Mary Vingoe's Keynote Speech ‘Her Side of the Story’

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In May 2016, Imago Theatre presented "Her Side of the Story", an encounter bringing together theatre artists to celebrate and discuss the female perspective on stage. The event is meant to showcase new work by Canada’s female artists and to provide a platform for theatre makers from diverse backgrounds to come together to talk about the representation of female voices in theatre.   

We invited Mary Vingoe to give the ‘Herstory’ opening address

C’est avec grand plaisir, d’être parmi vous ce soir. Thank you for having me here today. It is a real honour to be asked to speak to this wonderful group of theatre people.

When Miche asked me to present on the female perspective in theatre in Canada today, my thoughts invariably drifted back to 1979 when Cynthia Grant, Kim Renders, Maureen White and myself started Nightwood Theatre. What was Canadian theatre like back then? What was the world like back then?

At Dalhousie University where I graduated with my BA in theatre, they didn’t discuss Canadian plays by men or women. I found my first one, Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille’s 1837, by accident in my fourth year in the script library. I was reaching for The Collected Plays of (Spanish Playwright) Fernando Arrabal. When whoosh it fell out from behind the stack where someone had forgotten it. What’s this, I said to myself? A Canadian play wow! That was 1976.

So in those early years after graduation many of my colleagues were thrilled to see Canadian work of any kind on our stages. James Reaney’s The Donnelly Trilogy changed my life. Here were real men and women from 19th century rural Ontario as poetic protagonists of a revenge cycle worthy of the Greeks. Theatre Passe Muraille’s the Farm Show (an early reality based theatrical experiment) was already a classic by the time I got to Toronto. Twenty Fifth St House’s Prairie Wheat opened up a world I knew little about as a Maritimer. On Toronto’ s mainstages we were seeing plays by heavyweights David French at Tarragon and George F Walker at Factory. Canadian Theatre was maturing quickly. Artistic directors like Urjo Kareda, Ken Gass, Richard Rose, Sky Gilbert, Paul Thompson, Clarke Rogers, George Luscombe were carving out their territory. But where were the women?

In 1979 We were four young theatre artists who wanted to make work which was non linear and imagistic (sound familiar) and we wanted to bring women’s voice to the stage. At that time there were almost no female directors, NAC’s Associate director, Marigold Charlesworth (who was the first woman to direct at the Stratford festival in 1977 (only took 25 years), and only a handful of produced playwrights, the great Carol Bolt, Sharon Pollock and Joanna Glass come to mind.Our first production at Nightwood was an adaptation of Sharon Riis’s imagistic and stunning novel, The True Story of Ida Johnson about a First nations woman and a white waitress who make a pact to escape their tormented lives. Directed by Cynthia Grant, Kim played the First Nations woman, (no complaints about that at the time) Maureen the white waitress and me all the other women, something I became known for as an actress, my specialty while I waited to be called for Lady Macbeth at Stratford. They show was a success, so much so we remounted it the following year at the Adelaide Ct theatre (now defunct). Despite or perhaps because of our success, we were nick named ‘Dykewood’ theatre by our male (and older) colleagues at Theatre Passe Muraille and despite the fact that none of us happened to identify as lesbian at time, the name stuck. For what other reason would four women choose to come together to form a theatre company, apart from a sexual one? Sounds simple. Sounds a bit like something Donald Trump might say today.

The epithet ‘Dykewood’ was of course a way of keeping us’ in our place’ by reducing us to our (in this case erroneous, sexuality. If we protested, we would seem to be betraying our gay sisters so we kept silent and the name stuck. As Nightwood survived and grew we came to realize that there was a very big mandate for us to fill. There were no theatres run by women in Toronto at that time. So where to start? We shared with Buddies in Bad Times a desire to give voice to the Lesbian community and increasingly we realized we needed to give voice to women of colour and First Nations who were much less well represented than even ourselves. There were a few stumbling blocks and missteps in those early years as we tried to figure out how to interpret our mandate. Did we exist to do our own work or to represent all women, surely an impossible task? We would please nobody if we tried to please everybody and yet we came under constant fire for claiming to be a woman’s theatre if we did not represent all women. After Cynthia stepped down in 1985, I led the company for two years. It was my first Artistic Director gig (we called in Artistic Coordinator so as not to sound hierarchical). It was a difficult transition away from the original collective, companies often crash and burn at this juncture. I got caught in a few political boondoggles but survived with a thicker skin than that with which I had started. I wasn’t sorry to move on in 1987 leaving the company in the capable hands of Maureen White. She moved on to Dublin after successfully transferring the reigns to an outside AD, Kate Lushington and from there to Diane Roberts and Elissa Palmer. Nightwood has now been under the able leadership of Kelly Thornton for some 15 years. In what felt like closing a very big circle, Kelly directed my play Refuge just last month, the play Imago produced in a staged reading here last season in the Theatre and War series. I am so proud that Nightwood has survived and prospered over the 35 years of its existence. It is truly a Canadian success story. But thirty-four years ago as an aspiring classical actor when I learned that a certain famous artistic director had not cast me thinking I was ‘a hardcore dyke bitch’ from that women’s theatre, that hurt. As a twenty something would be classical actor, I was devastated. Names can hurt when you are young and don’t know how to fight back.

