More theatre treats

Oh my gosh folks, I’ve been AWOL! This may be the longest I’ve ever gone between writings (haven’t checked, don’t hold me to it…). April spit up on me, that’s my only excuse.

I’m emerging now, and will have a post on active learning in the graduate seminar room for you next week, followed by my promised further thoughts on the diversity-in-practice symposium I attended in Toronto last month.

Meanwhile, I’ve just done another review for Keith at Stratford Festival Reviews, of another compelling show featuring not one single white person. (Hey diversity in practice! ROCK ON.)

It (also know as ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf’, by Ntozake Shange and directed by Djanet Sears) was truly incredible (autocorrect wanted to make that ‘edible’… maybe it was that too!!). If you’re in the greater Toronto area or plan to be within the month (hi, friends at CATR!) please check it out and grab some tix.

The link is here.

Enjoy, bon  weekend, and I’ll be back very soon.

Kim

On diversity, on Canadian stages, right now (part one)

It’s end of term and I’m swamped. I have LITERALLY no time to write ANYTHING… but then I went and promised a review of Anusree Roy’s brave new piece at Factory Theatre in Toronto to Stratfordfestivalreviews.com.

Bugger.

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Happily, I’d spent several days previous at an industry symposium at Modern Times Theatre in Toronto, where we talked at depth about what practicing cultural, gender, and ability diversity in our artistic and academic labour means right now – in the rehearsal hall, on stage, in the the audience, on the page.

Equally happily, my new friend Dhurin agreed to come to the theatre with me, and give me his perspective on the show (a full-on diasporic, new-to-Canada-living-in-Mississauga perspective, yo).

Click here to find out what happened next.

And, once I surface from the marking, look forward to a post on the meatier, more challenging, aspects of our discussions at the symposium.

Almost there!!!!

Kim

 

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 3

It’s Saturday 10 December, a bit dreary and rainy but the holiday trimmings keep things light. My ticket says 11am, so at 10:45 I emerge from the Regent’s Canal exit at King’s Cross underground station and turn right. There’s a queue forming outside the makeshift theatre space, but I head straight for the ramp, flash my ticket, and am ushered through into a warm, tight lobby. Then, huddled together in the buzz and the heat, we wait: me and several dozen other lucky folks who have ponied up £120 for the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy, created and directed by Phyllida Lloyd and her incredible cast in association with Clean Break.

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As you can imagine, we are mostly the expected demographic: in early 30s and 20s (notably, thanks in part to the Donmar’s “Front Row” access scheme), plus a few middle aged and older; not exclusively but by far majority white. We look like a night at the Almeida or the Young Vic across town; we look, mostly, like London’s privileged theatre-going class.

But today, for this one time only, I just don’t care.

Because we are here to see a monumental, game-changing piece of work. We are here to see an astonishingly talented group of women – women ONLY, and largely women of colour – perform three Shakespeare plays not associated, typically, with women’s roles: Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. These women will play all the parts, and they will play them so well that at the end of the day I will declare on social media, with all the force of twenty years of Shakespeare-going around the world behind me, that this is some of the finest, if not THE finest, Shakespeare I’ve ever witnessed.

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Sheila Atim and Jade Anouka in Henry IV.

What follows is a post about mobility, accessibility, and the public stage. About what it takes to put women’s stories on view for a public audience, and why it shouldn’t have to take so very much at all – because women’s stories are, in fact, for everyone.

Women’s stories are STORY, full stop.

But this is also a post about mobility, accessibility, and those who live on our margins, because the Shakespeare Trilogy doesn’t just put women’s stories, through the words of William Shakespeare, on the stage.

It puts incarcerated women’s stories on stage, and it has given incarcerated women the freedom to explore their stories in kind.

It was early 2012 (a full year before Orange is the New Black made prison women hip, y’all) when Phyllida Lloyd joined forces with Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and Executive Producer Kate Pakenham to conceive an all-female Julius Caesar.

(Let’s stop for a minute and mark this, because it will be important: Josie [below right] and Kate run one of London’s premier West-End venues. Phyllida [below left] is one of the UK’s leading directors. GIRLS TO THE FRONT, as my friend the film critic Sophie Mayer says.)

Why just girls on stage? Lloyd notes in an interview reprinted in the ST program that “Women have not been well served by [Britain’s] devotion to the Bard,” for two reasons. First, as she, Charlotte Higgins, Elizabeth Freestone, and other researchers (including me, in a forthcoming article) have argued recently, Shakespeare’s plays were written for a company of men, to be played primarily for male audiences (as well as for a Queen who styled herself a virgin). Of course most of the good roles were going to be male!

