Painting A Picture About Feminist Theatre

Illustration by Charlotte Smith.

Feminism is a buzzword. Today, it’s everywhere: on t-shirts, on water bottles, and all over Instagram. While it seems lately feminism is a useful marketing strategy, I’d like to think that it’s more than just a sales tactic. I would like to think that we’re finally crawling our way out of the dark ages of condemning the word “feminist” and, even though it feels fashionable right now, that feminism is also very real in a political sense. It’s there in our marches, our protests, in our education, and in our art. But I’m not sure I really understand what feminism is. If you look up the word “feminism” on any search engine, what you get is a plain umbrella term. When you type the word Feminist into google, what you find is the following: “a person who supports feminism” and “Feminism: Political Ideology. Feminism is a range of social movements, political movements, and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, personal, and social equality of the sexes.”But that doesn’t even scratch the surface, because feminism is really FEMINISMS — plural.

There are a lot of different understandings of and associations with the word “feminist.” Speaking for myself, I’m a twenty-two-year-old cisgender woman, who has grown up in Ontario in a house where I was always supported both as a young woman and as an artist. I feel very lucky for that. Throughout my (limited) life experiences, I’ve always had questions about feminism(s) and its relation to art, especially theatre. I have a lot of questions, and I’m sure I’m not alone in a landscape that’s constantly changing and evolving—both artistically and politically.

What is feminist theatre? Who is it for? Is it for everybody? And what does feminist theatre look like today, in Canada? I needed to wrap my head around all of these questions. To do so, I decided to go straight to the source and sit down with some female theatre artists. I wanted to discuss these questions with them. What is feminist theatre to them? Who do they think feminist theatre represents? And, if any, what are their concerns as artists and as women in the industry?

The artists featured in this article are Nina Lee Aquino, Artistic Director of the Factory Theatre; Andrea Donaldson, Artistic Director of Nightwood Theatre; Jasmine Chen, a multidisciplinary artist based out of Toronto; Eda Holmes, Artistic Director of the Centaur Theatre; Kelly Thornton, Artistic Director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre; and Nikki Shaffeeullah, Previous Artistic Director of the AMY project. The following are the thoughts, ideas, and comments shared with me in response to the question of feminist theatre.

First things first: what is feminist theatre? How can we understand it when the word “feminism” means so many different things to so many different people? For Andrea Donaldson, feminist theatre is about the female perspective. Everything she does as an artist is inherently feminist, because she is a woman. Donaldson explains: “Anything I make is feminist theatre because my perspective is inherently feminist… Whether I’m directing a piece with a female protagonist, or an un-gendered story by a female artist, or a play written by a dead white guy. If it comes from me, if I’ve decided to do it, it’s feminist.”

While everything we do as female artists seems to carry our gender with it, for Eda Holmes, feminist theatre is about experience: “What I do believe no matter what play I direct, I bring to it my own world experiences being a woman. I am drawn mostly to stories about women, I like stories written by women. I find them recognizable, cathartic, and important.”

There is something very empowering about Holmes’ perspective. The experiences and identities of women, and the act of displaying them in public today, is very political. Jasmine Chen expands on this point: “[Feminist theatre is] unapologetic in its aim to destroy oppressive systems. It is a necessary force for the liberation of all people and the empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups.” Feminist theatre is a way of thinking of women, not just as a gender or as a people, but as a political force for change; sounds very noble, mighty, and kick-butt.

Is that what makes feminist theatre so important? Is that what makes feminist theatre important today, here, in Canada, in 2019? Nikki Shaffeeullah believes that radicalness is the key. Feminist theatre, for Shaffelauh, challenges us not only as artists but as people: “It requires us to do the work of theatre in ways that acknowledge gendered systems and hold us accountable to the ways those systems can help and can hurt.”

So, feminist theatre is important because it is a way of speaking out or speaking against harmful structures. But what are we speaking out against specifically? Kelly Thornton explains that feminist theatre “breaks down stereotypes and topples structures that are systemic barriers, through the very existence of it being there and changing people’s perspectives.” But with this talk of barriers, I can’t help but wonder if feminist theatre builds its own—and who it is they are keeping out. Who are we letting into feminist theatre? Who gets to do it? Who is feminist theatre for? The representation of women onstage has arguably come a long way, but has it come far enough?

