By Caleigh Crow
Maxine Segalowitz, in addition to being a busy actress in Montreal’s independent theatre scene, is a University-trained dancer, cabaret artist, sketch comedienne, clown, and gremlin-witch. That last feather in her cap came after she was cast in Raise the Stakes Theatre’s 2016 production of Macbeth, where Maxine played Witch #3, where she decided to include some gremlin-esque interpretations into her Witch character and finally had her chance to make “real magic” on stage. “You can feel magic in theatre when you have a moment onstage and the audience feels a change. There’s a moment of a reflection and we all breathe together- that is magic,” she gives me a deadpan look, “And then I did actual magic. It’s quite evil, the magic that happens in Macbeth.” I know she’s speaking symbolically, but I’m left with all sorts of questions when she doesn’t reveal to me what spells or equipment was necessary or what was the evil result of Macbeth magic, but I suppose that’s a rather scientific way to look at the topic, and Maxine, probably a result of her dance training, prefers feeling truth to finding it.
We discuss the difference between theatre and dance as we typically perceive them. For Maxine, it’s less of a hard line in the sand and more of a soft line in the mud. To help explain, she picks up a spoon, next to her now empty coffee cup, and tells me to look at it.
“This is a spoon, it is used to spoon things, it is silver in color. It’s got some coffee on it, I can pick it up and put it down. We have what this is and we do things with it.” That’s theatre, per Maxine. “This is an oval shaped object which has multiple grooves and parts to it. It moves in a circular fashion in the way that it’s built and the way that it flows through the air. Dance is how do we get inside the spoon and feel it from within and build it into a different creature.” This ability to look at things from the inside out is a boon for Maxine in her work and it feels profoundly personal. “In theatre it’s important to have momentum and patterning, to have comprehensive ideas come clear. In dance its more about getting inside one thought and working on that a bunch and getting deeper, and then building a momentum and patterns from that.”
“I don’t really create choreographs anymore that are 5, 6, 7, 8 kind of movements, more of states and emotional experiences and emotional trajectories for an audience to go though and I am the facilitator of that, which feels like theatre.” She says of her artistic process.
Maxine graduated from Concordia University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Contemporary Dance degree. While in attendance she made some important connections with other students that eventually led to a performance in the Festival Saint-Ambroise Fringe de Montreal. Her first foray into Fringe introduced to her a network of theatre artists in Montreal that led to more Fringe performances, cabaret, clown, and most of all, creation for Maxine.
“I’m doing a lot of performance art, theatrical kind of interactions in choreography while still being movement based in my source material and how I create from that,” she pauses, “Is that too vague?” I assure her it’s not. Several times in our conversation she asks me if she’s being vague when, in fact, she is being insightfully specific. Like many artists, Maxine experiences cognitive dissonance when it comes to describing performing art. It isn’t always obvious how to translate ideas like “theatrical” and “movement based” into art and descriptors can seem intangible compared to the material presence of the piece as a thing. These are the limits of language, not of Maxine herself, who acknowledges that language is just another attachment of a symbol, in this case a word, to a thing. “The great thing about dance and theatre is we get to play with what those attachments mean and make space in there and find new air and find new ways of explaining how the meanings can change,” she reflects, “Or we can at least ask the questions.”
The presence of the audience creates a push-pull effect during the creation process. In response to one question, Maxine replies she wants to “specifically curate an audience’s experience” and then the next answer she says she tries to “build something that can be open to different interpretations”. It’s a very authentic snapshot of creation, which often sees creators finding the common ground between an honest idea and the people who come to listen. “We want to confuse people but we want to keep their interest. We want to challenge them but not isolate them. We want to put them on the spot but make them feel welcome. As I’m creating I’m going to keep looking at that.”
As for the work itself, Maxine has irons in many fires. She regales me with stories about cabaret character creation, her work on Team Greco’s How to be a Good Modern Woman for the Revolution They Wrote Festival, Theatre St Catherine’s Joketown, which she describes as a sketch comedy “experimentation spot” both “wonderful” and “ridiculous”; but we talk for nearly half an hour about SEXPECTATIONS, which, at this early stage in her promising career I’m not comfortable calling her magnum opus, but Maxine certainly has been channeling a lot of her creative energy into this project.
