Writing My Blues Away....

Or something like that, anyway. I'm in madd R&D and writing mode for my upcoming production Dear Mama, part of SondheimFest. This will be my first self-produced production and is more than a little terrifying.

I've been asked a few times, and must admit it - my actions are chock-full of hubris. Entering my own piece of original writing into a festival dedicated to a Master Playwright - Steven Sondheim - seems a bit absurd. So I shall elaborate.

Dear Mama and its lead character, Ruby, have been a seed of an idea in my mind for years now. It all originates with a conversation my sister (who is also an arts professional) and I had about how strange it is that the pair of us used to watch Gypsy religiously from a rather young age. Now, for anyone who has seen it, stepping back you can understand our train of thought - Gypsy Rose Lee, famous burlesque dancer and early stripper, is the centre piece of the musical (for which Sondheim was lyricist). The show includes dance numbers by strippers, and ultimately a daughter whose mother encourages her to choose burlesque performance over not being on stage at all....to great success.

It is easy to see the parallels between this young starlet, who began performing likely before 5 years old, and the plethora of child stars we see today. From the kids on Dance Moms who have been described as 'prosti-tots' to the frighteningly sexualized performing dolls on Toddlers and Tiaras, and the latest Disney starlet, little girls are more and more a commodity, rather than children.

Dear Mama looks at a fictional young girl who had this sort of childhood....but sees her as an adult, still starved for attention and willing to take major risks to secure the adoration of her audience.

I've been lucky enough to secure the talented and brilliant Megan Andres to dramaturg and direct the piece - we will begin working together soon! Watch for further blogs as the process continues....

FemFest 2012 Begins!

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Opening Cabaret for the 10th Annual FemFest. I've had a fairly lengthy history with FemFest - I first worked with the festival as Assistant to Director Hope McIntyre (AD of the Festival) for Ordinary Times in 2005. Since then, I've directed workshop productions of new plays (The Dance of Sara Weins, 2006), shared my own work-in-progress piece Lavinia in the 2009 Cabaret, directed scenes for the launch of their book of scenes for female actresses (Generation NeXXt, 2010) and now directing readings of short plays in the 2012 festival. As I sat in the audience, hearing host and festival supporter Susan Tymofychuk speak of the history of the festival, and the opportunity it has provided for emerging artists (particularly female ones) I reflected on these experiences. FemFest has provided me the opportunity to hone my skills as a director and creator of work, providing a safe environment for me to learn and help those around me explore new works of theatre. I don't know of many festivals anywhere in the world that provide this kind of environment, and I must say that my career has been enriched immeasurably due to my involvement with FemFest.

There are shows throughout this week at the Centre for Theatre & Film at the University of Winnipeg; ticket prices are very affordable, including many free readings and talks about creating theatre. I encourage you to try to spend at least an hour taking in a piece of the festival. The work presented touches on all aspects of human experience; from Food Bank usage to Immigrant families, re-imagined fairy tales to readings from esteemed playwrights. Judith Thompson is this year's guest artist. She is one of the most well-known Canadian playwrights, and certainly the most known female playwright from Canada, and her support and participation in the festival says a lot about the amazing work Sarasvati do.

Take some time and check it out this week!

Intellectual Fan Girl

Our dissertation term (aka right now) is peppered with weekly lectures and workshops to help us along with our process, and also to help us consider paths once we have finished the MA. This has included various events from panels with emerging artists, Q&A with former students of the course, and talks about casting and organizing. A highlight has been the fabulous workshop on directing from Andrew Visnevski for which the quote of the evening (whilst dissecting a scene from The Duchess of Malfi) was " 'How Now?' here means 'Holy Fuck she's going to shoot my balls off' " - something you have to imagine this polished, intellectual, very proper man in sweater vest and tie saying to get the full effect.

The most recent installment was from the academic side, and featured the brilliant Elin Diamond, feminist theatre writer and professor at Brandeis University in the US. Elin's lecture focused on a chapter of her book - Unmaking Mimesis - which looks at Brecht through a feminist lens, calling for a Feminist Gestic Theatre. A chapter (and book) I would strongly recommend.