What does this mean for us, now? Simple: when we universalise Shakespeare’s power, authority, and aesthetic prowess, we also universalise what was in fact an entirely context- and history-dependent accident: an imbalance of male versus female (or gender-neutral) roles.

And because we lionise Shakespeare as the original poet-genius, we also call that shit not just normal, but ideal.

Second, and related, is this reason: with the canonisation of William “The Bard” Shakespeare – and the attendant cultural and economic power enjoyed by the Shaks industry worldwide – has come a firm, entrenched tradition of male “ownership” over this figure. Shakespeare’s roles are largely for men; the best ones (Lear, Hamlet, Prospero, Hal) are rite-of-passage work for male actors; tradition holds that men more typically direct His work. (And direct it better, somehow. How do we know? Well, we just… do. Don’t believe me? Tonic Theatre’s Advance project will open your eyes. Read more here.)

All this means that a situation like the Shakespeare Trilogy – in which Josie and Kate ask Phyllida to direct a major play, then another, then a third, with women in all the roles – is an utter, stunning rarity. Much more common, even in these post-feminist days, is a situation like the one in place at the Royal Shakespeare Company: powerful A.D. Greg Doran welcomed Erica Whyman as “deputy” A.D. in 2013; she took over responsibility for new work, equality and diversity files, and the redevelopment of the RSC’s famed small venue, The Other Place. Wonderful stuff, to be sure – Whyman is an incredibly talented visionary! – but again, let’s stop and mark the distinction, because it’s important. Doran is the current “owner” of the RSC’s brand; nobody questions that. Whyman’s role is one of helpmeet: she makes the RSC a safe place to play if you are not white and male.

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This is the context in which – and these are the reasons why – the partnership among Lloyd, Rourke, and Pakenham was so ground-breaking in 2012, and why it continued enthusiastically with 2014’s Henry IV and 2016’s The Tempest. And the need for women’s voices and experiences in all aspects of making Shakespeare now on stage felt obvious to me the moment I stepped into the Donmar’s King’s Cross space and witnessed the energy, the fire, the athleticism, and the power of the women-identified actors making this work.

Whole, amazing, brave new worlds emerge when women’s contemporary bodies inhabit the characters written originally for men 400 years ago.

And, to make matters even more electric: in this case, the worlds that emerged were driven by the powerful imaginations of women who are, literally, bounded in a nutshell.

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Anouka and the cast of The Tempest. I have a little crush on Jade; hence all the photos!

***

While I’m waiting in the lobby for the first show to begin, I read all the materials on the cast wall adjacent to the seating area. Here, I grab a handful of postcards with photos of the actors, in-role as their prison characters, and turn them over. The cards tell me this:

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The Shakespeare Trilogy is meta-theatre at its finest. It is theatre about the process of putting Shakespeare on stage. It is about what making theatre can help us to understand about ourselves, about our relationship to the cultures that shape us, and about our potential future worlds.

In conjunction with Lloyd, each other, and the women prisoners with whom they worked throughout their creative process, each of the professional actors in the ST cast created a female prison character through which to shape her interpretation of the Shakespearean characters she portrays in each of the plays in the trilogy.

(Got that? It goes: actor -> prison character -> multiple Shaks characters. Actors play the prison characters, which are then layered onto the Shaks characters. It’s tricky to do and tricky to watch. It’s an utterly marvellous challenge for audiences, though.)

We in the audience spy those prison characters briefly at the top and bottom of each show, as well as in moments through the middles when the Shakespeare gets interrupted by guards, when momentary violence between the prison characters breaks out, or when moments of tenderness, fear, and love amongst the imprisoned women bubble to the surface, driven by the emotions the verse brings.

These shows, in other words, aren’t just Shakespeare; they are a representation of Shakespeare played by and for women on the inside, for their own pleasure, learning, sustenance, and strength. We are visitors at their drama club, watching them do something important for themselves. We are asked to bear witness to them as they shape their stories through Shakespeare’s language, and as they give their own bodies, hearts, and minds fresh life thereby.

