By: Caleigh Crow
Jen Viens and I are strangers. It shows in the way we are dancing around the same word, hoping we can safely allude to it without explicitly naming it. The SEVEN poster makes no mention of it, neither do the press release or the synopsis. We’re strangers. It’s a deeply personal word. And neither of us wants to be that girl who brings it up right away. Jen blinks first.
“As an artist over the last several years I’ve been honing in on what my artistic focus is. I’ve been drawn to the notion of identity and feminism,” she said it! “but intersectional feminism,” she’s quick to clarify. She’s referring to the school of feminism that prioritizes inclusivity. She speeds through the last part of her sentence but I’m relieved and I feel silly for my reticence in the first place, after all, thanks to Jen we can talk about what we want to talk about.
Jen Viens is the director, and, along with Sherry Chen, co-producer of SEVEN, a theatrical reading being held at the YWCA on Rene-Levesque Boulevard. The play follows seven women separated by thousands of kilometers but united in struggle and strength. “7 Women, 7 Stories of Unity” the poster proclaims, and while the seven female performers on the cast list are expected, the seven male performers listed alongside them may come as a surprise. Here we come to the reason neither of us wanted to bring up the f-word.
“What would you say to someone who came to the show expecting a show written, produced, and directed by women to see seven men onstage?” I have to ask her. I have to ask this stranger to defend her identity as a feminist, which, let’s be honest, is what’s at stake. It seems contradictory – if she’s so dedicated to feminism, why are there a bunch of men onstage? There’s a certain amount of suspicion in the question’s subtext I’m hoping to avoid, but Jen looks far from surprised that I asked.
“You get a picture of support. These male voices coming in and showing support. These are stories we should all care about. It can’t just be women who are involved in the conversation.” Men are welcome to show their support. She doesn’t mention their dissent and I don’t either, instead I mention that theatre often challenges preconceived notions, including the idea that if it’s labelled feminist there can’t be any men around.
“I expect that I’m going to have those questions. I totally know I will. Some people are not going like it. Some people are going totally disagree and that’s fine.”
“Art is a unique vehicle for difficult conversations. If you write something in a poem or you put it in a film you can say things that you wouldn’t be able to say face-to-face to a person because it’s too much, too painful, too hard.” She mentions again the conversations she hopes this reading will spark. “Even if they hate it and they walk out of the theatre ranting and raving and they tell ten people, at least they’re talking about it. The conversation has started.” I feel Jen, the stranger, getting more and more distant and Jen, the colleague & community advocate becoming clearer. It’s obvious this casting decision was not made on a whim and she emphasises that the male performers are echoing and shadowing the female performers.
“It’s not like the men are playing another character, they are the same person. So, they have to be able to work with their female counterpart and come to this place of understanding.” She mentions that one rehearsal had to be put on hold so the cast could try and answer the question ‘Is SEVEN a feminist play?’ and a long discussion followed. It’s only been about twenty minutes since we met but Jen isn’t a stranger anymore and the conversation flows a lot more freely now. I realise that what I’ve experienced in the café with Jen is a teeny tiny version of her vision for SEVEN.
The content of the play aside, Jen and Sherry made a few behind the scenes choices as co-producers that link all the aspects of SEVEN cohesively. It is a theatrical performance but your ticket is also a donation to the YWCA, the host venue. All ticket sale proceeds will be donated to the YWCA.
“We knew we wanted to donate the proceeds to a charity. We wanted to find something that worked on a global scale and a local scale. Something that was giving back in our community.” The venue is important to Jen to ground the story, but so is the talkback scheduled after the final performance, another aspect of SEVEN Jen deftly weaves together.
“They’re pretty intense stories. It’s a pretty intense topic. And we wanted to have an opportunity for people to situate that in their world and ask questions.” Jen has arranged for speakers from the cast and outside the performance to participate and it’s clear she’s really thought through the kinds of questions she thinks she might get. There will be representatives from various community organizations including a women’s advocacy organization and Black Theatre Workshop among others. This ability to connect audience members of a theatrical performance to Montreal professionals in the field is very thoughtful, and indicative of community spirit.
Feminism or no, Jen and Sherry have no intention of going it alone.