Tag Archives: Top Girls

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 https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/tickets.html

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 http://www.cordella.org/isabella-bird-bishop/

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 https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/top-girls.html

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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 https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/tickets.html

SCANDAL AT THE JAPANESE COURT

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 http://www.academia.edu/1165239/Three_faces_of_lady_Nij%C5%8D_the_authoress_of_Towazugatari

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 https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/top-girls.html

 

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TOP GIRLS – “Everyone Loves A Happy Ending” (Griselda)

Another backgrounder on one of the historical figures who appear in Top Girls, British playwright Caryl Churchill’s award-winning drama.

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 https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/tickets.html

Top Girls begins with the main character, Marlene, hosting an 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 her blog entry featuring the literary character Griselda, who is portrayed onstage by Jennifer Fahy:

EVERYONE LOVES A HAPPY ENDING

 

Illustration of Griselda from from Mary Eliza Haweis’ book “Chaucer for Children” (1882)

Patient Griselda was already a popular figure in folklore when Bocccaccio first wrote down her story in the 14th century. Petrarch and Chaucer soon followed suit, and she’s since been the inspiration for numerous stories, novels, plays and operas.

In this medieval knee-slapper, Griselda is a young peasant woman, minding her own business, when a local marquis, urged to produce heirs by his subjects, decides to marry her. She dutifully produces a daughter and son. Both are snatched away by her husband, who claims the children must be executed because his subjects don’t fancy the possibility of a peasant’s child in charge. Eventually, the Marquis divorces her and sends her back to her humble status.

A few years later, the Marquis brings Griselda back to organize his wedding to a noblewoman. But when the supposed bride appears, he reveals that she is actually their long-lost daughter. Then the long-lost son pops up. The Marquis had sent both children away to test Griselda’s patience and obedience. Now that he’s reassured, the family gets back together and lives happily ever after.

Yeah, right.

Those who’ve made use of this rather sado-masochistic story usually equivocate by saying it’s just about patience and loyalty, and wives shouldn’t really have to behave like Griselda. Perhaps the writer who interpreted it best is the one who adapted it to contemporary times – as a horror story.

For more information on Griselda, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griselda_(folklore)

 For more info on the cast of Alumnae Theatre Company’s new production of Top Girls (Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019), please visit https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/top-girls.html

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TOP GIRLS – “Woman Storms Hell” (Dull Gret)

This is second backgrounder on the historical figures who appear in Top Girls, British playwright Caryl Churchill’s award-winning drama.  The play, which Churchill wrote in 1982, has appeared on the Alumnae Theatre stage before: 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 https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/tickets.html

Alumnae Theatre Company member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has profiled the guests who appear in the play – here’s her second blog entry, profiling Gret, who is portrayed onstage by Jordi O’Dael:

WOMAN STORMS HELL

 Looter? Vigilante? Feminist icon? If we know Dull Gret at all, it’s probably from the Pieter Bruegel painting “Dulle Griet,” in which she leads a troop of peasant women against the denizens of the underworld. But she is a familiar figure in European folklore (where she may also be called “Mad Meg”) and appears in many other paintings.

It’s unclear exactly what we should think of Gret. In many ways she’s a typical misogynistic creation, the domineering, browbeating housewife, a greedy, ignorant peasant with many of the characteristics of a witch. But there are hints of something more positive: she’s also brave, outspoken and a crusader against oppressors. (She may have been the inspiration for Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage.)

Maybe it’s because of her bravery that she has so many cannon named after her. However you feel about Gret, you’d want her on your side in a fight.

Full painting “Dulle Griet” by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, 1563.

For more exploration of Dull Gret in art, see http://winsham.blogspot.com/2015/04/dulle-griet-many-faces-of-mad-meg.html

For more info on the cast of Alumnae Theatre Company’s new production of Top Girls (Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019), please visit https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/top-girls.html

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TOP GIRLS: “The Pope Is A Woman” (Pope Joan)

British playwright Caryl Churchill’s award-winning Top Girls (written in 1982) has appeared on the Alumnae Theatre stage before: in our 3rd floor Studio space in 1996.

The new production, directed by Alysa Golden, will run on the Mainstage from January 18 – February 2, 2019.  Tickets available at https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/tickets.html

The play begins with the main character, Marlene, hosting an imaginary (?) dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work.  Her guests are five famously strong women from history – some real, some legendary.

Alumnae Theatre Company member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has profiled the guests who appear in the play – here’s her first blog entry.

THE POPE IS A WOMAN!

“Fake News,” Trump would say, and for once he’d be right. The woman who became Pope was one of the favourite conspiracy theories of the Middle Ages. The story goes that Joan, born in Germany of English parents, first dressed as a man to accompany her lover to Athens, where she became so admired for her learning that she eventually rose to be Pope. After two years of glory, however, she blew her cover by giving birth during a papal procession. As a result, she died in childbirth/was murdered by the mob/was locked up in a convent, depending which story you favour.