The ST was created in partnership with two organisations (Clean Break, linked above, and the York St John University Prison Partnership Project) that bring a form of drama therapy to incarcerated women in an effort to help them access their power and potential and build new worlds to walk into when they get out of jail. But ST itself is not drama therapy; it is, rather, a kind of immersive event that invites those of us privileged – with money, time, cultural capital and bodily freedom – to see for once properly inside the privilege that has accrued to the works of William Shakespeare, and to recognise one way in which that privilege might be more equitably distributed.

Who owns this legendary – no, this mythical – guy’s stuff? Who really benefits from its continual re-hashing, from our world-without-end need to see YET ANOTHER Romeo and Juliet? Who else might benefit? What would it take to make that actually happen?

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Harriet Walter, in a promotional shot for Henry IV.

I don’t have room here to review these amazing three shows in full, but I do want to offer three small snapshots of my experience over the course of the 12 hours I gave over to Lloyd, her creative partners, her actors, and the imprisoned women whose spirits they held throughout the day. These are simply recordings of three moments that made meaning for me as a woman invested in theatre equality, as a scholar invested in women making Shakespeare for the public stage, and as a human being trying to be hopeful in a moment of bleak uncertainty. They are three moments that especially moved me.

Moment number one happened at the end of Julius Caesar. With but lines to go, the performers playing ushers/guards brought the prison characters’ show to a close: lights up, everyone back to their bunks. Harriet Walter, as Brutus, was positioned on the stairs behind me and to the left. (The ST played in an arena-style, in-the-round space that called up the spirit of a chilly institutional gymnasium.)

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“IT ISN’T FAIR!” she called out, visibly upset. For a moment I wasn’t sure who was speaking: Brutus, her prison character Hannah (pictured above), or Harriet herself. “YOU NEVER LET US FINISH,” she continued, through tears. This world, she cried out, has gone all to shit. Everything is a mess. So there, then: you finish it. YOU FINISH IT.

She ran down the steps and off stage; her departure left me with the strong sense of a call to arms. This wasn’t work made for me, for us in the hard plastic chairs banked around the room; this wasn’t even just work made for the women who inspired it. It was work made in the hope of a fresh future for all who need one, and if it could not be permitted to end – if it was always, cruelly, brutally stopped before its promised ending by those who either didn’t appreciate its value, or (worse) saw the value and aimed to withhold it – then that future might not ever begin.

I left for lunch feeling gutted.

Moment number two appeared two thirds of the way through Henry IV, by far my favourite performance of a Shakespeare play of all time. (OF. ALL. TIME.) Anchored by the bewitchingly mischievous Clare Dunne as Hal (below left), Sophie Stanton’s rough-but-ready, working class Falstaff (below right), and the svelt, gorgeous, forthrightly confident Jade Anouka as Hotspur, this piece exuded athleticism, confidence, and harsh masculinity – all this with no biological males in site. (Apart from being stunning ensemble theatre and simply outstanding, clear-as-a-bell verse speaking, Lloyd’s Henry IV is a textbook example of gender as social performance rather than biological “fact”.)

But it was when Anouka and Dunne faced off – the prized fight of this play, between the balsy princes-in-arms – that the sheer power and beauty of these strong, able, talented women’s bodies shone through their characters, through the text, and landed on stage before us. This was the moment I recognized that I’d been so engrossed in watching and listening I’d not noticed the time pass, and that I really, really did not want this performance to end. I’ve honestly never before felt that at the theatre – and certainly not at a performance of Shakespeare’s work. (Usually by the end of Act Four I’m ready for it to be over, already. Not this time.)

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Dunne and Anouka take each other down. Electrifying.

Moment number three marked Lloyd’s ending. The Tempest is done, and only Walter as Hannah – who is based on the life of Judith Clark, an American serving 75 years for a crime committed during a political action – is left on stage. She’s in her bunk. She’s reading. She gets a visit from one of the other prison women: someone who’s been inside but is now free, and has come back to make sure Hannah is loved, seen, cared for (and has fresh reading material!). That’s when lights come gently up on all of the staircases around the space; the women’s prison characters appear in every nook and cranny. They are out now; Hannah, with a lifetime on the clock, will only ever see friends come in order to go. But they are here now, maybe in person or maybe in Prospero’s dream, to send their love and memories and best wishes. To say they are doing fine, haven’t forgotten the lessons they shared making theatre together.

I know for sure this sounds cheesy – and I know colleagues who thought the entire prison frame unnecessary to the work of making amazing feminist Shakespeare. But I was beyond moved by this final action, and by the power of community – women’s community, brave and strong – that it called into the otherwise barren space.

