Sunday, 19 January 2014

Someone else's story

I went to see Philomena with my mother today. It was an excellent film, fully deserving of the praise it's received, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But something about it stuck out for me, in a way that the filmmakers may or may not have intended- the question of who has the right to tell a story that isn't theirs.

For those not familiar with the film, Philomena is about a woman who was sent to a Magdalene asylum as a teenager in the 1950s, and subsequently forced to give her child up for adoption. Where the film picks up is fiftysome years later, when a journalist offers to cover the story of what happened to her and help her find her son. The story is undoubtedly hers'- it revolves around her life and her feelings- but it's primarily seen through the eyes of the reporter helping her. At one point, he explodes at the nuns who took Philomena's child, furious at their actions. She reprimands him, and when he responds "what happened was awful," she replies "Yes, but it happened to me. I'm the one who has to deal with it."

Obviously the story in the film (which is based on true events) is not a one-to-one analogy for people like me, who write fiction- all my characters came out of my head. But no character, fictional or biographical, comes without social and historical baggage. My current play, Sister Veronica, is about the Inquisition, queerness, and faith- none of the characters would do the things they do had I not been influenced by the existing history of all these things. Unless you're writing about an undiscoverd planet populated by an alien species that shares no morals, history, or social structure with humanity, your story is going to cross over with someone's real, lived experience. Maybe not directly- almost certainly there are no living survivors of the Inquisition- but thematically. The Inquisition no longer exists, but certainly queer people struggling with their faith do. Women who try to make a place for themselves in male-dominated religion do. And with these people existing, and potentially seeing my play, it raises the question of who has the right to tell a story so close to their hearts.

I read an article recently about Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy's "Pig Girl," a play about the serial killer Robert Pickton and the final days of one of his victims. The article's author praised the play for being an amazing, provocative experience, but raised the issue- also raised by audience members- of why white Colleen Murphy chose to write a play about violence against Aboriginal women and call it "Pig Girl."It was disrespectful, the audience argued, for Murphy to try and speak for women who have advocated in their own community- a community that is frequently overlooked in Canadian culture and politics. What right does she have to tell that story? What right does her entirely non-Aboriginal cast have to tell it? When does artistic freedom become artistic recklessness? Murphy, for her part, abjectly refused to answer any of these questions, citing her artistic vision as the reason the play was written. But just because you think of something doesn't mean you have to write it down. If we accept that art is powerful, then we also accept that it has the potential to cause harm, and we have to weigh that harm against the potential benefits. Not doing so is irresponsible.

Last year, I read a play called Leave of Absence by Lucia Frangione. It was the story of a young woman in a small, conservative town struggling with her sexuality as the adults around her tried to figure out what to do with her. I'm going to be honest with you: I found it abhorrent. Firstly because the young queer girl was not truly the focal point of the play- the main character was the priest who worked at her school and agonized over his duty to his parishoners versus his church. Secondly, because of the ending. Leave of Absence ends with the young lesbian, Blake, being brutally and graphically raped to death, after which a grieving priest packs up and leaves the school and all of Blake's (heterosexual) adult authorities wring their hands over what happened. It, like Pig Girl, is meant to be about the complacency of people who should have stepped in to help a victim. It, like Pig Girl, shows its "othered" character (racially othered in Murphy's play, sexually othered in Frangione's) being brutally murdered. It, like Pig Girl, hurt and offended the people it tried to represent by not fully grasping their viewpoint. It's brutally offensive, for precisely that reason. 

As an artist, I don't ever want to be Colleen Murphy or Lucia Frangione. I like to think I'm someone with a solid sense of self, but that sense stops at the point where I run the risk of hurting someone else. I'm smart enough to know I don't know everything. I'm also smart enough not to claim otherwise.

Everyone has a story. Not everybody has a right to someone else's.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Jesus take the wheel, and I'll take the stage

"In this strange, ingenious fashion, 
I allowed the hope to be mine 
that I still might see as human 
what I really conceived as divine."

-Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, "My Lady"

So a fair bit's been going on with me lately, writing-wise, and I have been terribly remiss in posting about it. In my defence, everything's been happening quickly, and it took awhile to sink in that it actually was happening. But now that I have a cast and crew (most notably a stage manager who is keeping my from losing my shit on a semi-regular basis) and the "drop dead date" for withdrawing was Thursday, now seems like a good a time as any to make the announcement: my play, The Testimony of Sister Veronica is going to premiere at the 2014 Upstart Theatre Festival.

I wrote Sister Veronica last March, as part of an eight-hour playwriting contest- twenty students, jammed into a single theatre, set to writing a one-act play over the space of eight hours. What I turned out was inspired by a whole bunch of themes rattling around in my head- love and faith, love versus duty, individual versus institution (specifically religious institution) and sexuality and prayer. Sister Veronica is based- extremely loosely- on the story of a woman named Benedetta Carlini, who I first read about in Judith Brown's book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy. Benedetta lived in an Italian convent in the early seventeenth century, and came to prominence when she claimed to have been visited by Jesus in her dreams. The Counter-Reformation, hearing this, came to investigate and found not only that Benedetta had faked her visions, she had done so while carrying on an affair with another nun at the convent, Sister Bartolomea. Unsurprisingly, things did not go well for Benedetta, and she was kept in solitary confinement until her death thirty-five years later. Her story was all but forgotten until Brown dug it up and turned it into a book, and her book remains the only scholarly resource I can find on the case. (There is a similar case on record, of two Spanish nuns who were executed when their relationship was discovered, but records on them are so frustratingly scarce, I don't even know their names.)

And that, of course, is the major problem- stories of women like Benedetta, Bartolomea, and those two unnamed women in Spain are so frustratingly clouded in historical indifference, no one knows about them unless they make it their business to know. I didn't know until I stumbled across Brown's book in a used bookstore. I firmly believe- though given these problems, I can't back this up with evidence- that there are thousands, probably millions of Benedettas littered throughout history who have been forgotten simply because no one bothered to write down their names. As such, my play is about women who may have been Benedettas- who lived lives in defiance of what they were supposed to, and who put up the biggest fight they could to be recognized by people to whom their existence was a challenge. Sister Veronica isn't a real person; neither is her lover, or her inquisitor, or the other members of her convent. But they are people who might have been- echoes of a past that we can never hear clearly.

My other aim in writing this play was to tie my characters' emotional and romantic lives to their faith. I'm not a practicing Christian in the conventional sense of the world (well, maybe the Unitarian sense) but I do pay close attention to issues of queerness in religion, and the ways in which love and faith come into conflict. Wherever else my religious loyalties lie, I do believe firmly that the experience of love is one that can't be divorced from belief. Love- whether it's romantic, platonic, familial, or even for your pets- is part of the experience of the universe. It's inexplicable, and it's incredibly powerful. It's certainly a force that's been venerated in the Christian church. And for romantic, sexual love between women to be deified the way I do in the play- well I can't make a statement as to how effective it is, as no one's seen it yet. But what I'm trying to communicate with it is that the love these women share elevates them, brings them closer to God. It's not demeaning or sinful, the way it's been painted. It makes them better people- better than the Inquisition putting them on trial in the name of God. It's spiritual. It's uplifting. It's holy.

The Testimony of Sister Veronica will be performed on February 6th, 8th, and 14th at Hagey Hall, University of Waterloo. If you want to see it, you can inquire at the box office starting on January 20th. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting additional publicity materials- rehearsal photos and a trailer. If you can make it out and afford the tickets ($10, regular price) then please do! I know I spent the past two paragraph rambling about esoterica, but the play is also a genuinely entertaining, engaging (I think) story that will hopefully give you something to chew on after you leave the theatre.