Impressionism introduces some lesser-known artists – Part 1

April 12-27, 2019,  Alumnae Theatre Company presents Michael Jacobs’ play Impressionism, which takes place in an art gallery.  Audience members are invited onstage before the show begins, to walk around Teodoro Dragonieri’s set and Suzanne Courtney’s replicas of Impressionist artworks.  Alumnae member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has researched some lesser-known women artists of the Impressionist period – here’s the first of her blog posts.

THE GIRLS IN THE GANG – Forget the water lilies. Here are some Impressionists you may not know.

If you were one of the many budding women artists who came to Paris in the second half of the 19th century, what were your career prospects? There was plenty of work painting china, wall art and other home decor items.

 But if you wanted to be a star at the prestigious Paris “Salon” — the annual exhibit of the best of French art – you faced all the familiar obstacles.

 Women were not accepted into the official art school, the École des Beaux Arts, though they could attend certain studios or take private lessons – provided they didn’t attend “life classes.” (For some reason it was okay for men to stare for hours at naked women, but not for women to do so. Since the study of the nude was central to serious art training, this was a bit of a disadvantage.) Respectable middle-class women also found it difficult to paint landscapes or the scenes of public life that were becoming fashionable, since they could go nowhere unchaperoned. And, of course, there were family pressures.

 Nevertheless, a certain number of women did manage to break into what would become perhaps the most popular artistic revolutions of all time, Impressionism.

 The male Impressionists were surprisingly supportive of their female colleagues (although the senior member, Manet, could be a pain). And the women Monet, Renoir, Degas, et al. shared insights with came with their own impressive array of talent. Berthe Morisot had already exhibited at the prestigious Salon several times when she met the Impressionists, a feat most of the group had not accomplished. Marie Bracquemond had her first piece accepted at the Salon when she was only 17.

“The Cradle” by Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot

The star of the female Impressionists was Berthe Morisot. Morisot’s mother was warned by an instructor that her daughter could become a successful artist – a result he felt would be “almost catastrophic” in a haute bourgeoisie family. Nevertheless, Berthe’s mother continued to encourage her. Morisot first exhibited at the Salon de Paris when she was 23. One critic wrote approvingly, “You see, ladies, one may be an artist and take part in public exhibitions of painting and remain, as before, a very respectable and very charming person.” Some years later she was introduced to the Impressionists by a family friend and mentor, the painter Édouard Manet. While convention limited her to domestic scenes, she quickly became one of the most admired of the group.

 Morisot is also famous as part of a romantic Impressionist triangle. She and the married Manet likely fell in love (though it’s not clear they were ever, technically, lovers), but she eventually married his brother Eugène. Unlike other Impressionist partners, Eugène neglected his own career to support Berthe’s work. She continued to exhibit with the Impressionists, but unfortunately, both died young, Morisot at only 54. Her orphaned daughter, Julie, was treated as a member of the wider Impressionist family and appears in many of their paintings.

Edma Morisot

Berthe was not the only artist in the family. Her older sister, Edma, studied and exhibited with her and was a

“Edma and Berthe Morisot” by Berthe Morisot

strong support and influence. The sisters often modelled for each other. (That’s Edma and her baby in Morisot’s famous painting, “The Cradle.”) Unfortunately, Edma abandoned any serious attempts at art after her marriage – a common occurrence among women artists of the time.


Profiles of more female Impressionist artists to come!

See Impressionism the play onstage at Alumnae Theatre, April 12-27, 2019.  Directed by Nicole Arends.





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The Sad Blisters: April 12-27 at The Commons


World premiere production of Andrew Batten’s “The Sad Blisters”.
Poster Design: Vic Finucci

Director Victoria Shepherd is a member of Alumnae Theatre Company. Andrew Batten made numerous appearances of Alumnae’s stages, including “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (2007), “Hedda Gabler” (2010),”Sylvia” (2011), “A Woman of No Importance” (2013), “This“, and “August: Osage County” (both in 2016).  His play “Or Not To Be” was staged in New Ideas Festival 2017.

The April 2019 production of “The Sad Blisters” is its world premiere.

life with more cowbell

Poking my head out of hiatus to jump onto the blog with details of Glass Hammer Productions’ upcoming run of Andrew Batten’s The Sad Blisters, directed by Victoria Shepherd, and featuring Bonnie Gray, Andrea Lyons, Anne McDougall, myself and Esther Thibault.

It’s a hilarious, poignant dramedy about family, memory, love—and a wedding!

The Sad Blisters runs April 12-27 at The Commons (587a College St., Toronto). Performances run Thur/Fri/Sat at 8pm, with matinees Sat & Sun at 2pm. Running time: approx. 80 mins. Tickets: $20 regular; $15 student/senior/arts worker. CASH ONLY at the door.

Check the Facebook event page for more info, photos and wedding anecdotes, as well as advance ticket purchase (Brown Paper Tickets link pending as of this posting; in the meantime, there’s a reservations email).

I’m honoured and happy to be working with this team of amazing, talented theatre artists. Hope you can join us!

