Last year, after what felt like Ruby Slippers artistic director Diane Brown’s millionth panel discussion of gender and diversity in Canadian theatre, something snapped. It was her patience.
“Like so many other people, I’m sick and tired of talking about it, and I’m sick and tired of people complaining about it, and I’m sick and tired of people having excuses for it,” Brown tells the Straight over the phone from her home in Vancouver. “It was a call to action.”
Brown went home and devised the outline for the series Advance Theatre: New Works by Women. She pitched it to the Vancouver Fringe Festival and the Equity in Theatre people the next day, and within 24 hours it was a real thing.
Advance Theatre is a five-day showcase of new plays written and directed by women at this year’s Fringe fest. When the call went out across the country, more than 100 submissions poured in. Ruby Slippers has a long history of commissioning and promoting works by women, and employing women artists, playwrights, and directors, but Advance Theatre is very specific: diversity—cultural, sexual, physical, mental—is a must.
“It’s a micro answer to a macro problem, but it’s part of the answer and it’s very direct,” Brown says. “Less than a third of the produced playwrights in Canada right now are female and, equally outrageous, less than a third of the working directors in Canada are women. When you consider that over half of the theatre population is female, this is absolutely ridiculous.”
Jill Daum agrees. She’s the cocreator of the international hit musical Mom’s the Word and its sequels. When she saw the call for submissions she jumped at the chance. Despite the fact that Daum is a “successful” playwright, it’s still tough to get work produced.
“I wanted the opportunity to have my script read and have the actors and director who are working on it to be paid,” Daum says over the phone from her Vancouver home. “For me, that was so exciting.”
Works like hers aren’t simply “women’s plays”, but plays that happen to be written by women about issues that are relevant to everybody. Daum’s script, Forget About Tomorrow, is fictional but rooted in her reality. It centres around a woman whose husband is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, just as her husband, Spirit of the West frontman John Mann, was last year, when he was just 50 years old.
“When it hit, both of us started to write,” Daum says. Mann wrote songs and Daum began penning her script, bringing it to her collective, Wet Ink, before anybody even knew about the diagnosis.
“It’s a way to get through it, you know? Turning adversity into art is a way to carry on and feel that there’s some sense to this senseless, horrible thing. Also, it’s really hard for anybody with Alzheimer’s to speak about what that’s like, and he was able to give me a few glimpses. He wrote such a beautiful song for it and that inspired me to keep going. You know, sometimes I go, ‘This is so stupid that I’m trying to do this during this time in our life. I should just be cherishing our time, I shouldn’t be writing this. I shouldn’t be going, “Just leave me alone, I’m trying to write, John!” ’ ” Daum says with a laugh. “And he’s so beautiful. He’s like, ‘No, Jill, you have to do this.’ I guess it’s really important for the both of us.”
Advance Theatre will also feature S.M. Hunter’s debut play, 27 Voices, written in honour of Canada’s murdered and missing indigenous women and girls.
“It is fiction, but I just felt like there are all these women’s lives that have been lost and there’s just not enough attention on it,” Hunter tells the Straight over the phone from her home in the Okanagan. “As a poet I write a lot in metaphor and speak in metaphor and I felt like I wanted to shine a light on this dark place. It’s an extreme cliché, but it’s like excavating something that’s been buried, in our media and even in some of the families.…We have to look at those things because there’s a lot of unresolved grief and it’s worthy of our attention and our honouring.”
When Brown asked Quelemia Sparrow to direct 27 Voices, it was easy for her to say yes.
“Because I’m an indigenous playwright, actor, and director, it’s really important for me to support female playwrights and directors in the business. I don’t think there are enough of us, and I think the perspectives and voices need to be out there in the community,” Sparrow says. “I’m all for supporting anything to do with that. And then, specifically, my work with indigenous content as well. It’s very important for me to get those stories out there.”
Advance Theatre is helping to get those stories into the world, but it also aims to begin to dismantle sexism and misogyny in the theatre. Both Brown and Sparrow laugh loudly when asked whether they have experienced sexism in their careers.
“Oh my God, how much time do you have?” Brown asks. “Yes, in a nutshell, yes. I have experienced extreme sexism in the theatre and I’m sure every woman in the theatre has a story for you.
“I’ve been abused by a male director, at the very least one, and there was very little recourse at the time,” Brown continues. “There is now. Equity has a sexual-harassment policy and there is actually recourse.…A lot of people don’t do anything because they’re afraid of losing their job or they’re afraid of being black-marked as a troublemaker. The backroom politics of it all, how people talk about you, you don’t want to be labelled troublesome. But this is all changing because women are taking back the stage and we’re going to do it regardless of the old boys’ network. We’re going to make things transparent and fair as much as possible and get our voices out there.”
In other words, she wants to advance theatre in more ways than one.
Advance Theatre takes place at the Vancouver Fringe Festival False Creek Gym venue from September 14 to 18.