The work that Nightwood went on to produce was often layered, varied, sensitive and magical. Works like Renders and White’s Glazed Tempera, inspired by the painting of Alex Colville, this is for You Anna, with a hauntingly beautiful collective creation with Banuta Rubess inspired by stories of spousal abuse and Ann Marie MacDonald’s hilarious Good Night Desdemona come to mind as representative of the wide range of work Nightwood produced in the early years. Pretty hardcore, scary stuff.

Over 30 years of directing, writing and producing for Canadian theatre have left me with mixed feelings about being a female theatre artist. I have tended always to direct work by women. Not because I avoided plays by men but because I either had a relationship with the female playwright and felt passionately about the work or simply because I was only asked to direct plays by women. In other words, I was pigeonholed both by myself and others into the roll of a director of women’s plays. Now as a senior artist I am greatly enjoying directing the classics like Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Shakespeare’ s Twelfth Night and next year even Christopher Marlowe’ s Edward ii but these are all university productions, I am still waiting for Stratford to call. I spent my career laboring in the trenches of Canadian theatre and in particular plays by women and I guess that is how I am known. I’m proud of it but I would like to considered at this stage for other kinds of work. Dead white males wrote some pretty decent stuff. I would like to take a crack at it.

I often get asked’ How much has changed since Nightwood’s founding? Fast forward 33 years to 2012 when NAC artistic Director Peter Hinton announced his all female director and playwright season line-up. It was front page news! Never before in the history of Canada’s National Arts Centre had such a daring move been made. And by a man no less.! Now let’s take a look at the Stratford festival 2016. News Flash, the festival is proud to present an all male authored season this year! Fifteen fabulous productions ranging from from Virgil to Shakespeare to contemporary classics. Oh and there is one new play by a woman…. Hannah some body…

So we still have a way to go. That being said many things have gotten better. There are certainly many more women writing and directing and designing for the for the stage in 2016 than there were in 1979 and some of them, like Shaw’s Jackie Maxwell and the super talented Hannah Moscovitch have made a big dent on the statistics. But sadly if you follow the money trail, woman artistic directors and women playwrights are still far more likely to be working at smaller underfunded companies. The bigger companies are usually still run by men and they program, predominantly work by men. Money follows men.

I honestly do not believe this is because men are sitting around thinking, let’s not program any women in our seasons. It is because men, like all human beings, program what is of interest to them. And the classics are by far mostly men’s’ stories, and the contemporary canon before 1950 are mostly men’s stories. So there is a hell of a lot of catch up to do. The fact that theatre audiences are between 60-70 percent women ought to put pressure on this dynamic but strangely as far as I can see it hasn’t, much.

Why aren’t women audiences protesting with their feet? Is it because classics written by men are considered ‘universal’ and women’ stories are for a special interest group? The Bechdel test for Hollywood movies has gotten a lot of airplay in recent years. Our daughters know these frightening statistics by heart. Why is there not a similar movement in theatre? Do two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man in this play? I don’t think the Stratford season would do very well on this test. This kind of rear guard action by audience members might do better at changing things than artists themselves. How do we get our audiences to notice, never mind act? Our society has become more vocal about lack of representation of women in politics, sports and business but somehow the arts not so much? Maybe because so many women actually work in the arts, in theatre, performers, administrators, stage managers and marketers all tend to be female, just not Artistic Directors, directors and ‘produced’ playwrights. The people who actually chose what and how theatre is presented. Too bad we don’t have a long from census for theatre productions.

