2007 Mother's Day show at the Arts Club Revue Theatre and features Marilyn Norry
in front of (left to right): Dolores Drake, Marcy Goldberg, Colleen Winton,
Patti Allan, Wendy Gorling, Frances Flanagan, Bonnie Hay
the extraordinary lives of ordinary women
These were the lives of women I had hoped to find in plays, in movies, and they were hiding in plain sight among my friends.
by Marilyn Norry
It started at a wedding.
It was 2004 and I was waiting for the hors d’ouvres, listening to a friend, when she said “to understand me you have to know my mother’s story”. She then told me her whole mother’s life in 5 minutes: born here, did this, moved there, did that. I thought it an exciting story and decided to tell her my mother’s story. Some stories are plot driven, some are character driven; my mother’s story is the latter so it wasn’t easy to choose what the turning points of her life might be. But I had 25 years in the theatre as an actor, writer and dramaturg so I knew what the basics of a character arc. My friend thought my mother’s story fascinating, and so different than her own. We talked about the vagaries of women’s lives and how easy it was to not value what you know.
...what came back were stories that lifted the hair on the back of my neck...
The next day, curious to know what other stories were out there, I sent an email to my friends, fellow women actors in Vancouver, asking them to write a short form story of their mother’s life, from beginning to end, just the facts. My email got forwarded over and over and what came back were stories that lifted the hair on the back of my neck: harrowing war time escapes, arranged marriages; from India, Africa, Saskatchewan; lives of desperation, exhilaration, great wealth, extreme poverty; telling of addictions, adoptions, anguish, grace and joy. These were the lives of women I had hoped to find in plays, in movies, and they were hiding in plain sight among my friends.
When we shared our stories with one another we realized we were on to something that could be great theatre. There is such a feeling of empathy listening to a daughter tell of her mother’s experiences: we understand her heart; we understand her mother. But what form would this theatre take? We knew we didn’t want a monologue play but alternatives remained elusive until Jenn Griffin, one of the Daughters, suggested a kind of collaging she’d used in poetry slams. I’d experienced a similar kind of verbatim theatre in Mark Leiran-Young’s Articles Of Faith. But would something good for poems or interviews work for life stories? Would an audience even be able to keep track of which story belonged to which woman? We asked for volunteers: twenty women raised their hands. Not knowing if it would work with three, we decided we may as well try it with twenty. Jenn and I created a script and on Mother’s Day 2006 twenty women sat across the tiny Beaumont Studio in Vancouver, and, with images of our mothers flashing on a screen, each woman read the story of her mother’s life as part of the giant conversation of our play. The audience loved it.
We’ve made shows for Mother’s Day, a senior’s version for Western Gold Theatre, and a half sized version for the Storytelling Festival.
Jenn and I have since created eight scripts, each featuring a different combination and number of stories and actors. With spectacle casts, limited time and money they’ve all been reader’s theatre read by the actors who wrote the stories. We’ve made shows for Mother’s Day, a senior’s version for Western Gold Theatre, and a half sized version for the Storytelling Festival. Continuing to experiment with the form, recruiting more stories, and revamping old ones, 45 actors have told the life stories of 46 mothers on stage (one actor told stories of both her birth and adopted mothers). Louise Philips told the story of her mother, Mary Monks, who stood beside her telling the story of her mother Lily Eaton. The birth dates of our mothers range from 1890 to 1954. These aren’t shows about mothering; they’re shows telling women’s history throughout the 20th century.
The show we’re creating for Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver will take the process and product we’ve discovered into a larger arena. In 2009 Brenda Leadlay, then at PHT now at Magnetic North, asked Jenn and me to create a show that engaged her community. We tossed around many ideas. Our friend Carolyn Lair had seen Nic Green’s Trilogy in Edinburgh and told us of the crowds who all thought this was “their” show. Accessing that passion went on our list. Ditto theatrical sophistication and edge to counteract assumptions that plays about women and mothers must be dowdy and sentimental. We looked forward to moving beyond reader’s theatre but knew we needed to keep the tightness of our collage. We envisioned a show that also allowed for air, and silence, and choral movement to express the ambivalence daughters feel talking about their mothers. We wanted to mix Spalding Gray with Pina Bausch.
My Mother’s Story: North Vancouver, slated to open in March 2012, will not be a collectively devised work but it will derive content through a number of steps:
- using workshops offered in libraries, churches, and people’s homes, we’re engaging women living in North Vancouver (City and District) to write their mothers’ stories;
- from the stories submitted to the theatre we’ll choose nine that represent the cultural, economic and experiential diversity of women attached to this town;
- we will create a script from them following our format of only including exact lines from stories, no false situation to bind the characters together, telling each life from beginning to end;
- and then (and this involved a big verbatim vs virtuosity debate) we will cast actors to play the Daughters. Ultimately we felt that the exploration of collective identity as expressed through memory, experience, history, and especially as it refers to community and place would be better expressed by actors.
Heidi Specht, who has experience and passion in community creations and world theatre will direct; Jamie Nesbitt will come back from Berlin to do set and projection design; the rest of the design team are coming together.
There’s a rumble of excitement from the local media and attendance at the workshops has been good.
Will it work? In keeping with how this project has unfolded from the beginning, we have no idea. We know that talking about mothers makes for a compelling show. Will that still be present after so many changes? Will the town approve? There’s a rumble of excitement from the local media and attendance at the workshops has been good. It’s a strange process, moving ahead, not knowing the exact content of your show because you don’t know who will want to tell their story to a larger community. I’ve been running workshops all month, taking women (and some men) through the process of writing a whole life without judgement. We discovered long ago that writing about our mothers is transformative work so people are happy; I’ve heard many intriguing stories. But will they submit them to the theatre? Many say they will; some are titillated at the idea of an actor playing “them”; there is still great fear. The deadline for stories is this Thanksgiving Monday and they’re starting to come in. All I know right now is the look on people’s faces in the workshops when I tell them that their mothers had extraordinary lives and that they have the ability to record and share them. It reminds me of the look on five year olds’ faces when they discover they can read.
Marilyn Norry is a Vancouver actor, writer, dramaturg, and creator of My Mother’s Story, an international project that tells women’s history… one mother at a time. Visit the project's website.