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For women's theatre, 'the game has changed'

As politics and news continue to stir the conversation around inequality, Toronto's female-fronted Nightwood Theatre has been burning brighter than ever. But for a 38-year-old company unafraid to put it all on the line, this is about more than just good timing

Nightwood Theatre’s artistic director Kelly Thornton, left, and managing director Beth Brown stand in the Ernest Balmer Studio in Toronto’s Distillery District on Oct. 30.

When Kelly Thornton was appointed artistic director of Nightwood Theatre in 2001, she recalls a male reporter from a Toronto newspaper asking her, as part of her first interview in the position, "What's the point of a women's theatre company in the 21st century?" That's not a question any reporter would think of asking 17 years into the century – and it's open to debate whether that's a good or a bad sign of the times.

"I think we're in an exciting time, in a way, because the game has changed," is Thornton's view, which she shares while sitting in the feminist theatre company's rehearsal studio in Toronto's Distillery District with her managing director, Beth Brown. "There's a very public dialogue about what women will take – because we've been taking it for a long time."

Public dialogue is what theatre is all about – and there's no doubt that the past two tumultuous years have been exciting for Nightwood, the oldest professional women's theatre in Canada. It's a period that has seen the feminist theatre company emerge from a budget deficit and curtailed programming into a stretch of artistic activity as impressive to critics and audiences as that of any independent theatre company in the country.

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This rebirth of sorts began with Nightwood's presentation of Yael Farber's shattering documentary show Nirbhaya two years ago – in which a series of South Asian women broke their silence about sexual violence in the wake of the 2012 Delhi gang rape that shook the world. Brought to Toronto from India at not unsubstantial financial risk, it sold out its run at the Harbourfront Centre.

Nightwood's world premiere of another documentary play this fall led to a sold-out house again and generated even more media attention – Ellie Moon's Ghomeshi scandal-inspired Asking For It hitting the boards as part of a double-bill called the Consent Event at the exact moment the #MeToo movement was exploding on social media.

At the same time, Nightwood has been having uncommon success with its forays into fictional feminist plays – with two returning due to popular demand in the 2017-18 season, which is the biggest since the theatre company was launched in 1979 by Cynthia Grant, Kim Renders, Mary Vingoe and Maureen White as second-wave feminism led to an explosion of similar companies around the world.

Unholy, Diane Flacks's sharp satire set around a public debate on the subject of women and religion, is back on stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – with its fictional debaters tackling issues such as Quebec's niqab law and the sexual-harassment scandals, thanks to a script the playwright/star has kept current throughout rehearsals for the remount.

And in the new year, Mouthpiece, a brilliant two-hander about gender and grief from Toronto's Quote Unquote Collective, that Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner wrote, "speaks up for all the women who daily bite their tongues," takes a victory lap prior to an international tour that it lined up after being one of the best-reviewed shows at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.

Gender parity is still far from being achieved in Canadian theatre. The numbers in the most recent Equity in Theatre report, from 2015, show that although women were the majority of theatre-school graduates and audience members, they occupied less than 35 per cent of the key creative roles in Canadian theatre. While women made up 50 per cent of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, they only accounted for one-quarter of the country's produced playwrights.

Part of Nightwood's recent success in picking shows to present could certainly be put down to good timing. Just as Asking for It opened as the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were making headlines, Unholy's initial run came in January of last year, as Donald Trump was being inaugurated as U.S. President – and women were looking for a place to channel their anger and outrage offline. On the day of the Women's March, for instance, Flacks's play sold out – protesters heading straight from the streets to a performance full of spectators in "pussy hats."

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"It shows that we're actually addressing the pertinent issues of our time," Thornton says. "We keep falling into this ground zero of the zeitgeist."

But, in fact, the foundation for Nightwood's string of successes was laid when Barack Obama was in the Oval Office – and can be traced to a couple of adjustments made to how the theatre company operates – shifts that, interestingly enough, applied the feminist principles that the company creating "theatre for everyone made by women" has long brought to the stage behind the scenes as well.