I remembered Hannah’s words at the end of Julius Caesar: YOU FINISH IT, THEN. Or maybe – hey, maybe – you could join us, support us, honour what we’re building rather than strike it down before its ending. Help us get to a new beginning. Together, I bet we could do it.

No community is perfect – that’s obvious multiple times throughout the ST plays, as the prison characters fight or risk unraveling. But together is the only way we make things better, the only way we move forward, move safely on – and this theatre is stark, gorgeous evidence of just that. Lloyd, Rourke, Anouka, Dunne, Walter… and the many, many, many women on and off stage who made these three incredible shows reveal what power Shakespeare holds for women able to seize it – and for the women to whom they are able to grant access to that power in turn.

Thus, for me, is the Shakespeare Trilogy finally work about access – access to cultural power, political power, the power of learning, the power of creative making, the power of public performance. This access is grabbed hard and with fire by those whose mobility had been limited by Patriarchy’s Shakespeare, but who won’t stand for barriers anymore.

Long may they hold open the doors.

Kim

PS: I know this has been a very long post. Thank you for reading!

 

On theatre as an (urgent) public good

When I started this blog in March 2013, I picked as its tagline “because pedagogy is a public practice.” This choice was an homage to my time at the University of Texas at Austin’s “performance as public practice” research stream. (That was back in 2005, but PPP is still going strong in the Department of Theatre and Dance.) It was at UT that I discovered, for real, just what a public good theatre could be; sure, I’d been studying art through a social lens for some time, but in Austin, working with acclaimed feminist and queer theorist Jill Dolan, and watching performance workers – from Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, and Deb Margolin to the Rude Mechs and even my own colleagues – making stuff that impacted directly on the well-being of often-marginalised communities around us, suddenly the logic of it really hit home for me. It shaped the teacher I would become, in every way.

When bad stuff happens in or to the public spheres in which I live and work, I turn to theatre and performance for solace. For grace. And for help: theatre is, as Brazilian director Augusto Boal famously said, after all a rehearsal for the revolution. Not a violent one, but one based in shared dialogue, discovery, enchantment, and exploration. These are the things – the inherently democratic things – that happen at the (public) theatre.

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Boal in New York, 2008

Last Wednesday night I went to see a show, and when I woke up the next morning I realised that I had seen no less than three pieces of theatre since the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This was entirely an accident: it’s that time of term on university campuses when the stuff students have been working on since September goes up on public view. But it was also, of course, no accident at all.

Sometimes in the wake of high term, when the work is lying around in messy piles and the nights are dark and cold and my HEAD.ALWAYS.HURTS, I say no thanks to the theatre and stay home to brood. But this November, brooding seems a big mistake. I’d rather be in public, in that “special” public space where we share an urge to understand our world, to see it better together.

Anyone on earth with a social media account knows where my scare quotes around the word “special” above come from: The Donald reacted with a typical, historical, epic fail to Brandon Victor Dixon’s address from the stage (and toward VP-elect Mike Pence) at the end of the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton one night last week.

Here’s the clip of Dixon speaking after the curtain call:

In reaction, Trump tweeted:

Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!

The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!

As gazillions of theatre scholars, critics, and lay commentators have since noted, Dixon was doing nothing “harassing”, but was rather respecting both Pence and the audience enough to use the stage for the purpose for which it was designed: the provision of public discussion, in the public’s very best interest. (My favourite of the many commentaries I’ve seen so far is here, by J. Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail.)

So: in honour of Dixon and the cast’s bravery (for it is brave indeed to take on a powerful man with no knowledge of the past, and no boundaries in the present), and in homage to the incredible potential of the theatre in times of public crisis, I offer below three brief reviews of the three shows I saw in the wake of Trump’s election.

And, in the spirit of efficacious arts reviewing – reviewing as a public practice, let’s say – in each case I highlight not who or what was “good” or “better” or “bad” on stage, but rather how each contributed to the public discourse, at this urgent time.

Stop #1: The Daisy Theatre

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The colourful, whimsical curtain at The Daisy Theatre

Ronnie Burkett is one of the most talented puppeteers on earth; Torontonians are proud to claim him, but he’s actually an Alberta boy. He designs and makes all of his puppets (with help, of course – there are dozens in each show), but he operates them alone on stage, creating brimming worlds of animated wooden bodies with dozens of diverse stories to tell. Burkett is openly gay, and his puppets are the queerest around. They are those whose human avatars we’d prefer to ignore, out on the street. At the puppet show, though, we can never turn away.

