Preview: HERstory Counts (Jennifer Neales)

Poster for HERstory CountsHERstory Counts is a collection of seven autobiographical monologues that explores a range of issues from in vitro fertilization to mental health. Artistic Producer Jennifer Neales created the show in collaboration with a diverse group of female performers as a response to the lack of diversity from the creation level in film and theatre. We recently got the opportunity to ask Neales some questions about the production and representation in Canadian Theatre:

Can you tell us a bit more about what inspired the show?

The inspiration came from a few places, actually. I had been touring with trey anthony’s ‘da Kink in My Hair and this last tour to the Northwest Territories at the end of 2015 really changed something in me…We had the privilege of speaking with some womyn from the Native communities in the north after one of our shows, and they really opened up to us about… the importance of having our truths be out there naked in the world since so often we are silenced and the voices of marginalized womyn are buried so deep, there are only ignorant stereotypes out there to fall back on.

When we returned trey, Janet Romero-Leiva (creator in HERstory Counts) and I went to see an incredible piece of theatre called Nirbhaya #endthesilence curated by Nightwood Theatre. This piece of theatre about the silencing of womyn who have survived sexual assaults… ignited a fire in my belly so hot that I had to create something. Womyn’s voices are still being silenced all over the world.

Finally, in the middle of January [Artistic Director] Matthew Jocelyn announced the 2016-17 season for Canadian Stage and there was not one person at the creation level who identified as a person of colour. The response Canadian Stage had to the outrage that so many of us felt was that they would be “casting diversely.” For myself, and so many other theatre artists, that was no longer good enough… That’s when I knew my production would be HERstory Counts.

HERstory Counts is a devised theatre piece created in collaboration with the performers. How did this creative process influence what we are going to see on stage?

Quite simply, we really worked as a collective. The womyn had free reign when it came to what story they wanted to tell, and myself, Melanie Hrymak, Melissa Major, and Franny Mc-Cabe-Bennett were there as dramaturges, directors, and creative over-seers. The womyn wrote and wrote and we helped refine, pare down and find the arc of each piece. We transition from piece to piece as if they were scenes coming together to support the other.

Since the show is based on the creators’ real life experiences, were you surprised by any of the stories or discoveries?

I was absolutely surprised by so many of them. I am fortunate enough to have known many of these womyn prior to this project, and I was still surprised by their honesty, integrity, strength, courage and love. Each story is so rich with imagery and memory.

As a womyn producer and performer who has been acting for over 20 years, have we made any progress with representation and diversity on the creative/leadership level?

My immediate answer is yes, womyn have made progress. My longer answer speaks to the facets of Second Wave Feminism since the progress has really only been made (ever so slightly) for white female-identifying actors. When it comes to diversity of perspective, the major theatre houses here in Canada are not even close to doing enough to showcase a proper representation of the people in our country and our world.

There are a few exciting seasons, like Factory Theatre and Theatre Passe-Murraille who have been challenging audiences with new takes on old shows and putting forth new shows from people of different backgrounds… But really… Is that enough? Given how large Toronto is? I don’t think so.

When it comes to issues of representation, there often seem to be an “either/or” scenario or complaints about the size of the talent pool. Yet, HERstory Counts has assembled a multi-talented, diverse female cast & crew. Why is intersectional diversity important to see and hear on stage and what can theatre creators/leaders do to facilitate this?

The response to the question of hiring more directors, writers, producers, and actors with diverse backgrounds and experiences with “We would hire more people of diverse backgrounds if they would just apply, but they don’t. It’s not our fault” is cowardly and resigned. It took me all of one day to find MORE than seven diverse womyn to work with HERstory Counts.

We need to see this on stage because the more visible people are the more we challenge the despicable stereotypes that are perpetuated EVERY DAY by pop culture. We have to create opportunities to foster writers and directors of all genders, ages, races, languages, abilities, sizes, sexual orientation, and not rely on that resigned way of accepting what we think we cannot change.

How can audiences support diversity on our stages and screens?

The best way to support diversity on stage and screen is to SHOW UP. Support shows and films that are putting forth clear representations of people and groups. Write letters if you don’t think shows and films are doing that. Create a buzz. Kick up a fuss. Get angry. Get into action. Support diversity on stage by creating opportunities, like HERstory Counts, to work with diverse actors and writers.

In all honesty, it comes down to not accepting things the way that they are. Create change.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length.

Details:

  • HERstory Counts plays this weekend only (April 22nd to 24th) at the The Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen Street East).
  • Shows run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 7:30 PM each night. The show is 90 minutes long with no intermission.
  • Tickets are $20 for Adults and $15 for Students/ Seniors/ Arts Workers. Tickets can be purchase online or can be purchased at the door at 7:00 PM on the night of each performance.