“What happened to ‘Hear Me Roar’?” Part 2
(l-r) Rosa Laborde, Carlos González-Vió and Zarrin Darnell-Martin in Beatriz Pizano’s La Comunión
by Lindsay Schwietz
In part two I continue my discussions with four women who are working in theatre in Toronto – their views on the status of women, feminism, and their experiences working in theatre. In part one I interviewed Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Erin Shields.
Beatriz Pizano is feeling good about the status of women in Canadian theatre. “It’s very exciting for me. I see a lot of women emerging as writers and directors. When there are obstacles there is a greater opportunity for another kind of art to emerge. You either forget about doing anything or you do something about it.”
For Pizano, though, being a woman wasn’t the issue – being a culturally diverse artist was. When she came to Toronto in 1991-92 it was really hard for her to find work and make it as an actor. The desire to create her own work came from the lack of opportunities for her to tell the stories she wanted in the ways she wanted. “I think it’s very important to support women doing their own work. If you wait for someone to offer you a job – I’m not interested in that.”
Pizano is a playwright, a director, an actor, and the Artistic Director of Aluna Theatre, a Colombian-Canadian Toronto-based theatre company. She travels regularly to international theatre festivals and is heading to Bogota, Colombia in November to attend a women’s festival. “I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I collaborate with some amazing women, specifically in Colombia, who have taught me a lot about women who fight for other women – women who have death threats because a certain group considers it feminist. They continue to do theatre because they believe in what they’re doing.”
However, it is not about politics for Pizano, or trying to push a political view, it is about telling the story and giving a voice to those who can’t be heard. “When I write I don’t think I’m writing for women. That gives me a lot of freedom. I’m looking for an individual and a story… they are women’s voices because I am a woman. But they are voices regardless. I want this story to be heard. Maybe one person who sees that has the power to do something. Or we become more aware of what is happening in the world.”
The most important thing for Pizano is to have conviction in what you say you believe in and respect the art and theatre. “I’m in a place in my life where I know I’m changing things with what I’m doing. If I can change one thing then I’ve done a good job,” she says. As one of two recipients of the 2010 John Hirsch Prizes, from the Canada Council – a prize awarded every second year to emerging professional theatre directors – Pizano is being recognized for the changes she is speaking about. The jury spoke of Pizano as “one of the most important directorial innovators in a landscape of new developing artists in Canada. We recognize her ability to galvanize her community with a proactive commitment to process and production.”
This proactive commitment also includes working with younger women. “I love mentoring young women because I learn a lot from them. They experience a world that I no longer experience. I learn a lot from them about how they see the world nowadays. I find young women now are at a much better place than I was at that age. It took me a whole lifetime to figure out what I wanted and women in their twenties are running programs and coming up with so many ideas.”
For Kelly Straughan, it always starts from the art. “Loving the way women write, women’s stories, working with women. If it doesn’t start from the art then I think it’s really hard to keep it going,” she says. “It’s too difficult to do what we do and not really feel moved by the content.”
Straughan is a director, former Assistant Artistic Director at Tarragon, and current Artistic Director of Seventh Stage Productions, a Toronto theatre company that focuses on telling stories about women, by women, and for everyone. Their most recent production, 9 Parts of Desire, showcased the lives of a cross-section of Iraqi women. Seventh Stage Productions started as a collaboration between Melissa-Jane Shaw and Rosa Laborde, bringing Straughan on board after she completed her Masters in Vancouver. “It came out of discussions [Shaw and Laborde] were having and things they were noticing in theatre. They were seeing so many talented women not working enough and finding it difficult to find female leaders.”
Straughan’s training and education were in a very male environment. She had some wonderful mentors, but they were always men and the content that they gave her to work with was very male in its influence and dynamic. Although she learned a lot, she says it was really Shaw and Laborde that made her start to realize that things could be different. “It took me a while to ask – is there a different way? How are women writing? Is there a difference here?”
Her experiences with Seventh Stage Productions have made her look at how content can be influenced by gender.
“It’s not an overt problem anymore. For many years it was an overt problem. Women were actively on the sidelines. Now it’s beneath the surface. We have to look at the fabric of how plays are chosen. What is the nature of art? How do theatres program a season? What are audiences used to seeing? That’s the hardest to actively combat against,” Straughan says. “I don’t ever feel oppressed by men… but the problem is you pick art based on what speaks to you. You can’t help be moved by something that’s in your life experience… as a director you have to be able to get to the heart of the material. So if it truly does not speak to you then it’s really hard to direct it. I do not blame male artistic directors for picking material that speaks to them or excites them.”
This is where women can help each other out. Straughan suggests that being strong together and supportive for other women is really important in order to produce work in Toronto. “I really feel that in my age range, we are really trying to help each other succeed in whatever way we can.” Seventh Stage Productions is in connection with other feminist theatres in places like New York, and Nightwood Theatre in Toronto. “We’re only stronger together,” Straughan says. “We’re always actively trying to take the pool of women who are concerned about this and make sure that we are unified, so we’re never acting against them.”
Looking at the personal stories and opinions of women working in theatre provides important context when studying the PACT statistics on the lack of women in artistic leadership positions. Although these statistics are at first shocking, there is a thriving independent theatre community with women creating their own work. Women working as directors, artistic directors and playwrights in the larger PACT theatres going forward will be vital in ensuring women’s voices are heard by a wide range of theatre-goers. However, the definition of success or failure is no longer dependent on these theatres alone.
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, Erin Shields, Beatriz Pizano and Kelly Straughan, are all examples of women who have created careers in theatre by creating opportunities for themselves. Whatever the motivation – be it giving voice to those who don’t have a voice, story-telling, making art, or writing plays to create more opportunities for women – these four artists are among many women who create theatre in this country so they can delve into the issues that are important to them.
When interviewed, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard said “it’s the responsibility not only for the theatre community to value women in the arts, but for the arts to value women in the community.” This is why giving greater voice and creative control to female artists can make theatre better. It’s a way to tell stories and represent women from a female perspective, leading to a greater diversity of authentic voices on our stages, and this diversity can only help us build better plays, and stronger audiences.
Lindsay Schwietz is a freelance writer in Toronto and a semi-regular contributor to praxistheatre.com.