Initially, Maxine has some trouble talking about the project. She takes two false-starts at an introductory sentence: “What I create is-“ and “I have a show that I’ve created-“ before taking a moment to gather her thoughts. It’s rare in an interview to see so plainly when a subject is deciding what to reveal and to what extent, but then, Maxine is the most giving subject I’ve interviewed. When she’s ready, Maxine places her palms down on the table, looks directly into my eyes, jaw set, and tells me she’s a stripper.
I understand her reticence. This is, after all, an interview about her professional artistic career, and as I was previously unknown to her, how could she gauge my reaction to such a revelation? It’s hard to predict the opinions, biases, and stigma an individual may possess. So, I also understand her resolve (and maybe a hint of defiance) in her statement: “I am a stripper, I work as a sex worker.” It might seem dissonant for a “feminist, queer person, woman” who strives to “debunk patriarchy and oppressive ways of interacting with people”, as she describes herself, to be working in an industry that caters predominately to heterosexual male desires. “If I’m going to be objectified in my life non-consensually,” she explains, “If I can manipulate how I’m being objectified than I have more power over it and if I can profit off it I’m going to do it,” she laughs. She’s referring to pedestrian occurrences in our society – cat calls, leers, a pinch here, a pat there (or wherever else someone might feel entitled to grab) – that are experienced but are not paid for.
SEXPECTATIONS is completely Maxine’s. It’s based on her personal experiences working at the bar where she’s employed as a stripper. “In this environment, there are relationships to navigate all at the same time, and they are all different, and they all have conflicts with each other,” she says, “Between stripper and client, interactions with other dancers, dancer and management, client and manager, watching other people interact,” she reflects, “It’s a lot.” It’s these relationships that inspired Maxine to start writing a series of monologues that would eventually become SEXPECTATIONS, a feminist multi-disciplinary piece that examines gendered distributions of labor, in particular social or emotional labor which are often uncritically accepted as a status quo.
But there are lingering questions for Maxine as to her suitability to address these topics. For many artists, particularly white artists such as Maxine, the call for diversity in the arts calls for serious internal investigation. “As someone who is talking about sex work, I am not the face,” she says bluntly. Certainly, she is a University educated artist with the means to seek employment elsewhere, a set of circumstances that many in the sex industry are denied. While her story may not be the story of what it’s like to work as a dancer in a bar, she still lays claim to her story. It’s all wrapped into why Maxine began her work on SEXPECTATIONS. “If you have an urge to create, you should create,” says Maxine, “I believe in that. Try your very hardest to get some time to do it. Even just to process for yourself,” she reflects, “It’s not just about the story, it’s how it’s told. Creating something that isn’t just about the telling, it’s about how the hearing happens.” Of course, in theatre, the hearing happens when a group of people come together to listen to a story, regardless of if their own lived experiences are directly represented onstage. As audience members can accept and relate with a Scottish king’s supernatural rise and fall, as in the case of Macbeth (gremlin-witches and all), so can they relate to any other work. “Giving opportunities for artists of color, transgender artists, queer artists, marginalized artists more spaces to create art and share their lives and process their own experiences is so important for sharing stories; for educating each other and helping understand each other and the world and humanity.”
For a physical performer like Maxine, the real meat-and-potatoes of creation was moving away from a text-based piece towards incorporating more abstract performance elements. “I felt like what I was writing a thesis,” she says. However, “We can be nuanced. We can be abstract.” She gives credit to her mentor, Montreal choreographer Helen Simard, for pointing her in the right direction. “She gave me the cue of how to physicalize what these moments are about.” she explains. “For example, if I’m feeling nauseous, how can I physicalize it beyond retching? I don’t want to mime it. I want to understand what’s happening in nausea. There’s knots, there’s imbalance, there’s disassociation, confusion. How can I show that in my body?”
Maxine pauses and pulls at a curly lock of hair. “I feel like this train got derailed,” she remarks. She’s been examining every nook and cranny of SEXPECTATIONS for the past three years, so it’s easy to get lured down a winding tangential path. She says jokingly that it’ll take her five years more to fully “work through it” though for my part, as a writer I know there’s always editing to be done, endlessly. But as Maxine astutely points out, “Dance and theatre doesn’t need to be a thesis!” she exclaims. “I can have all these ideas about gender and sex work and then what I present can be me eating cupcakes. But the process of getting there is mine and mine alone.”