Half term pulse check (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vikki Anderson

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Fiona Byrne

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

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Julia Course

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

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

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

With gratitude!

Kim

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On Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Shaw Festival (Part 2)

A little while ago I posted to this space the program note I wrote for the Shaw Festival production of Top Girls, one of my favourite plays by the prolific and inspiring British feminist Caryl Churchill. At that time I promised I’d write a review of the production after I saw it – which I did last Friday night, at the luminous premiere in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We had a perfect evening for the festivities – cloudless blue skies dying to black under the twinkling lights of the Court House Theatre. Opening party-goers dined beneath a festive canopy in the gardens at the historic Lakewinds guest house before undertaking the short, picturesque stroll to the show. At the interval, we spilled outside with wine and ice-creams as the stars came out. Inside, the stars of the show lit up the stage. And yes: it was every bit as charming, as dream-like as it sounds.

Before I share my thoughts on the production proper – which I found smart, sharp, fun, and moving – I want to share the story of how I came to be at the glamorous premiere I’ve just described. Bear with me – there’s good reason for this diversion.

I’ve written program notes for several theatres in Canada and the U.K., and each company compensates essayists differently. I’ve been given honoraria (including by the Shaw), complimentary tickets to several productions (from festivals like Stratford that run a season in repertory), access to directors and key artists, as well as royalties from the subsequent reprinting of notes when shows go on tour. But this was new: Shaw invited me to attend the opening night dinner for Top Girls as well as the cocktail reception beforehand, during which I would meet both the talented artists who created the show as well as a large helping of wealthy donors, those who help keep Shaw going from year to year. Then we would all see, together, the opening performance itself, seated cheek-by-jowl with Shaw’s theatrical glitterati as well as a brace of critics from over the lake in Toronto.

The Shaw puts on a great party, and I and my companion had enormous fun sipping our gin and tonics under the big white tent. I won’t lie, though; I found it rather uncomfortable to be seated at a table with jobbing artists on one side and extremely rich people on the other (however generous, friendly, and philanthropically minded those people are). I could tell from brief looks and a few small moments of awkwardness that the artists around me were used to this routine: of course the dinner offers a good time, but it’s also work for them. They must be consistently convivial and forthcoming with their chat; they help to star-dust the evening for the donors who pay for elite access to the festival’s inner workings when they cut their big cheques. Then it dawned on me: I, too, was at work as I munched my seared tuna. No wonder I had been nervous beforehand! Although I’d not lit the show, designed costumes, acted or directed, I had provided creative labour for the festival. As they flattered me with a gala invite, the Shaw staff also slyly invited me to perform my virtuosity as a researcher and writer for those seated near me.

Again, lest I seem ungrateful for what was a genuinely gorgeous evening, let me say once more that I had a really nice time, and I suspect everyone around me did too. But that should not hide the fact that for some at the cocktails and supper party “pleasure” and “work” had to commingle inextricably. This is the nature of so much “creative class” labour today: you’re never off duty when it’s your job to manage the pleasure of others for profit. (For a smart, very critical look at the way the creative class has been imagined by urban theory over the last decade, check out this article by Jamie Peck.)

Creative (or “immaterial“) labour isn’t a new thing, of course: artists have always been linked to patrons with money. (If you’ve never seen Impromptu, watch it now!) But the emergence of the creative class as a broad spectrum group is a modern phenomenon, and in its current iteration it is tied to the rise of neoliberalism as a socio-political economy for the information age. Creative labourers generate content (they are writers, graphic designers, web developers), manage consumer experience (they are brand managers or ad execs), set a mood (if they are not designers, they work “in design”), shape a zeitgeist (inevitably, they write blogs. Ahem.) They may well be talented artists making real, tangible things – like beautiful pieces of theatre! – but just as importantly they create an aura, a sharp desire that makes others want to be a part of their culturally-aware awesomeness. The building and maintenance of this aura is key to the work accomplished by today’s creative workforce – just as it was key to the work the artists and I did under the tent at the Top Girls opening party.

Top Girls is a play about the cruelties of neoliberal economics: it pits its sixteen female characters against one another in the fight to the top of the “super-business-woman” pyramid. After eating my gala dinner and then watching director Vikki Anderson’s production, however, I realised that Top Girls is also very much a play about the pressures of the creative class, for women artists and brand executives alike. And while my gala experience was helpful in framing the reading I’m about to offer, it was ultimately two particularly innovative choices made by Anderson and her team that threw this production’s focus on the working lives of creative women into stark relief.

