. How do we live with two contradictory emotions at once? Can the pleasure we take in a performance be more than “culinary” (as Bertolt Brecht might say)? Can it enable our political engagement? These are hard, nuanced questions – the kinds of questions essential to developing a practice of critical spectatorship.

Near the end of his recording Fisher’s character makes us all get up: he DEMANDS, with acute vocal force, that we stand to sing, with him, Canada’s national anthem. For the purposes of his note this is a deeply ironic gesture: our anthem is laden with assumptions about who owns Canada, who owes Canada allegiance, and who Canadians are (sons, not daughters, according to the lyrics – sorry, ladies! Fisher deadpans again). This is the one moment in Reckoning when I was called upon to use my physical body to meet the performance; it’s easy for spectators sitting in the dark to forget we have bodies, unless the seats are especially uncomfortable, or unless the bathroom beckons. Strangely, however, in this case none of us seemed reluctant to get up. Fisher’s script required him to boom out his demand that we stand, but it wasn’t really necessary. We were all already on our feet.

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John Ng as the witness

Something about this work, this process through which it had taken us, had made us all well aware of, and also prepared for, the need to rise and meet Fisher’s voice and eyes. (And our voices he insisted upon: none of this lip-sync pretending, he scolded.) Meeting survivors’ eyes with our own eyes, open wide and searching for more than we think we already see, know. Meeting survivors’ voices with our voices, ready to speak of the atrocities, the cultural genocide, on which this country is founded, and ready to speak toward a better shared future.

That’s not reconciliation, but it’s the first step towards a reckoning.

Respect,

Kim

NOTE: I’d like to thank Tara and Andy for extending me a complimentary ticket for this show. Work like Reckoning is made on a shoestring, and needs our support. Go see it!

2015-16 in review, pt 1: on mental wellness

It’s mid-April, and that means I’m a week and a handful out of the classroom. I’m feeling ok, but not exactly great (let alone euphoric): it’s been one hell of a year. And though prep and term marking are now over, dealing with struggling students and coping with them writing their finals is not.

Also not over: the edited collection of essays I’m due to deliver in 15 days; the conference I’m co-chairing that takes place end of May; and the admin related to the degree program I help to run, which is ramping up again in time for student course selection in June.

In other words: I’m still pretty unbearably busy.

And I’m emotionally as drained as can be.

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That’s why this year’s reflections on the year just past – for last year’s reflections, start here – need to begin with a post on mind-body wellness. Quite apart from the fact that I have honestly had a year from hell, and thus all reflection on it is coloured by struggle, this is also the time of year when many of us both rejoice in the end of classes and face one of the toughest mental tests of the term: the exam period.

During the exam period students come face to face with what they have, and have not, done to accomplish their goals during the academic year. They freak out; they stay up all night studying (or not); they beg for mercy in emails and in office hours. Simultaneously, faculty members struggle to cope with the onslaught of marking and end-of-year admin (aka meetings galore), as well as the sinking feeling that our lives are no longer structured by (and our lack of research output no longer excused by!) the courses that we teach, which by default shape our working lives from September through March. Plus, of course, students’ stress leaks out all over us, as we do our best to support them through their end-of-year challenges both administrative and emotional.

Put it all together, and you have a crucible of volatile emotions flying across campus – and a hell of a lot of work to do just managing them.

This exam period was preceded, for me, by a flurry of interest in the matter of mental health on campus. This may have been a coincidence, but somehow I doubt it. First, I received a number of emails from University Affairs, a Canadian academic-industry magazine, showcasing a mix of articles on the topic (and including compelling pieces from students on how teachers can help, here; and from the perspective of graduate students, from the always-perceptive Melonie Fullick here). Then, one of my students organised a long table, as part of her final project for my performance studies class, focused on student mental health and what our university can do better to support struggling students. Finally, one of my colleagues circulated information about a terrific new book on wellness for university faculty, The Slow Professor (which I immediately ordered up from the publisher. For your own copy, click here).

We’re getting worked up these days about mental health on campus for good reason: it’s a challenge that has been building since we began to conceive of universities as job-training and job-creation hubs, rather than as the sites of scattered, accidental, incredible intellectual imagination and discovery that they have long, long been. This isn’t the place to rehearse the false consciousness that tries to claim for universities the role of job-prep robot; instead, I want to point specifically to the kinds of emotional breakdown that often follow from this flawed logic – for students, but also for profs and support staff.

