The High Performance Rodeo & One Yellow Rabbit present
All the Little Animals I Have Eaten by Karen Hines
Through January 21, various times, at the Big Secret Theatre
http://www.hprodeo.ca or oyr.org
In 1996, a few days before the first episode was to start shooting for his new CBC sitcom The Newsroom, Ken Finkleman called Karen Hines.
Hines – the Governor-General Award shortlisted Calgary playwright whose new one, All the Little Animals I Have Eaten, opens this week at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary – picked up.
Finkleman explained that one of the actors cast in the series, Jeremy Hotz, had just been offered a juicy part in Speed 2, a Hollywood feature that paid way more than a CBC television series. Hotz had been released from his contract.
Finkleman had no time to re-cast the role. He knew Hines. The two had worked together before, on Married Life.
Later that day, halfway through an impromptu audition, he offered her the part.
The only catch was that there was no time to rewrite it to reflect the fact that she was female.
“It was amazing,” she says, “because all that changed in the script was the name of the character. And references to the character as him versus her.”
Essentially, Hines found herself cast as a guy – or at least, her job was to play a woman who talked and thought more like a male character than any she’d ever played before.
“I got to talk about things that I’d never gotten to talk about before” she says. “News things – whereas, as a female character, even if you’re a news producer, you often end up talking about your boyfriend, or your period, or whatever.
“It was just so refreshing!” she says. “I loved it so much.”
That was one of the aha! moments that spurred the creation of All the Little Animals I Have Eaten, a satirical look at one day in the life of an aspiring filmmaker who also works as a restaurant server, as she grapples with the subject of what women in contemporary pop culture are allowed to be.
(Georgina Beaty, Ellen Close, Denise Clark and Nadien Chu in All the Little Animals I have Eaten. Photo courtesy High Performance Rodeo)
The point of reference for the server, played by Ellen Close, is the Bechdel-Wallace test, a survey of screen roles played by women in Hollywood that sought to quantify how many times female characters in Hollywood stories don’t talk about or reference the men in the story.
The results were pretty dismal.
“When I read that about the Bechdel test,” Hines says, “I thought, well, what would it be like if there were a bunch of scenes for women, but didn’t ever reference a man?
“Then,” she says, “I took it further. I took it to the extent where they don’t reference babies or children or family (either).”
The play is set in Calgary, at an upscale restaurant near a so-called sustainable condo development, which pitches itself as a kind of upscale localtarian Eden: there are apple orchards, abundant green space (where residents can grow green beans), and on the roof, they raise lambs. And for when society starts to fall apart, there’s a well.
It’s a spoofy reference to condo porn for such places as The Orchard, an East Village condominium development, and Bohemian Embassy, on Queen Street West in Toronto, where the marketing seduces buyers with the suggestion that condo owners will – by virtue of moving into a West Queen Street condominium – transform overnight into artsy bohemians, whereas the reality was that the developers had to evict a bunch of genuinely authentic artsy bohemians out of their cheap dilapidated lofts in order to knock them down and put up The Bohemian Embassy.
“They have to talk about ideas,” she adds. “They have to talk profession – not that they aren’t female. They are. They say things like I love your boots – but what they’re talking about is just not family or romantic love.
“And it was interesting,” she adds, “because I found myself constantly sliding, wanting to talk about family or a husband – it’s just instant drama to talk about a relationship – so it was a parameter I found kind of dynamic for me.”
The show features an all-female cast (Denise Clarke, Close, Georgina Beaty and Nadien Chu), directly, ironically, by One Yellow Rabbit artistic director – and Hines’ longtime partner – Blake Brooker, the only man (apart from technical director Jeffrey Buchanan) in the room alongside six women.
“It’s been kind of seamless,” she says. “Blake once said when he went to Singapore, and he was working with a bunch of Singaporeans, he began to believe he looked like that. And he said the same thing is happening (with this): he’s just one of the girls at this point.”
Hines is a painstaking writer, who in this case started with an idea – the Bechdel-Wallace test – and then built a narrative around it, instead of the other way around.
That process has led to all sorts of input, such as the man, at a workshop reading at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, who couldn’t understand why Hines would want female characters who didn’t talk about their families, because to him, the most important role a woman could play was as a mother and wife.
“What,” he asked, “is this play about?”
Hines realized that the man had a point.
“I couldn’t answer his question in a way that would satisfy him,” she says. “And it was so provocative and in a way I was like – all the actors were around me going, fuck him!
“But I was like no, there’s something to this – I don’t want to make men mad (with this play).
“I actually want to answer that question in the play if I can,” she adds, “or if I don’t, it’s just because they can’t meet me halfway, it’s not because it’s not (in) there.”
But the man’s question had another resonance for Hines: if the most important role for a woman was to be someone’s wife or mother, what did that make women who – like her – were neither?
What value did that place on being a playwright, or actress, or dancer or – like a friend of hers – an artisanal chocolate maker and artist who lived on Quadra Island? Or the woman in Ramsey, who, with neither a husband or children, has turned her home into a kind of artist drop-in centre, where they’re free to stay awhile and get their living arrangements straightened out?
What does that make Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister, who was criticized by another female candidate running for the job as being unable to relate to ordinary British women because she had never been a mother?
“I thought, this has to be about a character,” Hines says. “It has to be about someone, trying to work her way through something – and while not explicitly to answer the question, why is the Bechdel Test important?
“That question informs her exploration and takes her to other places,” she adds, “and hopefully, winds up taking her to a bigger game, that has nothing to do with feministic concerns – but has to do with human concerns and to the future of civilization.”
“So there comes a point in the play where it drops (metaphorical) rockets,” she says, “or at least that’s what I’m trying to do: drop certain rockets off, so that by the end, we’re in a very different place.
“It’s still very much about being the females are very female,” she adds. “A lot of their struggle is about being female – but (also) trying to transcend that, and get past that to a place that is just human, and about our collective future.”