...it began in a small village in Spain...
by Rose Cullis
The Happy Woman began a number of years ago, when I was briefly living in a small village in Spain. Every morning I went to a little, clattering café and watched two burly men and their mother preside over an extraordinary cast of characters. The mother, in particular, fascinated me. She was a big woman, and clearly very hard-working, but she wore a lady-like knee-length skirt and a delicately-crocheted sweater, and she beamed with satisfaction as she served customers.
I was fascinated by her stalwart happiness, and so I began a play where a woman (Margaret) is returning home from the market dragging a cart behind her. She stops to mop her face and marvel at the beauty of the day and delight in having a grandchild on the way. Margaret encounters her more cynical neighbour, (BellaDonna), on the street. When Margaret leaves, BellaDonna turns to the audience to reveal both her role as “chorus”, as well as the news that Margaret’s life is not as idyllic as it seems: her daughter is acting out, and her daughter -in-law seems to be going mad with her pregnancy.
From this opening scene I stitched bits and pieces from my own life, until the play took on a shape that helped me understand my fascination with Margaret. Cassie, Margaret’s daughter, appeared, suffering from some kind of mysterious angst. She finds her mother’s joyfulness implacable; Margaret can’t hear anything, Cassie complains, if it’s not in a major key. Then, Margaret’s perfect son, Christian entered the story - apparently contented and happy – much like Margaret herself. His pregnant wife, Stasia, is troubled, however, and her fears and obsessions will prove to be uncannily related to unspoken tensions in the family.
It’s so strange to be human
The Happy Woman is a tragi-comic exploration of: the nature of happiness; performance and authenticity; the regulation of sexuality – particularly as it relates to women’s bodies and desires; and knowing versus blindness. The humour is grounded in affection and irony, and carnivalesque in its impulse. It’s so strange to be human; we are compromised by all kinds of certainties, including our death and our complicity in the suffering of others.
I have tried to ground these explorations in a style of theatrical address that shatters some of the conventions of realism, but that keeps the characters complex and believable. Sometimes the fourth wall is intact, but often characters turn to the audience with monologues or asides, or seem to hear and respond to one another in different spaces - as if they’re engaged in some kind of internal dialogue with each other. Music and design elements in the piece help create this aesthetic that toys with the boundaries of realism. An original and haunting sound design has been created by Joelysa Pankanea; Kimberly Purtell and Denyse Karn – who recently created such an evocative world for The Penelopiad -are designing the lighting and set and costume, respectively.
I have tried to let every character talk back and surprise us – so that we’re challenged to understand them.
I hope the effect will be something like Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony, where the “truth” is a negotiated, unfinished, and sometimes contradictory response of many voices to real events. I have tried to let every character talk back and surprise us – so that we’re challenged to understand them. It’s very important to me that the audience is allowed to feel affection and concern for what happens onstage. I love the way theatre has the capacity to engage an audience. I want to play with the conventions of realism, but I don’t want to lose the emotional content – the joy and the sorrow.
Working with actors is a whole other encounter with the characters; in rehearsal, actors hold onto the through-line with such clarity and tenacity that my relationship to the text is deepened. I have loved encountering “embodied characters” – in a literal sense – who interrogate and self-consciously inhabit their “roles”. Extraordinary actors are realizing this world premiere of The Happy Woman: Maev Beaty (Cassie); Ingrid Rae Doucet (Stasia); Barbara Gordon (Margaret); Martin Happer (Christian) and, Maria Vacratsis (BellaDonna). Although we haven’t made big changes in production, I have been finessing the script to coherently reflect and resonate with these living characters who have memories and drives and demands.
For Cassie, the rules of decorum are stultifying, and she challenges them.
The play explores the tension between posing and authenticity, faking and being. Cassie is a performance artist. Five of her performance scenes are scattered throughout the play, and she uses her body in a risqué and perhaps imprudent way. For Cassie, the rules of decorum are stultifying, and she challenges them. Her performances explore the fine line between public and private, between performance and compulsion. In Cassie’s performances the body is the site of something incredibly intimate and demanding. How do we negotiate the demands of desire? Cassie is sexually powerful, and is probably too eager to be desired and to be confirmed in desire. But her vulnerability is beautiful, somehow; there’s an urgency in it that’s heroic and resilient.
When I realized that Cassie was a performance artist and that I wanted to include scenes of “performance art”, I relied on Jess Dobkin’s funny, courageous and demanding work as a touchstone. Whether Cassie’s performance scenes are “performance art” is debatable - especially since performance art is grounded in a challenge to theatrical traditions and conventions - but Cassie certainly relies on her body as a site of exploration and interrogation.
A desire to be normal haunts Cassie. Margaret, the Happy Woman, adores and admires her daughter’s spirit, but wonders why Cassie can’t just follow basic rules. Christian, Margaret’s son, shares Cassie’s sensitivity and intensity, but he’s determined to follow social rules and “achieve” normal. His efforts are at least partly threatened by his wife, Stasia, who is helplessly authentic and intuitive, and unable to fake equanimity.
Kelly Thornton has supported the development of this play from the start, and is like a great lover as a director...
Finally, BellaDonna, Margaret’s neighbour, “tells it like it is”, but she clearly enjoys having an audience and is conflicted about her responsibility as the knower. BellaDonna could tell Margaret all manner of things, for example, but she doesn’t - and she feels guilty and defensive about her decision to remain silent. Margaret’s “blindness” to certain issues and events is troubling and complex; it’s not clear how she’s fashioned it. She’s not a “stepford wife”; she’s joyfully alive.
I am thrilled to have Kelly Thornton directing the play. I have such faith in her artistry as a Director, and in her understanding of the text, and she has chosen a steady eye and a kindred spirit in her Assistant Director, Michelle Alexander. Kelly Thornton has supported the development of this play from the start, and is like a great lover as a Director: she’s relaxed and focused and excited at the same time. Her approach to realizing the text lets us work and play with joy and determination.
Nightwood Theatre has been critically important to the development of this piece. I’ve been working on it with them for several years, in a Summer Retreat and then in Groundswell with Erica Kopyto’s sensitive and insightful dramaturgical support. I would write a new draft over several months, and when I felt that I’d spilled out everything that was available to me, we’d meet and workshop the draft with actors. The reading and the discussion that followed would clarify issues for me, and I’d begin again. The women at Nightwood approach play-development with respect; comments are not prescriptive, but are grounded in questions and concerns. I find their attitude and approach incredibly helpful and productive, and I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity to develop The Happy Woman with them.
The Happy Woman is a Nightwood production and runs March 5-24
Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs 26 Berkeley Street - click link above
Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs 26 Berkeley Street - click link above