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My first audition, and other notes: A newcomer learns about the New Ideas Festival as a writer and participant

by Suzanne Bowness

New Ideas Festival 2019.
Image design: Suzanne Courtney

This week I attended the first of three opening nights in the 2019 New Ideas Festival (NIF). In two weeks, it will be my opening night as a playwright of one of the festival plays, The Reading Circle. It is my first opening night because it’s my first play in production.  Quite a lot of firsts for me, thanks to NIF, so I thought I’d share a few more of them.

My first audition
I went to my first audition in January. There, at least one actress confessed that it was her first audition as well. The difference is that that brave girl was saying it from the stage. I’m not an actress. I fear the stage. For me, it was just my first time watching an audition, so more fascinating than terrifying.

Fortunately, my director, a title I now like to name drop even though my director has an actual name, Marley Kajan, is much more knowledgeable about these things. My director is an actress herself and willing to be peppered with questions, something that I am testing the limits of. Do performers always have a monologue prepared? (Yes. Marley herself has several!). What’s a side? (An audition piece from the play).  What’s a better side to prep? (One that shows your range or ability to handle dialogue? Debates on this one). Are all auditions this short, like just 5 to 10 minutes? (Many are even shorter!) What’s a callback?

Questions continued into the rehearsal process. Others were also a target for them. I was paired with a dramaturg, Catherine Frid, who provided some humbling yet helpful insight that prompted me to deepen my newly introduced minor characters (my play started out as a one-woman show). Sometimes I’m not asking questions so much as observing what’s going on (not a stretch for me as an introvert writer): at rehearsals I’m mostly on the sidelines watching as my director does her thing, steering actresses’ intonations in different directions, asking about their character intentions and adding elements that never even occurred to me. Musical cues? Sure, why not. Oh, and it hasn’t stopped being surreal to hear the words you’ve written read by real people whose voices sound better than the voices you had in your head.

 NIF turns 31

I may be a newcomer to this festival, but NIF itself is already 31 years old. To find out more about what I had (happily) gotten myself into, I turned to former festival coordinator Carolyn Zapf, who was until 2018 co-artistic director/producer (with Pat McCarthy) of the festival for eight years. She tells me that the founding producers of NIF were Molly Thom and Kerri MacDonald. The first festival took place in May 1988. The plan was to create “a laboratory to develop new talent and new theatrical ideas.”

“Since then, NIF has played and continues to play a role in playwright and script development, and has also provided opportunities for many Toronto directors, actors, stage managers, and technicians at an early stage in their careers,” says Zapf.  NIF is also a source for Alumnae’s FireWorks Festival, which helps move plays a step further in Alumnae’s development process.

NIF plays can also move along to other productions. A play from NIF 2016, Omission, by Alice Abracen, was programmed in Alumnae’s hundredth anniversary mainstage season last year. A play called Theory, by Norman Yeung, was part of this year’s Tarragon Theatre season. Theory was a workshopped reading in NIF 2010, went on to SummerWorks 2010, and was produced at Alumnae’s FireWorks Festival in its inaugural season in November 2013.  Theory won the Herman Voaden National Playwriting Competition in 2015.


Back in the audience

While I’ve got couple of nervous weeks to get through before my words debut, this week I got to make my debut as a festival audience member and enjoyed seeing the works of fellow playwrights, which I’d only heard to this point  as snippets in auditions. From the hilariously funny and physical Bazookas (a final highlight of auditions was watching a parade of grown women each announce with straight face that they were “here to audition for the part of Boob One”) to the thought-provoking question raised by The Last Date, to the “modern fairy tale” qualities of Outside Looking In to the very current issues raised in Body Parts, Week One offered a good variety of characters and emotions.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Alumnae Theatre Company’s New Ideas Festival continues to March 24 – a new lineup starts on Wed March 13; another on March 20.    Suzanne Bowness’ play, The Reading Circle, is part of Week Three (March 20-24). 

Tickets: $15/wk (4 short plays – all world premieres), plus a PWYC staged reading of one longer play  at noon on Sat March 16 (Waiting For Attila) and March 23 (Harbor).   Details/ticket purchase link at


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Mooney on Theatre review of “Top Girls”

Top Girls takes us into the world of six women from different countries, time periods, and positions in society, and we learn about their struggles, accomplishments and values. Their stories are vivid and have many parallels with today’s challenges… a timely important work that brings women’s voices to the forefront.” – Catherine Jan, Mooney on Theatre

Read the full review:

Top Girls Alumnae Theatre Toronto

Clockwise from L-R: Jordi O’Dael  (as Gret) , Jennifer Fahy (as Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (as Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (as Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (as Isabella Bird), and Tea Nguyen(as Lady Nijo).

Photo: Bruce Peters

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Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

life with more cowbell

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.


Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison…

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TOP GIRLS – “Making Wonder Woman, Lara Croft and Buffy look like wimps” (Isabella Bird)

British playwright Caryl Churchill’s award-winning drama Top Girls premiered in London in 1982.  The play begins with the main character, Marlene, hosting a [possibly imaginary] dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work.  Her guests are five famously strong women from history – some real (Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Lady Nijo); some fictional (Gret, Griselda).

