Rosemary Doyle’s Red Sandcastle Theatre holds a lot for a small venue, seating up to 70, and almost every seat was taken on one of the first snowy nights of winter. It’s an unassuming place – and you definitely don’t want to arrive too early, especially on a cold night, because they really mean it when they say the doors open half an hour before the show (and not a minute earlier). Unassuming, but intimate, and Doyle advertises her theatre as a place where ‘anything is possible.’ A big mandate for a small theatre, but one that was proven true, for me at least, last week.
The energy in the room was palpable as Jennifer Neale – director of Silenced and co-artistic director of HERstory Counts – took the stage to address the audience and, appropriately, explain the mandate of the HERstory: to make space for the previously silenced voices of womyn at many different intersections of social oppression.
What followed is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen all year. The show is a collective ensemble piece, comprised of 7 womyn telling 7 stories all autobiographical in nature. Ruby Ajilore, Yolanda Bonnell, Laura Meadows, Shannon Murphy, Risha Nanda, Denise Norman, Eileen Posadas combine forces to alternately tell and support each other’s narratives. Each story happens at an intersection: an indigenous girl growing up with an abusive (white) stepfather and a mother who can’t bring herself to stay away from him, another growing up with a learning disability that was diagnosed much later than it should have been, a rape victim who went on to develop vaginismus, a queer kid whose relationship with her father was damaged by his internalized homophobia and misogyny, a woman of colour struggling against stereotypes and racism, a Philippino girl who assaulted by her cousin, and a white woman whose first encounters with racism were when she was no longer allowed to see her best friend (of colour) after the transition from kindergarten to grade school and her subsequent battles against all kinds of oppression from the vantage point of the privileged.
Part of the production’s aim is to find and create connection and support within the wider community, to tell the stories of marginalized people who are unseen and unheard within a community that we all already live in. What’s amazing about this show is how that aim is also modelled for us in the action on stage, in a way that also facilitates excellent storytelling. Each actor moves to the front to tell her story, while those in the back at times step forward to play supporting roles in the scene. The resulting effect is some combination of seven small one person shows, and an excellent ensemble piece.
I have to admit that for a one-weekend, indie piece, I hadn’t expected the acting and direction to be so strong, creating a vivid emotional landscape in each vignette. The attention to detail of the characterization in certain cases was downright impressive–a facial expression, or a hand gesture, or a shrug of the shoulders from a supporting character sitting behind the actor fills out the action while also hitting an often necessary comedic tone, something which gives each scene more than just a single emotional note. The stories are all dark, and if this show were remounted it should probably come with a trigger warning, but watching the stories was surprisingly easy – they are raw and emotional, sure, but in a way which is sincere rather than aggrandizing or melodramatic, often bringing out not just the dark aspects of these stories, but also the love, the humour, and the absurdity of life.
Theatre that aims to be overtly political often doesn’t make for great art: not so with this show. The stories do not preach, but instead reveal worlds that we, the audience, are invited into. There are some intense moments, and very real emotions, and I found myself alternately chuckling and quietly crying at the pain these women had endured, but also their amazing resilience in the face of all of it. And this is something that we all need right now, personally and politically.