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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Theatre For Thought, March 10, 2012

THE BECHDEL TEST AND CANADIAN THEATRE
joel fishbane
Things are never easy for the actress over forty. For decades now, the archetypes for female roles have remained relatively unchanged: older women are either harpies like Queen Margaret in Richard III or some variation of Mother Nurture (the Saintly Relative, the Wise Woman, the Helpful Teacher etc.) whose wisdom helps the central character towards self-actualization. Rarely are we invited to explore these characters on their own terms. 
only two of the films passed with two more having debatable results

That there’s been a problem of female portrayal in film has long been known. In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel sparked a phenomenon when characters in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For discussed a system to gauge the depiction of women in movies. Now known as the Bechdel Test, a film must satisfy three simple rules in order to pass:
        1)  There must be two or more female characters who have names
        2)  They must talk to each other
        3)  Their conversation must be about something other then men
On the blog Feminist Frequency, media critic Anita Sarkeesian recently applied the Bechdel test to the Oscar-nominated films with surprising results: only two of the films passed with two more having debatable results. But what if we adapted the test to focus on feminine roles for women over 40? In a list of films already short on female roles, we’d get the following results:


2 Female Characters over 40…
…who talk to each other….
….about something other then men or
their age….
The Descendants
                X
                X   
                X
Moneyball
X
X
X
The Tree of Life
X
X
X
Hugo
X
X
X
Extremely Loud….
X
X
X
Midnight in Paris
X
X
X
War Horse
X
X
X
The Help
The Artist
X
X
X
Not very promising at all. It seems significant that many of the films have male-centred narratives and that in some cases (The Descendents, The Artist, Moneyball) the main character is definitely not in his 20s.
Theatre is hardly immune to this phenomenon and last month, reports came out of England that British Actor’s Equity had decided to address the concern: they had called upon the theatre sector to address the lack of opportunities for older female performers. VP Jean Rogers revealed that Equity had sent 43 letters to artistic directors demanding they improve gender balance in their choice of productions. “The older actress barely walks our British stages,” Rogers told thestage.co.uk. “And it would seem, unlike our British public, the theatre community does not think this state of affairs warrants any changes.”
If one applies the adapted Bechdel test to most Canadian plays, we’d find a large majority of them would fail

Here in Canada, there is definite evidence that our theatres are taking steps towards bucking the trend. In Toronto, Nancy Palk is drawing rave reviews as Mary in Soulpepper’s production of Long Day’s Journey into Night while Clare Coulter is busy preparing for Daniel McIvor’s Was Spring (Tarragon). In Vancouver, Susinn McFarlen has just finished a one-woman tour de force on the edge for Belfry Theatre; at the other side of the country, Sheila McCarthy has finished Norm Foster’s Mrs Parliament’s Night Out (Neptune Theatre). One could also mention Colleen Curan’s True Nature (Centaur), Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (Nightwood) and Tony Kushner and Jeanne Tesoro’s Caroline, or Change (Acting Up Theatre). Then there are the numerous productions of God of Carnage, each of which are providing plum opportunities.
What’s striking about all these plays, though, is that in most cases the plus-40 female character is the only one on stage (The Penolpiad is debatable - despite its all-female cast, the show featured many male characters who dominated the action). If one applies the adapted Bechdel test to most Canadian plays, we’d find a large majority of them would fail, simply because there’s no one for that lone woman to talk to. 
If we were to apply the test to the coming seasons at Stratford and Shaw, we’d find further proof that things for Canadian actresses are not necessarily as optimistic. I’m not picking on Stratford or Shaw here; I simply chose their seasons because their seasons contain plays I’m generally familiar with:

SHAW
2 Female Characters over 40…
…who talk to each other….
….about something other then men or
their age….
Ragtime
X
X
X
Present Laughter
X
X
His Girl Friday
X
X
X
A Man and Some Women*



The Millionairess
X
X
X
Hedda Gabler
X
X
Trouble in Tahiti
X
X
X
Misalliance
X
X
French Without Tears
X
X
X
Come Back Little Sheba
X
X
X

Helen’s Necklace
X
X
X
* New text


2 Female Characters over 40…
…who talk to each other….
….about something other then men or
their age….
42nd Street
X
X
X
A Word or Two
X
X
X
The Best Brothers
X
X
X
Cymbeline
X
X
X
Elektra
X
X
X
Henry V
X
X
X
Hirsh
X
X
X
MacHomer
X
X
X
The Matchmaker
X
X
Much Ado About Nothing
X
X
X
The Pirates of Penzance
X
X
X
Wanderlust*



The War of 1812*



You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown
X
X
X
* New Text
To be fair, both Stratford and Shaw generally mine the theatre of yesteryear, none of which have ever been kind to women of any age. Still, it’s safe to say that the playwrights of today are not necessarily proving to be any different. While older female characters are beginning to make their appearance, narratives that focus on them exclusively is far from becoming the norm. 
One is reminded of the anecdote about a company that wanted to put on an all-female version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet quashed the possibility but the idea still lingers: a play about some over-the-hill saleswomen who fight and claw for survival. It seems rich in potential. 

1 comment:

  1. Am writing a play about five woman doing stand up and then duking it out in the green room. What are the chances of getting produced in Montreal? Not good.
    Anna

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