Off Script

A dust-up between a playwright and a critic demonstrates the insidious sexism of the Canadian theatre world

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Every summer, at the Girl Guide camp I frequented as a child in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park, a large patch of poison ivy would grow near the communal toilets. The counsellors would warn us away from the low-lying waxy green leaves. They relished describing the consequences of leaving the path—the scalding rash, the weeping sores—but the stakes only made it more enticing. One day, on a dare that I likely goaded into existence, I sat down amongst the vines and confirmed what I had believed all along: I am not allergic to poison ivy.

As a freelance theatre critic, my work sometimes feels like a return to Girl Guide camp, with counsellor figures cautioning me about where I should and should not tread. In April, I wrote a review of the Vancouver premiere of the play Dead Metaphor by Governor General Award–winning playwright George F. Walker, and the warnings turned to klaxons.

In Dead Metaphor, a female politician takes advantage of a down-at-the-heels veteran whose wife is pregnant and whose father is suffering from frontal-lobe dementia. What was missing was an acknowledgement of the show’s gender dynamics. The women were all written flat. The wife was scrappy but otherwise completely dependent on the veteran; the veteran’s mother was barely there; and the politician was Cruella de Vil without the dalmatian coat. Meanwhile, the male characters had specificity, depth, and tragedy. There were also a few jokes that centred on the father shouting, “I want to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore,” and a couple of unearned uses of the word cunt.

I wanted to show others a textbook example of the way men respond to women who they think have spoken out of turn.

I filed my review to the Vancouver Sun the morning after the play opened on April 6 and it was online less than ten minutes later. Around 4 p.m., an email appeared in my inbox from Walker himself. He was not happy. “I guess you know nothing about my work,” he wrote. “How women are treated in my work. How they are usually at the centre of my work. The only others [sic] critic to bring it up was an on line [sic] woman writer roughly your age I think.” He went on, in similarly clipped sentences, to say that his feminist daughters were saddened and disgusted by my review. “Put some of that presumption out of your head before you come anywhere near my work in the future,” he concluded. “It’s just idiotic.” He ended with a list of his scripts I should read before I reviewed another of his shows.

In disbelief, I reread what I had written. Nowhere in my review had I drawn on my experience as a woman or said that I was young, which, at thirty-six, I am. I wish I could say that the next thing I did came from some calculated desire to expose an ingrained streak of misogyny in Canadian theatre—it didn’t. I took a screenshot with my phone and posted the e-mail to my Twitter feed. Here was incontrovertible evidence that my gender was undermining my authority as a critic. Simply, I wanted to show others a textbook example of the way men respond to women who they think have spoken out of turn.

Criticism has long been an unforgiving field for women, but this age of trolls and instant communication has made it particularly complex. In December, The Atlantic ran a story about how the Internet has led to a sharp decline in the number of female film critics, which they argued could be leading to less critical examination of female-centred stories and, in turn, poor reception of the work. More recently, the Guardian newspaper analyzed comments on its own articles and found that pieces written by women, particularly women of colour, attracted the most abuse and dismissive trolling by far, regardless of the subject.

I relish responses to my reviews, even if readers disagree with me. Having someone pound out a point-by-point refutation of my arguments is flattering. It means they’ve read my work—maybe more than once—and it made them feel something. It means they care about theatre, an art form that deserves more attention than it gets. Likewise, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest when other critics disagree with me. I don’t believe that a perfectly accurate or unbiased review exists. Reviewing is a conversation between perspectives, a process of thinking about a work that includes producing a piece of writing at a deadline. In its ideal form, as Charles Baudelaire wrote, “criticism should be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view that opens to the widest horizons.”

What bothers me in the slew of feedback reviewers receive is the whiff of misogyny that manifests as a hint of condescension in tone. A mention of my youth, a reference to an agenda of some sort. My gender is there in my byline, after all. The idea that people are dismissing me offhand because I have an “a” at the end of my given name can be insidious. But, here: an e-mail from a man saying plainly that he had more right to judge the representation of women than I did because he had written some plays about women and had daughters. Here, a man who had looked at the headshot that had recently started to run alongside my articles and placed me in the category of entitled young feminist, gunning to take down all men who landed in my way—even good ones, like him.

