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.
I confess, I struggled with the framing of this question. I kept wanting to change the word “feminine”. I resisted the connotation of softness and prettiness I associate with the word. While I have always felt very much like a woman, I’ve never felt “feminine” in that way. Why aren’t we talking about “feminist” voices, I asked myself.
So, I went to the dictionary to see what I was missing. As an adjective I found the objectionable bits. “Having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness. ” (italics mine) What followed was hardly more helpful. As a noun the dictionary offers simply, “the female sex or gender”, and referring to grammar, “of or denoting a gender of nouns and adjectives, conventionally regarded as female“. (italics mine, again) Why are some objects conventionally regarded as female? What makes a thing, or a person, or indeed a voice, “feminine”?
Unfortunately, a dictionary check for “feminist” wasn’t much help either. Turns out up until the late 19th century the words feminist and feminine were pretty much interchangeable. Since then, it has taken on the political context it carries today, and while I absolutely support the cause, surely women’s voices in the arts can’t only be about politics. Unless …
12 years ago I was offered an amazing opportunity. I was invited to the Geva Theatre in Rochester, NY to play Hamlet. A full month before the actual rehearsal period began, we gathered for a week to work on the script. We began by reading every word of Shakespeare’s full play. Then we read the cut script the director and dramaturge had proposed. Then we spent 5 more days finding the script that existed somewhere between the two, that we were ultimately going to work with. It was a gift of a process.
Beyond the luxury of time, there was something else about that experience that took a couple days to register, but the impression has stuck with me. It was so unusual it was hard to identify at first, but eventually I understood what was happening. I was not having to fight, even a little, to be heard. My every inhalation was treated as a cue for silence and attention around the table. My right to speak was presumed and, while my thoughts certainly didn’t go unchallenged, respect for my right to express them was unquestioned. Around that table, I was being treated as a man. I had Hamlet’s privilege. It was a heady feeling.
When I mentioned this later everyone expressed surprise. One of the men, an associate director with the company, was openly dismayed, and wanted to be reassured that the Geva did not support a sexist work environment. For the record, they don’t. In my experience, most theatres don’t. Not consciously. And most of the women working for them don’t collude in creating a sexist environment. Not consciously.
But as I spoke to women around me in the last few days, I asked some direct questions about their working experiences. To the surprise of very few, I’m sure, there were some common threads. Not only men prefer to hear from men. We instinctively defer to the voice of Male Authority, and mostly we don’t seem to notice. It took me two days to realize I was enjoying the benefit of that deference. and while things have changed some in the last dozen years, they haven’t changed that much. It seems likely that the very act of speaking at all is, for women, political.
In fact, the voice that was speaking around that table in Rochester was a feminine voice. Hamlet is a fictional character. Kelli Fox is a living, female, actor with thoughts on the interpretation of Shakespeare’s work that affected the way we told the story. It was a seminal moment for me. Whatever word you choose to describe us, women’s voices, feminine/feminist voices, are crucial if only so that it begins to feel normal to be led by the Alisa Palmers and Micheline Chevriers in our community, and to allow that Hannah Moscovitch and LInda Griffiths have important things to say about the human condition; things that don’t require masculine affirmation to be recognized as true.
As a director I look for stories that offer a woman’s POV, and I am particularly interested in exploring the lives of mature women who have moved beyond the “does he like me?” stage of life male writers often seem most interested in. We are a few hundred years behind in populating our stages and screens with women’s lives, but it is essential that we do the work ourselves to correct the imbalance. As long as we allow men to do all the talking, the conversation will remain the same. But when we start speaking up, when we properly value the feminine in ourselves and our lives and our work, we can change the world with our voices.