By Matt Yuyitung
The Three Sisters Theatre Company is thinking about the global gender imbalance in theatre and acting locally at The Gladstone theatre to change that with their production of the romantic comedy The Clean House.
The show is being described as the perfect fit for a company determined to spotlight “quality roles for women.”
The play, written by American playwright Sarah Ruhl and directed by Mary Ellis, runs until Feb. 24.
The script appealed to Three Sisters because the female characters are integral to the story and not “decorative” elements in a male-centred narrative, something that is all too common in productions from Hollywood to Bollywood.
“The primary thing I’m looking for in plays for Three Sisters is I’m looking for quality roles for women on stage,” said Three Sisters artistic director Robin Guy, who also stars in the show. “By quality, I mean we are not standing there being decorative, which is often the case with women in theatre.”
Traditionally, women are “sort of the sidebar to the man’s story, so it’s important to get some women’s stories on stage.”
The Three Sisters are also determined to address the lack of plays performed in Ottawa that pass the Bechdel test, where two women in a performance must talk to each other about a topic other than men. The test indicates the active presence of women in films and plays. It is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The test first appeared in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985. Bechdel credited a friend, Liz Wallace, the writings of Virginia Woolf for the idea.
In The Clean House, a female doctor named Lane hires a Brazilian maid, Matilde, whose aspirations are not in cleaning but comedy. And comedy ensues as Matilde becomes aware of a love triangle involving Lane, her husband and her husband’s dying lover.
Guy, who plays Lane, praised the “depth” and the “honesty” of the characters drawn by Ruhl, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for The Clean House.
The way the characters reflect human experience while exploring elements of comedy make it rewarding to perform, said Guy.
“As a performer, I’ve been around for a while, and it is really satisfying to take on characters that have this kind of depth, and that behave like real people,” she said.
Guy Buller, who plays Lane’s husband Charles, agreed.
The characters “go through such deep love and loss in the play,” he said. “Charles goes through (highs and lows), which for me is soul-touching.”
The actors also faced certain challenges along the way, such as Buller learning songs in Italian.
Puja Uppal, who plays Matilde, had to learn some Portuguese and to speak with a Brazilian accent for the role.
“That challenge alone was very exciting for me,” she said. “You don’t (often) get to play someone so completely unlike yourself.”
The Three Sisters formed after Guy and some of her friends in the theatre community were wondering why they were rarely in shows together. From there, they noticed a lack of good female roles and “women’s stories” being told on stages in Ottawa.
They also noticed a lack of women generally across the theatre industry, with playwrights, directors and company administrators being primarily men. In response, Guy formed Three Sisters as a means to provide more fulfilling opportunities for women in theatre.
“The company is about putting stories of complete women on stage,” she said. The first play under the Three Sisters name was staged in 2009 at St. Paul’s University. The company began producing shows regularly in 2014.
Mary Ellis, who has an extensive career in local theatre, says the stage has been male-oriented for a long time, but, she now believes things are “slowly changing.”
Three Sisters is having an impact in the local scene, Guy believes. She feels that it is pushing people to reassess their own habits when it comes to gender representation. Over the last few years, she said she has noticed a growth in “awareness” from other companies around the city.
“As soon as someone is calling out the problem, it does cause people to pay attention to their own habits,” she said.
Since then, the company has been working to build its audience and carve out its own niche, and there has been positive responses since the company’s inception. Guy tells the story of an audience member who bought show tickets in order to “help the women,” and she has received supportive notes and emails from patrons.
“People care about making that change, which is nice to hear,” she said.
This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.