In later e-mails, both Walker and a prominent local theatre producer who identified himself as Walker’s friend called on my “agenda.” The friend said he couldn’t find a single review that aligned with mine. A simple search showed that I wasn’t the only reviewer to describe the characters as flat: Martin Morrow had said as much in his 2014 Globe and Mail review. And I wasn’t the only one to point out the harsh language: Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star called it “bluer than a springtime prairie sky.”

Yes, I had been more critical than they had. Criticism is my job.

In his e-mail, Walker’s friend also wrote that my decision to share the correspondence was the act of a teenager. “Your post reads like a smug teen who is saying, ‘hey, look at me– a famous writer is mad at me!!,’” he said. “I want to take you seriously as a critic and yet when you do stuff like this it makes it difficult.” His language is precisely the kind used to discourage women from speaking out. If you say something, you’re a child; if you say nothing, you implicitly allow abuse to continue.

The aggressive tone of the e-mails made me think about Jo Ledingham, a critic who writes reviews for the Vancouver Courier. A year ago, not long after I had taken over as a regular critic for the Vancouver Sun, Ledingham approached me before an opening and asked if I had received one of the “wicked e-mails” going around. I hadn’t. I was curious but she was cagey—a prominent actor’s e-mail address had been hacked and she didn’t want to embarrass the people involved. A few weeks ago, though, she shared the e-mail with me. It’s a nasty piece of work. It questioned not just her skills as a reviewer but the ability of any “girl” to understand or create theatre. With dramatic flourish, it argued that men in wigs would be better on stage than women.

Despite a police investigation at the time, the true origin of these letters remains a mystery. And although she has a masters of arts in dramatic literature and has been covering theatre in Vancouver since the 1980s, Ledingham admitted that the email stung.

From a young age, many women are socialized to be conciliatory rather than provocative. Decades into her career, even Ledingham still struggles with the directness required to write a negative review, citing the adage her mother used to rattle off: “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

“And then you end up as a critic,” she says. “What the hell are you supposed to do?”

How many have demurred in the face of this kind of pressure, unwilling or unable to fight back?

The conversation my post kicked off, not just on social media, but across the Vancouver theatre community, is part of one that is vital to the future of the art form. In public, the discourse stalled over whether the characters’ class excused their use of the word “cunt.” In private, under promises of anonymity, the conversation was entirely different.

One woman told me about a producer who valued conventional attractiveness far above talent and would send unsolicited e-mails to actors suggesting that they lose weight. Another woman expressed fears that if she got pregnant, she would lose opportunities because she would need time off. Several women expressed fear that work would dry up as they age.

But these are not just whispers—these complaints, and many others, also appear in a report published in April 2015 by Equity in Theatre, an organization run out of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada. The paper reports that women make up only 35 percent of key creative roles (director, producer, playwright) at the highest levels of Canadian theatre. The worst tally was in playwriting—in the 2013/2014 season just 22 percent of professional productions performed in Canada were written by women. The numbers send an unequivocal message: there is a gender imbalance in Canadian theatre.

Much of this is kept quiet for fear of alienating those who control funding and opportunities. In an industry that relies heavily on collaboration, artists who speak out risk earning reputations that cause them to be subtly blackballed.

This is true not just of conversations around gender, but also around diversity more broadly. What’s needed is a lively and open critical discourse where people can engage without fear of gender- or race-based reprisal. Some of these conversations are already happening—in the last year, there have been public discussions around issues of racialized casting inspired by productions of Motherf*cker with the Hat in Vancouver and The Unplugging in Toronto. Last week, the Stratford Festival announced eight of its fourteen productions in 2017 will be directed by women.