Our students feel, increasingly, as though their educations are meant to land them not just jobs but careers. And many of them are only 18, 19 years old! The pressure this need generates for the young people in our charge is overwhelming, and all the while many of them lack the skill sets to cope with it. The result of this pressure, plus this lack, can often be collapse of a significant magnitude: as I learned from some of the students who attended the long table organised by my student Rebecca King, plenty of them are using alcohol as a coping mechanism more than they should do, and plenty are (of course) using a mix of other drugs to numb the anxiety and fear of failure. All of them know someone struggling with mental health issues, and many of them struggle themselves.

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Sitting at the long table Rebecca organised, this information resonated with me, but not just because I care about my students and how they are faring. It resonated in large part because I saw myself in the conversation, too: as a front-line student support worker (all teachers are!), the emotional labour of supporting increasingly anxious, depressed, self- or doctor-medicated students has become one of the hardest, and most constant, parts of my job. This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it seems to me the numbers of these students moving through my office is increasing every year (certainly I have statistical evidence from my own classes that more and more students are not handing work in at all). And as the emotion-management part of my job increases, my own emotional wellbeing becomes increasingly fragile.

We make a lot of noise now, for very good reason, about student mental wellness at university, but we still do not talk nearly enough about faculty and staff mental health. Profs are the authority figures and the power-brokers on campus, and so our struggles to cope with anxiety, depression, and related issues can often go unseen. But many of us are medicated, and many of us are struggling every bit as much as our students. I know very few colleagues not taking prescription drugs just to cope. And I don’t believe that’s because high-functioning troubled folks self-select into the academy; I believe the academy does to us as good as we can get, and then some.

Student mental health is rightly near the top of our radar; after all, the young people we teach don’t have the same experience managing complicated working lives as we do, and for many the culture shock of entering the university system, with its neoliberal focus on individual responsibility and bootstrap-pulling, can be overwhelming after a childhood of helicopter parenting. But truth be told, the unwatched movie of campus life is the one that reveals the number of faculty drinking too much wine each night, needing Ativan or Zopiclone just to sleep, and crying in their offices before and after class – trying their hardest, of course, to show none of this to their students.

Universities across Canada (and far beyond) have long since taken steps to support both students and faculty (as well as non-academic staff) who struggle with mental health issues; if Rebecca’s long table provides any evidence, however, those steps are often (perceived as) inadequate. Students are promised support, but the wait for genuine counselling is long. Students need accommodation for mental health issues, but doctors’ notes are expensive, and can be harder to acquire for problems without physical symptoms. Meanwhile, faculty (like many students) often suffer in silence, whispering quietly to one another what they take, or how much they drink, or both. It’s all shameful, until we share the story, and realise we’re not alone.

Sure there are supports on campus for faculty too, and I know from personal experience who in my department I can go to if things get really bad for me. I’m fortunate to have a chair with tonnes of sympathetic HR experience who knows how to advocate for staff, and I have a handful of colleagues I count as family who are there for me. But I also know that sharing mental health issues openly, especially for women faculty who still battle gendered perceptions about being “too emotional”, can be incredibly difficult, and even genuinely risky. A lot is at stake in opening up.

By strange and perfect coincidence (OK, once again, prob not actually a coincidence), the day after I wrote this post I had dinner with close friends who work at nearby universities, and we spent a large part of our shared meal talking about our shared struggle with labour overload, work boundaries, and the mental health fallout from it all. We were brutally honest together because we could be – but we also reminded one another that such honesty can’t always obtain at work. Because even though we’ve become better and better at talking with and to students about their challenges, and increasingly students are accommodated for their mental health problems (as it should be), it’s still pretty rare for faculty to share their issues and experiences with one another, or with those (chairs and deans) who can – and should – support and accommodate us.

I have, for a while now, made a point of sharing with my students my own struggles with mental wellness: my mom’s dementia, as well as the fact that I take doctor-prescribed meds in order to remain functional. And I encourage students to visit me in office hours if they have anything related to mental wellness they want to talk about. But that, I know, is a privilege: I’m still high functioning and productive, my students respect me, and my boss both supports me and knows he can rely on me. So my risk, in talking mental health matters, is minimal. In fact, the people I’d really like to hear from, and share health and wellness stories with, are my colleagues. That conversation feels urgent, yet also unlikely.

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I’m thinking of taking a page out of Rebecca’s book and organising a faculty mental health long table in September on my campus. And I’m going to create another post about women’s particular struggles with this stuff, because my chat with my friends reminded me how much more there is to say on that score.

Meanwhile, though, I would love to hear others’ experiences and perspectives on this one: what supports on your campus exist to help faculty struggling with emotion management and mental health and wellness? Do you feel you can share your stories openly? Where and with whom?

Sending good vibes out to y’all,

Kim