The Daisy Theatre is an old-time variety show, which I saw at London’s McManus Studio on November 9. Like the best cabaret, it mixes raunchy set pieces with hilarious, pointed, topical improvisation – and so it was the night after the election, when Ronnie inserted plenty of political banter, including a marvellous exchange between the carnies “Franz” and “Schnitzel”.

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Rude mechanical Franz, and queer child Schnitzel; The Daisy Theatre by Ronnie Burkett

In this particular post-election schtick, Franz attempted to explain the difference between “stage left” and “stage right”; Schnitzel got it spot on, in the end. (Ex: Schnitzel to Franz, “…is it my imagination, or, since I’ve been over here on the right… Franz… have I GOTTEN WHITER???”) That kind of stuff delivers the laughs, even in a white, conservative town like London, ON – because it’s frankly pretty hard not to laugh at puppet banter, especially when Ronnie is working his hardest to make his space of extraordinary difference (queer puppeteer; queer puppets; 16x rating…) as welcoming to all comers as possible.

And truly, for me, this is the most political thing about Ronnie Burkett: he will not compromise his content or his politics, ever, but he will aim to make the space in which he delivers that content inclusive enough to enable an experience across difference for all spectators. That’s not the same as making theatre “safe”, as Trump’s notorious tweet put it. The crucial difference: Ronnie makes his puppet theatre a safe space to do uncomfortable, challenging things. That’s as it should be.

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Ronnie with members of the cast of The Daisy Theatre

Stop #2: Hamlet’s Bad Quarto “done good”

My department’s fall show this year was offered in honour of Shakespeare’s 400th death day (1616 – 2016). Rather than doing Hamlet the old-fashioned way (SO BORING!), director Jo Devereux chose the “bad” quarto, in which “to be or not to be” is not “the question” but “the point”, and various other bits and pieces of venerable text are mashed about in a script that’s not, well, fully baked yet. The show Jo mounted was huge: an on-stage musical quintet provided melodies written for the occasion; a pre-show invocation came complete with tumbling and drunken rabble-rowsing; and there were enough speakers in the end to yield a curtain call two full rows thick. Put all that together in a tiny black box theatre at London’s terrific downtown arts incubator, and, well… you get a cheek-by-jowl experience that’s anything but literally “safe”.

In that kind of a venue, every single actor takes a massive risk: you’re just so close to your audience that every mistake will be seen and noted. And when you’re not an experienced actor, well, the risks multiply: what if they see me mess up and know I’m no good? (I have so, SO been there.) But not one of Jo’s brave cast let that stop them, nor were they cowed by the complex poetry (even in drafty form) of the world’s most famous wordsmith. In fact, if there is one thing this performance of the “bad quarto” taught its audiences, it is that even Shakespeare isn’t so incredibly sacred – because nothing is. Even Shakespeare wrote some serious crap!

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The terrific Q1 Hamlet poster: “the bad quarto done good”

Speaking Billy Shakespeare’s “messed up” lines on a tiny stage, sometimes imperfectly, these actors reminded me of the political, public power of messing up, of learning from error, and of then moving on and through to do better next time. This is a lesson, indeed, for right now – and for those about to stand up on much bigger stages.

Stop #3: 12 Angry Men

The following week, it was time for Western University’s celebrated independent student theatre troupe to put up their fall drama. Theatre Western‘s AD Hailey Hill chose 12 Angry Men as the script back in the summer (presciently, as it turned out), and in a gladiatorial arena-style space, with banks of seats on all four sides, the resulting production unfolded in perfectly-choreographed black and white (though it was blind-cast to include persons of multiple genders and colours), directed expertly by students Danny Avila and Jack Phoenix.

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The blood-red powerful poster for the spare, revealing Twelve Angry Men, directed by Danny Avila and Jack Phoenix for Theatre Western

The play begins in certainty and rage: a young man is on trial for murdering his father in an inner city Chicago ghetto, and all but one of the jurors (white, male) around the table are sure he’s guilty. But then doubts begin to rise; the lone holdout is invited to speak about his (in this case, her) “reasonable doubt”, and gradually, by talking reasonably and calmly about the facts before them, the group around the table comes to the conclusion that there simply is not enough evidence, barring prejudice, to convict.

Sitting in one of the four front rows with my colleague MJ, I was at turns stunned, moved to laughter, gut-wrenched, and so proud of our students for pulling off one of the hardest tricks in performance.

