In recent years, women have become counters. It’s not that feminists necessarily want quotas or statistical equality, we are simply going about documenting an external reality that validates our own perceptions and experiences as individuals. It’s habit-forming, however. I pick up a copy of The Work, a useful collection of interviews with English-Canadian playwrights, edited by Robert Wallace and Cynthia Zimmerman. Four out of twenty-six; that is, only four of the playwrights they spoke to are women.
Vancouver announces its first annual drama awards, the Jessies—in honour of old-time theatre enthusiast, Jessie Richardson, actress, director, costume designer, all-out supporter of amateur and professional theatre for half a century. Seven to zero. The nominating committee that selects just who in the theatrical community is up for prizes in each of the categories—in other words who everybody else gets to vote on—is composed of six men and a male coordinator. Whatever happened to tokenism? It’s still evidently safe enough to name ships and prizes after women (Toronto’s theatre awards are called Doras, after Dora Mavor Moore), but apparently things mustn’t go too far.
So we continue to count. When Rina Fraticelli was gathering data from across the country for her report, The Status of Women in the Canadian Theatre, she asked me about my experience reviewing plays in Vancouver. As the only woman critic in town with a “mainstream” outlet (CBC radio), I had already noticed that my response to an “hilarious sex comedy” wasn’t always the same as my male colleagues’. Apart from the usual matter of production values, quality of acting, and so on, there sometimes appeared to be a parting of the ways on such basic questions as whether or not the play was funny, why do it altogether, what is it saying about relations between men and women, and from whose point of view. The answers are highly predictable: no, who knows, don’t ask, and guess (surprise, surprise).
But impressions aren’t always reliable and I offered to do a count for Rina. To tote up all the plays I’d reviewed in the course of four years and note gender (and nationality) of playwright and director. As it turned out, the results only confirmed what anyone who’s been in the feminist numbers game for some time would predict, but I found them sufficiently discouraging to hesitate sending them off. Of 175 productions in all, 21 (or 12%) were written by women (this includes two co-authored works); and 39 (22%) were directed by women (including three co-directed productions).
I needn’t have worried about depressing Rina, her figures for the participation rate of women nationally were even lower, especially with respect to directors. Here, in her lead-off article, she goes behind her research with a more personal, anecdotal account of the status of women in Canadian theatre.
One (potential) ray of hope which I discerned was that almost half the plays seen in Vancouver (45%) were Canadian-authored. This represents a dramatic (er) rise in the last fifteen years and a cue for optimists. It’s not so long ago that artistic directors across the country were heard to say, “Of course, I’d love to produce a Canadian play. Just find me a good one.” Then a directive came down from the Canada Council indicating that funding for theatres would be influenced by degree of Canadian content. Suddenly there was a flowering of Canadian theatre. Suddenly there was Canadian theatre. (Although Robert Wallace, in his introduction to The Work, is determined to dispel the ahistorical myopia of critics and scholars—some 8000 Canadian plays were written before 1945—the thrust of the interviews only serves to reinforce a sense of newness, a pioneer lack of sophistication across
the land.) The point, however, is that in the space of a decade and a half, the level of participation of Canadians in Canadian theatre skyrocketed. Surely if there were similar determination to improve thestatusofwomen….
Ironies abound, of course. Walter Learning, a former Canada Council theatre officer who was conspicuously supportive of Canadian work, last fall unveiled plans for the season in his capacity as new artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse. None of the dozen-odd plays was by a woman. When questioned, he simply said that Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations had already been optioned by a rival company. Does this mean that there is only one play by one woman in the repertoire? The essential conservatism of even such a young enterprise as Canadian theatre is underlined in The Work: “The Canadian play that sells is the one that has sold before.”
The usual counteroffensive to feminist ‘numerologists’ centres on the notion of quality. Just when you think you’ve explained what you mean by affirmative action and underrepresentation and historic inequality of access, you get hit again by that five dollar word. Fraticelli alludes to this both here and in her Report. Robert Fulford, in a recent critique of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee’s Report (Applebaum-Hebert), reveals how far we still have to go just to make our point. In an otherwise cogent criticism (in Saturday Night) which includes the observation that the status of women is “the most pressing social issue of this period,” Fulford quotes from the report and comments:
This seems to say—if it says anything—that women should be appointed in numbers equal to men on the Canada Council and other boards, and on the juries those boards appoint, and presumably then among the artists assisted by the juries. That would amount to what the Americans call “affirmative action,” a dangerous concept that would inject non-artistic criteria into artistic judgements.
This indicates a false naivete that would be suprising had Fulford not already betrayed this by alluding to the Canadian matriarchy of letters, and women’s high profile as administrators in the visual arts and dance. The glare of a few stars really ought not to blind anyone to the admittedly dull grey figures that the counters have amassed.
Margaret Hollingsworth’s Islands is the second of a pair of one act plays. The first, Alii Alii Oh, was commissioned by a Toronto feminist theatre company, Redlight, and received its premiere in 1977. Later that year, Alii Alii Oh was produced by the New Play Centre in Vancouver as part of the du Maurier Festival of one act plays. It has since been broadcast on CBC radio.
In Alii Alii Oh, two women, Alii and Muriel, are living together on a farm in the Gulf Islands. Alii has left her husband, Karl, in order to be with Muriel, whom she met while recovering from a mental breakdown. In the course of the play, Alii goes mad again. Hollingsworth has described this as
a deliberate choice. She didn’t disintegrate. She chose to use madness to terminate the relationship. To finally escape into madness is a choice for her. I think there’s always this escape hatch open for mental patients. Some of them use it much more than she does. You always have that choice, it isn’t just mental patients, it’s all of us really. (quoted in The Work)
In Islands, Alii comes back. So does Muriel’s mother. It creates a triangle of tension that’s known in the trade as a dramatic confrontation.
Hollingsworth doesn’t write kitchen sink, slice of life stuff, but a kind of heightened realism. Islands is a very lean, spare play. The story is sketched out very fast, with strong, often clever writing. Alii is not only one of those lyrical madwomen, so common to theatre from Ophelia on down, she is also amusing. In fact, Alii is witty, charming, and not very nice. But again, these are not real characters so much as dramatically interesting ones. Hollings worth herself has observed that her work is often difficult for the reader to lift off the page, to translate from reading to seeing. “It tends to read flat but it isn’t flat in production. It’sjust the opposite in fact.” (The Work)
Where I might express skepticism of sundry “hilarious sex comedies”, some reviewers are alienated by Hollingsworth’s plays. When Islands had its premiere at the 1983 du Maurier Festival, The Vancouver Sun described it as “a contrived, wordy piece of feminist mumbo jumbo that wallows in abstruse themes about truth in madness, sexual stereotyping, and political manipulation.” Hollingsworth’s rejoinder was: “It sounded to me like they were talking about a new dance—the feminist mumbo jumbo.”
Kathleen Weiss, who is interviewed here about her work as a founder and director of a new kind of improvisational soap opera, was the director of Islands. So that’s nicely incestuous (strengthening my long-held suspicion that there are only a dozen feminists in Canada and plenty of mirrors).
In contrast with Weiss’ penchant for experimentation, Betty Lambert is a prolific writer of plays that fit a more traditional, polished style. And to circumvent any accusations of historical astygmatism, we are pleased to include a paper that Ann Saddle- myer recently presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Canadian Theatre History. Afterwards, we can all do the feminist mumbo jumbo together.