Alumnae Theatre Company member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has researched the guests who appear in the play.  Here’s the last of her five profiles, featuring Victorian-era world traveller Isabella Bird, who is portrayed onstage by Lisa Lenihan.

Alumnae Theatre Company previously staged the play in our 3rd floor Studio space back in 1996!  The new production of Top Girls is directed by Alysa Golden, and will run on the Mainstage from January 18 – February 2, 2019.  Tickets are available at

Making Wonder Woman, Lara Croft and Buffy look like wimps

If you’re making a list of the coolest Victorian women, Isabella Bird is right up there — riding huge stallions through the desert, reporting from war zones, and bunking down and escaping from burning buildings.

English traveller Isabella Bird (1831-1904) – travelling “as a lady”

Like many intelligent girls living in repressive 19th century Britain, Bird suffered from a variety of physical problems. Fortunately she came from a forward-thinking family. (Her father, an Anglican minister, was pilloried for suggesting labourers should have a day off on Sunday.) So when her doctor recommended a long sea voyage, and her father gave her £100 to do whatever she wanted, Bird hitched a ride with her cousins to North America, and caught a better illness – the travel bug.

The bug became a career for Bird when she turned her letters home into a book, The Englishwoman in America. From there she moved on to Australia, Europe, the Rocky Mountains, Russia, Tibet, Malaya, etc., etc. During an early voyage to Hawaii, she climbed volcanoes, wore trousers and learned to ride astride, which put an end to her backaches. She went on to ride through blizzards, win the love of a one-eyed mountain man named Jim Nugent, (murdered not long after he proposed to her) and explore forbidden areas of Japan, She often travelled alone or with men – rather shocking for a Victorian lady, but it didn’t hurt her sales. She did return home from time to time (often suffering bouts of illness when she did). But she could never stay in one place for long. She did manage to marry a doctor, but he only lasted for five years.

After his death, Bird studied medicine so that she could travel as a medical missionary. She went on to found two hospitals in India, speak before Parliament about atrocities in the Turkish Empire, report on the Sino-Japanese war, and survive mob attacks in China. She was also the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Geographical Society and, since her many books were illustrated by her own photos, joined the Royal Photographic Society. After travelling to Africa, she died in 1904 at the age of 73.

For more info, including a discussion of Isabella’s clothing choices, see

For more info on the cast of Alumnae Theatre Company’s new production of Top Girls (Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019) and special events, please visit

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TOP GIRLS – “Scandal at the Japanese court” (Lady Nijo)

In 1982, British playwright Caryl Churchill’s award-winning drama Top Girls made its premiere in London.  The play begins with the main character, Marlene, hosting a [possibly imaginary] dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work.  Her guests are five famously strong women from history – some real (Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Lady Nijo); some fictional (Gret, Griselda).

Alumnae Theatre Company member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has profiled the guests who appear in the play – here’s # 4 of the five, featuring the real-life historical character Lady Nijo, a Japanese courtesan-turned-wandering-Buddhist-nun, who is portrayed onstage by Tea Nguyen.

Illustration (possibly showing Lady Nijo) from a Japanese romance, published in 1904.

Alumnae Theatre Company previously staged the play in our 3rd floor Studio space back in 1996!  The new production of Top Girls is directed by Alysa Golden, and will run on the Mainstage from January 18 – February 2, 2019.  Tickets are available at


Lady Nijo, a 13th-century noblewoman, was handed over to the retired Emperor Go-Fukakusa by her father when she was 14, thus adding greatly to her own and her family’s prestige. (And that is his actual name, not an obscene political comment.) While she never overtly questioned the social system she was part of, Lady Nijo did have a rebellious streak.

She never quite made it as Go-Fukakusa’s top courtesan and resented that. She had affairs with other men – including a monk – and bore several children, which she was not allowed to keep. Her diary of her years at court, complete with a warts-and-all portrait of Go-Fukakusa, was suppressed for centuries because the Japanese couldn’t handle the idea that an emperor was – gasp! – a human being.

Eventually Lady Nijo was kicked out of court in disgrace and became a Buddhist nun. While this was standard behaviour for courtiers disappointed in their ambitions, Lady Nijo earned disapproval by travelling far and wide, on her own, in imitation of a famous monk-poet who had been her childhood hero.

But despite her spiritual aspirations, she was never able to escape the attitudes and painful memories she had acquired at court.

Lady Nijo’s diary, Towazugatari – “A Tale Nobody Asked For” – was rediscovered just before the Second World War. But is it the genuine outpourings of a tortured soul? Or a carefully constructed fictional autobiography, designed to demonstrate how difficult it is for even the most high-born woman to escape the oppressive role assigned to her? It may also have been a final – and ultimately successful — attempt to recapture her family’s prestige by writing for a future that would better understand her. No one’s sure, but it is definitely considered a treasure of Japanese literature.

Find out more about Lady Nijo at

For more info on the cast of Alumnae Theatre Company’s new production of Top Girls (Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019) and special events, please visit



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