2014 has been a challenging year for women.
With the Ghomeshi and Cosby sex assault scandals reaching critical mass within the media, national discussion has finally turned to issues of privilege and the roles women are forced to play within a patriarchal society. Still, dominant conversations remain insufficient, and are often tied to an understanding of women that still frames their identity in relation to their use or value to men – wife, mother, mistress, sister, etc.
And this is nothing new – August Strindberg’s 1889 “playette” The Stronger explored the relationship between a married woman and the supposed mistress, and similarly wanted to interrogate these roles in a meaningful way that was nonetheless intensely problematic and contextualized the female characters in relation to the absent husband. Theatre Rusticle’s piece The Stronger Variations, on stage now at Buddies, takes a remix approach to the original play in the hopes of calling attention to these preconceptions and providing a voice for these female characters that is ultimately divorced from dominant patriarchal convention.
I had a chance to chat with Theatre Rusticle’s Artistic Director Allyson McMackon about The Stronger Variations, and what theatre patrons can expect at the show.
Tell me about The Stronger Variations. What was the creative seed or inspiration for the piece?
It started in 2005 as a Fringe project. I’ve always had a bit of a fondness for the play. Strindberg was sort of revolutionary in looking at an experimental form so that has lingered since theatre school days. And I’ve always thought the piece was a piece for women…in spite of Strindberg’s misogyny. So in 2005, it was about seeing what we could do. How many viewpoints could the source take? How could we further the experimentation using our physical approach. So it began there – an attack of form and content – with three excellent collaborators in Liza Balkan, Lucy Rupert & Viv Moore.
How does it build upon the original Strindberg play?
It deconstructs it more than it builds upon it. The original 20 minute text was distilled down to about 4 minutes. We cycle through a whack of versions of this distillation, which really centres on “what happens if wife and mistress meet”? We look at the wife and mistress as people, archetypes, mythic creatures, and we show them rooted to the imagery that Strindberg plants for us – the wife as a doll, the mistress as a crab, a snake. We look at the murky place where the roles merge…there is a Self in both creatures and one can just as easily be the other. We’ve all found ourselves in both shoes.
We take a very hard look at the supposed to be’s that Strindberg imposes on the women, they are projections and I feel really limited. He wrote the roles for his wife and mistress, so there’s some weird autobiographical stuff floating in there. We’re looking at these women through as many lenses as possible, from the most pedestrian to the most imaginative to offer more complex looks at women…at women claiming themselves, their identities, their lives.
Much is written about the way in which the original looks at the roles of women in society – specifically the duality of wife and mistress. How does The Stronger Variations interrogate these roles and question them?
The women are ostensibly identical. All that delineates the mistress from wife is a hat. Otherwise, they’re identical. So we are asking the women to see their reflections in each other, to see who they are and how they are with each other. We don’t necessarily go for the expected explorations and the company has devised the interrogation. The notion of a wife actually beating up (physically) the mistress is not an expected one…they are more evenly matched. A wife gives the mistress her life. A mistress tells us about the shock of sensation. The wife confesses about what the betrayal felt like. The language and behaviour is not so different between the two. We always talk about a third place for the characters… an undefined self, a self seeking definition of their own. The third place is where the two merge… the one, the self, the woman.
Has the piece evolved significantly since it first opened in the Toronto Fringe? What journey has it taken, and how has the text changed?
After the Fringe, we added a male voice and did the show at Harbourfront a Centre. That took it in another direction and I think, while interesting, compromised the female voice. I used the show as a teaching tool last year on some fourth year actors and found that young people could engage with it. So I got a jolt of inspiration actually from the young people – one jolt that the show had legs – another jolt that I wanted another kick at it to refind the women. So often small companies feel pressure to keep cranking out new work and I’ve felt that way. To be able to revisit it is a necessity I think. And i certainly never felt show was complete.
So it’s journeyed with us as we’ve grown and done other work: refined our process, worked with designers and developed a real company aesthetic. The text is something that is retained and then blown apart. We work image to image in some variations, and there is much textual improvisation.
5) How does piece engage with musical conventions and structures?
The 4 minute distilled text is the theme. We establish it and then in each variation play with it visually, imagistically, textually. We see how far we can go from the source before we’re into something new in the hopes of building on it. It should have a cumulative effect. A musical theme & variations takes a bass note that is repeated through each variation. The text & situation are our bass notes and through repetition and the addition of movement, different text, verbatim text, pure physicality all augment it. We return to the theme at the end forever changed… through repetition we go somewhere new. The question of who is the stronger is moot… the women are forging paths for themselves, have voices, bodies, identity.
What is next for Theatre Rusticle?
I am directing Anna Karenina at George Brown Theatre School in the spring and there will be a new Rusticle show in 2016.
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Theatre Rusticle’s The Stronger Variatinos is on stage now until December 7. Click here for tickets and info.
photo of Lucy Rupert in The Stronger Variations by Jeremy Mimnagh