By Caleigh Crow
“We’re not trying to be rebellious or provocative for the sake of it,” Anthony Kennedy says, “this is just what makes sense to us.”
Anthony Kennedy is the director and one of six founders of CABAL Theatre, one of Montreal’s newest independent theatre companies, whose upcoming production, Tragic Queens, is a collectively devised piece inspired by an array of influences from literary giant Virginia Woolf to Chicana theorist Gloria E. Anzaldua to Instagram artist Audrey Woollen. It’s about Queen-hood and feminism, self-curation and identity, the internet and power. The group are fiercely unapologetic about the provocative feminist subject matter, their rebellious collective approach, or the way they make sense of the world around them.
The result? “It’s flowing, its this collage, it’s super frenetic and alive,” as Anthony describes it. “Being ever girl and ever woman. Being born a girl, and being immediately sexualized, but then as you grow into a woman, you’re always infantilized, the double shame of being a woman,” he says. “We wanted to look at these things. Looking at girlhood, teenagerhood, adulthood, and then backing it up with this queen epilogue, which as its own thing speaks to a broader perspective and adds a degree of gravitas, we have these different sources of inspirations for each section.”
The piece was assembled by the CABAL collective, and centers around the push and pull between feminism and femininity in the age of the selfie and late capitalism. We joked about how every woman must have Rosie the Riveter Girl Power professional chutzpah, otherwise you’re just not trying hard enough, but the underlying truth of that joke is what the Tragic Queens team is getting at. “Be assertive, take over in the workforce, make a lot of money, be powerful, practice positivity,” Anthony says. “Which in some ways can be quite good, but it puts the onus on women, rather than acknowledging that the problem with the world is not women being positive enough, it’s patriarchy.”
By no means virgin territory and they know it, which is why Anthony pays due deference to the artists and authors I mentioned above, and others like Mary Beard, Anne Carson, and Maggie Nelson. CABAL use their influences to discuss contradictions of being a woman, the opportunities and disadvantages, and the extent to which women can control it all. “It’s quite simple,” Anthony explains, “there’s a lot of reasons why women and girls are discontent with the world. It’s not a place that’s set up to serve them, in fact it’s quite the opposite, it can be a dangerous place and really unkind. So, it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to a world that is messing with you and to be discontent.” Tragic Queens is one such response.
There are as many different approaches to collective creation as there are collective creators, and that’s part of what makes the theatre style so enticing to theatre practitioners who employ it. Here, process is King- or more appropriately, Queen – though given the typically lateral power structure of the form, maybe any reference to hierarchy is in the wrong spirit. CABAL broke their process for Tragic Queens down into two major phases: the creation phase, and the refining phase. The first phase entails a lot of research; both in the traditional sense and in terms of theatre exploration and exercises around a theme, image, or idea. “We all journal based on our personal experiences, we all bring in articles and share them, pick our favourite passages, we bring in poetry, be bring in excerpts of novels, films, all sorts of media that we think is pertinent. We present it, discuss it, dissect it, journal about our feelings,” Anthony explains. “Then, we might come up with a performative exercise on a theme. We’ll say, as an example, it has to be 2 minutes long, it’s got to have a beginning and end, its needs to have a leap and a fall, a loud noise, and the lights have to turn on and off once.”
At this point, “we” isn’t only performers and directors, it’s dramaturgs, stage manager, light, costume and sound designers – everybody who has an idea is welcome to contribute. The boundaries between disciplines are blurred, with designers acting, actors making the first little bits of costume – whichever idea is strongest, regardless of training or role, comes to the forefront. “Because it’s not for an audience, it’s just for research, even if somebody’s performance isn’t riveting, it can offer up a really powerful idea. If we take the idea, and say that image was really striking, have an actor step in, do that role using their expertise and instrument, it can become even more powerful,” Anthony says. “The burden isn’t on one person to come up with all this stuff. As the process goes on, everybody steps into their specialty because we need to stage the thing, but the full conversation is always there, and the best idea wins.”
Take for example, the lighting operator Niamh Devaney of Tragic Queens. She happens to be finishing up her Master’s degree in playwrighting, has experience directing, designing, and running a theatre company of her own. As Anthony says, “It’s this brilliant thing to have a new collaborator who’s not just a lighting board operator. Why not make use of that resource, and all of that experience?”
As phase one morphs into phase two, the contributors slip back into their specialties, polishing the rough ideas hammered out in phase one. Anthony gives CABAL’s Artist in Residence, playwright Rhiannon Collett, as an example. “For her to weave our journal entries into one voice, and then take a poem we selected, and weave that in, and have it be this completely new piece of writing that has it’s own tone that draws from all these vital places, – ah!” He sighs. “It’s just amazing.” They’ve never worked with a playwright before in this capacity, and they are finding her a tremendous boon to the production.
Anthony makes it clear that the show is not an immersive theatre piece, even though the piece makes use of the entire theatre. If you’re looking for a pillar of theatrical creativity with a wealth of experience and a certain avant-garde sensibility, look no further than the MainLine Theatre itself, where Tragic Queens will be performed. “The MainLine has a rich history, it has a personality. We are embracing the space, one of the characters in the show is the MainLine, and we’re having things happen in a variety of spaces, and drawing attention to it,” Anthony says. The theatrical piece being played onstage will be accompanied by a live feed from other performances occurring simultaneously in MainLine’s other spaces. Anthony remarks on the contrast of the two mediums, “To be able to have that ability to reflect immediately, seeing flesh and blood in front of you and seeing a projection, how it changes your perception of a scene. You see it onstage and then forty-five minutes later the same scene happens but on camera in a different space,” he pauses, “and it can force one to reflect on how one’s agency is taken away by cinema, the camera guiding your perspective.”
One last tidbit to entice you – every night the show features a guest performer who adds something of their own expertise and lived experience to the Tragic Queens piece. Anthony wouldn’t give away any names, but he did indicate that there would be and an opera singer one night and many of the biggest names of Montreal’s main stages. You won’t know what to expect – except the rebellious and provocative.
Tragic Queens will be playing at the MainLine Theatre from August 17 -27. For more information and for tickets please click here.