Masculinity and Beyond

Masculinity and Beyond

I recently wrote a blog post about the limited definition of “femininity” and how it reinforces the gendered stereotypes of submissive women and dominant men. It was a useful exercise, but I realized that there was a huge gap in the conversation – how does the definition of “masculinity” inform what men and women grow up thinking about their identities? “Masculinity never exists by itself. It exists in relation to femininity” (The Evolving Man).  With this blog post, I am interested in expanding the limited definitions of both words through the stories we tell.

I blame a lot of things on ‘the patriarchy.’ I want to have someone or something to blame. I want to think that if women had ruled the earth since the dawn of civilization, that things would be different; there would be more racial and gender equality, the environment wouldn’t be in peril and wealth would be distributed, not concentrated. I’m not sure if this if this would be the case, and sadly, there is no way to find out.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. I acknowledge that the social, financial and environmental challenges we face today were built collectively over the course of thousands of years by men and women. Equally true is that our collective successes must acknowledge the influences surrounding every great writer, artist, cook, and inventor –  the families and communities which made their inventions possible. Our deeply entrenched patriarchal and capitalist system was built over a long time and can’t just be scrapped for something new overnight. Realistically, we can only start where we are and move from here.

So here we are, consistently filling stories with one-dimensional characters that propagate heartache and subjugation. I just finished reading the 12-page letter of the woman who was sexually assaulted by the Stanford athlete while she was inebriated and unconscious. She is articulate and brave and I appreciate her sharing her nuanced statement with her rapist, the courtroom, and the world. I think our failures, like the one of this young man who believed that he was entitled to her body, have everything to do with the characters we present in our stories.

The reason I work in at Imago Theatre is because I believe that storytelling has the potential to change the way people think. The alternative perspectives presented in successful theatre allow audience members to see the world through different lenses, and there is nothing more powerful than this. I believe that in order to encourage a change towards greater equality of gender, culture, age, class, bodies and species, we need to witness varying perspectives. Stories allow us to do this in a safe way.  Let’s start here.

Let’s start telling stories where white men are not the only ones depicted in positions of power. Let’s start telling stories where men are depicted as engaged in a community and family, and are not competing for money and sex. Let’s start telling stories where men express their emotions and reach out to their friends for support. Let’s start telling stories where domination is not sole measures of achievement and where men share, welcome and connect. Let’s start telling stories where being a leader means working with and for others.

Here is a painful example of how damaging male archetypes get entrenched at a young age:

That video breaks my heart every time.

I do not know the answer to the question of – nature and/or nurture, but based on the many men I know in my life, I do not believe that men are inherently aggressive and dominating. I think this is just the story we’ve been telling for far too long, which has allowed some men to think this identity is acceptable. So why do we continue telling stories validating alpha male archetypes?

“The dominant form of masculinity in Western culture embodies men’s social power over women. It emphasized force, authority, aggressiveness” (The Evolving Man).  The Vin Diesels will always play ‘manly’ heroes. They will express little emotion in their films. Their heroine counterparts will be rough around the edges, smart, but conventionally hot and still secondary to them. Our heroes will often kill bad guys that get in the way of their heroic journey. These casualties will be justified by their ultimate achievements. The prize at the end will be money, power and hot, hetero sex where tight bodies glisten with golden sweat as the credits roll.  I think I’ve seen that movie one thousand times.

So why are we obsessed with this alpha-male character? I think we’re afraid of the alternatives. Firstly, anyone can tell a story about a dominant, white male. This archetype is in the public domain for all to use and overuse while other archetypes lie dormant and waiting. There is a long queue of sensitive, outspoken, collaborative and intuitive male archetypes waiting for their spot in the sun. We know the alpha-male is safe and sells tickets. So why are we afraid of depicting so many other characters? The appropriation of voice? Offending the audience with the unusual?

