Playwright and former political staffer Darrah Teitel says she began writing her latest play, Behaviour, about three years ago, just before the #MeToo movement dominated headlines and conversations across workplaces in Canada and the globe.
Initially, Teitel set out to write about the droves of women who are raped and sexually assaulted and the limited statistics to show that, but as the #MeToo movement swelled, she wanted to touch on something else: what happens after women come forward, which she says brought her to the play’s third act.
Teitel’s play follows Mara, a thirtysomething government employee who appears to have it all: a good job, a handsome partner and a baby. But what appears on the outside does not mirror what’s going on in Mara’s life, personally or professionally.
The Globe and Mail talked to Teitel at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, where her show will run from March 12-31.
What can you tell me about your experience working in politics and in theatre?
I was a staffer for the NDP for five years between 2011 and 2015, and now I work for Action Canada for sexual health and rights doing government relations and campaign work.
[Playwriting] is sort of like a congruent career that I’ve had since long before I started working in Ottawa. It requires a lot of shuffling – I use most of my vacation time to write and create theatre, I take leaves from my other job without pay in order to work here … this is more my chosen career, however, there’s obviously something about theatre that was never fully satisfying the political part of my interests.
What can you tell us about Behaviour?
The play is about a staffer who is working in Parliament who begins a relationship, and then a series of things happen to her and you go through a period of her life quite quickly, like some very short scenes where you see what’s going on for her, and then in the second part of the play, everything changes and there’s a big reveal, which I won’t reveal, but essentially it blows up her life.
What happens to her?
Some professional things happen to her and then I would describe what you see as a growing sense of unrest at work and also at home, so there’s a relationship built between her home and her work, and she has a baby, she gets married, all within the first 30 minutes of the play. At the end of the act, she’s propelled to a completely different state of mind, and then the third act is what happens after that.
A really interesting thing that I wanted to talk about in this play was what happens after people finally tell the truth or find their power or find the strength to speak out. … Where are they left the next day and what kind of supports are there? How much did they just sacrifice in their personal lives and their professional lives in order for them to do the thing we’re all begging women to do now, which is to break silence?
When you say breaking silence, do you mean around a ‘#MeToo’ incident?
The play is definitely set within a #MeToo ethos, I can say that much.
Is the play fictitious, or is it based on someone you know?
It is fiction for sure, but it is based on experiences and knowledge that I gained while working on the Hill for those years. I wouldn’t have been able to write this play with authority without my experience working in Parliament, unless I had done a lot of interviews.
Can you speak to those experiences?
I can say that the play isn’t about me. She’s a fictional character. There’s nothing particularly unique about Mara’s workplace in terms of abuse, that just happens in places of hierarchy and extreme power, but I do feel that people who work on the Hill are particularly vulnerable.
Your bosses are often incredibly public figures, and so without any kind of mechanisms to take them to task, the second you break silence on anything that happens to you, you’re propelled into the public sphere – and the media and the criminal courts are really your only two options for any kind of justice. On top of that, you’ll have a massive culture from within whatever party you’re a part of trying to convince you not to come forward, because the worst thing you could possibly do for yourself, for your boss, for the party, for your ideology, for your colleagues, is give them a bad news story where they appear hypocritical.
What are you hoping Behaviour achieves?
I want behaviour to change. I don’t expect that people will; I don’t expect that the perpetrators of violence and abuse are especially prone to change. Maybe there’s some behaviour change to be found, but this play is really speaking to everybody else in the world. This is speaking to the people who support, the people who obfuscate, who gaslight, who make the wrong assumptions.
Can you walk me through the cast?
There is a central character named Mara, and her husband is an artist named Evan. Then she has a colleague, Jordan, through which we sort of see her workplace. And then she has an 86-year-old grandmother named Lydia, who she moves in with in the third act. There is another character in the play, which is an app, and she is named iTrance.
Is there anything else you want people to know about Behaviour?
I do want it to be very clear that this play is fiction … and she is not me, and that is not what happened to me. I feel like that’s everybody’s first question – conflating the experience of the person on stage, and frankly that happens every single time I write a play. This isn’t the first time.
Do you think that happens more with female writers?
A hundred per cent. It’s such a sexist thing … men are given the benefit of having the intellectual capacity to invent stories, and for women, it’s assumed that we’re only able to write our own diaries.
Any final thoughts?
I hope staffers come to see it, and I hope politicians come to see it, and I hope that it speaks to something that people are not able to articulate very well for themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.