What was most inspiring, for me anyway, was her discussion of how she got to where she is now. She began as an actor, trained in drama school and working professionally, but always had an intellectual side, writing essays and reading voraciously. After completing her MA and committing to being an academic, her focus was on bringing theatre and performance into the contemporary discussions of criticism. She argues that playwrights are theoreticians within each play, and the time spent to consider a play and/or performance text is unendingly valuable in understanding many of the ideas that scholars so readily apply to painting, philosophy, gender studies, etc. I was encouraged to know that it is possible to make a move such as this; to sit on both sides of things, and force not only work, but serious intellectual consideration of the work through your own writing. This is something which I hope to be able to do with at least minor success in the coming years.

Reading Time

My mind is engulfed with reading on performance theory right now. More on that later. That, and Laura Wade's "Posh" now transferred from the Royal Court to The Duke of York's Theatre in the West End. It is a good thing I am not a reviewer with deadlines, as it is taking me awhile to decide exactly what I have to say about it.

In the interim, I have come across two excellent articles today that I must share.

First, Dennis Kelly's (colourful) speech to open the Stuckemarkt festival in Germany. Kelly, a Brit playwright who pushes the boundaries of "polite" political theatre, challenges theatre makers to stop trying to make plays political for the sake of it. Quote of the piece "I believe young theatre makers need a very healthy does of 'go fuck yourself'". Well said, Mr Kelly, well said.

Link Here: http://www.theatertreffen-blog.de/tt12/english-posts/dennis-kelly-opens-the-stuckemarkt/

Second, Lauren Gunderson on the economics of presenting female characters, since (gosh darn it) a significant proportion of audience members are female. I can't say I agree with the argument entirely (which pretty much relies on mimesis and our desire to see the self reflected in the theatre...) but she does make a valid point. Worth a read.

Link Here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-gunderson/theatres-audiences-are-ma_b_1388150.html

Happy Reading!

New Explorations

Spent this lovely, sunny Saturday indoors at the University of London. Normally this would make me sad, however, today it simply inspired and encouraged me. I attended the Womens Studies Group's annual Workshop, titled Women, Performance, Portraiture. This is a group of mainly history scholars who meet throughout the year for workshops, field trips, etc, and most importantly, to share their scholarly endeavors.

The day began with a keynote speaker - the brilliant Gill Perry. (more on her here: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/arthistory/perry.shtml). The paper she presented looked at art and the creation of feiminine celebrity, particularly in 18th century London society circles. Looking at the semiotics not just of the works themselves, but also at their placement, prominence, and re-location in manor houses throughout England, she made some intriguing suggestions regarding the role art played in creating and perpetuating myths of celebrity. There were many resonances for me in this lecture, notably the ideas of public vs private space - hearkening back to our thoughts about The Duchess of Malfi. I cannot begin to give justice to her argument in the lecture, however suffice to say that it sparked many ideas in me, and something creative will come from this.

The second half of the day allowed for each delegate at the workshop to bring a small 5-10 minute presentation on their own current work. This, too, was fascinating. I was humbled in the presence of these intelligent women and the brilliant research they are undertaking. For my own contribution, I brought a section of Forc'd To Woo, the devised response to The Duchess of Malfi that I had created before our group merged our individual work to create In Secret. I talked a bit about my process for creating theatre - looking at historical texts for modern resonances and stories that echo forward, telling us something about the human condition, and specifically the female experience. I also talked a bit about how this developed in performance, and my future plans for the piece. I had some great questions from the group, and overall they seemed encouraging to my endeavors.

On a personal note, I was sure I would be nervous speaking; I was in the company of accomplished and published scholars, a lowly MA candidate, and in theatre nonetheless. That said, I wasn't nervous whatsoever. I felt extremely confident sharing my work and responding to questions about how I had created the piece.

It seems odd for a theatre maker to find their best inspiration in a room full of academics, but alas, I tend to be unconventional.