During the long-table discussion during Her Side of the Story: An Encounter, theatre artists discussed the feminine perspective on stage. I made a comment about the female perspectives in theatre still being considered risky. Why try something different if you’re not sure how it is going to go over? I think this is the justification many storytellers, theatre creators included, use to justify repetitive storytelling. A young theatre artist responded to my comment, ‘Since when has theatre not been risky?’ Implying, in part, that if theatre isn’t shaking somebody, it’s not doing its job. Not that theatre should be gratuitously offensive, but I agree, if people feel uncomfortable along the line of telling a well rounded story, good!

No matter which perspective is in question, we face the danger of telling a single story. Our white, dominant, alpha male archetype has been so prominent it has bled onto various other skin tones, promoting the same type of dominant attitudes and entitlement in men outside of the initial type-cast. The alpha male has its place – sitting in and amongst various other male perspectives. Perhaps the simple act of giving these other archetypes some stage time will encourage a shift in our limited definition of masculinity.

I’m down for an experiment. Let’s try.

Her Side of the Story | Jillian Keiley

Her Side of the Story | Jillian Keiley

This post is part of a series for our Her Side of the Story encounter, May 13-14 2016 located at the National Theatre School of Canada. We invited theatre artists from across Canada to reflect on how their work in theatre is influenced by their perspective as women. Are they conscious of promoting a “feminine perspective” or is it something that is intuitive? Imago Theatre would like to thank all of the artists who responded to our questions for their thoughtful, insightful responses. We will be sharing these responses on our blog for the first two weeks of May. We will also be creating a publication of selected quotes, which will be available for free at the Her Side of the Story readings, long-table discussion, and cabaret.


Jillian Keiley

 

Every story is informed and changed by the influence of the storyteller.   Since time immemorial the privilege of perspective in theatre has been given to men.  They have been allowed the right to be the observers, the commentators and the storytellers almost exclusively.   We know that stories, true and invented,  are what make up our societies:  all politics, all passions, all ethics and moral codes.  There is no doubt in my mind about that.  So what kind of society excludes the perspective of half the population?   Think about all of the truths that we have not been offered!   All the perspectives that are missing in the story of our world!   Women theatre makers have a lot of work to do now and in the future to make up for the perspectives that have been lost in our past.   We are living in exciting times with those perspectives being brought forth through the fierce talent and dedication that women theatre makers are bringing to their work.

Her Side of the Story | Sally Clark

Her Side of the Story | Sally Clark

This post is part of a series for our Her Side of the Story encounter, May 13-14 2016 located at the National Theatre School of Canada. We invited theatre artists from across Canada to reflect on how their work in theatre is influenced by their perspective as women. Are they conscious of promoting a “feminine perspective” or is it something that is intuitive? Imago Theatre would like to thank all of the artists who responded to our questions for their thoughtful, insightful responses. We will be sharing these responses on our blog for the first two weeks of May. We will also be creating a publication of selected quotes, which will be available for free at the Her Side of the Story readings, long-table discussion, and cabaret.


Sally Clark

What does the feminine perspective mean to you?

When I was in my twenties, I had a close female friend who acted in contemporary mainstream plays. I noticed that she usually played the part of the nice girlfriend of the male lead who was having troubles. My friend had dreamed of playing the big dramatic roles that she had studied in theatre school but the reality of the situation was that those roles didn’t seem to exist in contemporary plays. I decided that I would write a play for my friend. That is how I started writing plays with strong women as the protagonists.

I was mistaken in thinking that there were no good roles for women at that time. Toronto had brilliant female playwrights like Carol Bolt who were writing very exciting roles for women.  I had just moved to Toronto from Vancouver so I wasn’t familiar with the Toronto theatre scene.

To me, in theatre, a feminine perspective should be no different from a masculine perspective. Drama is about conflict. The main character is supposed to be in conflict with other characters or outside forces and if it’s a comedy- s/he wins and if it’s a tragedy- s/he loses. But if your protagonist is a woman and she loses, then she’s not viewed as a tragic hero but as a victim. Why is that? I think it’s more about our social responses to the play than the play itself.

