There’s a room with gleaming butter-yellow wallpaper in St. Andrew’s Manse, where a group of spectators quietly mingle and walk about the room. Some look at the pictures, while others enjoy the cookies laid out on the table.
Few notice the woman staring out of the window, her stillness blending into the patterned wallpaper.
The Manse, which was built in 1841, is the house next to a church where a Pastor lives. In the last few decades it has become unnecessary, so it has been left empty.
The building is the backdrop to Colliding Scopes’ latest show: A Great Many Women. A Great Many Women draws inspiration from The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The script draws heavily from the story’s themes of women’s mental health and gendered communication, but wasn’t a direct adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper.
As an immersive theatre group, Colliding Scopes traditionally adapts classical works into site-specific devised theatre — meaning they’re performed in a non-traditional theatrical setting like a house. They work as a collective, rather than staying within the usual theatre hierarchy, with no one person the director, playwright, set designer and so on. All the members of the collective worked together to create A Great Many Women.
I would usually say that seven people directing and writing together make too many cooks in a kitchen, but A Great Many Women excels with teamwork. The piece is roughly 40 minutes of cohesive, beautifully performed awesomeness. The short running time makes it so hard-hitting, as if every single word was specifically chosen to resonate with the audience.
It was particularly striking that four of the cast members — The Woman being the exception — held a stack of paper cards with lines on them, which they cast away as soon as the words were spoken. The Woman, a spectral figure only The Wife can see, was the only character to not carry cards.
None of the women — The Sister, The Daughter and The Neighbour — can see The Woman or the cards that they toss to the ground as they speak. The Wife herself doesn’t see the cards until a moment of enlightenment, where she sees how scripted and tied down to propriety she is. Kneeling in the middle of a room filled with an ocean of paper cards, she asks: “Whose words are these? No one knows.”
Jesse Gazic, ArtSci ’16, a member of the collective but not an actor, told The Journal that around 30,000 cards were printed for the production — which is “rounded to the nearest 10 thousand.”
Beyond the amount of trees it killed, A Great Many Women stands out as a theatre piece. It brings to light that a gender binary still exists and affects how women communicate even today.
The story of The Wife isn’t exclusive to the production’s vaguely historical setting. It affects the way that stories are told and the way messages are conveyed. There’s a sense that nothing is valid unless it has been approved by a man.
“The one thing that stood out to me was the line: ‘It’s the cold air from walking at night that’s made me so tired and dull-witted,’” said Abbey Lee Hallett, who plays The Wife.
“Because I read that and I thought ‘who would say that about themselves?’ But because it was on the card, I had to force it out because how could I ever speak what I think? That’s what John thinks.”
A Great Many Women is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve had the pleasure to see this year. It presented strong ideas and themes, but it also left me hungry for more and mourning the fact that everything about it set an all-too-familiar scene.
“Whose words are these?” The Wife asks. Does it matter? They’re all left to die and decay on the ground regardless.
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