But theatre is a collaborative art form where there is a great deal of pressure not to rock the boat. Even now, when conversations around identity are infiltrating every facet of the arts, theatre artists face the danger of looking petty when they are forced to advocate for themselves in this way. People like Walker, who is renowned for his depiction of female characters, see themselves as heroes for the underrepresented and react with anger when someone suggests they might not be getting it right.

Critics, on the other hand, should have no such fear because we don’t depend on those enforcing the rules to pay our salaries and jumpstart our projects. But this also requires a level of flexibility on our part, a willingness to acknowledge what we don’t know.

Though she is of a different generation than Ledingham, Torontoist theatre reviewer Carly Maga expressed a similar sense of uncertainty in her own work when we spoke. I contacted her because I suspected hers was the other review of Dead Metaphor that Walker had referenced in his e-mail, but that didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Her review had been fairly gentle.

Like me, she sees her own perspective on plays not as a final verdict, but as part of a critical conversation. When she feels like she’s gone out of her range, she defers to others’ lived experience. “There’s a certain ownership that you have to take on when something falls out of the realm of your knowledge,” she says. “I feel like I have to be up front about something like racialized casting. I’m a white person and I don’t feel like I’m able to judge the representation.”

This openness to other perspectives is key to addressing imbalances in mainstream Canadian theatre around gender and diversity. As long as the arbiters of quality remain the same and enforce their primacy through intimidating language, the stories told on the big stages will continue to favour their voices, just as they have for hundreds of years. Women actors will continue to be judged by attractiveness above talent, and shunted into the role of ingénue, funny friend, or grandmother, in accordance with their weights and ages. Artists of colour will continue to be marginalized or forced into stereotypes. People who don’t conform to gender norms and people with disabilities will continue to be largely absent altogether.

And so as a critic, I will continue to dare myself to roll around in the occasional bed of poison ivy. I’d rather risk a little irritation than spend all my time stuck on that same manicured path.

Erika Thorkelson contributes to the Vancouver Sun.


Induct Chyna

Why wrestling’s feminist icon should be recognized in the WWE Hall of Fame

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons Chyna made her WWE debut in 1997.

“How lucky am I?”

These are some of the last words former professional wrestling phenom Chyna recorded, in a YouTube video that’s difficult to watch for many reasons. The footage, recorded on her phone on the morning of April 17, is shaky, grainy and raw, pointed at her kitchen wall more often than her worn and puffy face. In the video, the forty-six-year-old androgynous pro wrestler—the “Ninth Wonder of the World,” as the World Wrestling Entertainment company called her (Andre the Giant was the eighth)—hardly lifts her eyelids and incoherently rambles about meal planning while a vegetable smoothie blends for half of the thirteen-minute clip. She slams back the entire pitcher in seconds, and blurts “breakfast of champions!”

Three days later she died of an accidental Ambien and Valium overdose in that Redondo Beach, California apartment.

Chyna should be recognized for her contributions to the promotion and the sport of pro wrestling itself.

Today’s memorial service, to be held nearby, will no doubt attract a who’s who of wrestling superstars and other celebrities paying tribute to the icon. Born Joanie Marie Laurer, Chyna broke gender barriers by becoming the only woman to win the second-highest ranking title belt, the Intercontinental Championship, during her short career from 1997 to 2001. She held it three different times and there’s only been one notable inter-gender wrestler since then. But, in the years following her reign, Chyna was also excommunicated by the sport’s biggest company, nearly erased from its history and blocked from using her moniker (she legally changed her name to “Chyna” to circumvent WWE’s trademark). Worse yet, the WWE has yet to induct her into the Hall of Fame, rendering her the Pete Rose of professional wrestling.

