How do you solve a problem like Kevin Spacey?

I’ve been watching the Weinstein shit-show from the sidelines with the same mix of excitement and horror as the next woman. I’ve not really known what to say; the constant stream of revelations represent, for me, not the watershed of the moment (although it is – knock wood – very much a watershed), but the depth and breadth of the problem we all knew was about but couldn’t constellate fully until now.


I am very, very lucky: I have no instances of sexual abuse in my past. But let me tell you, I’ve been both gobsmacked and completely unsurprised at the morning’s (every morning’s) headlines.

Because, like every human female, I have a lot of first-hand experience of how patriarchy grants men the impression that they are entitled to take whatever they want, while it grants women – as well as non-normative, queer, and non-cis-gendered others – the keen sense that they should watch their backs.

Let me stress here that this is no one person’s fault – although being a fecking bastard is ABSOLUTELY the fault of the arseholic guys being written up every day in the dailies.

Nope, this is not a post about ass-hatted individual actions.

This is a post about a system. And it’s a post about the theatre.

Aside from a complicated (and contradictory) mix of horror and relief, the number one thing I feel about this particular moment in history is this:

Thank god I am not teaching right now, and don’t have to talk about this with my students.

Don’t get me wrong: I secretly love nothing more than throwing the syllabus away on a news-damp morning and chatting the real stuff out with the gang in the room. But this occasion feels really heavy, really loaded. I can imagine some very tense conversations, some really challenging mediating. I can imagine the emotional toll.

But as I’ve been wading through all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might say (maybe, next term, will have every opportunity to say) in the classroom about the issues raised by this extraordinary moment. And, thankfully, I’ve been granted a gift by two remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past few weeks in Toronto – both of which take up, at depth, the issues behind the issues we’ve been reading about in the headlines.

This is a post about them – and about the power of live theatre to communicate aspects of Weinstein-gate that the print and online media can barely touch.

Asking For It (created by millennial Ellie Moon and produced by Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in October) is “documentary” theatre that begins with the Jian Ghomeshi revelations and goes on to explore Moon’s and her peers’ experiences with the challenges of consent. Moon interviewed scores of people (mostly known, some family, lots of friends) for the show, and their stories make up the content, voiced by four actors. In the first two thirds of the piece, performers Christine Horne, Steven McCarthy, Moon, and Jaa Smith-Johnson sit at a square table speaking the interview transcripts from binders into microphones, capturing the vocal intonation and gestures of the words’ owners. In the second half, they act out a handful of telling encounters Moon had during the interview process.

The show begins with Ellie (the “character” – the limits of autobiography aren’t totally transparent here) saying she wanted to know more, in the wake of Ghomeshi, about how consent works in practice: how we navigate it and how we all fall down around it. The show ends with her revealing that what she really wanted to figure out is why she seems to have a lot of rough sexual encounters, perhaps even want them, and what that says about her as a sexual agent, a feminist, and a human being.


Daughter is a bouffant show (in other words: expert clowning) that masquerades as stand-up comedy; the theme is, “wow, it’s so hard, man, to raise a little girl today!” Performer Adam Lazarus (who is the show’s co-creator, along with Jiv Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, as well as director Ann-Marie Kerr) comes out as “Adam” (the character), all proud dad, wearing his 6-year-old’s butterfly wings and dancing to her playlist.

We love him more or less instantly, and we’re with him – until we can’t be with him anymore. By the end he has revealed himself to be a total jackass who wishes women would just go back to being simpler, the “tits” of his porn collection instead of the “cunts” of the real world. And though he admits to loving his daughter insanely, he also admits to thinking life would be simpler without her.

Toxic masculinity has by this point eaten the show, eaten him – and fucked his audience up completely.


These two pieces share as much in common as they don’t. Both, however, take issue with a culture that has created a pair of poisoned structures around sex and gender, and is now having to wrestle with their awkward, systemic dismantling.

For Moon, the problem of consent is BOTH that no means no, and that’s that, AND that consent is way, way pricklier and more confusing in practice than one endgame phrase conveys, for most well-intentioned humans, most of the time. For Lazarus, the problem is that love for his wife and daughter drives his character, but the tools he uses to shape his actions toward them were forged in a perilous melange of patriarchy-as-normal and extraordinary access to violent online pornography. He is also – as my colleague Karen Fricker pointed out to me over drinks the other day – apparently without family, beyond the women he perceives himself as responsible towards, and therefore without any (at least somewhat) objective mentorship and support as he flails into chaos.

One of the things that struck me right away about both of these shows was the way they were set up, spatially. (I’m thinking a tonne about space right now, because I’m deep into writing a book for students about theories of space, place, and meaning at the theatre in the twentieth century.)