All this being said I believe our country’s most exciting senior playwrights are women and I am so proud to know and to have worked with some of them. Colleen Murphy, Wendy Lill, Colleen Wagner, Catherine Banks, Marie Clements, Djanet Sears, Sharon Pollock, Judith Thompson, Joan MacLeod, Hannah Moscovitch and the late Linda Griffiths, to name but a few. These women are the crème de la crème of Canadian theatre even if their pocket books may not show it. Their work has garnered top awards, they are studied in universities, they speak at international conferences but sadly much of their work is still not getting the exposure it deserves on Canadian stages.

Is there a female aesthetic in the theatre? While each of these playwright’s voices is obviously completely distinct in my opinion something that connects them is their social conscience. Most are concerned not just with women’ stories but with the good of the whole, the well being of the community. In December Man Colleen Murphy astounds us with her insight into the toll the parents of a man who left the scene of the Montreal massacre must suffer. In The Occupation of Heather Rose Wendy Lill writes from the perspective of a young white northern nurse working on a reserve who begins to see she is a part of the problem she has come to fix. Joan Macleod’s The Valley examines at the complex web of interdependency within a community trying to help a youth with mental illness. If there is a female aesthetic in Theatre, it may have something to do with journey of community vs the journey of the individual.

Let me use Neworlds’s Winners and Losers as an extreme example of a male aesthetic. This production by Vancouver’s Neworld theatre has been a huge hit, touring international festivals for three years now. What is its appeal? Pure testosterone. Two men, old friends, played by actor/ writers Marcus Youssef and James Young as themselves, play a game where they take ordinary objects, microwave ovens, bicycles, toilet paper, whatever and declare whether they are winners or losers, this progresses to political movements, famous people etc. The game turns sour as they turn their fiercely competitive natures on their own lives, they insult each other calling out each other’s worst features as parents, lovers and citizens as being winners or losers. They compete at ping pong, wrestle and turn the lights down. It all ends in a draw. There is no stated critique of the game itself. Winner and Losers is funny, voyeuristic, sometimes riveting and ultimately sad (at least for me) as it ultimately skirts the question; Is this a valid way to evaluate your life?

Could two women have written this piece? Women are certainly competitive but do they need to destroy each other to succeed? Marcus tells me two women in Calgary are about to take it on Winners and Losers and make their own text based on the game. If anyone gets to see this, I’d love to hear how it goes.Is there a play in the modern Canadian canon that people feel could only have been written by a woman. (or women).? I’ll invite comments from the audience on this one. A show that could only have been created by women? Maybe Margaret Atwood ‘s The Penelopead at Nightwood? We hear Penelope’ side of the story but even more radical we hear from the maids, those voiceless females in Homer’s epic. It is very fashionable to hear from a former underclass these days, but do women do this any better than men? Do women tend to represent a wider community, a variety of voices more than men?

I actually do not believe that men and women write differently as a group. Individuals write differently, employing the so called male and female aesthetic according to their own preference. One could argue that Michel Tremblay and Tomson Highway write with a strong female aesthetic in that they do not usually write linear stories or stories with single protagonists. One could argue that Sharon Pollock and Carol Bolt, who usually have strong protagonists and well constructed plot lines, have a male aesthetic. I do not really believe this argument is worth pursuing now. There are so many things other than our sex which affect our voice, our ethnicity, education, upbringing, social political status and not the least our personalities themselves for every writer writes themselves somewhere in their play.

I am interested in the economics of play making in this country and how it affects women. While AD of the Magnetic North Theatre festival I strove for 6 years to reach gender parity in the work which we presented. I was also trying for regional representation and a balance of ethnicities and First Nations work. So basically an impossible task. By the 5th year I had achieved parity in gender. One of the issues I encountered was that there were fewer women based theatres generating work who were actually applying to come to tour to Magnetic North. So we had the ‘male’ companies of the time, the Necessary Angels, the Neworlds, the 2bs, the Old Trouts and the Rick Millers who were always raring to go with new work and we had work that came from companies that had both men and women at the helm like The Electric Company, Theatre Smith Gilmour, Zuppa Theatre, Theatre Replacement, Artistic Fraud and One Yellow Rabbit but almost no women led companies applying to the festival. Super companies like Toronto’s Theatre Columbus and Montreal’s Imago seemed more interested in staying in their own communities and making work. Why was that? Is there any between staying home and being female? In any case it skewed the statistics.