They took a script by a white guy, half a century old, about white men’s pain, and they used its own words, its bare narrative, to tease out its much broader and more diverse nuances. Then they put it up in front of a raw audience, just ten days post-election, and let the text speak, subtly but with extraordinary resonance, to the moment we are in right now.

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Trisha Kershaw as Juror #5

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The cast at work around the jury table

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David DiBrina and Alex Gaistman as Jurors 7 and 8

How can we get past glib certainty and back to conversation? From prejudice back to the power of fact, of hardscrabble information carefully and fairly parsed? From yelling at each other across a breach to speaking with generosity of spirit across a table?

These are open questions. They are the kinds of questions implied in Brandon Victor Dixon’s words to Mike Pence from the stage last week. They are the kinds of questions the theatre, democracy’s most powerful public space, always, always asks.

They are not, however, safe questions. They are anything but safe.

Kim

On costume dramas, redux: girls to the front*

(*A reference to Sophie Mayer’s terrific new book, Political Animals. Get it here. Read my review of it here.)

Last year around this time I wrote a post about enlightened sexism, framed by my viewing of the sci-fi-driven costume drama Outlander and the more straight-up bodice-ripping Poldark. (Both showed their first seasons last year; Outlander season 2 is now available, and Poldark season 2 began Sunday night on BBC.) In that post I talked about how easily I was seduced by the pleasures of both shows (hot guys! amazing views!), but also about how both, in their plot lines and also their female characters, slid an awful lot of patriarchy-as-usual into the mix. Too much, for me. The pleasure I took in their superficial attractions, I suggested, papered over this problem, and led me to become frustrated with myself – and with their writers and producers – by seasons’ ends.

I took some flak for that post from friends I admire – notably my colleague Bridget Escolme, a costume historian and lover of the costume drama genre’s complexity, and feminist film heavyweight Mayer. Both reminded me, helpfully, that historical costume drama is a genre like any other, and that means it is neither good nor bad, sexist nor feminist. Rather, it holds all kinds of potential – for politics across the spectrum; for pleasure and delight and disgust. As with any genre, it’s all about how it gets used in practice: the stories individual dramas choose to tell and the means they use to tell them.

This year, then, I’ve decided to write in celebration of three historical costume dramas currently surging among Anglophone viewers (and beyond, I expect): Outlander (yup, season 2 gets it another chance); Orange is the New Black (contemporary costume drama is still “historical” – it’s a history of the now); and Strange Empire (which has been cancelled by the CBC but given new life on Netflix).

All have strong feminist chops, and together they reveal how much historical fiction can offer feminist spectators, teachers, and students.

Mayer opens her terrific chapter on costume drama in Political Animals with commentary on Belle, the 2013 film directed by Amma Asante about a free black gentlewoman in 18th century England. She reads Asante’s use of costume drama for-and-against itself, “simultaneously drawing the viewer in and critiquing the ‘chocolate box’ style of the genre and its literary sources by revealing the bitter ingredients on which they depend” (this quotation comes from Mayer’s review of the film for the BFI, available here). In other words: while Asante’s camera revels in the styling of the period and the love affairs always central to such dramas, she finds key ways, Mayer argues, to “[intertwine] love and justice, private and public, personal and political,” allowing the film to comment on the ways in which women’s dependence on men, and black people’s dependence on white (racism), shapes but does not fully limit the lives of the characters nor the framework of the film itself.

Historical dramas always face one key problem for non-cis-male viewers: our shared human history is largely a history of patriarchy, and there’s just no getting around that. What can we do within those constraints, though? The smartest costume dramas, like Belle, charge the genre to face its limits and prejudices, and to highlight, in their complexity, the compelling stories of characters usually cast as no more than romantic interests or plot devices.

There are lots of ways to play both with and against costume drama and its patriarchal histories; herewith, three strategies I’ve noted this summer while watching Outlander season 2, Strange Empire (only one season was made, sadly), and the latest from the blockbuster OITNB.

1. Fuck the Bechdel test. 

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It’s patriarchy, boys and girls; that means lots of times women talk together about men, and it ain’t got nothing to do with romance. A much better measure is this: how large is the group of women talking together? In what depth are they talking about the issues – related to men or not – at hand? Are they given opportunities to support and strengthen one another, as well as to challenge and rival one another? (IE: to be humans together?) Basically: are more than two women allowed to speak together at a time, and are they allowed the full run of human intelligence when they do?