Celebrating Women

It is International Womens' week, which means that there are a plethora of readings, exhibitions, meetings, and the like celebrating the work of women and how far we have come in the last century or so. Simultaneously, there are daily barrages of female image on television, film, advertising, music, quickly regressing this progress in the search for the 'girl' with the best legs, or who makes the most desirable (read: attractive) mate. Club culture is no exception; it is a place where women continue to be valued for the brevity of their skirt and the height of their heels, and go-go dancers have made a resurgence in their underwear-worn-as-outerwear attire. So it seemed to me these worlds collided when I received a facebook invite to an event titled "International Women's Week" at a weekly club night in a Canadian city which will remain unnamed. This night boasted "Free cover for the ladies" and a single "girl-dj special guest" among the male-filled lineup of five. In addition, the night boasted go-go dancers.

Now, take away the event title, and this is pretty standard club-fare; boys' club where the girl sometimes gets to come play, but for the most part is relegated to a status in a skimpy skirt and fur boots atop a speaker. But this event really took things to a new level by labelling itself for International Womens' Week, whilst continuing to offer these demeaning evidences. These people have missed the point to a degree beyond any rational explanation. Is our generation truly that out of touch that it feels something like this might actually empower women and challenge gender roles?

I sincerely hope things like this are isolated. I also sincerely hope that no self-respecting woman shows up.

Genet is Clever

It is often said that male writers can't write for women, or can't write for women well. There are many reasons why this sort of statement is false, but rather than go on a tirade about gender, intelligence, and truths of the human condition, I will simply present a section of text by the brilliant Jean Genet in The Screens. This is right at the beginning of Scene 12.
KADIDJA: Without women what would you be? A spot of sperm on your father's pants that three flies would have drunk up.

THE DIGNITARY: Go away Kadidja. This isn't the day.

KADIDJA: It is! They accuse us and threaten us, and you want us to be prudent. And docile. And humble. And submissive. And ladylike. And honey-tongued. And sweet as pie. And silk veil. And fine cigarette. And nice kiss and soft-spoken. And gentle dust on their red pumps!

THE DIGNITARY: Kadidja, it's a matter of general security. Go away.

If this exchange doesn't clearly illustrate the long fought battle for escape from patriarchal power, i don't know what does.

and also...his beautiful and raw description of art functioning for society in scene 17 brings to mind volumes of conversation.
THE ACADEMICIAN: What will they build on? I observed them carefully throughout my stay. Their only memories are of poverty and humiliation . . . Yes, what will they do? Can an art be born for the purpose of enshrining so many facts which they themsleves would like to forget? And if there's no art, there's no culture. Are they therefore doomed to decay? And there they go nailing the cage . . .

What is fabulous about this is that it is used ironically; the Academician, and his colonialist compadres The Banker, Sir Harold, Mrs Blanensee, are all looking down upon the native Algerians from their position of power. And yet Genet's argument throughout the play, that this dirty mess is precisely what the matter of art must be, rings through.

La Duchesse de Langeais - Michel Tremblay

Since I have been reading incessantly on Duchesses, I thought it would be good to pick up Tremblay's la Duchesse, given the irreverence with which he approaches most of existence. Tremblay's Duchesse, unlike our Lady of Malfi, is a middle-aged drag queen who has worked most of her life as a prostitute. Not just any, but in her eyes the most high class, respected woman imaginable. This two-act monologue shows us the many sides of this woman who has lived her whole existence in another skin so to speak, and even within this has opposing sides battling with one another to expose tidbits of truth. La Duchesse suffers, and brings the audience along in her suffering as she gets increasingly intoxicated drinking straight whiskey.

This piece is a bit of a tour de force, and would be brilliant to work on as a director.