I do think the issue of staying put in your community and making work as opposed to going off and becoming famous is at least something more women than men relate to. Having helped to found Nightwood within the women’s community in Toronto in the late seventies and Ship’s Company Theatre in the tiny town of Parrsboro in the eighties, I was looking for a home in 1993 where my partner composer Paul Cram and I could have a family and have a life. My friend the playwright Wendy Lill lived in Dartmouth so we moved there and started The Eastern Front. A very unlikely place to start a theatre company as it was always seen as a cultural wasteland by the denizens of Halifax (and other parts of Canada) but we cunningly turned that to our advantage. When I think back on it, building the Eastern Front Theatre in Dartmouth was so we could stay home in our own community raise our kids and do what we do, make theatre. I don’t regret that decision even if I suspect it limited my career in the long run.

I am blessed with two daughters. The elder Katharine is 27 is a painter with a Masters in Art History. Laura at 24 is an emerging theatre director. God help us. Laura, a recent MFA graduate in directing from Glasgow’s Royal Conservatory, has followed in her mother’s footsteps and has formed a company with two other young women her age called somewhat enigmatically, Keep Good (Theatre) Company, which has already racked up a number of accolades. They had a hit production of company member Gillian Clark’s Lets Try This Standing last season and are about to embark on the Canadian premiere of Constellations by UK writer Nick Payne with two of Halifax’s’ best actors and Laura directing. Their mandate, “We make theatre that is honest, sharpened by the interplay of comedy and tragedy, and always attentive to the fact that the audience is in the room with us. Our work is grounded by strong artistic relationships that allow us to experiment with the theatrical medium.”

As a theatre artist I was no where near Laura’s level of self awareness at 24. At her age I still wanted to play Lady Macbeth at Stratford. I am still waiting for the call. Maybe to direct Macbeth. Like so many young women, despite the fact that I was creating and producing new work and passionate about bringing women’s voices to the stage, I really felt my destiny was to be an actor, and despite the fact that I had shown lots of leadership potential as a student, I didn’t think of taking that role in my chosen profession. And none of my (almost all male professors) at Dalhousie Theatre School or University of Toronto’s Drama Centre even thought of suggesting it to me. It was acting or academia.

I didn’t even think about directing until my late twenties when it was suggested by Nightwood’s then Artistic Director Cynthia Grant, that I take on a student project based on Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail’s Roughing It in The Bush. Cynthia had another gig so she said why don’t you do it. I said I can’t, I’ve never directed and much to her credit she said, ‘sure you can’ and left town. Hesitant at first it turned out to be a fabulous experience, Love and Work Enough was remounted the next year at Theatre Direct and winning best TYA production at the Doras. I ‘landed’ during that show. I realized where I really wanted to be was in the rehearsal hall rather than on the stage. I was 27. My point is I had to be told I could be a director. No one has had to tell Laura that, it was always a possibility for her. And I doubt that anyone would ever nickname her company ‘Dykewood’ to try water their dust cloud down but if they did it wouldn’t hurt them. They would own it, celebrate it. This generation has grown up with the belief that they can take any part they wish in the theatre and lead it an any direction and it is brilliant.

The theatre world has changed since 1979. Sexual preference has exploded as a continuum rather than a duality. There are incredible energies being released in the devised theatre movement where ‘Reality Based Theatre’ or ‘Theatre of the Real’ is surging against the mainstream, calling into question the individual playwright’s dominant voice in the theatre at all. Some of this is not all that unlike the collective theatre movement of the 1970s when we strove to put our own stories on the stage with or without a ‘playwright’. It is empowering a lot of younger artists many of them women, to make their own work. That being said, the individual playwright’s voice is a cornerstone of our theatre I have confidence this generation will rediscover and celebrate that as they mature.

It will still be a struggle for these young women. I know that the established theatre world out there is still very hierarchical and male dominated. Money still follows men. But I have confidence that the women of Keep Good (Theatre) Company and indeed the young women here tonight, will not be bowed by this. They are grounded, fiercely independent but flexible artists who will take on whatever challenge they feel drawn to.

Dykewood lives…..

Mary Vingoe‘Herstory’ opening address, Montreal Canada.

May 13th, 2016