“Building on Your Work Over Time, Creating from a Place of Rage & How We Move Forward” In Conversation with Playwright Erin Shields & Director Andrea Donaldson on BEAUTIFUL MAN
Interview by Megan Robinson.
Originally performed as part of the SummerWorks Festival in 2015, Beautiful Man, written by Erin Shields, is taking on a new life at Factory Theatre, on stage now until May 26th. This feminist comedy, directed by Shield’s long-time collaborator Andrea Donaldson, promises big laughs, but also, provocation – with a narrative presented through the female gaze.
We spoke with Shields and Donaldson about this new iteration of their show, reworking the original script, creating from a place of rage, and what they find most inspiring these days.
Megan Robinson: The show was originally presented in 2015 at SummerWorks, so what was it that prompted this remount?
Andrea Donaldson: After the SummerWorks show we were really excited to find a partner to give it another life. There were some revisions that we were dreaming of, so we reached out to Nina (Lee Aquino – Artistic Director of Factory Theatre) and she was very enthusiastic. She threw it in her season and was quite generous to say, you know, “we want to be involved in the further development of it.” So they gave us a workshop last May, and now here were are. We have a brand new cast, and half of our design team is new, which is really exciting.
Erin Shields: And from a content point of view – 2015 was a very different time than right now in terms of how we’re talking about gender, gender equity, and about representation in film, television and theatre. 2015 was before #metoo. I don’t know that we’re post #metoo, but it’s been interesting for me revisiting the script in terms of that. In thinking, “okay, where are we now in this conversation?” And trying to address that with the revisions.
MR: Why build on this show, as opposed to tackling these questions with a whole new show? Is this show speaking both to 2015 and now?
ES: Everything I make is feminist, so I’m always engaging in my writing with “where are we now and what’s going on and what’s changed.” I don’t want to give too many spoilers away but I wrote a whole other section that is another movement in terms of this play. Part of it was editing and going back in, and some of it is completely new.
AD: And if I can add on, it feels like the impetus to write more came, yes, from responding to the world that changed in four years but in our SummerWorks production we were learning a lot dramaturgically about the piece. In that brief study with an audience, Erin and I were scrutinizing it and looking where energetically it wanted to shift and asking the question of “what next”.
MR: I guess my question is about knowing when a show is done, if there is always inspiration to go further? Was that a question you asked or was it always clear that there was more to say?
ES: When we did the first show it was very fast and furious. I wrote the show in two or three days, and then it was on stage within five months. I think even going in we knew there would be more. It felt like a workshop in front of an audience. It’s a comedy, so trying to figure that out without an audience is really challenging. We knew it wasn’t a final draft. Often when I write a play, it takes anywhere between three and six years for it to get to the stage so you often have cycles of dramaturgy and cycles of workshops or readings. Even the early days, when Andrea and I worked together on Montparnasse, we did it three times. So I think we’ve always understood that for theatre, because it’s a live art, you need that feedback from other people… certainly I do… before I’m willing to say “this is it”. How do you know it’s ever done? That’s a good question.
AD: I feel like this play is now done. I have no question around that.
MR: I read that the show was inspired by a sense of rage. Did working on the show allow you to process that rage, and did it make a difference for you? If so, how?
ES: Totally. Many of my plays start from a place of rage. From going, “that’s not fair” or “why is it like this?” I’ve often talked about how this came out of having a residue left in my body every time I watched popular television. I’d come away being like, “Oh, this Game of Thrones show is so great!” Then I’d be like, “Ew, all those women were sexually assaulted and I just watched it cuddling with my husband on the couch.” There’s something so weird about that. Doing this play has absolutely been cathartic. And I often heard the audience members say that after our SummerWorks production too, because it goes pretty far. There’s something I hope that is illuminating about it. I think we already know a lot of these things, but we don’t think deeply about them. We’re just so used to seeing women being raped on television, so we don’t think, “Oh my God, how many raped women have I seen in the last two months?” It’s ridiculous!
MR: What’s on your mind these days? Anything new that’s inspiring you?
