The High Performance Rodeo and Quote Unquote Collective present

Mouthpiece through January 29 at West Village Theatre

by Stephen Hunt

Amy Nostbakken and Nora Sadava were a pair of  actors new to Toronto (Sadava from Edmonton, Nostbakken from Ottawa) who met back around 2012 and decided they wanted to work together on a show about female friendship.

A year later, they were still working on it, when they had to face up to a fact: the show on paper wasn’t quite living up to the show they thought they could hear and see and feel inside their heads.

“We kept hitting a wall,” says Sadava. “We couldn’t figure out how to make it mean something, or what it was about, really.”

They gave the original concept a re-think.

“We sort of realized,” she adds, “(that) if we’re looking at the dynamics between women, why those dynamics happen is because of the internal life of individual women – so what better research to do than to look inward, at our own internal life?”

That was the aha moment that led the two women, who form the Quote Unquote Collective, to cut one character from the show.

Instead, they would both play a single character, in full interaction with herself.

The result that emerged was Mouthpiece, a show that was nominated for six Dora Awards (Toronto’s Betty Mitchell Awards), won two, led to the duo going on a year-long tour with the show – including gigs in Dawson City, Yukon and Whitehorse – followed by a return Toronto engagement in 2016.

When the critics’ lists of the top shows of the year arrived in December, Mouthpiece made both the Globe and Mail and Toronto Stars‘ top 10.

All it took, says Sadava, was the willingness to embrace a word that an entire generation of young women had been trying, it seems, so very hard to resist: feminism.

Once we started looking at ourselves,” she says, “pretty provocatively and deeply, being really honest with each other about how we experienced the world, we kind of had a feminist awakening.”

“We were kind of bullshit pushers,” she adds, “hypocrites living in the world thinking we were highly progressive women – but were in fact still under the thumb of an oppressive patriarchal force that we hadn’t identified.

“We came to that realization quite quickly and suddenly,” she says. “It totally transformed the shape and direction of the show and so we started making a show about that (instead) – about that realization, and identifying all the different voices and forces that were going on (inside of us, individually).”

The breakthrough came when each took turns revealing the details of their lives they really would have rather avoided, says Nostbakken.

“As soon as we realized that the way of writing the show was simply to reveal all of the things that are hardest to reveal,” she says, “the secrets that you never want anyone, ever to know until you die. If you write those, if we admit those to each other, to ourselves – when we were reading those to each other, we were like, yeah! That’s it!

“Often,” she adds, “the reaction when we were reading to each other was, that’s true – and I bet there’s even more you’re not admitting – and then we’d be forced to dig even deeper.”

The show itself is uniquely theatrical, combining music, movement and text into a kind of poetic choreography that almost resembles a synchronized swimming duet.

“We thought about it a lot in making it,” says Sadava. “There is a typical linear narrative play that is helpful to know how to watch theatre which because – from the history of plays written by white male perspective – it’s a structure we don’t feel fits us correctly.

“But we had to do a lot questioning,” she adds. “What does? What is more representative of the way a woman’s mind works, of the way we hear and tell and experience stories? And this show is definitely (meant to represent that) – time and space are malleable.

“I mean we move through 24 hours,” she adds, “and use a structure of time in order to ground us somewhere, but within that, we move between different forms and all kinds of crystal-like directions. We talk about the different facets of a crystal – and there are definitely some people who don’t respond to it, because it’s not something they know how to take it – but also a lot of people have said it was like being…in a warm bath of my own.”

Now, arriving shortly after the massive womens march on Washington, Mouthpiece feels absolutely timely.

The truth, Sadava adds, is that fighting for women’s rights always does feel timely – because it never stops being necessary.

“The first time we performed Mouthpiece,” she says, “it was around the time Jian Ghomeshi had been accused of sexual assaulting multiple women, and people kept referring back to the fact that that was why this show was necessary.

“This time,” she says, “when we did the show in Toronto after touring for a year, it was right after Hillary lost to Donald and people kept saying, now the show is important! Now it means something!

“And we were like uh-huh,” she adds. “It’s always going to (mean something). Unfortunately, until something major happens – which isn’t going to happen anytime soon, there’s always going to be a reason we feel its necessary to do this show.”


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Stephen Hunt is the 2017 High Performance Rodeo writer-in-residence