More than a dozen students and faculty had the opportunity to work alongside a playwright last month, workshopping Because I am Your Queen, a new play by New York City author and playwright Mina Samuels. Joined by dancer and choreographer Jacqueline Dugal, the students participated in readings, dancing and a performance of Samuels’ work over the course of her three-day residency. Samuels and Dugal’s visit was supported by The Faculty of Arts and Humanities, the School for Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities, the departments of English and Writing Studies, French, Visual Arts, and Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, the program in Theatre Studies, and the Performance Studies Research Group.
Below, one student shares her experience of working alongside Samuels, Dugal and fellow students in this one-of-a-kind learning experience.
I spent the first sunny days of spring warming up in the brightly-lit conference room of the Chu Centre, with several other curious thespians. We had all signed on to participate in a feminist theatre workshop, but I can say, with a fair degree of confidence, that most of us had no clue what that would entail. The next two days would be spent dancing to the rhythm of the text of Because I Am Your Queen, by Mina Samuels, exploring the movement of our bodies, the range of our emotions and our place as women in the world. All of this movement work would be in stark contrast to the final performance itself, where we, seated, invited the audience to spend a day at the spa with the queens of old.
Mina and Jacqui – the choreographer behind our movements – didn’t ask much of us ahead of time, except that we bring a prop evocative of “royalty, the spa environment or physics.” I won’t lie – the idea of a dimensional fold bringing together Queen Elizabeth I and Medea over a foot soak so that modern-day feminists and women physicists could examine their personal development seemed like an odd choice to me. But hey, isn’t that what text work is for?
We explored the reasoning behind these choices with Mina, learning about the role that the spa has played over time as a space for women to be free (however briefly) from patriarchal norms. We talked about how the union of Renaissance England’s antagonistic queens – Queen Elizabeth and Bloody Mary – facilitated an exploration of the complexity of relationships between powerful women, when they are forced to compete for that single rung afforded to women on the ladder of historical greatness. The end result of these choices is the piece set up an environment where the complex dynamics between women could be dissected and explored.
The script of Because I Am Your Queen actually considers the personhood of these characters, rather than exploiting the convenient narratives of womanhood that persist in storytelling to this day. The challenge for all of us in the workshop was to shake off our internalized notions of how to perform a “queen,” or a “mean girl,” and instead to learn how to perform womanhood, unapologetically.
This proved to be an interesting challenge for me, as I felt like my acting background left me with a way to approach characters – a way to mimic humanity – but not a way in which to explore the personhood of a powerful woman. When it came to portraying Elizabeth I, I felt like I knew Elizabeth Tudor, and Elizabeth I, Queen of England – and even Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. But just Elizabeth? Who was she? Mina and Jacqui forced the actresses in the room to confront an uncomfortable truth: We are used to performing a vision of womanhood that has rarely done us justice. Whoosh! Seventeen years of theatre training out the door, just like that.
This realization left me feeling increasingly exposed, like a live copper wire with its rubber casing scrapped off, one peeling motion at a time. And Mina and Jacqui were there, pushing me to channel this stream of electricity into Elizabeth, the Human, into uncovering the emotion underlying her speech and her movements. Experiencing the voltage of womanhood.
I’d love to say this was my big “ah-ha!” moment as an actress, and that I grew an exponential amount over the course of my two days with Because I Am Your Queen. But the truth is, this experience wasn’t a turning point for me – it was a rebirth. And much like how growing up forces us to learn how to chew with our mouths closed and toddle along on two legs, this workshop forced me to begin re-learning how to be an actress.
The workshop continued around this lightbulb moment of mine. The group was led through movement games to increase our receptiveness, and we explored the space, rearranging tables and coat racks to build our little dimension-warping spa. We read our lines and asked Mina pronunciation and inflection questions. But the rehearsal of the reading pulled me between two poles: the performance of a caricature of womanhood, the act that I had always defaulted to on stage, and the expression of womanhood, free from storytelling shortcuts and convenient character interactions.
My seemingly small act of liberation sits atop a mountain of habits and internalized patterns of behaviour that have been reinforced by society, storytelling and performance time and time again. And attempting to reach this mountain peak the next time I play a woman character will, I suspect, feel a bit like a Sisyphus moment. But Mina and Jacqui invited us to see the mountain with them, and they stood behind me as I grasped the boulder for the first time and began my ascent as Elizabeth, the Human.
We spend so much time in the classroom investigating character, characters’ worlds and the context in which their pieces are created, that I often feel that we miss the humanity for all of the trees. And through workshopping Because I Am Your Queen, taking the text into our bodies as well as our brains, I learned sometimes, you have to put on your crown in order to uncover the complex woman underneath.