By Caleigh Crow
For anyone at all involved with independent theatre in Montreal the usual adjectives apply to today’s venue: ubiquitous, ever-present, familiar, infamous, MainLine theatre. All very good things to be in theatre. I go through the door at the top of the stairs and the first thing I see is Amy Blackmore, Artistic and Executive Director of MainLine Theatre, one of two indie theatre heroines I’m here to see today, smack in the middle of a meeting with eight or so other people. Notebooks open, pens in hand. Business, I suspect. Or at least, that’s what I think I saw. Before my eyes can even adjust to the cozy, softly orange lighting of the MainLine lobby a friendly looking person intercepts me and politely offers his help. I tell him I’m here to see Amy and he directs me to a nearby couch and sits me down.
I would feel like a toddler being ushered into a playpen, but of course the last thing I’d like to do is interrupt a meeting with notebooks and pens. It’s a very busy place and there are a quite a few projects and festivals on the horizon for MainLine, and to keep everything running smoothly in such an active corner of the world, sometimes bloggers need to be escorted to couches before they delay the meeting and cost everyone five minutes. Who has five minutes to spare at the MainLine theatre?
Which is not to say it’s like Wall Street, rather these are theatre punks with work ethic. The space looks and feels DIY with its charmingly mismatched furniture, and the bits of the meeting I inevitably overhear are democratic, friendly, and relaxed. I’m pretty sure I smell tea. There is another person sitting on the couch, also waiting, also taking two minutes to watch a few minutes of adorable animal content on YouTube. I don’t realise it but this is Emily Murdoch, the other half of the Revolution They Wrote festival duo I’m here to interview. She smiles at me before we both turn to our phones. Better wait to talk until after the meeting is over.
Not long after, the three of us are sitting on a different set of charmingly mismatched sofas backstage where Amy thinks we’ll get some peace and quiet. I thought a nice simple question to start would be to ask Amy and Murdoch, as she prefers to be called, to outline their roles in Revolution They Wrote, the feminist short works theatre and performance festival we’re here to discuss today. Murdoch is the Artistic Director of the festival, and Amy is Producer, but it gets more complicated from there as credit and prestige volley between them. Murdoch adds that Amy is also a mentor to her and the festival, and Amy replies that it’s Murdoch’s vision that drives the festival. But wait, Amy is also the saviour of the festival, which was in danger of closing after two years as a student-run festival at Concordia. “When I graduated from University I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen to the festival,” Murdoch explains, “I would add to Amy’s role that she was the person that let the festival happen again. It really wouldn’t have happened otherwise. We didn’t have any money or anything, and we didn’t know how to [produce an independent theatre festival].”
“It’s so hard to sustain a project, it’s hard to sustain a theatre company, and its hard to sustain a festival.” Amy says supportively, “It kind of hit me that [the festival] wouldn’t really survive beyond Concordia. Sometimes, we all need outside infrastructure, cash flow, resources, experience to keep moving things forward. So, we started talking about it and it made sense for MainLine to produce it this year. I’m already looking forward to the next 10 years of it.” She grins at Murdoch, who throughout the interview gives the mystified impression that the festival is growing up around her of its own accord. Of course, its been her hard work and dedication driving the project since it’s beginnings at Concordia in 2014-2015.
When I ask them where they think the festival fits in greater Montreal theatre landscape with Amy on board and the MainLine theatre playing host. I get two very different responses, Murdoch is instantly reticent to give a firm answer because she hasn’t seen it unfold yet. A very judicious response, but she does propose that perhaps they don’t need yet consider how they fit in, because they are trying to do something that stands out. “It’s not our job to say ‘this is the way things are done’, we are saying this is how far we can go, and as many barriers that we can push means that those institutions have to recognize that that’s where the people are going, that’s where the money is, so that’s where we need to go because that’s where our young people want to go.”
