It was at the 2011 symposium on queer women’s performance practices, held at the Feminist Art Gallery, that the young dramaturge Laine Newman decided she had to make a film on the topic. “It was exciting and eye-opening,” she says. “I’ve never met so many queer women doing theatre at the same event and heard them talk about their achievements and challenges.” The ephemeral and transient nature of women’s work was a recurring topic, as was the question of finding a permanent — or at least consistently welcoming — space for women performers.
Inspired by what she heard and by the work that she felt deserved documenting, Newman decided to go behind the camera and do some documenting herself. The result is You’re Not My Target Audience, a film about Jess Dobkin, MC Jazz and Moynan King, which can be seen at the DOC NOW festival.
It was not easy narrowing down all that talent to three women, but the constraints of the short form were non-negotiable. Newman focuses on artists whose practices are more performing than performance arts (though the former take place in theatres and keep some form of a narrative and the latter take place in the galleries and museums and are more about experience than storytelling, some artists, including the women in the film, straddle and blur this distinction productively).
The key issue emerges naturally early on: why aren’t more queer women performers being programmed in the existing organizations, and how to create new spaces if some doors close, temporarily or for good.
Moynan King, who used to program Hysteria, the festival of new work by women at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, speaks candidly in the film about the loss of the festival, never again revived by Buddies after her departure from the position of artistic associate in 2010. “I wanted to remind people what a huge success this festival was and to ask why it isn’t around any more,” Newman says. “Hysteria had a packed house night after night.”
King argues in the film that the availability of performing spaces for queer women since the 1990s has actually decreased. She has been studying the topic closely; her article “The Foster Children of Buddies: Queer Women at 12 Alexander,” published in the 2011 collection Theatre and Performance in Toronto, looks at Toronto’s iconic queer theatre company in this light. King is quoted as saying in the film that Buddies has not fully produced one work by a queer Canadian woman artist since she’s left the theatre. A correspondence with Buddies Artistic Director Brendan Healy reveals a brighter picture: since 2008/09 and into the coming season, there have been eight produced shows of works by women and one tour, as well as five new works in development as part of the artistic residency program.
However, the question of the low percentage of women among the playwrights produced, directors hired and artistic directors heading theatre companies persists in the Canadian theatre, as well as in many other countries with even better funded and older theatre cultures. Women in performing arts in Britain and France have been particularly vocal on this matter recently; there is a direct action group, La Barbe, in Paris now, the members of which don thick beards before interrupting season announcements in opera houses and concert halls, all-male panels and academies, and remind people that the single-digit percentage of women in positions of artistic responsibility is not quite a natural proportion.
Newman’s film chimes well with this type of activist spirit: “We need some good old-fashioned feminist action,” King says in the film, while Dobkin reminds that the problem is “much bigger and more across the board” than our own queer circles. Newman agrees. “We are at a boiling point now, but there won’t be one solution that will satisfy everyone. First step should be raising awareness. There are gender disparities that some people still do not notice. So, first step is saying, ‘This exists.’ I hope my film does that, too. Then, we move on to organizing and talking to arts councils.”
And other times, we’ll need to create something out of nothing. MC Jazz practically invented a local, queer hip-hop movement herself by naming it, creating a Facebook page and inviting people over. “I heard from so many people after that, thanking me for creating the space for them,” she explains in the film. A case in point of how we can call something into existence by giving it the right name and inviting others in.
After she completes her master’s in documentary filmmaking at Ryerson University, Newman will embark on a PhD at the University of Toronto next year. The topic of her research? Queer women performers in Toronto. “As a theatregoer, I love seeing things that make me think and make me question what I believe to be true. While I don’t want to essentialize the works by queer women, I have to say that they tend to be more challenging and experimental than traditional. Maybe it has something to do with the life of a woman. Life is messy . . . and these performances show that. So much work by queer women is multidisciplinary and doesn’t fit easily into a box. It’s less the presentation to a neutral audience and more a conversation.”