Strange Empire, hands down my favourite of the three shows I’m addressing here, is a feminist Western created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and set in the middle 19th century on the Alberta-Montana border. The premise is deceptively simple: a wagon train is attacked by the men of one John Slotter, who owns a nearby mine; only the women are left alive, and they form the fulcrum of the new town that emerges around the mine’s labour. They also, ultimately, author its demise, when they go after Slotter in revenge for the killing of their husbands. As you’d expect from a program driven by the survival of women alone, there are lots of rich roles for the girls here, in no way limited to Cara Gee as Kat Loving, mother to three adopted children and the town’s Sheriff; Melissa Farman as Rebecca Blithely, an autistic doctor with a penchant for gore; and Tawtianna Jones as Slotter’s wife Isabelle, a Hapa woman with twice Slotter’s business savvy and no love for the other women in the town.

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Farman, Gee, and Jones in Strange Empire.

Despite the fact that Strange Empire pivots on Slotter, his mine, and his machinations, it is only superficially about these things – it recognises that a patriarch is necessarily somewhere near the centre of any story about survival on the 19th century American prairie, but then turns that recognition inside out by framing Slotter’s actions through the perspectives and experiences of the women who must constantly negotiate around him in order to thrive. The endgame of the series is a group of women building a community, in solidarity but also constantly in tension with one another, as they try to organise around their differences and channel their shared experiences into political energy. This is Bechdel 2.0: they might always be talking about Slotter, but Slotter is almost never the real point of their conversation.

The same thing happens with Orange is the New Black: like Strange Empire, the entire premise of the show is built on a group of very different women, many openly enemies, stuck together in one physical space that they need to turn into some kind of functioning community. Each episode turns on a series of negotiations among the women, choices made and consequences absorbed. Bad shit happens. Great stuff happens. Women love each other – openly, in what is arguably the most queer-positive space on English television right now – and women hate each other’s guts. Women have complex relationships with each other, unpredictable relationships. Alliances form and dissolve. Guards are outwitted. Men are the major jail keepers here, so, again, lots of talk revolves around them – but, again, it’s not usually talk about them. It’s talk about living and working and managing in a physical and social context in which the men exist in positions of power and therefore must be accounted for and dealt with. When it is about men as objects of sex or love, it’s complicated: by pregnancy (Daya), by rape (Pennsatucky), by feelings that exceed romance by a very long way indeed.

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Taryn Manning as Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, in one of my favourite promo images for OITNB.

(Here, incidentally, is one point on which I find Outlander wanting. Claire Fraser is a remarkable woman, but her female companions are predictable and her scope for smart female conversation very limited. I’m hoping for a change in season three.)

2. Enjoy the soft-core. 

Can a costume drama be sexy and still be feminist? OF COURSE. Feminists do not hate sex, and they do not hate men. They often want to have sex with men! They just as often want to have sex with women! Many feminists, also, are not gender-norm identified, and those people want to have sex with men, women, and other non-cis people! Get over it already.

My favourite recent thread on Orange is the New Black sees Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”) author a sci-fi style porn serial with some of the most hilariously extreme characters imaginable (one based, notoriously, on a not-especially sexy male guard). The other inmates go mad for it, hounding her for fresh work; Suzanne discovers what it’s like to be an artist in demand and nearly packs it all in. Then copycat fan fic starts appearing! Although this plot line is primarily funny rather than sexy, it reminded me how openly the show revels in queer, as well as some straight, sex, and how instructive it can be to see love and sex outside your own desire matrix represented on screen. I am a heterosexual woman, and I’m not turned on by watching Alex and Piper or Washington and Soso embrace, but I always appreciate those scenes very much. OITNB reminds hetero viewers over and over what it’s like to see not your preferred kind of sex on screen; this is the reality non-hetero viewers live with constantly, and it’s exactly the reason we need much more work just like this getting made.

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Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley as Soso and Washington on OITNB.

Outlander is much more straight(-laced) soft-core, with a pregnant Claire getting bigger and her breasts underneath her night shifts growing more and more visible throughout season 2. If you’re on Team Jamie, and/or you’re into Claire, then god knows there are plenty of terrific sex scenes for you to enjoy. But the real visual joy of Outlander‘s second season is the wardrobe styling, with Claire and Jamie sporting some extremely impressive 18th century French fashions while they try to game Bonnie Prince Charlie out of the war he’s about to lose. My favourite thing about this season is watching Caitriona Balfe parade around in dresses designed to show off her boobs and downplay her pregnancy, seemingly styled as no more than eye-candy, while she and Jamie work out a variety of strategies to trick the prince and beat the clock on the Highland Rebellion. Defying the costume drama stereotype – nice to look at! Wish they’d give her more to do… – Balfe gets to wear her cake and eat it, too.

