6 min

Woman on the verge

Mel Hague is interested in imagination, magic, lesbian stories and talented artists who are interested in telling them

Mel Hague is artist development coordinator at Obsidian Theatre Company. Credit: Adam Rankin

“When you Google ‘queer women theatre in Toronto,’ nothing comes up but history,” says Mel Hague, dramaturge and artist development coordinator at Obsidian Theatre Company.

Hague’s search is no surprise. Not only is queer (and by queer, I do mean gay, not quirky) women’s theatre so rarely produced (and by produced, I do mean programmed, not created) but when it is, it is often recorded immediately by its makers; direct archiving is an essential part of the process of creating live lesbian performance. Sometimes a record is all we have of our artistic existence, and often our artistic existence is defined by efforts to prove our value.

The absence of more currently scheduled productions sparked Hague’s interest. She began curating and organizing Women on Women Project (WOW), a venture “seeking to present, develop, experiment with, debate, the work of queer women artists in Toronto.” 

Town Dyke sat down with Hague in Dufferin Grove and had a chat about what WOW’s upcoming ventures, including a nascent theatre project Hague is calling A Brief History of The Dyke.

Town Dyke: In A Brief History of The Dyke, you plan to offer 20 queer women two minutes each and one night to tell a story of a significant queer historical figure who has affected them. How would you tell your own story with such restrictive parameters? Are you making a statement about the space we are offered in performing arts communities with these boundaries?

Mel Hague: Brief History will be the final event of the year for WOW — four events in all, including readings of queer women’s plays, creating small new pieces looking at archetypes; the events are designed to use theatre as a tool to begin a discussion.

The key for me of the Brief History project is that I am trying to get a large group, 20 women, working together. I have an urge to interrogate the idea that there is one way to define “Queer Woman Artist,” one way to define history, one way to define lesbian icon. To do this, through these 20 fabulous artists, I am seeking a multiplicity of voices, of theatrical practices, of perspectives.

Two minutes to create a piece about a queer artist integral to you: this implies to me that our stories need to be fed to people in small, kicky bite sizes. Yet male stories of gayness (and note that I use the term gay and not queer) are given full runs, tours and tons of support. One man is offered an hour and a half versus 20 women with two minutes each. What’s interesting to me about this timeframe is that in court and debating, a lawyer is permitted two minutes to rebut and in the Oxford debating style, people are given two minutes to close their arguments. We are literally still rebutting and debating our value in these spaces. We are always making a case. The very nature of Brief History of The Dyke is court-like in nature: 20 women have two minutes each to “make a case.” We are still making a case for ourselves! The Guerilla Girls make art out of making a case for women’s art. That is literally a style of art — let’s call it representation activism art — in women’s creative experiences. What do you think about this?

In my vision for this work, it’s about getting two or three generations of queer women together. In my work in the theatre world, working with senior artists has made an indelible impact on me, and I want that for our community.

The piece is not about each individual artist making individual arguments, but of all these pieces creating a larger whole, like a mosaic. I’m not sure if the Brief History project will be courtlike in nature; it hasn’t been created yet, but I see it as a challenge. I don’t see it as debating or proving our value. We have value in the space. That is the statement. We have a history. That is the statement. We each interpret history differently. That is the statement.

Your use of the word gay is strategic; so is mine of the word queer. In the many conversations I have had with women of all stripes of lesbian-ness, gay-ness, bi-ness and queer-ness, many simply did not use the word lesbian to identify with. I’m not into labelling anyone. In this project, queer is a shorthand, and using it helps me to get through the politics and to the work, which is what I’m interested in.

Does it gall you that dykes must always find sly ways of integrating their work into the master queer narrative? As though the work isn’t good enough to be accepted at face value, we must also remind the master narrative that we belong and that we deserve representation, which we are often “bequeathed” reluctantly, or in a patronizing fashion. Along with being gifted, we need to be wily and persuasive. It’s like that famous quote about Ginger Rogers. She did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels. Thoughts?

Certainly, but being reluctantly accepted into larger narratives isn’t the sole property of queer women, or women. You know, I could say, patriarchy, patriarchy, men controlling the world, let me in. But to put it plainly, theatre as an art form is being asked to make a case for itself constantly; audiences are tough to get for any show, period.

What I do want is a strong and localized community of queer women creating theatre. I don’t know how to begin to think about breaking into a larger narrative myself until I know intimately and deeply who or what it is that I am trying to represent. Is it just me? When I say queer women — that this is a queer woman’s play or performance — am I always referring to each piece in isolation? Is there a way to begin connecting these works into a larger body of work into a roadmap for a new generation of artists and creators?

From the Brief History application: “One of the discoveries that I have made through organizing the WOW/Videofag event is the disconnect between different generations of Queer Women theatre artists. This split has occurred at both sides, with younger generation artists being unaware of the history and body of work that came before, and with senior artists breaking away from the theatre scene at this time.” One of the reasons that older lesbians/women break away from any art scene is that there is no space available for their work. It is exhausting. The message that the Guerilla Girls put forth 30 years ago shouldn’t be germane today, but it is. We go back and do academia because teaching is one of the only ways for us to support ourselves. Academia is also one of the only spaces our work is seen and discussed. Do you believe that you can change this and provide more consistent performance space for lesbian work?

No, I don’t think that I can change that alone. What I’m saying has been said before. What I’m doing has been done before. I am still relying on the texts and work of artists from the 1990s. But I need to do it for me now. To explore this part of myself in the way that I have explored other aspects of myself, through performance and theatre.

What is perhaps different is that I have the work of the Guerilla Girls, of Ann-Marie MacDonald, of Diane Flacks, of d’bi young, of Susan Cole, and an impressively long list of others, to look to. What is more, these artists are here and have offered me guidance and support. I’ll say it again: community, community, community — we need it now more than ever.

What kinds of lesbian stories do you find compelling, and what do you want to see more of onstage?

I’m a text-based creature, so I suppose I have a bias towards text-based work. I find well-crafted stories compelling; I want big ideas, I want magic in theatre. 

As you may have gleaned, I am quite done with the word queer being held up as an emblem of lesbian presence in art scenes. When a man is held up as a queer artist, he is invariably also gay. When a woman is pronounced a queer artist she doesn’t have to be gay — just weird will do fine. I want bed checks. Thoughts?

Where’s the line? Do we all need gold stars to be considered part of it? I’m not interested in going down a road that is exclusionary. For me, with this project it’s simple: I am a lesbian. I am often interested in lesbian plays. I want to work on these plays. I am interested in imagination, magic, lesbian stories and talented artists who are interested in telling them.