Female theatre voices flourish at rEvolver Festival

Women push the form with everything from a “nihilistic musical” to a darkly comedic take on trauma

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      Springtime’s rEvolver Festival has always walked the cutting edge of theatre, and with this year’s female-strong lineup, it’s leading the way again.

      Amid #MeToo and Time’s Up, theatre communities across the country are trying to spur a culture shift, getting more women working behind the scenes and on stages. At rEvolver Fest 2018, all the main-stage shows either are created solely by women or feature them as cocreators.

      “I think it’s exciting and telling that there are this many women on the program—that they had the space and confidence to apply,” says Elysse Cheadle, the theatre artist behind Fuchsia Future. “I’m also excited by the variety in the subject matter in the writing; I don’t think we should pigeonhole.”

      Female playwrights are taking on everything from sexual abuse (12 Minute Madness) to surviving the apocalypse (Kitt & Jane) to, in Cheadle’s Fuchsia Future, nothing less than popular science, existentialism, and the colour pink.

      “I tend to describe myself as a collager rather than a writer,” she explains over the phone. “I like to collect a bunch of source material that I find inspiring to challenge myself, using movement and writing.”

      For the absurd “nihilistic musical” Fuchsia Future, that involved three seemingly far-flung inspirations. The first, and foremost, was the theories of population geneticist George Price, who came up with a mathematical equation to predict the likelihood of altruistic behaviour. “He said that no behaviour is ever really anything but selfish—which is kind of a depressing thought,” Cheadle explains. “Price became famous for this equation. And then he evidently went insane.” In the fictionalized Fuchsia Future, his wife and son try to cope when he disappears.

      The second inspiration was a specific monologue from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, one in which the narrator watches an old woman work her way down the street with “existential dread”, Cheadle says. And the third element was bismuth—the pinkish, radioactive element that has a half-life a billion times longer than the age of the universe. Cheadle loved the idea that, after the world ends, all that could be left is this glowing pink hue. And in the work, pink becomes a recurring, and sometimes threatening, colour.

      Cheadle puts as much emphasis on movement as on words in her process, and props and sets become central devices—especially the claustrophobic house where Fuchsia Future centres itself.

      “I’m in a bit of a strange place because in a lot of ways I’d like to describe it as physical theatre, but I use so much text,” she says. “I love wordplay, I love rhythms. Plus, we have musicians.”

      Theatre artist Raina von Waldenburg is just as eager to push the form in 12 Minute Madness, but for her, the subject matter is much more personal. She mines her own discovery of a repressed memory—sexual abuse by her grandfather—and serves it up with dark humour.

      “I didn’t feel any shame or gross feelings about coming out about it. It felt a little bit like waging war,” the playwright and director says candidly to the Straight over the phone from her Vancouver home, talking about the multiyear process that led to the play. “I was able to out this crap. With shame you go into this little closet and stay quiet about it and you feel very, very bad about yourself. So instead of imploding in this little closet of shame, I outed the motherfucker. And it helps to be able to externalize those darker internal thoughts.”

      Fuchsia Future turns pink into a sinister colour.

      The play features 12 women playing the 12 personas that she could feel emerging in herself when, during a therapy session about three decades ago, she realized the trauma that had happened to her.

      “The minute I realized it, I swear all these different parts of me came out,” she explains, stressing it wasn’t the same as the concept of split-personality disorder. “I could actually feel the different parts of me. I could hear the therapist talking, but the inner battle was so huge.”

      Von Waldenburg kept notes, and made her first stab at turning the experience into theatre while she was living in New York City in 1998, in a three-hour production called Das Kaspar. But times were different, and “false memory syndrome” was in the headlines: “There was so much backlash for any woman, or anyone, coming out,” von Waldenburg remembers. “It was a tough time to not only come out about it, but also make a play about it. Even within my own family, they were saying, ‘You might be swept up in the sex-abuse hysteria.’ And the more that came up, the more I wanted to write against it!”

      The new, shorter work, spotlights the 12 difficult personas. The provocatively named “drunken social worker” Linda Kunt gives a sense of the loaded territory where von Waldenburg dares to tread. “That was the part of me when the sex abuse was happening,” she explains. “It was the shame-pleasure body—and that’s the crucial piece, that’s huge stuff. Because who wants to admit the body did respond?”

      Still, the strongest weapon in the artist’s arsenal is her humour around the subject. “My biggest survival mechanism in life has been not to take stuff around me too seriously,” says von Waldenburg, who hopes the play will give other survivors strength. “Let’s take this dirty, dark thing that no one wants to talk about and let’s throw it around like a Frisbee.”

      She adds that the movement around #MeToo has made her topic easier to confront than when she tried in 1998. “The next big wave of awareness around women’s sexual abuse is happening,” she says. “My challenge in 1998 was just to utter that abuse happened. With the #MeToo movement, the cast is feeling supported. This is amazing that women are actually finally being listened to—and of course there’s a backlash, but still, there’s a strength that wasn’t there in the ’90s.”

      The rEvolver Festival presents 12 Minute Madness at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on May 23 and from May 25 to 27, and Fuchsia Future at the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab on May 24, 26, and 27, and on June 2 and 3.