Micheline Chevrier speaks to Yiara about Her Side of the Story: Revision to Resist
This interview was originally published in Yiara, a feminist art and art history publication.
From October 31 to November 5, Imago Theatre, a Montreal feminist theatre company, presents Her Side of the Story: Revision to Resist, a festival of four contemporary plays by four female playwrights and four female directors. Imago Theatre is dedicated to the act of “re-visioning” as defined by the following quote.
“The act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction is, for women, more than a chapter in cultural history; it is an act of survival.”
-Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision
The Revision to Resist festival offers female writers and directors the chance to revision well-known narratives from contemporary feminine perspectives. The festival features the following plays and operates on a pay-what-you-decide model.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
(Based on Homer’s The Odyssey)
The Last Wife by Kate Henning
(Based on Henry VIII’s last wife Katherine Parr)
What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband by Elfriede Jelinek
(Sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll House)
Fucking A by Suzan-Lori Parks
(Based on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter)
I had the privilege of interviewing Imago’s Artistic and Executive Director, Micheline Chevrier, about Imago, the Revision to Resist festival, and some of the intersections between feminism, theatre, storytelling, and the act of revisioning.
As Artistic and Executive Director of a feminist theatre company, what does feminism in theatre look like to you?
Well first of all, whenever I hear feminism I think of equality, and therefore I think of a balance of perspectives. So that’s the first thing that I think of, when I think of the definition of feminism, for me personally. And so in running a feminist theatre company, that’s what I’m trying to do (and I think we’re succeeding) is to balance the perspective, to bring a feminine perspective to the world, because I think we get a lot of male perspective. That’s my goal, is to bring those stories forward and to see what we learn from them or how they make us rethink what we know.
Within that now, there is also a varying degree as to what it means to be a feminist, if you’re a black woman, if you’re a queer woman, if you’re an indigenous woman. I heard the other day about this indigenous woman on the radio saying that she has never felt safe in her body in her entire life, and I found that an arresting thought. What does feminism look like for her? So I’m interested in those perspectives as well. To expand that through the collaborations I forge with other artists through the theatre company. And to start to have a more complex dialogue of a feminist perspective, when you’re looking at intersectionality, where you can’t divorce who you are, where you are, where you come from, your life experience, from your interpretation of such a word.
You mentioned that you’re trying to kind of re-tip the balance of perspectives by bringing in more women writers and women directors. Are there also male writers that address this feminist perspective?
Absolutely. Our last show was by a male writer, an Italian man who wrote about Anna Politkovskaya and he captured beautifully her story, by not making himself more important than the story, which is already a feminist way of doing things, meaning that he understands the equality and his role in the storytelling. I considered him, and certainly his perspective in this play, a feminist writer. And so we don’t exclusively look at female writers.
And also just a little thing– we run a youth mentorship for young women and we were speaking to CEGEP students about the program, and a young man in the front row raised his hand and he said, “Are you thinking of doing the same thing for young men?” And I said, “I think it’s a great idea and I think you should make it happen as a young man,” but then I came back to the office afterwards and we started to talk about what an interesting thing to do, as a feminist theatre company, to actually encourage a generation of feminist men in their thinking, in their actions, in their way of looking at the world. So we’re actually considering it. Because we thought what an interesting idea for these young men to be trained by other feminist men and feminist women and see what dialogue that creates.
At Imago, how is the creation process more feminist or democratic than other companies?
That’s a really great question because we are talking a lot about our way of working, and we’re developing a whole approach so that when people join the company, they actually get a document, a kind of manifesto which is part of our mission, of what they can expect when they come to work at Imago.
For me, respect is key, in everything, in relationships of any kind. I was very lucky because I grew up in a family where we all respected each other, my parents respected me, I respected them, we listened to each other with that in mind. There was transparency and a lot of openness, I was very lucky. But it taught me that it has to be the fundamental quality of any relationship. Respect naturally inspires confidence and trust. So it starts there.
And I think the best ideas come out of collaboration, and the best idea in the room wins. Ultimately, I decide what’s the best idea, but often the best idea presents itself and everybody agrees. I’m not looking for consensus, because I don’t think leadership is about that. I’m looking for understanding and engagement and a sense of ownership. Everybody knows what everybody’s doing, so everybody understands what their role in the company is and how vital it is, so that if somebody falls down, they know that the whole thing falls down. So with great respect comes great responsibility. And that’s what I think we’re going for right now and trying to articulate that more and more. I’m still the one who has to make the ultimate decision, and everybody who’s there understands that and is comfortable with that, because they’ve all had their say. And ultimately, decision doesn’t mean that it was my idea, but the decision is “I think this idea at this time works the best,” and people accept it. If somebody doesn’t accept it, then we can’t move forward, we have to work longer to understand why there’s resistance.
What was your artistic vision or intention for the Revision to Resist festival?
Part of what really turns me on is that these plays are playful. They take a story or a moment in history and they turn it on its head, and you can feel the playwrights playing. So that alone is fun. They’re all funny in their own way. Some are darker than others, but there is a kind of wonderful permission that these playwrights have given themselves to reimagine something. That’s what drew me to these plays. They’re also superbly crafted, but it’s the fact that they’re not pedantic, that they’re not moralistic, that they’re not saying, “This perspective needs to be righted.” It’s not militant, they are playful. It’s kind of the “what if?” scenario, or “what if we looked at it this way?”
And the idea of “revision to resist” is that we resist an imposed narrow narrative. We say “No no no, certainly there’s more perspective than that, certainly there’s another angle to this.” So that’s what is important to me, to constantly broaden the dialogue as opposed to narrow it. And theatre for me is about that: I’m going to make your mind a little broader, I’m going to make your knowledge a little broader, and with that I make the world a better place.