Chyna’s crime, according to her former wrestler boyfriend and the corporation’s current executive vice-president of talent “Triple H,” was her post-wrestling adult film career. She filmed a handful of XXX movies between 2006 and 2013, many of which, like She Hulk, parodied her brawniness. It was a professional direction apparently too scandalous for a brand that, during her wrestling years, featured wrestlers Val Venis, whose gimmick was being a porn star, and the Godfather, who performed as a pimp. The years between 1998 and 2001 remain both WWE’s most successful and most controversial span. During the so-called Attitude Era, it wasn’t unusual for lady wrestlers to flash their breasts on live television or to bare them more tastefully in Playboy. Chyna’s own cover, in 2000, remains one of Playboy’s best selling issues.

Considering her muscular frame—her barrel chest and trunk-like limbs—her nudity was almost transgressive. In her 2001 memoir, If Only They Knew, Chyna wrote, “I wanted to be more than a gimmick.” And she was. A former body builder and Peace Corps volunteer, Chyna wasn’t a great technical wrestler, but her strength was astonishing and, equally important, she could take a hit with about as much believability as you can expect from professional wrestling. During a long feud with Intercontinental Champion Jeff Jarrett, whose character, at the time, was a loudmouth misogynist, she took a series of blows from household items Jarrett brought to the ring—pots, irons, toasters, plus a guitar—until they squared off in 1999 and she made history by stripping him of the title.

Chyna, who was arrested in 2005 for domestic battery of her boyfriend, wrestler Sean Waltman, had a squeaky voice and self-admitted fragile heart that seemed at odds with her Herculean presence. “Chyna was revolutionary for women in wrestling,” Natalya Neidhart, a third-generation fighter from Calgary’s legendary Hart family and former Divas Championship holder, tweeted after her death. She triumphed when women were more sexualized by the sport than they are today; ghettoized to sideshow fights, in wading pools and “lingerie matches,” for instance, or left standing in the corners of hyper-masculine men.

Today “lady wrestling” is having something of a feminist moment. After years of branding its women as “Divas,” the WWE did away with the condescending moniker and renamed their title the Women’s Championship during an emotional announcement following a main-event match at this year’s Wrestlemania. That Neidhart and her female opponents would even be billed as main-event fighters—sometimes with men like an aging Bret “The Hitman” Hart in their corners—shows the evolution of WWE’s approach to women. Many have connected their rise to the “Ronda Rousey Effect,” the consequence of Ultimate Fighting Championship’s top star being a woman, but Chyna laid much of the groundwork.

The WWE has never offered a fuller explanation than the one suggested by Triple H, who has since married into the patriarchal McMahon family that owns the billion-dollar corporation. The disavowal is potent enough that when the WWE reunited her former wrestling stable, Degeneration X, in 2012, she wasn’t invited. Waltman was there, despite having starred in the authorized sex tape that launched Chyna’s porn career. And in the last few years, convicted rapist (and boxer) Mike Tyson and porn director (and rapper) Snoop Dogg have been inducted into the Celebrity Wing of WWE’s Hall of Fame, as well as racist demagogue (and presidential candidate) Donald Trump. When asked if Chyna would have her moment—her posthumous induction—Stephanie McMahon, Triple H’s wife, recently told TMZ it would come “at some point in the future.” She added, “I’m not sure exactly what year that will be, but there’s no denying her contributions to WWE.”

When the next inductions are made, in April 2017, Chyna should be recognized for her contributions to the promotion and the sport itself. It seems likely, given the pressure from fans and other wrestlers, but she deserved to bear to witness to it. Chyna loved the spotlight and in her last years would tap it from impure sources, like Celebrity Rehab, The Surreal Life and adult film. Before her deadly overdose, her manager was plotting to get her on Intervention, and her YouTube videos feel like final desperate attempts to grasp at former glory. (At the time of her death, her last video had about 1,500 views; it’s now well over two million.) Stone Cold Steve Austin put it best in his podcast, The Steve Austin Show, the week after her death: “I don’t think it’ll ever be right because she didn’t go into the Hall of Fame while she was alive, living and breathing with us, and I thought she earned the right to be in the Hall of Fame. And to put her in there posthumously—man, it’s just not good enough.”

Omar Mouallem (@omar_aok) won a 2014 National Magazine Award for best profile.