The Firehall had a good evening on the 28th of January at the 14th Annual Ovation Awards, where we won Outstanding Production – Professional, and Outstanding Music Direction. As well, we had nominations for Outstanding New Work, Outstanding Set Design, and Outstanding Lighting Design. Thank you to our wonderful team and fans for making this possible!
Outstanding Production – Professional
Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell, A Firehall Arts Centre Production
Outstanding Music Direction
Andrew Cohen, Circle Game – A Firehall Arts Centre Production
Outstanding New Work
Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell. Created by Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman Inspired by the songs of Joni Mitchell A Firehall Arts Centre Production.
Outstanding Set Design
Carolyn Rapanos, Circle Game – Firehall Arts Centre
Outstanding Lighting Design
Ian Schimpf, Circle Game – Firehall Arts Centre
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes
& the human voice & people gathered together.
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
From the footlights : It is said that anger stems from fear and fear ultimately leads to hate. If that is the case, then the three principal women prison inmates of Oz playwright Patricia Cornelius’s play SHIT are soul-deep in fear. Because they hate. And hate big. But not only. With few if any of the occasional soft sidebars offered up by the t.v. magnet-show Orange Is the New Black, Firehall’s pre-show publicity puts what SHIT is about so bluntly I couldn’t improve on it if I tried :
“What about women with foul mouths and weathered faces? What about women who spit, fight, swear, hurt and steal? What do they have to say?…Watch in uncomfortable awe as angry, unrelenting, terrifying, damaged women discuss fist fights, foster care, babies, their moms, crying, and what it’s like to believe in absolutely nothing.”
Samantha (Yoshié Bancroft), Billie (Kayla Deorksen) and Bobbie (Sharon Crandall) are tough uncompromising foster care & group home grads who’ve landed in prison together after committing a vicious assault. As the play title suggests, they give not much of a shit for anyone or anything, except each other perhaps.
How it’s all put together : Meet 20-somethings Billie, Bobbie and Sam. Not only are they from the gender repressive patriarchy that for centuries has wanted to “keep women in their place”. They are also victims of their own parents’ neglect, serial foster care placements and group homes. They have suffered a general banishment into a seething under-underclass realm where personal survival drives them deeper into desperation and despair.
Together they are in prison now after swarming a girl passing by who “was in the wrong place at the wrong time”, they claim. The parallels with the Reena Virk tragedy in B.C. are immense. In lock-up the women swap their personal verbal “herstories” as victims while kicking about Oz’s foster care system. Like pack dogs that circle and taunt their challengers, they do so in endless attack mode via a stream of abuse, vulgarity, violent outburts and sexual innuendo that screech both in the ear and the heart.
It is not, however, naturalism. It is reality-based but unreal. Imagined. Dramatized. Poeticized. Choral. Choreographed. Starting with Scene 1 that in just 8-10 minutes produced (I attempted to count them) some 79 repetitious shouts of the word “Fuck!” — usually as a verb but also as noun, adjective, adverb and the plain ordinary hoarse and hoary expletive which is how most of us use it.
What the show brings to the stage : Director Donna Spencer quotes playwright Cornelius : “I never want to write a moment in a play where a woman succumbs to coquettishness or is sexualized in any way, or has to be grateful or apologetic, or is there to serve some male protagonist. For women, being grateful all the time is exhausting.”
No question the sexploitation they’ve suffered is huge. Samantha at 15 was hustling truckers just for kicks but now pines to have a baby : “If you have a baby, you just haveto love them!” she says to taunts from her buddies. For her part Bobbie hates her body and all its “bits”, none of which are “me”, she says. She imagines herself a man in woman’s flesh until her pals disrobe her, lit.-&-fig.
Each of these bitter scared souls cries out to be saved. They conjure an imagined totem — Caitlin they call her — a mother-figure who might, as Billie says, “pick me up and carry me off somewhere, someone who gives a shit, someone who says ‘You mean something to me…’.” Still, she says, she can’t cry. “I don’t feel pain,” she protests in a lie about as big as her phantasy St. Caitlin.
Production values that shine : To appreciate SHIT, I think, viewers have to suppress all urges to literal-ness with this script. Its cadences are what drive it. It must be heard, like a poetry jam or rap or choral duets and choruses sans music. One Oz reviewer pointed to 19th century romantic American poet Walt Whitman’s magnum opus called Song of Myself. Nudged in the direction of Stanza 52, I consulted it.
That reviewer didn’t mention it, but I found Verse 2 compelling. It seems to sum up Cornelius’s script and her characters perfectly: “I too am not a bit tamed — I too am untranslatable / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Billie the most of the three propels her “barbaric yawp” irrepressibly, relentlessly, even when she does push-ups on the jail floor or kisses Samantha and tells her she loves her.
Set designer Conor Moore has produced a series of three side-by-side jailhouse cages that work effectively especially with lighting designer Kyla Gardiner’s consequential shadow spots and overlights. This jail ain’t no SPCA shelter : the cats flurry about hissing relentlessly at the echoing footfalls of the guards, at each other, at what life has dished out for them.