The legend of Pope Joan first showed up in various writings in the 13th century, and was widely believed for centuries. Joan showed up in medieval and renaissance art and writing. Meanwhile, rumour had it that the reason new popes sat in a chair with a hole in the seat was so officials could check that they had the right equipment to be pope. And the Pope always avoided a certain Roman street because that was where Joan had supposedly given birth.

In 1601, Pope Clement VIII delivered a major blow, declaring Pope Joan fake, and historians proceeded to deconstruct the legend. It persisted, however, partly because anti-Catholic propagandists found it so useful, partly because, well, it was just too good a story to give up.

Today, the legend is generally assumed to be false. Intriguingly, however, a professor from Flinders University in Adelaide recently discovered two coins from the 850s, bearing the monogram of “Johannes Anglicus” – supposedly Joan’s name as pope. Others have suggested these are medieval forgeries, designed to capitalize on the popularity of the Joan story.  File:Päpstin-Johanna-Schedelsche-Weltchronik.jpg

For more detail on Joan and a discussion of her significance, check out “The Legend of Pope Joan” episode of the Footnoting History podcast:  https://www.footnotinghistory.com/home/the-legend-of-pope-joanhttps://www.footnotinghistory.com/home/the-legend-of-pope-joan

For more info on the upcoming (Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019) production of Top Girls, visit https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/top-girls.html

Pope Joan is played by Charlotte Ferrarei.

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Surprise!! All hail Margaret Spence

Margaret at a Shaw Festival costume workshop (2012?)

Margaret at a Shaw Festival costume workshop (2012?)

The much-beloved Margaret Spence was the longtime Wardrobe Mistress of Alumnae Theatre Company, and is a frequent costume designer.  When she announced her retirement at the end of the 2011/12 season, some kind of tribute was definitely called for.  It just took a while to come together, for various reasons.   Finally, a date was decided:  Wednesday, June 26, 2013.  Alumnae’s 2012/13 season was over, and this was the one day when the theatre was not booked with rentals.

Ramona Baillie (who served as MC on the night) spearheaded and co-ordinated a team of people to pull the surprise event together, and invitees were cautioned not to mention it to Margaret.  Razie Brownstone, who unfortunately could not attend on June 26 because she was en route to Newfoundland, helped with wardrobe selection and some invaluable historical context.  After all, we’re talking about 50 years of history, folks!  Tabitha Keast, Razie’s great-niece Bec Brownstone and current Wardrobe Mistress Barbara Blonska pulled costumes for models to wear – more on that later.  Sandy Schneider (who was also out of town on the event date) arranged a catering team of Bev Atkinson, Norma Crawford, Johanna Jaciw, and Carol Libman to provide delicious goodies for the guests.  Bar Manager Jayne Patterson ensured stock and bartenders; Tess Hendaoui and Sara Kohal spent a steamy Sunday afternoon helping to set up the tables and lobby display, cleaning windows and the brass banister, etc., Janis Sivell welcomed guests and handed out the ‘playbill’ on the event night.

Bill Scott, a frequent lighting designer and special effects builder (an ingenious basket/lampshade on a pulley in After Magritte in January 2011, for example), was enlisted to design and construct an award for Margaret.  Placing a Victorian-gowned statuette (acquired by Ramona in the U.S. ) atop a base he carved from wood from Ghana, Bill affixed an engraved brass plaque.  The whole thing was encased in a cylindrical plexiglass case.  The award was dubbed “The Judy” (in costume design lingo, a “judy” is a dressmaker’s form).

Margaret’s daughters Catherine Spence (Theatre Manager and Archivist) and Martha Spence not only researched Margaret’s long list of credits, built the lobby displays and helped select costumes, but also managed to sneak photo albums, etc. out of their parents’ house! Their father Michael Spence (who I’m told has a difficult time keeping secrets from his wife) held onto the secret until the moment Margaret walked through the door, having accompanied Michael when he invented a reason to come to the theatre!

Here’s a little history on this wonderful lady. Margaret studied Art and Archaeology (now Art History) at the University of Toronto. She joined Alumnae Theatre Company (then called University Alumnae Dramatic Club) in the early 1960’s.  At the time, the company was located on Cecil Street in a former synagogue dubbed The Coach House Theatre.

Her daughters Catherine and Martha like to joke that they were raised in theatre – Catherine recalls sorting screws at age 4 or 5 in the hardware cabinet of Cecil Street for her father Michael.  When Alumnae acquired the former firehall at 70 Berkeley Street, Martha remembers accompanying her mother (then Theatre Manager) to the space before the 1971-72 renovations, and not being allowed to climb the “unsafe” tower stairs.

In over 50 years of tireless volunteering with the theatre, Margaret filled various executive positions on the Board, produced shows, assisted with wardrobe, and exercised her creative bent with costume design.

