After a particularly powerful scene early in Unraveling Herstory, Gail Schwartz collected her belongings, returned them to her suitcase, and walked off the stage. The gesture captured the essential idea behind the new play staged at Concordia last weekend.
Unraveling Herstory is a collection of seven women’s personal memories and ancestral legacies, many of which are troubling and traumatic. By ‘unpacking’ their stories and acting them out for the stage, the women were able to work through their past and acquire a sense of power from their history
The opening scene showed all seven women rushing back and forth across the stage, carrying their belongings, searching for a place to settle. The balance of the performance explored this idea further, as each cast member brought us into their childhood memories, traced their ancestral roots, and struggle with identity.
“Role play can be very therapeutic,” explained co-director and drama therapist Emily Burkes-Nossiter in a phone interview following the show.
Burkes-Nossiter decided to use a women-only cast because “historically and systemically” women’s voices have been largely silenced in our culture. Many of the women’s stories, however, were marked by experiences with their fathers and grandfathers. The women acted those parts out too
Burkes-Nossiter also said they tried to make the cast as diverse as possible. Although members of the cast came from a wide variety of backgrounds – Vietnam, Trinidad, China, and Poland, to name a few – the individual stories were surprisingly similar. They shared the distinctly Canadian theme of searching for a meaning in new land and nostalgia for a place that no longer exists.
The creative use of video, poetry, and especially sound (by Paul Gareau), accentuated the emotional and kept the scenes fresh.
When the curtain dropped, this reviewer was left wondering if the play was created more for the cast than the audience, but judging by the post-performance discussion this was not an opinion shared by most. One audience member, who traveled from Toronto to see the play, said it was one of the best theatre shows she had seen in years.
“They don’t have the experience the cast has had,” said Burkes-Nossiter, “but the idea is that the performance will work as a catalyst, that it will get them thinking about these things in their own lives.”
The play was the product of five months of experimentation, discussion and workshops for the cast and directors. The performance itself represented only a portion of the process that took place.
The growing interest in drama therapy seems fitting for our time. There is a strong element of voyeurism to the genre, and also a preoccupation with the Self, that is reminiscent of one of our age’s most infamous innovations: reality TV. Because the story is ‘true’ it is somehow understood to be more honest than fiction. The fact that the stories actually happened is certainly part of the reason the play resonated with the audience.
But the big difference between your average reality show and Unraveling Herstory (and of course there are many) is that the latter is guided by an artistic and political aim – to encourage transformation. To this end, the play was a success.
The project was created by Common Thread Productions, a women’s autobiographical theatre group based in Montreal. The group is an offshoot of the Herstories Project based in Oakland, California. Through workshops and performances, the idea is to “promote co-operation and invoke an alternative vision of a society that values every one’s voice and self-expression,” according the group’s website.
For more information about the collective visit www.commonthreadproductions.org