Acting pin-spots : These three as blocked and choreographed and vocally directed by Donna Spencer are utterly in sync with Patricia Cornelius’s script. They are a chorus of solo spirit dancers looking, each one, for that evasive and elusive talisman of hope that will liberate them from their core misery and anger.
Of the three the bitterest and hardest and crudest and toughest was without doubt the character Billie. Kayla Deorksen’s portrayal was completely captivating and compelling. But hard to repress a tear at Yoshie Bancroft’s wanting, wanting, wanting — a duvet, a comfy bedroom, a baby. And Sharon Crandall’s abject pain at her gender, her body, her personal entrapment was wholly engaging.
Who gonna like : All readers by now should probably know, intuitively, if they are one “who gonna like” this intense, in-your-face, profane, challenging, irreverent shout-out of pain & suffering & abuse.
Exiting Firehall we encountered a DTES resident shouting wildly at various demons and threats. The shouting was a man’s but could easily have been one of any gender who’s suffered life’s deprivation and loss and want in our otherwise comfy and smug 1st world. When Billie heard herself referred to as one of life’s Forsaken! by social workers, her reply was simple and straightforward : Fuck them!
If any or all of this strikes an Amen! chord with you, you will go see SHIT and learn some shit, no question. Dramatically. Poetically. Viscerally. I would go again in a heartbeat.
Particulars :Produced by Firehall Arts Centre. On until February 10th. At the Firehall Arts Centre @ Gore and Cordova. Tickets & schedule information via 604.689.0926 or www.firehallartscentre.ca.
Production crew :Director Donna Spencer (Artistic Producer of Firehall Theatre). Set Designer Conor Moore. Lighting Designer Kyla Gardiner. Stage Manager Susan D. Currie. Fight Co-Ordinator Sylvie La Riviera.
In SHIT, Yoshié Bancroft, Kayla Deorksen, and Sharon Crandall (from left) play tough women facing misogyny and maltreatment.
Patricia Cornelius, the grande dame of rebel playwrights in Australia, is on the line from Adelaide, and we’re discussing the word shit.
It’s the name of her play that will make its Canadian debut here at the Firehall Arts Centre. And it’s also a word that’s been flying all over the airwaves. Thanks to President Donald Trump’s infamous “shithole” slur, even television’s most esteemed news anchors are having to say the “S word”.
Cornelius laughs at the thought of that, then recounts a story from the 2015 debut of her play SHIT at Melbourne’s Neon Festival of Independent Theatre.
“People would ring [the box office] and women in particular would say, ‘I would like tickets for S-H-I-T,’ ” she says, spelling it out and then laughing heartily. “I used to say, ‘If they can’t even say the word, how are they going to handle this play?’ ”
Actually, by all accounts it’s the F word, the C word, and several other delightfully colourful terms that show up more often in SHIT, the story of three marginalized, tough-living women who end up in prison together after a particularly brutal incident.
“I’ve grown up with the vernacular,” Cornelius says of swearing. “I find it a powerful tool—as long as I can seduce people with an almost-poetry using it.”
It’s also the language of the working class and underclass, whose members Cornelius is known for putting at centre stage. As the marketing materials for the Firehall’s rendition of the work say, “What about the women with the foul mouths and the weathered faces? What about the women who spit, fight, swear, hurt, and steal? What do they have to say?”
“It’s the voice that’s not heard enough in the theatre,” says Cornelius, a cofounder of Melbourne Workers Theatre. In mainstream work, she explains, the underclass is often sneered at or laughed at. “Well, these women aren’t to be laughed at! They’re too scary.”
The play, she explains, grew out of a workshop she did with other playwrights and actors to try to develop richer, more challenging roles for women—a topic that’s as top-of-mind Down Under as it is in the theatre scene here.
“Where are the plays where a woman can sort of take a space the way a man can?” the affable but unapologetic playwright asks. “We don’t get a chance to do that—to really take the audience by the scruff of the neck.” She delved into developing women who wouldn’t act the way society wants them to; women who were angry and disenfranchised—as she puts it, the kind of woman who makes you bury your head in a book when you see her ranting on a public bus. And then in SHIT, without any sentimentality, she unpacks the misogyny and maltreatment that has brought these people (played here by Yoshié Bancroft, Kayla Deorksen, and Sharon Crandall) to the state they’re in.
“Women aren’t meant to be so tough—so what the fuck did you do to them to make them so tough?” she says.
Cornelius likes middle-class theatregoers to ask themselves hard questions. But with typical honesty, Cornelius cops that tearing down sexism, classism, and institutions didn’t always come so easily for her.
“Much of my life I spent quite timid, and that absolutely has to do with class and gender,” the sexagenarian admits. “Even in theatre, it took so long to claim myself as a young playwright; I was a nervous Nelly and kind of apologetic about the plays.
“Aging is quite a good thing, and you think, ‘Ah, fuck it! I’m gonna say what I want to say.’”
Spoken like a true shit-disturber.
SHIT is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Saturday (January 27) to February 10.