RE: Feminine and Masculine perspectives on stage

Many of our perceptions of plays are based on the cultural mores of the time in which we see them. I had never liked Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House.” I had seen several productions and I thought of Nora as a weak, simpering, scheming woman and her husband, Torvald, as a pompous bore. I saw a production in Vancouver last year that completely changed my views of the play. (Slamming Door Artists Collective- directed by Tamara McCarthy) It emphasized the sexuality of the marriage and the play took on new dimensions that were never apparent to me, before. Theatre is a miracle in that you can revisit an old story and discover new truths, whereas, in film, the story is trapped in the attitudes of its time period.

What stories need the most telling?

I used to want to write about strong extraordinary women because I didn’t think there were enough stories written about them. Now I find that I look for stories that interest me. It no longer matters whether the protagonist is male or female.

Her Side of the Story | Reneltta Arluk

Her Side of the Story | Reneltta Arluk

This post is part of a series for our Her Side of the Story encounter, May 13-14 2016 located at the National Theatre School of Canada. We invited theatre artists from across Canada to reflect on how their work in theatre is influenced by their perspective as women. Are they conscious of promoting a “feminine perspective” or is it something that is intuitive? Imago Theatre would like to thank all of the artists who responded to our questions for their thoughtful, insightful responses. We will be sharing these responses on our blog for the first two weeks of May. We will also be creating a publication of selected quotes, which will be available for free at the Her Side of the Story readings, long-table discussion, and cabaret.


Reneltta Arluk

What does the female perspective mean to you?

It starts with how I approach a story as an audience member, whether that be in a play, a book, a conversation. I settle in. Often it’s a better listen. What I mean by that is in these plays, books, and conversations there is a desire to connect. To connect to a place of revealing, of sharing a situation that includes not only the person speaking but what is inspiring that woman to speak out. When we follow a male protagonist we can tend to hear his singular voice and his journey. When you follow a female protagonist often you follow the journeys of who is important to her, situations that affect her, wanting to understand others around her. The picture is contextually bigger and therefore there is more to dive into. Not saying male writers or men are less divulging but the conversation is different. Men primarily have the heard voice in many situations so there is a less need for them to explore outwards but tend bring the story to them.

Is it important to have the feminine perspective on stage? If so, why?

Of course it’s important. For one thing population. We are not less in population so therefore our perspective should not be less on stage being represented. The other reason it’s important is to have the perspective shared directly. We as humans cannot empathize with other cultures, people, histories, lives without hearing their personal perspective. We can read and study to learn outside our realities but often it’s through the observance of another person. It becomes an interpretation rather than a perspective. There is more gained by experiencing a play from a connected perspective rather than a speculative one.

How do you approach your work as a female practitioner? Does the feminine perspective inform your work?

As a minority and a woman the work becomes a balance of expressing your individual voice but also taking into consideration the representative voice. I ask myself the question, “Does this character have a greater message than just the words she’s speaking?” It can be a fine line because as a minority and as a woman I don’t want to weaken the character for the politics or the education; but I still want to have a greater vision be heard through her. I think about how my work can feed into creating a better understanding of the Indigenous world, the northern world, the female world, the underprivileged world…then I go fuck it and write what my guts tell me to and trust the vision is there.

According to you, what stories need the most telling? How is this reflected in your practice?

We need to hear more Indigenous stories. It’s selfish to say but it’s true. We need to be a constant voice heard in all facets of society: politically, visually, artistically, musically, textually, physically, all the “lly”s. We need to because we, like the rest of Canada, do not have one perspective as a Peoples. Often we are considered or expected to have the same one. The more people who hear our stories broadens the perspective and leads to better conversations in this country. I like to think that my work as a writer and actor help initiate a better conversation.

How do you approach choosing the work? What do you look for?

I first look at the perspective or the voice that is being asked of me as an actor. Can I take on this role, do it justice, and transform the audience mind? As a writer or producer I create the perspective so then I look at what does this audience need to hear? What do I need to say? Ha ha ha. So I guess I approach choosing my work with questions and then work at answering them. I look for ways to deepen the understanding of who I am creating. There is excitement in not knowing all the answers, where the story will take you. As a writer and/or as a performer the enjoyment is digging for it.

