“Today, all-women anything is still considered a statement,” says Grace Jackson, the director of Tuesday Night Cafe (TNC) Theatre’s upcoming production, The Yellow Wallpaper.
In just two weeks, McGill’s TNC Theatre will premiere its 2014-15 season. Each of the season’s five plays explores relationships and characters that are a little unusual, whether it be the intimate pen pals of Dear Elizabeth or chauvinistic men in the alternate universe of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame. The six directors are also part of something a little unusual offstage: a theatre season that features all women directors.
Laura Orozco, a member of the TNC Theatre executive team and the co-director of Monster, explained that having all women directors was accidental. “I think the fact that we are all women is an exciting reflection of the female talent on the McGill campus,” she said.
“It’s exciting and really beautiful,” echoed Shanti Gonzales in her interview with a big smile. Gonzales is directing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Conversations with each director quickly turned to why having all women directors still stands out as uncommon. The directors all agreed that theatre was a man’s game for a long time, and that women still don’t dominate in the arts. We live in a society where some would dispute that six women directors is the result of a merit-based decision. This is hardly surprising, considering that one of the most-watched arts awards shows, the Academy Awards, has only ever honoured one female director in all of its eighty years.
“This year we can dominate and that may seem a little weird, but it also seems good and right,” said Alison Vanderkruyk, the writer and director of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.
When asked about the relevance of gender to their theatre experience, the directors spoke of their gender as both empowering and inhibiting. Gonzales, who also runs her own theatre company, stressed the difficulties of directing as a young woman of colour.
“I’ve been written off before because of my gender, because of my race,” Gonzales told The Daily.
Orozco, in contrast, spoke of her gender as enabling. “What I love about theatre is its emotional expressiveness and how we can use our emotions and our bodies to share stories that communicate so much,” Orozco said. “I think that as women we are sometimes given more of a privilege to share stories.”
Vanderkruyk emphasized the profound influence of female role models in her life who helped her understand theatre as a tool for personal and artistic growth. Similarly, Jackson answered that while she has never experienced personal barriers as a woman in theatre, she still takes a keen interest in gender. She chose to direct an adaptation of a feminist short story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. The play tells the story of Jane, a woman confined to a single room by her husband who diagnoses her with temporary nervous depression. In her confinement, Jane develops an obsession with the room’s yellow wallpaper.
Jackson thinks it’s her life purpose to raise awareness about the issues around women and mental health. “In school we talk about race theory, queer theory, feminist theory, but we rarely focus on mental health. Historically, mental illness has been used to oppress and to dismiss women,” Jackson said. “The conversation I want to start is about how we treat people with mental health problems.”
While the rest of the plays in TNC Theatre’s 2014-15 season are not explicitly feminist, each show this year possesses themes of intense and traumatic relationships, both individual and societal. These plays discuss both the causes and effects of physical and emotional abuse, exploring issues of identity that are inextricable from gender roles.
Similar to Jackson, Orozco has a profound interest in how gender relates to mental health issues, and she hopes to go into social work to explore that interest. Daniel MacIvor’s Monster, the dark, one-person play that she is co-directing with Dilan Nebioglu, also touches on mental illness, exploring overlaid identities and how relationships can haunt us.
“Adam, the protagonist, is grappling with issues surrounding addiction and parental responsibility, and his way of sussing out those different struggles in himself reflect[s] back on the people who have informed the way that he is,” Orozco explained. “It plays with where your parents live inside of you physically and emotionally.” Orozco is challenging traditional notions of identity even in the casting of the play – she will be portraying the protagonist Adam, a typically male character.
While Monster is one person’s exploration of his complicated relationships, Look Back in Anger will tell both sides of a dysfunctional married couple’s story. Gonzales, the director, hopes the play will start a conversation about emotional abuse.
“If I ever met someone like [the male lead] Jimmy, I don’t even know [what] I would do. He’s this horrible person but at the same time, everyone relates to him,” said Gonzales. “To put the audience in that situation of relating to the perpetuator of emotional abuse is powerful.”
Vanderkruyk will also explore the psyche of horrible characters, to the point where the audience can’t simply classify them as good or bad people. Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, written by Vanderkruyk herself, is partially adapted from the poetry of Charles Bukowski. Vanderkruyk uses lines from Bukowski’s poetry as the foundation for her play’s disconnected world. In an alternate universe, three elderly men deal with the emotional aftermath of their experience in war.
“I flipped through the book [of Bukowski’s poetry] and everything seemed to be dirty and angry and saturated with alcohol, and there’s a man who cannot ejaculate no matter what substances he tries to put in him or what women he tries to distract himself with,” said Vanderkruyk. “And I was somehow really fascinated by that because I’ve always been fascinated by chauvinism.”
Fascinated with chauvinism? Really? Really, says Vanderkruyk.
“That sounds strange but every single time I’m having a conversation with friends of mine who are very eloquent feminists, I for some reason always find myself defending the other side, even though I completely agree with what they’re saying. For some reason I always feel compelled to give reasons for why men act the way they do, which is sometimes shitty and terrible and completely evil, but there’s something more,” she explained.
As a self-identified feminist, Vanderkruyk admits that if she were to converse with Bukowski things would end in a brawl. But she doesn’t dismiss Bukowski’s chauvinism as simple. “We are all trying to figure out where we stand in a world that has a lot more going on than just male and female; there are also different sexualities, and it goes a lot deeper than men and women, with or against each other.”
Perhaps the most thematically distant play of the season is Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth, directed by Marina Miller. Based entirely on over 300 pages of correspondance between two poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and on their poetry, the play explores a very different kind of relationship, that rarely gets much stage time: friends of different genders. “I think it’s important to remember that we can have these really intense relationships [that] aren’t necessarily romantic,” Miller told The Daily. In stark contrast to Vanderkruyk, Miller will be bringing her perspective to a play about a very strong woman.
The intense relationship in Miller’s play is definitely the only enviable one amongst the fraught relationships presented across TNC Theatre’s plays this season. Whether starting difficult conversations or recreating distant poetic ones, TNC Theatre’s 2014-15 season will be unique in showcasing a diverse range of female perspectives. Get ready theatre-goers, it’s going to be a challenging, exhausting, and satisfying year.
Monster, co-directed by Lauren Orozco and Dilan Nebioglu, runs October 15-18 and 22-25 in Morrice Hall. Shows start at 8 p.m., and tickets are $6 for students/seniors and $10 general admission. Check out tuesdaynightcafe.com for other play listings throughout the year.