Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Character study

Ottawa actor Margo MacDonald explores gender roles and women’s empowerment

In Age of Arousal, Margo MacDonald plays Virginia, who experiences an awakening when she begins crossdressing. Credit: Rémi Thériault

Margo MacDonald is a rare treasure indeed. An Ottawa native, she worked her way up through the ranks of high-school drama class, improv comedy and the University of Ottawa’s theatre program. Having completed her post-graduate studies at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, she took the unlikely next step of returning to her hometown instead of moving on to pastures that, if not precisely greener, boasted more established theatre scenes where young actors could get a foothold.

“I had kind of made a commitment to Ottawa,” she says. “At that time there were next to no [theatre] companies in town at all, and basically everyone was just leaving. If they went through the theatre programs, they immediately left and would go to Toronto or Vancouver or somewhere — Montreal. And I realized that if I wanted to do theatre in Ottawa, because I love this city, that I would have to make it happen and that if everybody left there never would be any theatre here.”

And so Ottawa’s prodigal daughter returned, bringing with her the drive to see theatre in the city truly flourish. Part of the pull that drew MacDonald back was her involvement with A Company of Fools, which she co-founded in 1990 with her friend and classmate Heather Jopling. “We started out as a street theatre company, and we just did scenes, you know, for pass-the-hat,” MacDonald says. Twenty years later the Fools are Ottawa’s oldest professional Shakespeare company, mounting numerous shows each year and also running workshops for elementary and secondary schools.

“We consciously made the decision to stay and make theatre in Ottawa,” MacDonald says. “I think having A Company of Fools here as a company that would hire actors every year really helped with the idea, amongst the younger ones coming up, that you could make a company and make your own work . . . Now it’s quite lovely to work in Ottawa, but it wasn’t always the case.”

Working with independent and emerging theatres is a priority for MacDonald; her next production is with the recently formed Bear & Co, which will be mounting Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths’s Age of Arousal in February. “I would say it’s a play about women finding their power and their passion,” she says.

Set in a women’s typing school in Victorian London, the play introduces us to former suffragette Miss Mary Barfoot, who runs the school with her younger lover, Miss Rhoda Nunn. Rhoda and Mary’s world is thrown into chaos by the arrival of the Madden sisters — Alice, Monica and Virginia — and Dr Everard Barfoot, the play’s sole male character.

“Virginia is one of those people who’s very uncomfortable in her skin,” MacDonald says of her character. “I don’t think she’s ever been able to be or express who she really is . . . Her journey, I think, is the most extreme of all of them in the play.” Virginia experiences an awakening when she begins crossdressing, subverting the gender role she has always been expected to play. “It’s a world where male and female roles are very clearly defined, and the moment that a woman puts on a pair of trousers, her world changes.”

MacDonald has always been drawn to roles that examine and subvert gender expectations, from her early days with the Fools, when she played male roles out of necessity, to her most recent turn as Constance Ledbelly, the sexually jumbled protagonist of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Shakespearian romp Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), whom she played for GCTC in November. “I only came out to myself about seven or eight years ago, but I’ve always had, of course, that side of me,” she says.

Exploring gender and sexuality in the roles she played allowed her to express that aspect of herself before she was able to in her personal life. “I was raised very religiously, and it just wasn’t even a possibility,” she says. “The idea of being such a disappointment to my mother, my family, the society that I grew up in, kept me for so long from even allowing myself to look into that side of my being.”

This struggle for acceptance and self-expression is at the heart of Age of Arousal. “[The characters are] all living with their own massive piles of guilt about not being who other people and society wanted them to be,” MacDonald says. “I don’t think that really goes away . . . I think it’s very much still a relevant journey.”

The play uses its Victorian setting as a metaphor for the restrictive lives the characters are leading, making their individual transformations all the more astonishing. “It’s . . . women finding what it is to be themselves rather than what it is to be the perfect Victorian woman.”

To prepare for the role of Virginia, MacDonald drew on her own experiences as well as those of her partner, who she says identifies as genderqueer. “Between the two of us, I have a lot of stuff to draw from to understand the part,” she says. “It’s one of those parts that I don’t think I could have successfully played 10 years ago. It’s a beautiful thing when a part comes to you at the right time, the right place in your life that you can actually give something to it rather than just taking what’s on the page and playing it.”

To play such a role now has been deeply satisfying for MacDonald. “This is part of what my journey has been about as an artist. It’s like this is partly why I’ve lived these things is now to play this part, to do this brilliant play, and hopefully inspire something in the audience.”