Tag: Maja Ardal

Folk, Present And To Come

Future Folk is a challenging title; it implies a vision to the future, but also a glance to the past. The play, now on at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, centers on the lives of Filipino nannies who come to work in Canada. Produced by Canadian company Sulong Theatre Collective, the show is a reminder of the silent caregivers who populate households and often endure terrible treatment in order to support their own families back home. The word “sulong” means “battle cry” in Tagalog and is a suitable match for the show’s angry undercurrent; it’s described as a piece that “shouts, wails and screams on behalf of brown women everywhere“.

Great, but there’s been some criticism that the play is too agitprop in its depiction of live-in nannies’ struggles in Canada. One Canadian newspaper recently ran two interesting pieces contrasting actual nanny reactions with their theater critic’s view; it was a good insight into the ways celebrated slice-of-life theater isn’t always reflected with exuberant critical acceptance. Not that Catherine Hernandez cares.

Sulong Theatre Collective’s co-founder wrote Future Folk without worrying over whether balance was being served. As she told me (below), balance and truth aren’t always friends. Hernandez is a feisty one-woman theater dynamo whose first play, Singkil, was nominated for an astounding seven Dora Awards. She’s worked with a bevvy of celebrated Canadian theater companies, including fuGEN, Buddies in Bad Times, Native Earth, Aluna, and many others. Hernandez set out with the intention of challenging stereotypes and shaking people out of their comfort zones -all while remaining respectful (read: loving) toward the original women’s stories.

How much of Future Folk is based on direct experience?

All of it is based on direct experiences of women we interviewed. Most of these women were still in the caregiver program, others had just completed it.

Any specific inspirations?

The use of Filipino folk arts to tell the story of Filipinos now. I realized there were so many “harvest” dances in our dance canon. I wanted to see if we could use the same vocabulary to tell the story of our women harvesting money for their families back in the Philippines.

What was the main challenge in theatricalizing nanny experiences?

First, it was actually speaking to the caregivers. I would book time to speak with them on their day off, only to have their employers cut their day off due to their own busy lives. Next, was to be absolutely honest about our -as in the collective’s -position of privilege. We had to remember that we were not them. Although I worked as a caregiver, I was never live-in, nor was I a mother at that time wondering about the safety of my children while caring for others. When we admitted this to ourselves, we were able to delve deeper into their experiences with curiosity and open-hearts instead of assumptions.


How do you balance the bad experiences with the good ones in the work?

This is one of the major comments about our work: the balance. Hmmm… I think it’s telling when every caregiver I met has complaints about the power struggle with their employer. It’s even more telling when people outside of the caregiving community and those who are employers bring up the “good” side. What it means to me is that there is an obvious disconnect with the realities of these women. I had a conversation with playwright Maja Ardal about this, and she said, point-blank, that it matters little to show balance. What matters is giving voice to the voiceless. These women are definitely voiceless. So balance be damned. I am not in the business of making people feel okay about themselves. I am in the business of helping people be self-critical. Balance doesn’t do that. Truth does.

Who did you write this for?

I wrote this for both the caregivers and for those outside of the caregiving community. For caregivers, I wanted them to see their story onstage and to know that their lives were remembered and honoured by someone… I wrote this for the average Canadian who might have a range of emotions seeing the show, anything from “I’m not like this” to “These women are so lucky for the chance to be here -why complain?

How have you felt at various nannies’ reactions?

It has been overwhelming. When we first performed a ten-minute excerpt at the Kultura Filipino Arts Festival at the Kapisanan Centre, we had two caregivers in the audience. They came backstage sobbing and thanking us for portraying them. We knew we had to continue, no matter what. When we perform on March 7th, we will be performing for free to a house full of caregivers. That’s when I feel our job will be done.

What do you hope audiences come away with?

I want each audience to come home that night, look right inside their hearts and ask themselves what they truly think about migrant workers. They’ll probably be surprised by what they find. We, as the collective certainly were. Throughout this process of development, I can’t tell you how much respect I have gained for these people. I will be forever humbled.

Future Folk runs at Theatre Passe Muraille through March 13th.

Photography by Alex Filipe.

The Outsider

Next month will mark ten years since I’ve moved back to Canada.

Prior to that, I’d been living abroad, first in Ireland, then England, for close to two years. I learned so much during my time away, though in the midst of it, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being an outsider. In my youth, I truly fit the role of a misfit; I was the girl who’d skip class to go to the art gallery or, in elementary school, intentionally forget gym clothes to read Kerouac. But being in a completely new environment presented a new, much more frightening challenge. It was uppermost in my mind to fit in as much as possible with my new chosen countries and their inhabitants, while at the same time maintaining my individuality and identity (which was a very shifting, transforming thing). Keeping balanced amidst those cataclysmic changes was a high wire act I didn’t always perform successfully. Never has Dickens’ “best of times / worst of times” dialectic been more obviously manifest in my life than it was when I lived abroad.

So it was with a lot of fascination that I read about Canadian theatre artist Maja Ardal‘s work You Fancy Yourself, a classic fish-out-of-water tale. In the one-woman show, award-winning Ardal uses pieces from her own background as a transplanted Icelandic native growing up in 1950s Edinburgh to tell the tale of friends new and old, memories made and forgotten. I had the opportunity to exchange some ideas around the ‘outsider’ label with her, and to glean her thoughts around an aspect of theatre that’s always fascinated me: the solo show.

Where did the idea for You Fancy Yourself originate? How much of it is personal?
I loved to dress up when I was a kid. My Mum had a trunk full of fabulous forties gowns and blouses. When I put those clothes on, I imagined myself to be completely transformed-as if I was the most glamorous film star in Hollywood. One day, I wore an amazing puffy frilly “off the shoulder” blouse to school, thinking that all the girls in the playground would worship and adore me. Instead, I was ridiculed, and pushed around by a mob of girls who all shouted “Who do you think you are!? YOU FANCY YOURSELF!!

About six years ago I started to think about those awful childhood moments that throw the cold light of day onto our dreams. I began to write story/poems about other children I remembered from my childhood, and the public humiliations they went through at the hands of bullies. I decided to try turning those poems into a play. The world of the play came alive around Elsa, a little Icelandic girl who has to learn how to fit into the rough world of the Edinburgh playground. As I wrote the play I compressed it all into fictional scenes. When I performed all the characters, I knew I’d made the right choice, as it is truly a joy to perform them all.

What are the best and worst things about doing a one-woman show?
The best things about doing a one person show are that I don’t have to compromise to other cast members when we have a gig or a tour, I am free to invent new things on the spur of the moment and I get really fit because the show is so physical! Also, I have an intimate relationship with the audience. I can’t hide from them and they can’t hide from me, and they start to realise how much I need them to play with me, and frankly their surprise and delight feeds me with joy and energy.

The worst things are that it’s lonely in the dressing room -it’s lonely when I’m on tour, like in Prince Edward Island and Salt Spring, or Edinburgh, and have no one to share the sights with when I have the flu, and have to pretend to myself that I don’t, and just do the show because there’s no understudy. I did a run of the show in Hamilton starting with the flu. The bizarre thing is that I would always start to feel better when the adrenaline kicked in, then the next day it would all have to begin gain.

What do you hope audiences come away with?
Having done so many shows and received so many written and verbal responses, I think I can safely say that people come away feeling rewarded, that they were at a play that spoke to them so personally while at the same time making them laugh wildly-and shed the odd tear. The play seems to remind us that when we try too hard to belong we must be careful not to betray those we love.

You Fancy Yourself runs at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille until January 23rd.

Photo credit: Alex Felipe

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