When I entered the stage area of Asking For It, immediately I felt like a citizen, less like an observer. The space at Streetcar was configured as though for a debate, with banks of audience members facing each other, and more around the sides of the playing space. When the actors entered, they did so from our world: they came into the auditorium as the doors shut, and entered from the side of one of the rakes.

The message? We are all together in what is going to be a discussion, a series of provocations for us all to reckon with in a shared way.

Daughter was configured differently – though with equal critical aplomb. I entered a normal auditorium rake of seating, facing the stage. Shortly Adam appeared on that stage, dancing and flitting in the decorative wings. He was disarming, but also very clearly the (only) performer we were meant to watch. The configuration screamed: “stand-up comic! Also good dad!”

I admit I found Adam quite funny at first, but something about the character bothered me almost from the start. I felt like he had a gift for making everything – his daughter’s musical tastes; his wife’s pregnancy and difficult labour – completely about him. I remember thinking to myself, as he acted out (to hilarious and also astonished effect) his wife’s incredibly painful labour with their little girl: “does this guy really think it’s ok to make his loved one’s physical trauma about him?”

Turns out that question was, actually, the whole point.


With Asking For It, my experience was different – more cozy, and more personal. (I attribute this to Ellie’s femininity, as well as to some other experiences we shared, though we do not know each other. Similarity breeds patriotism – it really does.) Still, I found remarkable the show’s ability simultaneously to disarm me, and to put pressure on questions of extraordinary significance for me.

A case in point arrives in the second part of the show, when Moon and Horne re-create a conversation on a bus between Ellie and a friend with whom she’s had a boozy dinner, as part of the interview project. The friend notes that Ellie needs to step outside her comfort zone and interview strangers if her project is to have any significance. Push comes to shove, and Ellie approaches a man at the other end of the bus, brandishing her iPhone. She says something like: hey, hi, sorry to bother you. I’m doing interviews about peoples’ experiences of consent. Could I ask you some questions about how you experience consent, and navigate its challenges?

The guy is not interested. Nor is he sympathetic. He takes a totally understandable, very frustrated, position. He says something like: if I had approached YOU on this bus, what would you have thought? You admit you’re a bit tipsy, and you’re asking me about consent, asking me to talk into your phone, for some “project”; how would you feel in my position?

God, do we feel for this guy.

Until Ellie says, bluntly but quietly:

But: I ASKED you.

Adam means the very best – but his experience of love, care, and sex was forged in the crucible of brutal online rape culture. He’s been taught male entitlement in the womb, and the internet has reinforced his genital privilege.

He thinks EVERYTHING is about him. When it’s not, he freaks out – he actually does not know what to do.

So he hits people – including his friends, and his daughter.

Ellie wants answers: why is this CBC douchebag’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour getting to me so much? What’s consent, and what’s crossing the line? Why do I sometimes want to cross the line myself?

Can I be a feminist and cross the line?

In the process, she meets a not insignificant number of people who think she’s being kind of a feminazi, or who think they are feminist allies, except they actually really aren’t.

They want stuff, and they’ve been taught to take stuff, and even though they want to be the most stand-up men imaginable, that training of wanting and taking stuff is deep, and it’s engrained.

I’ve thought about both of these two remarkable productions an awful lot in the last four weeks. It’s not lost on me that Moon’s piece is comprised of interview material – other peoples’ voices, however mediated by her expert dramaturgy – while Lazarus and his co-creators have deliberately built a show that demonstrates how powerful, seductive, and ultimately toxic a single, virtuosic, male voice can be, when offered as funny and chummy and bro-ey.

Until it makes you kind of literally feel sick. (I literally felt sick, by the end of Daughter.)

Toxic masculinity is a formation driven by parallel but totally contradictory assumptions: that men should be upstanding, good guys with a fair amount of feminist sensibility, but that they continue to deserve to be number one in the equation in all circumstances – because that’s what patriarchy teaches straight cis-men, full stop, OR ELSE. The end result of this messed up formula is easy to guess.

Moon’s character isn’t without selfishness, without problems. But the show constructed around her is polyvocal, and works actively to find others’ voices, to honour them, and to discover her own problems and challenges through the revelations they provide.

Daughter avoids polyvocality – deliberately – because Adam isn’t capable of admitting others into his worldview in a real and meaningful way.

Dismantling this logic – the logic of toxic masculinity – is the work ahead, or else. The point of both of these productions is that patriarchs aren’t always easily visible, but that they are always conditioned by the poisoned binaries of gender vs gender. Because the system under which we labour – in which men come first, have always come first, and anything else is an “accommodation”, even now – is entrenched, and dismantling that system is not just about deciding to be a good guy, or an easy-going girl.

It’s much harder than that. And it requires all of our labour. Together.





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.)


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.

Tara Beagan & Andy Moro - Andy Moro-ARTICLE 11, photographer

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.


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.



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!