Can we say today that feminist theatre is for everyone? Especially for those that are blocked out by systemic stereotyping and structures built to keep them removed. Historically speaking, the feminist movement, in general, has been an exclusive members-only girls club. Based on a set of ideals that only seek to push others out that don’t fit accordingly. These embedded systems of racism, classism and transphobia—just to name a few—are present even today in a movement intended to end oppression it’s supposed to be fighting.

Feminist theatre hasn’t toppled down every structure in our political sphere just yet—in fact, it might reinforce some of them. Nina Lee Aquino, when asked if she associated with the feminist movement, responded that she “feels detached from the word feminist because it isn’t all-inclusive of women of colour.” To Aquino, we have taken steps in the right direction, but it’s not enough. “There are only four women of colour [in leadership positions] at major theatre companies.”

 It is because of this lack of diversity Aquino feels that feminist theatre is not for everyone. Feminist theatre is meant to do barrier-crushing work, but for women of colour, Aquino says that “we need to constantly keep fighting for our place…We are still bothered and tokenized.”

Which makes me wonder, is feminist theatre all that radical? Our radicalness needs to come from our willingness to include everybody. But right now, we aren’t letting everybody in. We are keeping more people out. Which creates a big gap—or a large tipping of the scale in the wrong direction. The problem for Nina Lee Aquino is “all about who has absolute power and [women of colour] aren’t there yet… It’s a work in progress.”

It’s easy to be excited about feminist theatre and the feminism(s) that surround us. There’s a strength in the pluralities that exist in both feminism and feminist theatre. But it’s important to acknowledge that there isn’t just one way to look at it. There is a strength in its many meanings. We need to think about feminist theatre and the possibilities of who we are leaving out.

I ask again: what is feminist theatre? It’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It’s about creating space for female artists to create as themselves, explore topics about their identities, and do some real empowering work. But that work is a work in progress. A diverse amount of definitions requires a diverse group of people, with diverse experiences of woman-ness and radicalness. Feminist theatre in Canada is growing. It’s moving in the right direction, towards challenging our cultural and political norms and fighting for equal representation. We’re climbing the right mountain, but the hike is nowhere near over.

While most of my questions are nowhere near easily solved, I’m looking towards a future where we acknowledge everyone, where feminist theatre is for everyone. Is that too much wishful thinking? I can’t sum up the issues with our current understanding of feminism and feminist theatre better than Nina Lee Aquino did. So, I’ll leave you with something she said to me at the end of our phone call: “You want to fight for women, but you’re only fighting for one kind of woman.”

3 Responses to “Painting A Picture About Feminist Theatre”

  1. Thanks for this piece, Alisha: for including such a terrific range of amazing women-identified artists’ voices, and for foregrounding the important critique of feminism’s historic exclusivity. It is, as Nina says with her characteristic, brilliant force, a work in progress!

    I wanted to alert you to the large range of academic work on this topic – feminist performance theory and criticism has been a mainstay of theatre scholarship since the 1980s. Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator (a book that became a reviews blog that became even more) offers a fine intro to this history, and I’ll also shamelessly plug my own Theatre & Feminism, an introductory volume from 2015. It’s about $10 and (I think) a bracing read.

    Thank you again for your article!

  2. When women come together to raise our collective consciousness, we see the world in a whole new way. It’s an evolutionary process, as we rub against the structures and beliefs that define us in ways that make us less fully human. We begin to see how economics, religions, media, governments, patriarchal and hierarchical structures including the nuclear family, diminish us. We become defined by our collective selves, rather than the patriarchy. When we no longer accept these structures and beliefs we challenge them and in that challenging, we make space for all the other marginalized groups who are oppressed by the same structures. It’s not our job to liberate them. It’s our job to liberate ourselves and ensure that it is not at other marginalized groups expense. So feminist theatre is any theatre that comes from that evolving authentic place. Just because a woman writes, or directs a play, if she is male-identified, she will only reinforce those structures that oppress all of us, and is therefore, not a feminist. She may appropriate the label, but she ain’t no feminist. And that goes for Trudeau.

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Written By

Alisha Grech is a Canadian theatre artist who specializes in direction and arts journalism. She is a recent graduate of Queen’s University with a BAH in Drama and Philosophy, and Yale University with a certificate for the Yale Summer Sessions Directing Intensive. Today, Alisha Grech studies at the University of Toronto, Centre for Drama Theatre and Performance Studies where she is an MA candidate. Currently, Alisha’s research is focused on the study of female identity through theatre as well as verbatim and documentary theatre.”