For years, actor-playwright Amy Rutherford had been trying to create a script based upon an experience she’d had as a young teen, involving a manipulative older boyfriend.
“Whenever I approached it, there was something terrifying about it—something oppressed or contained by shame,” the Toronto theatre artist tells the Straight over the phone, taking a break from rehearsals at Vancouver’s Studio 58, which is preparing to premiere her play Mortified. “I felt it was really difficult to access this younger self.”
But then, a few years ago, she was at home for Christmas when her father announced he’d found some of her old journals. “My mother pulled me aside and very conspiratorially said, ‘I have them,’ ” Rutherford recounts. “She took them away when I was young and kept them from me because she felt it was a dark time for me. She gave them back, and suddenly I had this whole perspective that had been obscured by my own memory or my own necessity to rewrite the past.”
Rutherford had found the solution to writing her play: creating an older and a younger self to portray events from alternate viewpoints, while weaving raw diary entries into her script.
Finding her teen journals allowed Rutherford to see the experience more clearly. “I did learn to respect this younger self and thought, ‘Wow, you were really curious and bold,’ ” she says. “Looking back, I saw the more human part of myself rather than this victim.”
To create the work, she also interviewed family and friends to gain their perspective on what had happened 25 years ago. “It definitely opened conversations with my mother and father about just how much pain they were carrying, and the secrecy,” she says.
The resulting play is not biographical, she stresses. As she puts it, it’s “the story of a 13-year-old synchronized swimmer who finds herself entangled in a relationship with someone she probably shouldn’t be involved with. It’s a play about sex, shame, and transformation.”
Although it’s a fictionalized account, staging the story was a frightening task. “It was terrifying at first. I felt my career would be compromised—and that I was alone in this experience. But I discovered in this whole process that I wasn’t alone. People of all ages had been on some side of this story,” says Rutherford, who held early public readings of the script. “We are so afraid of recognizing this part of life. We’re uncomfortable with desire. That fear endangers girls in a way. Then all they’re left with is how they’re commodified in our culture.
“All the normal feelings are there, but there are situations you get into that are abnormal. And they need to know how to recognize those and deal with it. Like actually talk to your parents about it,” she adds. “We have supermodels at 15 and we fetishize teenagers. They know their sexuality has power, but they know if they actually act out on this, there’s a potential for shaming.”
Female shame, Rutherford says, is one of the less recognized forces the #MeToo movement has helped combat.
“We feel that by revealing this ugly thing, we’ll be separated or removed from our human tribe, and I guess that’s what I find most exciting about these stories coming forward,” she explains, adding: “When we say ‘Oh, it’s a story of an adolescent girl’ and we say ‘Oh, it’s a victim,’ I would much rather say ‘It’s a human story.’ She’s not some teenage girl who doesn’t know anything. I want us to look at her as a full human being who is curious, with a desire and ability to create and impact.”
As difficult as both the subject matter and the creation of the script have been, working with Studio 58 has been mostly a positive experience for Rutherford, who has woven ample dark humour into the play. The Langara training program has given her a huge cast of 27 to work with, her former high-school classmate Anita Rochon directs, and Amber Funk Barton has been brought in to provide choreography for the dance scenes. It’s an impressive production team, with, among others, Jonathon Young providing dramaturgy, Pam Johnson creating sets, and Carmen Alatorre designing costumes.
Still, though she has tried to shed her shame, there are a few more preshow jitters than usual for the seasoned film, theatre, and TV actor.
“I’m still quite nervous about my family coming to see the show,” she admits before heading back into rehearsal. “I think it will be an intense experience.”
Mortified, presented in association with Touchstone Theatre, is at Studio 58 at Langara College from Thursday (November 15) to December 2.