Talk about serendipity. Looking for a monologue to audition with the Shaw Festival, Alley Theatre’s Marisa Smith was given a copy of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. It was at the same time she happened to be working at a women’s shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
[pullquote]“The vision behind the show is to essentially ask what has changed and what has not since Shaw wrote his play” – Daniel Arnold, co-producer and actor[/pullquote]Smith soon recognized just how raw and current Shaw’s 120 year-old story, of a young woman who discovers her comfortable lifestyle was paid for by her mother’s sex work, still was.
“At first I read it as this well written witty period piece,” says Smith. “But as I kept reading my heart kept beating faster and faster and I could still see so much of what Shaw wrote about still going on today.”
That relevancy was borne out by reactions received at a reading of the play in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) and the recent pronouncements from Canada’s highest court about our current sex laws.
“We did a staged reading of the play on International Women’s Day in 2012 and had a panel discussion with members of the community from the Downtown Eastside and it was the relevancy of the play now that kept coming up,” says co-producer and actor Daniel Arnold. “We kept hearing about how it was a shame that the play was still relevant and how things really haven’t changed”.
They also heard that while there are different complexities that exist today because of drug addictions, the parallels between now and the turn of the 20th century are at times shocking.
“The issue of poverty and the lack of viable options, especially when you have a child, kept coming up,” says Arnold. “We heard from one woman who said it was hard to explain what they do to their children and they have to keep it a secret.”
The play’s relevancy became even more pronounced late last year as the Supreme Court of Canada struck down our country’s anti-prostitution laws, forcing the federal government into action to revise them. In hindsight, with the play taking almost three years to get to the stage, Smith and Arnold are thankful it didn’t make it to the stage any earlier as the Supreme Court decision puts an even brighter light on the play’s themes.
“While the play isn’t about sex trade law, it is about the sex trade,” says Arnold. “It is also about the equality between men and women and how we view the sex trade.”
That view into the sex trade is part of the reason that this production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession gets a “post-modern re-visitation” and life beyond the theatre’s walls.
“I wouldn’t call it an adaption, but we have updated the text a bit,” says Smith. “The cast won’t be talking with British accents either to help make it more accessible and it will definitely reflect the modern diversity of Vancouver.”
Part of showing that diversity comes from staging the play at the Rickshaw Theatre on East Hastings, an area Smith says has an undeserved reputation.
“When I got to Downtown Eastside, I know that it is safe and there are a lot of positive things going on there, but for a lot people it can be scary,” she says. “I wanted the audience to feel safe and to gain an understanding for why we are doing it in the Downtown Eastside.”
Helping with that understanding goes beyond the Rickshaw stage with an interactive website that looks at both the historical and modern aspects of the sex trade and the area.
“The vision behind the show is to essentially ask what has changed and what has not since Shaw wrote his play,” explains Arnold. “The interactive website and the documentary that is on the website really help to highlight some of those aspects.”
Audiences will also have an opportunity to immerse themselves further into the world of Shaw’s play with staging that will explore various parts of the Rickshaw Theatre and from live music by the Juno award-winning musicians that make up Vancouver’s Gentle Party.
A co-production between Alley Theatre and Newworld Theatre, the two companies have partnered with WISH Drop-In Centre and PACE Society, two local organizations that support women in need in the DTES and will donate $3 from every ticket sold to these organizations. Free tickets for residents of the DTES are being made possible by the Rickshaw Theatre.
Mrs Warren’s Profession plays the Rickshaw Theatre April 22-27, 2014. Visit https://mrswarrens.ca for more information.