Diana Lobb on "Blood Relations" (part 2)

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In the second half of our chat with Blood Relations director Diana Lobb, she talked about gender roles: in this play, in the works of Pollock generally, and also in the production team.  Read on!

Gender roles and the production team

In putting together our production team, we deliberately went against gender expectations as much as we could: we have a woman (Megan Redwood) for TD, a man (Michael Davenport) working on costumes, a woman (Colleen Colbeck) designing the lights.  And I think it’s important that as a crew, we’re more empathetic to what’s going on: what the play is trying to show us.  The fact that we can say “this is traditionally a male role”, points out that that system of constraints — even though we like to look back on the world of late 19th-century North America and say “we’re not like that”, how far have we really come if there are conventionally gendered roles?  The cage is still there, we just don’t see it as clearly anymore.  Maybe because we’re not rammed up against it quite as much but it’s still there.  And it helps all of us to see it.

The conversation isn’t just between the play and the audience; in order for it to be convincing, everybody needs to have some anchor into that story.  Then we can all work together to communicate that narrative convincingly — or at least interestingly — to the audience.  To engage them, to get them to participate in that dialogue.  From the audience’s perspective, looking at the programme they’re going to perhaps notice: “Oh, you don’t usually see a woman’s name as the lighting designer.”  Hopefully by the end of the play, they’ll be asking themselves why they would assume a gender for a crew position.

Women in the work of Sharon Pollock

rehearsal.pngAn important feature of Sharon Pollock’s plays — and this is one of the things I’ve talked about with the actresses — is that women are not simply vehicles or accessories to make men’s stories work.  They’re not just ornamental.  The women in Sharon Pollock’s plays are either central, as in “Blood Relations”, or they’re integral parts of the story.  So instead of them being stories that speak to a universal mankind, she writes plays that speak to humankind by insisting that you have to integrate all the gendered perspectives, not simply leave the women as ornaments to men’s stories.  And I think that’s certainly something that ties the two plays together, the insistence that if you’re not listening to all of the voices, you’re not hearing the whole story.

As an example, in The Komagata Maru Incident you have the Sikh woman in the ship, where Pollock is using gender as a way to talk about ethnicity.  She’s a part of the story; you can’t silence her, you can’t silence her perspective.  Her story and Hutchinson’s have to be read together.  Certainly in Incident you can’t just read the “white Canada forever” on the shore and you can’t just read the story of the Sikhs on the boat; you have to read them together.  And that’s sometimes difficult to do; but Pollock tries to create that opportunity to let the audience see these perspectives together.

One of the things that we talk about is that ideology becomes much easier to see when it’s falling apart: its seams become much more visible when we’re not as convinced of it anymore.  I think what we’re seeing today with this pushback — the incels, #MeToo — there’s a great deal of anxiety right now about gender, gender roles, gender conformity and who should be doing what, even innocuous things like gender reveal parties for your unborn child.  We’re so hung up on trying to understand and reinforce or do something with gender because it’s falling apart.  And I think I would like people to come out of this play asking themselves if maybe it’s not such a bad thing if it falls apart: what if we make those roles so tight that no one can breathe?  What if we put a lock on the golden cage? What happens? And I don’t think it’s healthy, or good, or productive: not just to the individual, but to the society as a whole.  So maybe gender doesn’t need to be "fixed" — maybe it can go away.

Now I don’t want to tell people what to believe: that’s not my job.  Mine is to raise questions.  I would like people to come out asking, what do I believe about gender?  Do I think that the technical director should be a man?  Why do I think that?  And that’s what I think theatre does: gives people room to have these conversations, with each other and themselves.  Why do I believe that?  Do I really believe that, or is it just easier?

Theatre as a space for critical reflection

Sketch of the set design.  Drawn by Megan Redwood, based off of technical sketches by Lenore Brooks Design.When we were putting on Immigration Acts I said that theatre is a place for critical reflection and critical conversation; I still believe that.  In theatre you have real live human beings in your face in a way that you don’t in cinema; film gives you that nice distance. When Andrew slaps the Actress as Lizzie, she’s within two feet of the audience.  You know it’s stage magic, but still: you see the slap, you hear that smack, and Laura sells it well.  It’s right in front of you; what’s your natural reaction?  When he shoves her to the ground and you see a person being manhandled, slapped, that’s very different in theatre and I think it evokes more of a reaction.

It highlights a kind of complicity, especially how I’ve set up the staging: the audience is really right on the stage, and I do want them to be uncomfortable.  I want them to see, because we are complicit.  And when we don’t pay attention, the problem gets bigger.  So you’re sitting two feet way from Laura holding her face; the conventions of theatre are that you sit there, in the dark, and watch.  I don’t think people will try to intervene, but I think they’ll flinch.

So having it staged like that means it’s not the conventional “it’s up there” in this nice clean box, and we’re out here and can have our nice cathartic moment in the dark, all of us in the audience.  And that’s the other thing — not only will they see the performance space, they’ll see the audience on the other side.  Using the audience as the fourth wall.  The way that I’ve got Min doing the defence speech sometimes we’re going to break that wall, and further implicate the audience in the performance.

And that’s another feature of Pollock’s plays: they create this opportunity to — not go totally Brechtian, but to discomfort the audience with that sense of estrangement.  That’s why I love her plays, because they create that critical distance, that you don’t get that nice comfortable catharsis.  So when Min’s giving his defense speech — and a big part of that is, “how can you believe a woman could do this?  How could any man sleep next to his wife?”  But as he’s giving it, he’s walking around and talking directly to the audience.  And I’ve told him, when he says “Gentlemen of the jury”, say it to a woman.  Feel that you’re not included in this conversation.  So yeah, we are going to make the audience a little uncomfortable.