Friday, November 1, 2013

jackDawe, November 1, 2013

Woman Vs. The Machine
by TJ Dawe

It seems a no-brainer to me. Every theatre school teems with female students. At least half the audience of any play is women (80% of ticket sales, according to some). Many of the men are only there because their wives dragged them. 

And yet, far more plays than not are by and about men. Across the country, women scramble for a precious few roles. Including so many one dimensional minor parts: the supportive girlfriend, the saintly mother, the hot chick.  

This pattern makes perfect sense as part of Hollywood - run by corporations, aiming for the 18 - 24 year old male audience. But isn’t the world of theatre more evolved? More inclusive? More postmodern? At least in Canada? 

Doesn’t it make sense that the audience might be interested in plays that directly relate to their lives? 

Six Vancouver women got together in 1993 and turned their experiences into Mom’s the Word. They sat on stage, taking turns standing before the audience, telling their stories about motherhood, with full honesty and humour. 

It toured the world, playing 2500 performances to more than a million people. 

Didn’t artistic directors have their eyes pop at this, thinking “Hmmm.... theatre by women! Theatre about women! There seems to be something there!” Didn’t they hear the ch-ching, ch-ching of the box office? 

no revolution followed in their wake

There was no ensuing wave of shows by and about women. 

Good art speaks to anyone, whether it crosses demographics or not. But even if an AD feared that a show by women would only appeal to women... what’s the harm in playing to 80% of the audience? 

That 80% wanted more. The creators wrote and performed Mom’s the Word 2 - Unhinged. That was a massive hit too. 

Still no revolution followed in their wake. 

Why not? 

One of the most frustrating things about being an actor is waiting for the giant machine to let you practice your craft. 

What do you do when you’re not one of the blessed few who’s just (it seems) automatically cast in show after show? 

Create your own. Give yourself the work. Cultivate your voice. Get your ideas up on stage for as many people as you can. If you start getting cast more, awesome. If you don’t, then create another show. Build on what you learned with the last one. 

And again. 

And again. 

And if at the end of it all the ADs and casting directors never honoured you with their blessings, then what are you left with? Just a rich body of work that expresses your ideas, in your own voice.

Women are rising. Girls regularly outperform boys in school. They’re getting more university degrees. Women retrain more readily and adapt better than men as some industries die and others are born as the world changes. Things will look very different in fifty years. Women are taking over. 

The infrastructure that’s supported the traditional theatre model has been crumbling. This has fuelled a growing culture of self-created theatre. 

There’s a kind of chocolate and peanut-butter thing happening, as this circumstance combines with the fertile and under-explored field of women’s experiences. 

More brave souls are treading the path laid down by women like the Mom’s the Word creators. 

Case in point: five women are mining their lives to make a new show: Motherload. New generation. New stories. It premieres at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 2015. 

They’ve got an Indiegogo campaign to pay for nannies as they write this December (funding bodies don’t give money to new collectives). Read their perks - they’re my favourite I’ve read on any campaign. Help them if you can. 

Be a part of the revolution. It’s coming anyway. 

*  *  *  *  *  
On a related point, here’s something I just read in Margaret Laurence’s memoir Dance on the Earth:

Writing by women, in those and the following years, was generally regarded by critics and reviewers in this country with at best an amused tolerance, at worst a dismissive shrug. It still makes me angry how thoroughly I had been brainwashed by society, despite having been greatly encouraged by two of my male professors at college, whom I bless to this day. But when I first submitted poems to the University of Manitoba student paper, The Manitoban, I send them in under the name of Steve Lancaster. After the Lancaster bomber, and I had always liked the name Steve. I cringe with shame to recall it now. Later, I dared use my own name, but it was J.M. Wemyss, I think, not Jean Margaret. In one of my early stories, published in the United College magazine, Vox, I actually used a first-person narrative, but the narrator was a man. How long, how regrettably long, it took me to find my true voice as a woman writer. In my first novel This Side Jordan, published in 1960, I described the birth of Miranda Kestoe’s child from the point of view of Johnnie Kestoe, the child’s father. How could I have done? How could I have been so stupid, so self-doubting? I find it hard to understand. At that point I had borne two children, but women writers had virtually no models in describing birth, or sex, from a woman’s view. We had all read many women writers, of course, but I had found no one who described sex or birth as they really were for women. I, who had experienced such joy with sex, such anguish and joy in the birth of my children, not only didn’t have the courage to describe these crucial experiences; it didn’t even occur to me to do so. 

One of the reviews that appeared when This Side Jordan came out has stayed in my mind all these years. “Ho hum,” the male reviewer said (or words to that effect). “Why must we always have the obligatory birth scene in novels written by women?” Unwittingly, that dolt helped me begin a kind of self-liberation in the area of writing. I was furious. It was fine for male writers to portray unending scenes of violence, blood, and gore in the service of destruction and death. It was swell for some male writers to drone on interminably about the boring masturbation of their protagonists, or how they screwed a multiplicity of faceless women. But it was not all right, apparently, for a woman writer to speak of the miraculous beginnings of human life. Obviously, something was pretty crazy here. 

My novels are not exactly dotted with birth scenes, but after that I never hesitated to write about birth, and I never did so again except from the viewpoint of the mother. I like to think that in some ways my generation of women novelists may have helped younger women writers to speak with women’s voices about sex and death.


  1. Amy Blackmore, MontrealNovember 10, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    Thanks for the post TJ. You've given me some things to think about!


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