Have you seen many changes in the theatre scene in the last couple of years? 

Absolutely. I am not sure if it’s coming from the Truth and Reconciliation that has been happening across this country or if it’s a collective consciousness for a need to change but being an Indigenous artist in this country feels brighter. It excites me that the National Arts Centre is committing to creating an Indigenous Theatre section in its company. It’s exciting that Stratford is opening its doors to Indigenous actors, directors and playwrights. These major theatrical institutions have a greater capacity to create change in our community. It’s exciting that our long time running Indigenous companies are expanding to a greater audience. Often our culture is matrilineal-based this means our women are a major part of these changes.

Can feminine and masculine perspectives co-exist on stage? Can you name a play that has succeeded in doing this?

I immediately think of Oleanna by David Mamet. I’m not entirely sure it’s a feminine and masculine perspective but it definitely challenges the male and female dynamic. It remains a play that utilizes the skills of the actors to fight for their objectives, their perspectives. That’s intriguing and remains so. I have always wanted to be cast in this play for this reason.

Can you name a male playwright who writes from the feminine perspective? If so, how do they succeed that it?

I immediately think of Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway. Tomson successfully wrote a play about seven Native women who fundraise to go to the BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD using humour, heart wrenching reveals, cutting dialogue and timeless relationships that still resonate in our country today. Having met some of the original cast members of this iconic play and having the opportunity to speak with them, I learnt that this was successful because it was collaborative. Collaborative in the way that Tomson recognized his aunties, his mother, his friends, his community, the crimes that were happening and wrote about it with  succinct composition. The characters are real because we know them, they exist still, all are diverse and have their own desires, losses, pains and flaws that make them beautifully human. Ha ha ha, I feel like I am writing a review for this play but honestly other than Les Belles Sours when have you enjoyed being the fly on the wall so much as an audience member?

Is there a play (or plays) that represents a model for the feminine perspective for you?

I think because it has been in the media lately as Kelly Allard’s day parole hearing came up regarding Reena Virk. I think of Shape of a Girl by Joan MacLeod. That play explores the various perspectives and dynamics that led to this horrific act of lateral violence as a way to try and understand it, be sickened by it, empathize with it. This play asks you to put yourself in all the shoes.

Ask me if I want more reasons to go to theatre and what would inspire me to do that! (I’ll pretend you did.)

Tell me more stories I haven’t heard. I think new work is greatly underrated in this country. We rely too heavily on the confirmed successes and our country suffers because of it. It suffers artistically but also collectively because these new works reflect a broader perspective of who we are becoming. Underrated and underfunded. Offer a space to a perspective that isn’t male dominated and then sell season tickets. Go see a play written from another cultural perspective than your own and buy their play. Be the minority and appreciate it. I certainly do.

Mahsi,

Reneltta Arluk

Her Side of the Story | Melissa Bull

Her Side of the Story | Melissa Bull

This post is part of a series for our Her Side of the Story encounter, May 13-14 2016 located at the National Theatre School of Canada. We invited theatre artists from across Canada to reflect on how their work in theatre is influenced by their perspective as women. Are they conscious of promoting a “feminine perspective” or is it something that is intuitive? Imago Theatre would like to thank all of the artists who responded to our questions for their thoughtful, insightful responses. We will be sharing these responses on our blog for the first two weeks of May. We will also be creating a publication of selected quotes, which will be available for free at the Her Side of the Story readings, long-table discussion, and cabaret.


