Creating opportunity: All-woman theatre company debuts in Saskatoon
Ferre Play theatre's first show, The Penelopiad, runs from Sept. 13 to 22 at Persephone Theatre's BackStage Stage.
BY MATT OLSON
At a late-week rehearsal for Ferre Play Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad, the show’s clever design catches the eye immediately: simple but striking costumes, music used to both humorous and chilling effect, and the physicality of the performers.
And the lack of men — which is also by design.
“To see 13 women on stage is powerful,” director Yvette Nolan said. “It’s a very different energy when there’s no men in the room.” Just before Nolan started rehearsals for The Penelopiad on Friday, she introduced the cast to the first two men to be in their rehearsal space: the reporter and the photographer standing in the corner.
It’s a reflection of one of Ferre Play (pronounced “fair play”) Theatre’s main mandates — to provide opportunities and accommodation for women at all levels of their professional theatrical careers to be involved in any and all aspects of theatre, on the stage and behind the scenes.
Gender parity in theatre is unfortunately, as Nolan puts it, not a reality. At least not yet.
“We’re in this sudden hyper-awareness of inequity, and this is the moment where the women of Ferre Play were like, ‘Let’s make a women’s theatre company!’ ” Nolan said. “We shouldn’t need one … we shouldn’t need one, but we do.”
The idea for the show came after Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’s all-woman performance J. Caesar, directed by Anita Smith, in 2016. The show featured, among others, the talents of local performers like Elizabeth Nepjuk, Jacqueline Block, Heather Morrison and Angela Christie. It was a powerful experience they wanted to be able to replicate — so the five women conceived Ferre Play.
The Penelopiad is a stage adaptation of a book by Margaret Atwood, the award-winning author and activist whose repertoire also includes The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin. Atwood is known for her deft handling of social themes like gender and identity, and The Penelopiad is no exception.
The main story follows Penelope, the wife of Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey, and tells the story of her life from her own point of view instead of his. The story also features Penelope’s maids interjecting between her narration to express their own thoughts and feelings on their lives.
Caitlin Vancoughnett, who plays the titular Penelope in the show, said being in an all-woman theatrical project was a wholly unique experience. As the parent of a six-month-old daughter, she appreciates the support she’s received from her fellow cast members to be both an actress and a mother.
“They’ve been so wonderful to accommodate me to step out of rehearsal to feed my daughter,” she said. “It’s been really incredible just to have that extra … help with being able to do a show as a brand-new mother.”
Vancoughnett’s previous theatre experience was echoed by some of her colleagues. Drama programs in post-secondary institutions tend to produce more female graduates than male, but out in the professional world a vast majority of available roles are for men. Vancoughnett said it wasn’t uncommon for her to audition for a limited number of roles among dozens, if not hundreds, of interested women, alongside only a handful of men.
It’s one of the main reasons The Penelopiad was chosen for Ferre Play’s first show: with more than a dozen parts for women, it provides plenty of opportunities and gives female performers in Saskatoon a chance to explore the types of roles that aren’t typically available to them.
“You get out in the world, and there’s way more parts for men,” Vancoughnett said. “Sometimes it feels like there’s so much talent, so many talented women and just not enough parts for everybody. You’re always sort of up against each other.”
Amanda Trapp, who first auditioned to be in The Penelopiad but then asked to help with music composition and sound design, said she was blown away by the experience.
From the list of Ferre Play’s values stuck to one of the large mirrored walls in the rehearsal space to the whole cast joking and laughing and working as a whole, it’s a positive space, she said.
“It’s been a really awesome challenge. I’m taking on several roles behind the scenes in this production … and I don’t know if I could do that with another group of people.”
Trapp has spent rehearsals for The Penelopiad teaching the performers her music and preparing sound cues and incidental music to fill out Nolan’s vision for the production.
“When I first started working professionally … I did work that was mainly about men’s stories, and I would play characters that were fleeting romantic interests,” Trapp said. “The expansive roles that these women get to play in the show aren’t limited to their gender.”
As Nolan puts it — and it’s a sentiment seemingly shared by most of the team for The Penelopiad — the time for women’s stories is now.
“I am a playwright as well as a director as well as a dramaturge … I’ve been doing all of that for about 30 years,” she said. “I wish things had changed more. I wish there were more women’s stories on stages. I wish there were more women artistic directors.
“I wish for all of those things, but we’re just not there yet.”
The Penelopiad runs from Sept. 13 to 22 at Persephone Theatre’s BackStage Stage.