Kelly Thornton and Beth Brown. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The first came when Thornton directed a stage adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad in 2012 – and was trying to find a better way to balance her work with being the mother of a young daughter. Thornton decided that, instead of the standard three weeks of six-day rehearsals that most plays get in the world of Canadian independent theatre, she would shift to a "three-over-four" contract – spreading the same amount of rehearsal hours (and pay to the artists involved) over four weeks. In that production, which had a number of mothers in the cast, as well as older actresses with health issues, the shorter work days and two-day weekends were appreciated by all involved – and Nightwood has since made this standard practice.

From an audience perspective, this more progressive schedule (which is only slightly more expensive due to extra insurance and space rental) has led to noticeably better art – no accident, according to the artists involved.

For instance, actress Niki Landau, reprising her role as a female rabbi in Unholy, notes that working three-over-four not only allowed her to pick up her daughter from school most days – a double-win that allows her to spend more quality time with family and saves her on child-care costs – it also allowed her to connect on a deeper level with her part. "Generally speaking, I find most actors can be more productive with a short day," Landau says in an e-mail. "Spreading it out over four weeks meant I had more time to digest the material, to sink into the character, to do script work and prepare, and then go into rehearsal the next day with guns ablazing."

Flacks, Unholy's playwright – who also was able to pick up her child from school owing to the schedule – loves it purely from a playwright's perspective as well. "I could go home and fix things," she says over e-mail. "Working on a new play, you can use the extended time to adjust as things change in rehearsal. Plus add jokes."

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Perhaps this partly explains why Nightwood was second only to Soulpepper in terms of Toronto's Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations in the general-theatre division last spring – landing more than venued theatre companies such as Tarragon Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille.

The second change you might well call feminist behind the scenes at Nightwood came when the company was confronting a deficit of $75,000 – about 10 per cent of the company's annual budget, a significant setback for the company, whose budget has tripled in size since Thornton took over.

The initial response was to cut back on programming – but Brown, when she joined the company as managing director in 2014, advocated instead for more risk-taking. For Nightwood, which gets a third of its budget from the box office, a third from donors and a third from public funders, you can't necessarily save yourself into the black. "You're not going to get people rallying around a company if they don't have art to see," is how Thornton puts in.

And so, when the opportunity came to present Nirbhaya in 2015, Brown and Thornton decided they needed to do it even though they couldn't necessarily afford it – a gamble that paid off, bringing new audiences and supporters into the fold.

Nightwood has since found ways to do more with less by collaborating with more theatre companies. While some of its productions are all its own, such as Unholy (in which Nightwood foots the entire bill and takes all the risk), other Nightwood shows are actually presentations, such as Mouthpiece (which has allowed Quote Unquote to establish its own separate brand) – or co-productions, such as its forthcoming show in January, Calpurnia, a new comedy by Audrey Dwyer about a Jamaican-Canadian screenwriter rewriting To Kill a Mockingbird from the perspective of the Finch family maid. (Sulong Theatre is the partner on that one).

Asking for It, meanwhile, was produced by Moon's own company in association with Nightwood, Crow's Theatre and Necessary Angel.

While some theatre companies still demand full control over their art and artists, the new philosophy in Canadian theatre is that playing well with others expands your audience and donor base.

Indeed, an anonymous donor was so impressed by Nightwood's work last season – the one that initially contained Mouthpiece and Unholy – that a large cheque was dropped off at the end of its fiscal year that retired the company's deficit a year early and put it in a surplus position.

Thornton says that just a few years ago it was debated in the Nightwood office whether the word "feminism" should be used in approaching donors – was it too politicized a word? But now it seems to be a selling point – and not just due to negative news stories. "If the Prime Minister can say it …" says Thornton of what she calls the f-word. "It's everywhere – and people are freely saying it."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated the theatre company’s recent financial position. Nightwood was not facing a deficit when Kelly Thornton took over as artistic director in 2001; it is in fact the company’s budget that had (more than) doubled during Thornton’s tenure - when the company confronted a $75,000 deficit a few years ago.
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