“What happened to ‘Hear Me Roar’?” Part 1
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard onstage with Belladonna and the Awakening at Toronto Rape Crisis benefit
by Lindsay Schwietz
In December I wrote about the lack of women in artistic leadership positions in theatre in Canada. With women holding only around 30% of playwright, artistic director and director positions in PACT theatres – in general, the larger the theatre company the less the women – I was upset. There is such an enormous amount of women in Canada training in the arts, believing in their craft and working hard to make a career in theatre, and it is difficult for me to accept that the opportunities are not there to develop their art. I was disheartened until I decided to sit down with some of the women who are in that 30% in Toronto. What are those women’s experiences working in theatre? What do they believe about the status of women? What are their views on feminism as it relates to their work as artists?
I chose to interview four women in Toronto who are successful in both the independent theatre scene and in some of the larger theatres. They are playwrights, directors, performers, artistic directors, and general managers. They have all chosen to create their own work for various reasons. They are all strong women who believe in what they do and work hard to achieve their goals. They are: Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, Erin Shields, Beatriz Pizano and Kelly Straughan.
Donna Michelle-St Bernard
Because of the stigma attached to the word, women being quiet about their feminist views seems to be a trend in Toronto at the moment. Not for Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. “What happened to ‘Hear Me Roar’?” St. Bernard says. She is a feminist and proud of it. “I’m holding on to the word – I’m not letting it go.” St. Bernard is a playwright, emcee, and the general manager of Native Earth Performing Arts. Working on her goal to write a 54-play series – one play for every country in Africa – and a physical ‘monument of women’ which is still in the conceptual phase, she is focusing on doing more work for women.
When the PACT report came out, she was most interested in the high number of women in administrative roles versus the low amount in artistic roles. She wondered whether many women chose the administrative work when the opportunities were lacking to use their artistic side. “It calls to mind the number of women who work in arts administration who feel stigmatized by their administrative practice and feel it harder to break through the perception of them as administrators to be artists,” St. Bernard says. “For me my practice is a whole person practice. People like to treat my administrative brain and my artistic brain as separate entities, but I’m a whole person.”
Now that the independent theatre scene in Toronto is thriving, more women are able to use both sides of their skills. “You have all these women who have a quiet artistic practice, who’ve now bolstered up their administrative capacities. I feel that is the root of all these independent companies being started by women. ‘I have this skill and I have this skill’,” says St. Bernard. “In theory, in the past it wasn’t that easy or conventional to just start a company to do your work.”
“We need to start validating and valuing independent work done by women because at this moment, independent theatre is our territory,” she says. “The environment is ripe for all these independent companies – for one-off shows. And it’s not just that we can do them. It’s the fact that the press will review a show by a company they’ve never heard of, and the professional community will come out and see what we’re doing even if it didn’t come up through their ranks. In that way I feel really positive about the empowerment of women in the arts.”
In her own work, St. Bernard is completely content with what she is doing and how she is doing it. “The theatre I make happens where I want it to happen in the way I want it to happen. I’m perfectly satisfied. And I’m successful by my definition, in the work that I’m putting out, who’s coming to see it and what the response is to it.” She measures her own success her own way, and does not need the larger theatre houses to validate her. That being said, St. Bernard is conflicted; it still angers her that there is not more artistic work for women in the big theatres. She isn’t producing work at the big theatres because she feels they are not a good fit for one another, but she wishes that were more of a choice rather than something imposed on her and many other women. “I don’t want to be there. But I don’t want to not be there because I’m not wanted there.”
Despite this conflict, what is really important for St. Bernard is being able to do her work and speak up for women’s rights. “Those of us who have the capacity to have voice have the responsibility to carry voice,” she says.
Erin Sheilds and Maev Beaty in Montparnasse
“In my theatre program there were maybe 70% women and 30% men, but we were doing Shakespeare and Chekhov and all these plays where there were so many more male characters.” Starting as an actor, Shields was enraged at the disproportionate roles for men versus women, and she has seen many women quit because it is too hard to find work.
The answer was to create work for herself and in the past few years Shields has worked her way from the Fringe, to Summerworks, to having her play If We Were Birds on the main stage at the Tarragon this season. “It was always in my brain when writing that I wanted to make a lot of roles for women because I think that’s the way to change things – make good work, and make work where there are lots of women onstage, behind stage and lots of women everywhere.”
Shields notes that theatre training is really centered on “the history of dead white guys”, and that women are expected to adapt to this to survive. “Women are more accommodating in terms of listening to men’s stories. We’re used to hearing men’s stories and thinking of them in terms of ourselves… I can see myself in Hamlet and I can see myself in Othello and I can see myself in Lear. I can identify with these characters. Men have a more difficult time doing that because they haven’t really had to.”
Although not scared to use the term ‘feminist’ in terms of the greater discourse, Shields doesn’t tend to use the word because she feels it puts women in a cage, and suggests that labeling a piece ‘feminist’ can alienate many audience members who could otherwise be moved by it. “It puts up a warning that says ‘oh this doesn’t relate to me’ – for men and for women,” she says. “It can make people disconnect from the get go… you can look at this as a voyeur, but this doesn’t affect you.”
Shields says she is tired of being labeled a ‘female’ playwright. “I guess we have to do that still,” Shields says. She’d rather a world where she is simply a playwright, and it’s just about the art. “If you think of women playwrights who have been very successful, I think they are poets who transcend the women’s stories, but aren’t afraid to have women’s stories. They write plays that are human, not just female.”
Stay tuned for part two, which will include my interviews with Beatriz Pizano and Kelly Straughan.