Play summaries from the festivals and reviews from The Globe and Mail
Shaw's 'girlies' are doing just fine
Women are playing a bigger role than ever at the annual theatre festival. Does this reflect a wider trend? KATE TAYLOR asks
By KATE TAYLOR
|Clockwise from the top: Shaw Festival |
production director Lesley MacMillan,
managing director Colleen Blake,
veteran actress Wendy Thatcher,
and Jackie Maxwell, the festival's next
Photo: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
May 11, 2002
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. - Call it the year of the woman at the Shaw Festival.
Jackie Maxwell is already on the scene, set to become the most prominent female theatre director in English Canada when she takes over from outgoing artistic director Christopher Newton at the end of this season. She'll lead a backstage team that's already packed with women, from managing director Colleen Blake to production director Lesley MacMillan.
On stage, the 2002 playbill features two shows with all-female casts: Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba at the Court House Theatre and the thriller The Old Ladies, at the Royal George. And at the main Festival Theatre, works by Bernard Shaw offer some meaty parts for the company's actresses, including the title roles in Candida and Caesar and Cleopatra.
Do developments at the festival represent a trend?
"Women have made a huge movement in the theatre," observed veteran Shaw Festival actress Wendy Thatcher. "When I started, all the directors were men."
Thatcher was part of a recent conversation initiated by The Globe about women's role in theatre and at the festival, which also included Maxwell, Blake and MacMillan. Of the four, the 52-year-old Thatcher was perhaps the most aware of past discrimination, recalling the bad old days in Canadian theatre in the 1970s when on-stage nudity was popular: Actresses were routinely asked to audition naked for male directors while the actors where spared that ordeal.
The 44-year-old MacMillan, on the other hand, detected no sexism as she has established a career in the production area traditionally dominated by male technicians.
"Early in my career, I was intimidated walking onto a stage where 30 technicians were fitting the lights," she said. "[But] you connect to people and find their humanity, like in any department."
Both Blake, 53, and Maxwell, 46, agreed that as young women, working as a stage manager and director respectively, they had to prove themselves to colleagues.
"As a younger woman director, especially when I moved into the bigger houses and had to deal with all-male tech crews, there was a sense, `What's the girlie gonna do here?' " Maxwell said.
The girlies, as things turned out, did just fine, and all four agree that today their relations with their male colleagues are easy and equitable.
On stage, the issue is more complex, especially for a classical theatre company such as the festival. If Shaw wrote some powerful parts for women, such as the title roles in Saint Joan and Mrs. Warren's Profession, the reality is that a company dedicated to plays of the late-19th and early 20th century is going to perform works written by men and dominated by male characters.
"It's very much on my mind," Maxwell said. She hopes the festival's recent expansion of its mandate to cover not only plays written during Shaw's lifetime (1856-1950) but also ones about the period will allow her to include more female experience on stage.
And, she already has a few little-known period scripts written by women up her directorial sleeve - plays by the American satirist Dawn Powell, or Cicily Hamilton's Diana of Dobson's, for example. She is also looking not merely for plays that have good female roles in them, as Newton has done before her, but also for different types of parts.
"It's not just gender," she said. For example, festival actresses, so accustomed to producing upright British maids and matrons, benefited from a change of pace playing the hot-blooded Southern American women in Picnic, the William Inge drama Maxwell directed so successfully last year.
"It was different acting muscles," she said. "There was an overt sensuality that had to be played in that piece." Similarly, The House of Bernarda Alba has catapulted seven actresses into a new world.
"All of the women are looking for their duende," Maxwell laughs, referring to the Spanish term for one's inner goddess. "They never needed their duende before."
Stretching the repertoire may help the careers of middle-aged actresses such as Thatcher, who can be torn between playing old ladies (as she is this season in The Old Ladies) and not working at all. She and Maxwell explain that the roles for women in the classical repertoire dry up after 40 - although the situation is even worse in film where nobody is interested in a woman over 40 - but then improve again after 60. (Think of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell.) This leaves those in midlife with few parts that reflect their real age.
"There is this big fear of playing older women that you are going to get stuck, and you're going, `I don't want to be there.' I'm not there yet," Thatcher said. "But the thing is you are an actor and you should be able to go there and explore it." These days she feels as if she is playing an ingénue anyway, so naive is Miss Beringer, her character in The Old Ladies.
Meanwhile, there are also limitations at the other end of the age spectrum, where there are so many roles for which only the pretty need apply that those who aren't never go into theatre in the first place.
"Who are our Josie Hogans?" asks Maxwell, referring to the large, shambling outcast in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten. Still, she also sees young actresses coming along who don't necessarily fit the beautiful ingénue mould, and cites Toronto's Kristen Thomson as a performer who is courageous enough to use her body in less-than-pretty ways on stage.
"They are attractive young women, but they have angle and shape," she said.
And most of all, they have self-confidence. She and Blake, both of them mothers of a pair of daughters, see huge changes in an up-and-coming generation who assume they have the right to any career they want.
"It's a fascinating subject," Blake concluded. "And I can hardly wait for the day we don't have to talk about it."