How did the idea for the Revision to Resist festival come about?
Strangely enough, it started with the desire for me to give the opportunity to four emerging female Montreal directors, for them to have a kick at the can with a script that they wouldn’t normally be given. And then one director chose a piece, and the piece was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, and suddenly there was the idea of “what if we were to do plays that changed the main perspective to another main perspective,” and that’s when we curated the plays. And we read a lot of plays, found some amazing playwrights, it’s very rich, but those are the ones that were the most accomplished, the ones that gave the most challenge to a group of artists to dig their teeth into, and they also touched on interesting known narratives.
The festival’s promotional material is often accompanied by Adrienne Rich’s quote (above), that the act of revisioning old texts is “an act of survival” for women. Can you elaborate on how retelling known stories is an act of survival?
We’ve seen it done everywhere in so many ways. It’s so easy to eclipse a voice, and if a certain story is not passed on, or if a certain story is not righted, after a while that one narrative is the thing that survives. I mean we’ve seen it with the indigenous communities in Canada, over and over again, it’s really a genocide, and that’s always my example. I think, “look how easy it is to erase that narrative.” If you don’t say there was another perspective and if you don’t speak it, examine it, or even consider it, then you do die, you are eliminated. And that is actually one of the principle reasons, if not the principle reason, that I do theatre, is that to silence someone is the greatest sin, or to feel that you don’t have a voice or a place at the table is unacceptable to me. Everybody has a place at the table, and so the same thing guides Imago. When I started working there, I wanted to have this mentorship for young women, as a key moment to how you see yourself, what kind of right do you think you have, what tools will you have to allow you to be strong under adverse conditions, so that you can be heard and so that narrative is not silence. That would be the act of survival.
What is it about these four original stories (The Odyssey, Katherine Parr, A Doll’s House, and The Scarlet Letter) that needs to be revisioned or told from a different perspective? Why these stories?
I’d have to dig deeper into the playwrights’ intentions. For me, I think it’s great to take some of the Greek myths (like some people are doing with Shakespeare) and look at the women in those stories who are fantastic but hardly get any stage time. I really am getting the sense that Atwood in The Penelopiad wanted to have a conversation about responsibility of women with other women. The fact that she’s looking at Penelope when Odysseus came back and killed all the handmaids, that she didn’t say anything. That she was guilty and she feels guilty for not having said something. That we can be silent accomplices as women. That’s what I hear in Margaret Atwood and that seems to be her giving voice to those maidens who were killed.
With Nora, it’s interesting because I think Jelinek wanted to play a bit with out heads by saying, she leaves him, we think that’s amazing, then what happens to her afterwards? And in fact, in her story, Nora goes back to him and she goes through this incredible journey of trying to find independence in a capitalist world and how as a woman she ends up being used and how she herself falls prey to certain norms. So she’s an antiheroine, and that’s Jelinek’s comment, is that it’s not “and they live happily every after.”
With Fucking A, The Scarlet Letter, it’s amazing that she’s the adulteress, all that stereotypical thing, and Parks actually raises the stakes by making her an abortionist– again an antiheroine– a woman who does what she needs to do to save her son and survive. And again that’s a contemporary take on “I’m not gonna make it that simple, I’m going to make it difficult and look at the realities in which we live,” and it’s a great way to use a story that, at its time, was trying to do the same thing. But there’s something fun about taking such an important story but then owning it.
And with The Last Wife, there is obviously a need to shed light on the great accomplishments of women who were in the shadow of great men, and for us to know that incredible things can be accomplished under duress and under impossible circumstances, like what she ensured in terms of breaking the gender limitations of ruling a country.
So I can see why the playwrights were compelled to up the ante a little bit and make us responsible as citizens now to understand that history is not always what is seems, and that plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose except in a different story. They’re warnings, they’re awakenings, they’re sounding the alarm, it’s the best kind of theatre really.
In stories originally written by men and rewritten by women, how do the representations of male characters change? In theatre created by women about strong women, how does the representation of male characters change through a feminist lens?
I would say more truthfully, less with adoration and more with humanity. I don’t think they’re condemned, I don’t think they’re painted with a rough brush. I think actually the feminist lens on it, for me, is that it’s truthful for both men and women. I mean the women too are not all beautiful and perfect, so I think that’s what makes those plays feminist. Again it’s an equal representation, as opposed to it being unbalanced.
Who would you say is the target audience for this festival?
I mean it’s everybody. Certainly Imago is actively engaging with a young audience. We are reaching out to a young audience, whether it’s through schools like CGEPs and universities, because we think we may have a chance of reaching a broader demographic in terms of background and experience. But it’s everybody who wants to have a conversation. Last night, as an example, there was an elderly couple in the front row, easily in their seventies if not older, they didn’t know anybody there, I don’t know what they were doing there, they just came. And the place was packed with students as well, a variety of people from the arts community, and then some older patrons who probably know the Centaur. So it’s really intergenerational and exciting.
You founded Imago’s Pay-What-You-Decide initiative in 2015 and decided to revision the notion of measuring value by money. Has this initiative succeeded in giving a broader audience access to feminist theatre?
Absolutely, and it also changes the demographic. So, suddenly I’ve seen people come to the theatre that have never come through the doors of the Centaur (you can tell because they don’t know where they’re going). They’re willing to take a chance. It’s made the audience much younger, which excites me a great deal, because I think the conversation with young adults in this world is crucial.
It’s also changed people’s ability to take a risk. They know that if they come, they can leave. They know that if they come, they won’t say “I spent $50 and I hated it.” People sometimes come and give us more after the show because they didn’t know what to expect and they were enchanted. So it’s changed the demographic and it’s changed the amount of risk people can take.