Melissa Bull

Love Consists in This – Translating My Sister’s Play, La recette de baklawas

Melissa Bull

Melissa Bull

Pascale Rafie

Pascale Rafie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My half-sister, the franco-Lebanese writer Pascale Rafie, is seventeen years older than I am. I was just a kid when she studied playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

When I was five or six years old she’d scoot me around town on her violet Peugeot. I’d sit up on her seat, holding my legs out from the back wheel, clutching her hips as she pedaled standing up. She’d take to me every theatre in town, to plays suited to my age, to grown up plays, and backstage at her own productions, where our brother (her full, my half), Bruno Rafie, often did lights. She read me drafts of her children’s play, Charlotte Sicotte, on the morning of our mother’s third marriage. She gave me my first typewriter. It was a mangled monstrosity from the Industrial Age. A Royal. The letter e was always off.

Pascale is my half-sister, officially, but she’s also 100 per cent my real, genuine, totally-my-sister sister. Some chronology, for context. Pascale’s father, Marcel, moved from Lebanon to Quebec City in the late 1950s to study social sciences at Laval University, where he met our mother. (Marcel would go on to become a sociology professor.) Our mother, an artist and art educator, met my father, Rob, an Irish Protestant from Toronto, at Sir Winston Churchill pub on Crescent in the early 1970s. (My father was a journalist.) Pascale, and my other three half-siblings, her full siblings, are darker skinned than me, and have brown-to-black hair. I inherited our mother’s blonde hair and my father’s vampire-white Irish complexion. We don’t look like sisters. And growing up in Quebec, a generation apart, on either end of the political divide, the differences between my siblings and I only grew more stark. There were times when my being the English half-sister could be alienating and painful.

But that’s the interesting thing about a family like ours. Your identity is never fixed. It’s a useful way to learn about the transience of nationality, nationalism, language, culture. It’s a good way to build empathy. It’s a way of making what is different familiar.

I didn’t fully understand the richness of our shared and varied, of our intermingled and disparate talents and cultures for a long time—it was just normal for me to eat kebbé nayé and poudding chômeur for the holidays, as it was for Pascale. Perhaps we both took our talented, multicultural, multigenerational family for granted.

But we don’t now. Now my sister Pascale and I talk all the time. About being women writers. We talk about the stories we need to tell, the characters we live with. We talk about how to make a living as writers. We know how lucky we are to share this strong bond and yet never to compete. I write in English, she writes in French.

Pascale’s latest project, La recette de baklawas, is a very personal project. It is what would be called in French an auto-fiction of sorts, a kind of family tree, or a fictional family portrait. It bears all the frank truths of the lives of women of another time who had few opportunities for personal fulfilment; it’s about generational conflict, about assimilation, about inheritance, about food.

Although Pascale’s father never spoke Arabic to her, Pascale has always wanted to learn more about the Lebanese side of her family. She studied Arabic while pursuing her Master’s Degree at UQÀM and wrote a play entirely in Arabic. She, who grew up with so few stories about her father and his family’s early life, went back and traced the details of the Rafie family’s immigration through anecdotes and research. She has travelled to Lebanon and to Tunisia to find these stories, these characters. Her love of family, her love of food (she is almost as good a chef as she is a writer), her first-hand understanding of the way culture filters down through generations after immigration, and perhaps most importantly, Pascale’s most beautiful quality of writing shines through all the harrowing truths in this work: her great and boundless joy for life.

La recette de baklawas is about stories handed down from generations like recipes, like rituals. It is about grit, and about bearing up against unimaginable odds. And it is full of the sweetness of the dessert for which it is named. It is an important play to produce in our current political climate in Quebec. And it’s essential in its own right, for its own sake, for its complex female characters, for its rich and stirring beauty, for its nuanced and tender humour.

In Quebec we throw around the term “two solitudes” far too readily, referring to Hugh MacLenan’s eponymous novel, and the classic franco-anglo friction we live with here.

But it was Rilke who coined the phrase first. And he was speaking of something quite different than an enduring rift. Quite the opposite. Rilke wrote, “Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect, and touch, and greet each other.”

My sister and I both acknowledge how particular and special it is to be able to share the experience of working on her play together. It’s an experience we couldn’t share were it not for our cultural differences. And it is, of course, thanks to our shared cultural affinities that we can.

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