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser. Genuinely killer outfit. (Shame about the prerequisite male gaze.)

And Strange Empire? It revels in the gruesome that is hardscrabble township life on the American frontier. Kat has some great hetero-sex. Rebecca doesn’t quite let herself have some great queer sex with the cross-dressed Morgan – but mostly because she’d prefer to caress the literal hearts of the cadavers she cuts open, to study the inner workings of the human body. Isabelle has all kinds of sex – including the kind she wants, with the Chinese immigrant Ling who helps her undermine John, and the kind she doesn’t, in which John fucks her on his terms while the camera shows us her ennui, her understanding that she must tolerate this, too, in order to progress her own agenda. Soft-core with a strongly critical eye, an eye always trained on the challenges of the female-centric world the series is crafting. Best kind.

3. Embrace the improbable.

The Greek philosopher and theorist of theatre Aristotle famously said that drama should prefer the “probable impossibility” over the “improbable possibility”. What does this mean? Roughly translated: if the choice is between 1) a town beset by a plague because of the hubris of a man and the workings of the gods – however weird it might be to have a god drop down from above to create or cure a plague! – and 2) women or slaves as main characters with complex backstories… well, he’ll take the god-given plague any day. Women and slaves shouldn’t be so overtly encouraged.

Obviously, that was then and this is now, and I do not blame Aristotle (384-322BC) for not being a feminist. But his wisdom is best, for me, when reversed: odds are, if we embrace what our culture deems improbable, cool stuff will happen and our imaginations will open wider. All three of these shows are driven by improbability in the first instance: girls come to the front! But they also revel in historical weirdness, to wondrous effect. They begin from the very premise most costume dramas like to cover up: the fact that they aren’t actually all that historically accurate. The fact that they are, mostly, sensationalised.

On Strange Empire, the murder that sets the plot in motion creates a haunted atmosphere in the town that is augmented by a handful of ghostly appearances as well as a general sense of dis-ease. The dialogue takes this further: it includes a mix of “spaghetti Western”, “literary-speak”, and something akin to modern that makes every interaction just a bit stilted, and leaves viewers constantly aware that they are viewing a historical fiction, a dream of a world in which women are given the freedom to shape their universe (and what complex freedom it is, too).

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Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman, right) gives in to her one true passion. With Joanne Boland as Morgan Finn (centre), and Marci T. House as Ruby Slotter (left).

Outlander begins and ends with Claire traveling through a standing stone circle to another moment in historical time; while she’s never free in her 18th century body to be the modern woman she was, that woman is always within. And more: she is constantly visible and audible to us in Claire’s voice-over narratives, chafing against the “realism” of the show’s 18th century stylings and reminding viewers that the Claire from 1743 is as much structured by her social and historical circumstances as is the Claire from the mid-twentieth century. (And that both are, for better or worse, inventions.)

Orange is the New Black, meanwhile, turns the most improbable trick of all. It maintains that a show set in a prison full of women is the most interesting thing you’ll ever see, because the vast diversity of experiences, knowledge, and ambition shaping and sustaining these women offers more than enough fodder for multiple seasons of gripping television. I wonder what Aristotle would have thought about that!

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Is it a coincidence that these three great programs are made by women? I don’t think so. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one I remain most uncertain about – Outlander – is the one written by a woman (Diana Gabaldon) but developed for TV by a man (Ronald D. Moore), and produced by a major Hollywood heavyweight (Sony). OITNB is the brainchild of the wickedly smart Jenji Kohan in partnership with what was, at the show’s inception, the upstart Netflix, and Strange Empire was created by Finstad-Knizhnik and produced by the CBC, a public broadcaster working with public money and a mandate to tell Canadian stories.

The lesson here? We don’t need to trust our stories to the mainstream, ladies. There are a lot of people willing to take risks on so-called improbable content – we need to look for them, and we need to trust ourselves to write that work, direct it, and produce it too.

There are, I know, a thousand different ways to make amazing feminist period drama; above are only three, and they are of course subjective. I’d love to hear from y’all about your favourites – strategies as well as series – and as always your feedback on the stuff above is very welcome indeed.

Happy beginning of the new school year!

Kim