Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius’ SHIT is designed to make us uncomfortable. Its title alone is bound to elicit reactions, long before audiences even take their seats at the Firehall Arts Centre later this month for a show about three angry and damaged women.
What do these women who spit fight, swear, hurt and steal have to say? While Cornelius gives them a voice, it may be a tough message to hear from a group of women who believe in absolutely nothing.
In the second part of our two-part series, we find out more about the Canadian premiere of SHIT from actor Kayla Deorksen, who plays Billy, and from Donna Spencer, the Firehall’s artistic director and director of this show.
Warning: this interview may contain strong language. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell me a little about your character?
Deorksen: Billy is a bully. She’s a hardened woman who has suffered from sexual assault, abuse, violence and the inhumanity people can sometimes face in the foster care system. She’s developed a thick coat of armour to protect herself from the world and to help maintain the heartless demeanour that’s she’s carefully constructed.
To survive, she has silenced her emotions and her humanity and managed to convince herself that she has no feelings, no softness, no wants, needs or remorse.
Is this production set in Australia? If not, have there been any changes?
Deorksen: It is not set in Australia, and I believe it could easily be placed into many different environments and cultures and remain impactful.
In being produced by the Firehall, and portrayed by Canadians, the play will potentially open a discussion about what is happening in our own country and communities that is rarely spoken about openly.
The Firehall is directly within the Downtown East Side community, and I know we feel a responsibility to try and reflect the lives of women who struggle and survive in that very neighbourhood every day, having faced many of the same hardships that these characters have.
Has the play taken on significance given the culture shift with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement?
Deorksen: The current social movements that are taking place worldwide, in Hollywood and in our own Canadian theatre community, will resonate in the show.
These characters are not portrayed as victims, but they have suffered from horrific violence, sexual abuse, poverty and oppression all their lives. In this situation, their actions, often violent and heartless, are indicative of what can happen in cycles of abuse.
Patricia Cornelius shows us strong, resourceful, combative, smart, unforgiving, powerful women that have found their own way to survive despite all obstacles.
Why did you pick this Australian play to direct and produce?
Spencer: I saw this work at the Sydney International Festival last January and was shaken and visibly moved by the work. The audience was riveted to their seats. I knew it would have resonance in Canada and after meeting the playwright, felt very strongly that I wanted to direct it and bring the work to the Firehall’s 35th anniversary season.
What gets you excited about being in the rehearsal hall?
Spencer: I love getting in the rehearsal hall to work with the actors on telling the story of a play. It is invigorating and takes me away from the administrative aspect of producing to the place of the creativity aspects of theatre, which is where I began my career.
What do I hope the audience is going to experience?
Spencer: I hope audiences will be moved by the story of these three women, and through that get a greater understanding of the young women who are found on our streets.
These women have been shaped by forces in their lives such as loss of parents, abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, and our social systems are inadequate and often unable to save them from a life on the streets, in jail or from their own drug abuse and addictions.
Currently, young people age out of foster care and the public support system in B.C. in their late teenage years and that transition to being on their own is all too often very difficult. In recent years, there have been two cases in the Lower Mainland where a young boy and a young girl aged out of the systems and the lack of support for them led to their deaths. This is not good enough in a country as rich as Canada.
Deorksen: I hope audiences enjoy seeing different women portrayed on stage. I hope they relish in witnessing three characters that I have never met in the theatre before. I hope they love being challenged by them, shocked by them, stunned by them, engaged by them.
And if audiences don’t like it, well, as Bobby, Billy and Sam say: “Don’t like what we have to say? Fuck off.”