Amy is as matter-of-fact in her answer as Murdoch was shrewd: “I see it very concretely,” she blinks, “I’m a very concrete kind of girl.” As a producer, Amy has a different perspective that nonetheless echoes the optimism of Murdoch. “I see it as providing a simple and straightforward opportunity for this work to happen. A lot of these artists don’t know each other which is exciting. I see it as a feeder. A lot of the artists are still emerging, with perhaps 5 or less years of doing professional work. I see the festival as feeding into the ecosystem.”
For her, the festival this year is “a place where artists get to experiment, they get to be autonomous with their work, there’s an emphasis on mentorship from Amy but we also try to work closely with our artists and so we are able tease out the stories that don’t always see the light of day.” Murdoch explains that internally, the company has four tenets they adhere to, but they “boil down to ‘more feminist art’”.
Feminism as an ideology, theoretical framework, analytical process and everyday practice can vary wildly depending on the person, and one can be apprehensive in attempting to discern what it means to whom. Amy and Murdoch are acutely aware that a festival labeling itself as feminist must have a malleable working definition of what that means. Murdoch has a list of questions: “What is feminist art? What is its function, what does it do, who does it speak to, why is it important? Ask ourselves these multitudes of questions, and ask our artists too.” Since the answers to these questions will differ depending on who’s answering them, the festival makes a point of “meeting the artists where they are in their feminism” as Murdoch says. “The special thing about the process is that we ask the artists to defend why they think their piece is feminist and how it connects to their view on feminism and how the art making process is feminist.” The proposals are then reviewed by the jury, who take into consideration how the pieces will fit together as a cohesive program. Murdoch remarks that the most effective applications are the ones that refer to an artist’s personal life. She alludes to the aphorism ‘the personal is political’ and always keeps that in the back of her mind when reading through applications.
There is increasingly louder chatter coming from the stage adjacent to where we’re having our discussion. The interrupter has become the interrupted. I guess the friendly face that diverted me can’t catch them all, and this place is alive with work after all.
The festival kicks off with, a vernissage on March 23rd, has two programs running from March 23rd – 26th, and readings of two new plays, one on March 25th, the other on March 26th, for a total of 11 pieces. There’s a lot to see over the weekend, and per Murdoch that suits the festival perfectly. “Everyone is somewhere on their journey in their personal and political life,” she says, “so short works are great because the hope is that there’s something for everyone and there’s something to challenge everyone.” Neither seem too concerned that the political nature of the festival might be too provocative for some audience members. “Its MainLine,” Amy insists forthrightly, “It’s a pretty casual experience. There’s something unpretentious about the format and the way we’re choosing to present it.” Murdoch seems to share Amy’s confidence, adding, “our audience in the past has been so gracious with us and hungry to hear and to learn and be part of the process and to challenge and question.” The audience will have the opportunity to voice those questions, if they so desire, at two talkbacks scheduled after the play readings on March 25th and 26th.
When I ask Murdoch about the artists in the festival, words fail her. This is where it becomes evident that Murdoch is utterly in awe that the festival has taken on a vibrant and unexpected life of its own at MainLine. “They are the best human beings ever,” Murdoch clutches her chest, “I’m getting really emotional!” She describes her involvement in the rehearsal process, and she is clearly impressed. She has nothing but sheer unreserved praise for the artists; they are the most wonderful, they are the most gracious, they are the most courageous in her eyes. And why shouldn’t they be? By her account, the quality of the performances go beyond her wildest dreams – “never in a million years”, as she describes it, could she have envisioned the festival taking shape the way it has. If this is a never-in-a-million-years-project, why shouldn’t the artists be the most anything and everything? “The power that comes from it is that so many of them are being vulnerable and really letting that resonate throughout the work. That’s what’s exciting, the range, the vulnerability, and the power that’s emanating off these human beings,” she concludes.
Amy’s final thought is as frank as ever: “This is one that people should see. I expect the usual suspects of independent theatre to come see it. This is really one that people should see.”
Revolution They Wrote: Short Works Feminist Theatre and Performance Festival runs from March 23rd to March 26th. For full program and ticketing information please click here.