Musings on our Lady Duchess

While working on Act 4 of Duchess, and also along the side thinking through how I might like to approach the play for our end of term presentations, I have been thinking considerably about what in this play affects me. First, and probably most importantly, I find the character of the Duchess to be interesting not only as an actor, but as a spectator watching this woman's life. For the title character in the play, we see remarkably little of her, and know much more about those around her first-hand. From what we see...she lies to her brothers and says she will not marry, takes things into her own hands and marries her servant, keeps this a secret from her strong-willed brothers....but proceeds to have children with this unknown husband. Once she is discovered, she faces her imminent death with grace and strength, not fighting back (though she does take a mild detour away from Malfi...) and ultimately dying before the play itself is completed.

At the same time, we see that due to her power and status, she has Antonio wrapped around her finger; she exerts her power over him psychologically and sexually, seemingly taunting him, daring him to step out against her brothers, which she must know he cannot and will not do. Yet despite her power due to rank of birth, she is ultimately powerless as a woman who cannot decide for herself what her future will hold. Her line in act 3 really sums up her journey in the play for me - "Why should only I, of all the other princes in the world, be cased up like a holy relic?". It is precisely this that is the tension of her existence in the play; she is a prince, and should be free to act as she pleases. Were she a male, her actions (regardless of their moral value) would be accepted, never questioned....certainly she would never be condemned to death. Yet Webster isn't exactly painting us a picture for women's empowerment; rather he seems to present us with a hierarchy of power, everyone is controlled by someone, despite illusions of freedom.

image: Gustav Klimt - The Flower Garden

My Little Girl Wants To Be a Platypus

Went to see the installation FeMUSEum presented as part of Trashing Performance by the group Split Britches. They are well known theatre artists here in London, for their gender-bending questions and performances. Like a good mom, I brought my 7 year old with me; it is never too early to learn to question feminine identity as society presents it to us. The installation had several stations related to women. The one she was most fascinated with was a table with many items for "putting oneself together" - false eyelashes, powder, deoderant, jewelry, etc. Sarah said to me "it feels like we are in the bathroom". A keen observation from the young mind.

We left shortly after, and as we walked talked about why those things were in the room, why the women were wearing what they were, etc.

Later on in the day's adventures, we were trying to sort out a last minute halloween costume for her. She really wants to be Perry the Platypus from the TV show Phineas and Ferb; Perry is a crime fighting Platypus who fights the evil bad guy. After an hour or so of unsuccessful searching for a teal sweat suit, I asked if she just wanted to wear her fancy dress and some wings and be a fairy. She looked me right in the eye and said "Mom, No Way. Platypuses are way cooler." So i've been told. And I guess we're doing a pretty good job with balancing gender identity in her young life.

Review - Top Girls by Caryl Churchill - Trafalgar Studios

I love seeing a play that I love presented well. With the exception of one actor, whose voice I found hard to listen to, these ladies presented Churchill's gutsy play with every ounce of real, juicy, funny, harsh activity that it deserves. It is remarkable that a play which premiered in the year I was born still has such loud resonance for the condition of women in society. Churchill's argument, that women through time have had these struggles, and despite our "successes" continue to, was loud and clear in this production. Suranne Jones is outstanding as Marlene, the power-hungry emblem of the Thatcherite quest for power; every ounce of her being was poured into the shifts from Marlene at dinner, to work, to home. Her vulnerability whilst defending her choices hit me in the gut, and made me angry at her choices, but also angry at a world which causes women to feel they must make those choices to achieve success.

Even today, 2011, I get amazed looks when people learn that I've managed to "do it all"; Management job, child, extra curricular work in the theatre, and now going for the MA. If a man chose to go for the MA "later" would he be "amazing" or anything of the sort?? (I say "later" in quotations because I truly believe 29 isn't at all old to be completing an MA and expounding my thoughts about the theatre on the world..I've only just begun!)

The other thing that really struck me was the reverence to Churchill's text and the originally intended production style. Part of me was happy (and amazed) that this didn't feel dated, but felt to resonate more as a result. But part of me wanted Churchill's text to be played with, to consider the role that heightened sexuality of women in the media and its resultant affect on young girls. To consider that we are still in a place (arguably further back than in 1982) where women are cruel and difficult to other women, where they judge one another and put them down to pull themselves up.

In any case, I think this was a fabulous production. And it made me think.