Fiona Byrne as Marlene in Top Girls.

(At right: Fiona Byrne as Marlene, Top Girls’ high-flying, smart-dressing main character. Photo by David Cooper.)

First, Anderson chose to show us the backstage labour involved in preparing to go on as one of Churchill’s strong female characters. Before the play began, and while the house lights were still up, we saw the cast enter one by one, sit at makeup desks, prepare their faces and put on their costumes – all while bopping and air-guitaring to ’80s pop and rock tunes selected by sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. (Top Girls dates to 1982.) Throughout the show this backstage space returned as the women took off the trappings of one role and put on another; the conceit was clever and it spoke elegantly (as did Anderson’s director’s note) to the typically invisible grooming women are expected to undertake in their “off” hours in order to “stage” themselves for success at work each day. (Men, too, suffer increasingly from these expectations, I know; the pressure on women remains much more powerful.)

So Anderson’s frame-story was one about gender, power, and the performance of self – Judith Butler 101. But it was also more, and for me this “more” was the bit tied to the playful dancing. These women didn’t trudge on joylessly; they entered smiling, chatting, grooving, and eager to share some of this time with one another. Yes, we saw their silent work at their mirrors, but we also saw them coalesce as they worked into a community of artist-professionals who were supporting each other through their shared tasks. Several danced together; two exchanged quite intimate words and gestures. Most gave each other shoulder squeezes and short pep talks that I suspect were more for one another than for us – gestures of solidarity and support among a group of women about to go to work for the night, rather than performances of “play” for audience edification.

Laurie Paton as Jeanine in Top Girls.

(Laurie Paton prepares to become Jeanine in Act 2. Photo by David Cooper.)

Top Girls was written in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule; it demonstrates how the cult of the individual she championed wrecks the potential for feminist community and feminist political solidarity across difference. Anderson’s frame-story implies that community is actually an essential component of success for a contemporary “creative” woman. Is it a bit utopic, perhaps unrealistic? Maybe. But, then again, each of these seven performers killed it on Friday night – so if those squeezes, grooves, and supportive words at the top of the show were made of real stuff, they sure did real work, and it got real results.

Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit in Top Girls.

(Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit. Photo by David Cooper. )

Anderson’s second innovation has to do with Angie, the high-flying main character’s not especially high-achieving niece. In many productions of Top Girls Angie is costumed blandly and played as a bit of a lump – exactly how her bitter mom (Joyce) and her successful aunt (Marlene) describe her to others. But Anderson clearly doesn’t believe Joyce and Marlene: Julia Course’s Angie is vivacious, wacky, smiley, full of life – frankly hilarious, a show-stealer. No wonder Kitty, the smaller girl down the road, wants to play with her all the time!

Course’s Angie is also glued to her exercise book, an item Churchill mentions only very briefly in Act 3 but which Course and Anderson choose to read as evidence of Angie’s burgeoning creativity, a zest for drawing, words, and imaginative play. Here, Angie isn’t a dullard who “isn’t going to make it” because she’s not smart or ambitious (as Marlene declares meanly at one point); nor is she doomed to failure because she doesn’t come from money and hasn’t had opportunities. This Angie’s trouble comes from the fact that her brand of imagination – the kind that takes wing under forts built of blankets, or in notebooks hidden under mattresses – isn’t valued by the culture around her, a culture that lusts after the kinds of creativity Marlene peddles when she tells her employment agency clients how to present themselves in an interview, what parts of themselves to reveal and what parts to conceal. Marlene’s creativity is for-profit, carefully honed and framed, but Angie’s creativity is messy, chaotic, just for fun – for pleasure with no strings attached. If she could tame it, shape it, sell it… well then, surely she could make it. But that’s not Angie’s style – and that’s why Marlene condemns her as someone with no style at all.

Top Girls opens with a lavish dinner party to celebrate Marlene’s promotion to director of her agency; I suspect Marlene would make a pretty attractive guest at any opening night gala. Angie, on the other hand, would be a complete disaster at a glam dinner: all legs, arms flailing; all too-small, too-shiny dresses and mad, frenetic energy. Or, then again, maybe she’d be just what more gala dinners need: less work, more unbridled play.

Party on, ladies!

Kim