A Timely Save: Canada’s Pre-eminent Feminist Theatre Company at Thirty Years

  • Shelley Scott
    Nightwood Theatre: A Woman’s Work is Always Done. Athabasca University Press
Reviewed by Kirsty Johnston

In her preface to Nightwood Theatre: A Woman’s Work is Always Done, Shelley Scott demonstrates the drive behind the company’s fervent commitment to women artists by quoting its former artistic director, Alisa Palmer: Artists and audiences, feminists and thespians alike, are hankering for women’s art that laughs like a maniacal harlot in the pallid and even-featured face of the Disneyfied, sanitized Mega-theatre culture. Nightwood Theatre has been laughing in such generative ways since its 1979 founding as a Toronto collective and this book, offered in part to commemorate the company’s thirtieth anniversary, takes the weight and measure of this important theatre, one that Scott quite rightly describes as the pre-eminent women’s theatre company in Canada. Grounded in rigorous archival research, interview responses, critical press, performance analyses, and relevant theoretical scholarship, the book goes a long way to preserving the company’s considerable labour and accomplishments.

Scott’s book balances close analysis of the company’s decades of activity with a broader view of its place in the international context of feminist theatre, thinking, and activism during the same period. She begins by comparing Nightwood with other feminist theatres founded in the 1970s, and argues for stronger parallels with its US (At the Foot of the Mountain, The Women’s Theatre Project) rather than its UK counterparts. She also explains the critical importance of Rina Fraticelli’s 1982 report on the Status of Women in Canadian Theatre as a catalyst toward [the company’s] clearly feminist mandate. Founded as a collective, Scott demonstrates how this mandate complemented the operational mode: Collective creation offers at least the possibility for equality and a balance of power in an organization; since these are feminist goals for society at large, it seems only right that they should be put into practice in a feminist company. Scott fully acknowledges that working in this way is complicated and one of the great strengths of this book is that it does not skate past the history of potential or realized conflicts. Rather, she suggests what it takes for collective creation to function and attends to how precisely operations unfolded at Nightwood and with what outcomes. She also observes how the company’s changing mandate language, strategies for soliciting funding, and audience outreach and interactions with the media both broke and forged bonds between company artists and associated personnel. The straightforward chronological structure of chapters one to three helps to trace the logic behind such changes as well as the sometimes long and winding paths to individual productions. These chapters divide the company’s thirty years into three sections. The first, beginnings (1979-88), examines the founding impulses for the theatre, distinguishing it from other feminist theatre in Toronto at the time and highlighting its early commitment to inclusion and diversity. Chapter 2, breaking away and moving on (1989-93), charts artistic activities under artistic director Kate Lushington as it explores mandate shifts and negotiations around the label of feminist.. It also asserts the importance of Nightwood’s 1989 launch of the SisterReach initiative: an anti-racism campaign aimed at opening the company up to a wider community. Chapter 3 accounts for the new leadership models that have animated the company’s operations since then. Each of these chapters also includes neatly organized summary analyses of key Nightwood productions that note both artistic choices and critical reception. These complement the Nightwood chronology that is offered as an appendix and will serve as a valuable and rich resource for further research in the field.

The more synthetic arguments of the final chapter help to understand the company in relation to feminist theory. Drawing, for example, on the work of Sue-Ellen Case and Gayle Austin, Scott demonstrates diverse feminist impulses in the company’s work over time. Highlighting the company’s striking longevity in the field of feminist theatre practice and scholarship, Scott is also able to link its activities over time to second and third wave feminist impulses. The latter, she argues, are defining features of Nightwood at the close of her study in 2009.

As some of the most accomplished names in Canadian theatre (e.g., Ann-Marie MacDonald, Djanet Sears, Monique Mojica, etc.) have been variously involved with the company, it is well that this work is not lost for Canadian theatre or feminist histories. As Scott argues, So many women have worked so hard, not just at Nightwood, but in feminist theatres internationally, and in journalism, and in scholarship. All that can be easily lost, especially in the ephemeral world of theatre production or in the peripatetic nature of a nomadic theatre company. While the book’s careful recording and analysis of this work will certainly be useful to scholars, its detailed and clear organization of material will also serve practitioners and educators interested in how companies outside Mega-theatre culture are formed and sustained artistically, structurally, and financially over decades.

This review “A Timely Save: Canada’s Pre-eminent Feminist Theatre Company at Thirty Years” originally appeared in New Work on Early Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 213 (Summer 2012): 182-183.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.