A special favourite is meticulously-researched period costuming – in recent years alone she has dressed the 21-member cast of Pride and Prejudice (2009) in the fashions of 1813 England; 17 actors as for 1905 in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (2007); 1930’s-style for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (2010) and for Noël Coward’s Private Lives (2008), and she brought the 18th century to life in She Stoops To Conquer (2005).

And not only does she consider the period, but Margaret also takes into account the character and the situation.  She’s been known to say, “Oh, no – [character name] wouldn’t wear that!”   Anyone who’s been costumed by Margaret knows that she will let no actor cross the stage with an undone hem, or heaven forbid: the wrong kind of headgear or footwear!  She also insists on proper foundation garments (i.e.: corsets) for ladies, where appropriate, to ensure correct fit of period wear.  Her attention to detail is legendary, and much appreciated.

During the June 26 event, which was attended by members of Alumnae Theatre Company, Margaret’s friends, design colleagues, etc., models wearing her costumes paraded among the guests, stopping at times to perform a few lines from the play they represented.  Tabitha Keast chose dialogue from the plays.

Carol McLennan and Molly Thom, valiantly disregarding the heat in heavy medieval gear, portrayed Patient Griselda and Pope Joan from Alumnae’s 1996 production Top Girls.

Patient Griselda: “The Marquis said it wasn’t an order, I could say no, but if I said yes I must always obey him in everything.”

Pope Joan:  “I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me.”

The 1992 production For The Love Of The Nightingale was represented by Ramona Baillie, Loriel Medynski and Stephanie Williams in Greek-inspired togas and sporting vine-leaf headdresses.  Their dialogue included:  “What are they like? Men?” 

“They fight.” 

“What are they like: naked?” 

“Spongy.”

(Yes, it got a laugh.)

Jane Carnwath and I represented Pride and Prejudice (2009).  Jane (who had been the director) wore Mary Bennet’s costume and bonnet and I wore my lace-trimmed brown ballgown as Mrs. Hurst.  I delivered the novel’s memorable opening line (actually spoken by Lizzy Bennet in the stage version), and Jane provided Mrs. Bennet’s interruptions:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune –”

Mrs. Bennet:  “His name is Bingley!?”

Lizzy: “– must be in want of a wife…”

 Bec Brownstone wore Hedda’s stylish black dress from Hedda Gabler (2010).  Her line included the snarky: “We’re going to have problems with that maid. Look. Here. She’s left her old hat.”

PJ Hammond portrayed sociopath Cherry, wearing mob cap and beribboned yellow dress (sadly, minus the hula-hoop underpinning!) as the devious maid Despina in the comedy Così (2012).  Her speech exhorted her mistresses to “enjoy yourselves” while their men were away at war.  “Men only want to get into your pants,” she advised.  “Once they’ve had us, they despise us.”

Amid the eating and drinking, Jayne Patterson facilitated an open mic, for guests to tell anecdotes about Margaret.  Molly Thom read a lovely tribute faxed in by a longtime friend, Martha Mann, who could not attend.   PJ described how Margaret knows exactly where to find anything in her domain.  English bobby hats?  Third aisle on the left side, upper shelf.  No, wait: I need French Foreign Legion hats!  No problem – second aisle, right side, third box from the end.  Victorian gowns?  …  (I’m paraphrasing those locations, but you get the drift.)

Martha Spence noted that when she (as a toddler) and her mother (then Theatre Manager) toured the recently-acquired building in 1971, Margaret eyed the former firehall’s cavernous basement and remarked, “Oh, we’ll never fill that up!”  Well, that basement is now jam-packed: it houses a huge wardrobe room, a carpentry workshop, dressing room, props room, the legendary “Shoe Room”, and the boiler room.

 Alumnae Theatre Company President Barbara Larose, who as an actor has been costumed by Margaret, and as a director has worked with her many times as a costume designer, gave a heartfelt speech and presented Margaret with a beautiful bouquet of roses.  Her daughters Catherine and Martha then presented the special award “The Judy”.

Here’s a photo of me (L) and Laura Vincent in Margaret’s delightful faux-opera costumes for Così (April 2012).   Cosi -  Ruth & JulieBy the way, (plug, plug) Laura and fellow Così actor Mike Vitorovich can be seen at the Toronto Fringe (July 4-14) in Jesus Jell-O: The Miraculous Confection, written and directed by yet another Così castmate, Joanne Sarazenhttps://www.facebook.com/events/375986825834814/

Post-event, Martha reported that although her father had joked that Margaret was probably going to divorce him for keeping the secret so well, her mother “has just been floating around the house” and was so grateful, “amazed and delighted by all that transpired and so touched by all who took the trouble to come out.”   It was, as Martha also said, “a bang-up do”.  Yay, us!    We love you, Margaret.  xxoo

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