ES: I’m thinking about how we move forward now. Especially with this wonderful moment we all experienced a year and a half ago, where we saw all of these giants being toppled in every industry. It felt like a real moment of triumph. It feels like, now, those massive figures have fallen and there are these gaps everywhere. And we’re looking around and thinking, what work do we still have to do, and what world do we all want to live in together? Those are very big questions. I think personally that’s where I’m at, and that’s what I’m working through with my work. And even on subjects of the play – we talked about Game of Thrones so much, and I remember seeing the first few episodes and it was all raping and fucking all the time, and really gratuitous violence against women. And in watching it now, watching this season, it’s so interesting to see how the women are treated has shifted. Even in this massive show, the female characters are super strong – the hero of the penultimate episode is an eighteen-year-old girl. When has that happened? Probably never, except in some young adult literature. But this is the most popular mainstream thing and that is who the hero is. It made me think. It made me wonder if there is change on the horizon.
MR: What is a traditionally male role you want to see a woman play? Since your whole thing is flipping gender roles.
AD: How do I say this… I’m curious to see what are the capabilities of the female roles that aren’t still in reference to a patriarchal perspective. So not just switcheroos. It makes me think of when I directed Romeo and Juliet and I conflated the roles of the Capulets, the mom and dad, into a single mom, and found in that combination the depth of emotional range that was not afforded to Mama Capulet. And seeing that embodied, seeing her move through that, felt like the most satisfying role, in a way, because we don’t get to see a mom who is violent to her daughter and who has really high standards for her daughter. It’s not only seeing women in particular roles, but seeing unexpected ways of embodying those roles that, especially in TV and film, are rarely afforded to women.
MR: What was a theatrical experience that made you feel really deeply seen as a female-identifying creator?
ES: I think when I see work done by my peers and my contemporaries I get really excited. I haven’t seen these plays, but I’m excited by the ambition in the work Susanna Fournier is creating. It’s imaginative, it’s poetic, it’s destructive. It makes me excited that she has been supported and celebrated for this massive endeavour. I want more of that.
AD: What’s coming for me is Rose Napoli’s Lo or Dear Mr. Wells, which Vivien Endicott-Douglas performed in. I find that there’s this great attention that playwrights are bringing to writing younger characters who are having full and complex experiences and kind of damning the critics around what that singular portrayal might be reduced down to. As a young person coming into my own sexual life, I never felt that experience was represented or understood or handled with any kind of care or imagination or sophistication.
MR: What’s an experience you have had recently that you could fit into your play Beautiful Man?
ES: Everyday! There are so many. The other day I went to meet a friend in a bar just down the street. And both myself and my friend are in our early 40s and the bartender kept calling us girls. And I just felt my rage. He must have been like 26 or 27. I thought to myself, “Should I say something and be like, we’re women?” He was so insistent on making me into a child. It’s a part of the popular language, but I had to ask myself if I wanted to say something and get something going with this dude or did I just want to ignore it and laugh about it with my friend afterward. Which is what I did.
AD: But it cost something.
AD: A couple nights ago after rehearsal, Ashley (Botting), who’s in the cast, called an Uber. We were going to drop her off first and then me. And when the Uber showed up it was a guy, but there was a guy in the front seat as well. So Ashley was like, “Oh there’s someone in here, we didn’t call Uber pool, what’s up?” And the guy goes, “Yeah, he’s my bodyguard.” And Ashley and I were both doing that quiet awkward decision-making together. But we decided, no, we’re fine, we’re capable. So we get into the car and Ashley tries to make a joke about it, that doesn’t land. And we feel like there’s something sketchy going on. You know, we’re in a car with two dudes we don’t know, based on the trust of an app. So we’re kind of trying to perform normality. And then at a certain point, I was just like, “Ash, I’m going to get out with you.” It was just the whole thing of physical safety and trying to be cool, trying to not be scared, like, “I’m fine, I’m tough, I’m capable… people aren’t bad.” But then ultimately going, actually, what if people are bad, you know? That was my most recent physical safety thing.
MR: Right, but also them not helping you feel safe. There’s a world in which you would feel better if those people were conscious of how you feel and did the work to help you out.
AD: Right. So I either have to swallow that or perform that. There’s a cost to that.
A Factory Theatre Production
Written by Erin Shields
Directed by Andrea Donaldson
Starring Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen, Sofía Rodríguez, Jesse LaVercombe
Set Design by Gillian Gallow
Costume Design by Ming Wong
Lighting Design by Jason Hand
Music and Sound Design by Richard Feren
A scathing satire about the portrayal of women in film and television, three friends take us on a whirlwind tour of an upside-down world where women are the hunters, not the hunted; the heroes, not the victims; the subjects, not the objects, all while gazing at the semi-nude Beautiful Man. You’ll never watch your favourite binge-worthy shows the same way again.
Factory Theatre – Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street.