Rylan Wilkie (left), Allison Lynch, Julie Orton and Duncan Ollerenshaw offer a women's perspective on history
Although Urban Curvz Theatre has existed for only four seasons, it has quickly established itself as a powerful voice for women’s stories. Their latest production, a double bill of plays by acclaimed Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, is no exception, tackling tricky issues about the role of women in history.
Essay stars Allison Lynch as Pixie, a first-year student in a military history course. Pixie wants to write an essay about Elisabeth Maria of Parma, the wife of King Philip V of Spain, arguing that she was a great strategist. Her teaching assistant refuses the topic, saying it doesn’t fall within the parameters of the assignment, but Pixie goes over his head and gets permission from the professor.
The conversation between the professor and the TA, played by Duncan Ollerenshaw and Rylan Wilkie respectively, quickly moves beyond Pixie’s essay into the definition of history. “Women aren’t central to the events of 17th- and 18th-century military history,” says director Glenda Stirling. “If you’re looking at women’s roles in that era, then, is it anthropology? Sociology? Social history? If we look at women in history, are we re-orienting history to the mundane?”
These are all valid questions, but for decades they were rarely posed, which is one of the reasons why the Famous 5 Foundation was established. Frances Wright, the organization’s founder, says that even significant female leaders lacked any significant mention of their successes. “They were simply wives or mothers,” says Wright. “Even on the gravestones for the Famous Five, only Emily Murphy’s mentioned something about the ‘Person’s Case.’
The Famous Five — Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Irene Parlby — put forward a court case that, in 1929, established that the word ‘persons’ included women, and that Canadian women were eligible to be appointed to the Senate. It was a landmark case that had enormous ramifications for women’s rights... and hardly anyone remembered it.
The Russian Play, the second in the double-bill, features Julie Orton as a young, innocent flower-shop girl who, because of a Russian love story gone wrong, ends up in prison. “It can all be traced to, you know, your life goes to sheeeet with love.” says Stirling, who suddenly adopts a fake Russian accent.
In contrast to the straightforward realism of Essay, The Russian Play is highly stylized, flashing back and forth between the cautionary fairy tale and a cheeky interaction with the audience. “She narrates her own story, making jokes about love and Russia,” says Stirling. “There’s a little song, a little dance — it’s a cabaret!”
The other contrast is between the subtle, unknown Russian girl and the larger historical themes tackled in Essay. But her anonymity is not that far off from Canada’s own deceased female heroines. “It was very difficult to find documentation of women, because so many of them burned their papers and letters,” says Wright. “Also, women generally went by the names of their husbands, so they were ‘Mrs. John Smith’. Who in the blue blazes is Mrs. John Smith?”
The Famous Five’s historic victory was immediately followed by the Great Depression and World War II, and when the smoke cleared, their efforts had become a mere footnote. That all changed in 1996, when Wright founded the foundation. In short order, they installed bronze monuments of the Famous Five in Olympic Plaza and on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, the Bank of Canada released a new $50 bill featuring the Famous Five, and Canada Post published their image as part of the millennium stamp collection. But perhaps the foundation’s most important initiative was the creation of an education guide.
“The education guide proved difficult, because each province determines its own curriculum and book list,” says Wright. “We were very lucky, though, because by the time we had gathered all the material, the department of education was examining their curriculum and realizing that there was very little information about women, aboriginals and new Canadians. We came along and offered them not one woman, but five, all from different backgrounds. Our curriculum guide has now been adopted across Canada.”
Just as women have been absent in education, Stirling argues that there is a void of women’s roles in theatre. “The idea still exists that the big plays, the big ideas, are about men. But, overwhelmingly, theatre-goers are women,” says Stirling. “Why are there so many men cluttering up the stage? We all want to see ourselves onstage. I think that’s true of everyone, whether it’s women, or people of a particular race, religion or sexual orientation. They all ask, why don’t I ever see myself on stage unless I’m a funny side-note?”
The two Moscovitch plays were originally produced separately, but they’ve regularly appeared as a double bill due to their thematic resonance. “Essay poses the question, are women valid historical figures? Then, within The Russian Play, we actually see the fictionalized story of a woman in history,” says Stirling. “I don’t know if The Russian Play is an answer to Essay, but it’s definitely a throwdown — a gauntlet!”
While Essay and The Russian Play feature an equal number of male and female actors, they are decidedly women’s stories. “Women are at the centre of these stories, not the periphery — and even when they are pushed to the periphery, which arguably happens in Essay, that’s the point,” says Stirling.