On a winter afternoon, 10 actresses are sandwiched into the basement dressing room of a downtown theatre to discuss the play they are rehearsing. The script, entitled Her2 and written by Toronto playwright Maja Ardal, brings together seven disparate women suffering from an aggressive form of breast cancer as they undergo a potentially life-saving drug trial.
How do the players relate to their parts? What does cancer mean to them?
Clearly these are not the right questions; they are received with blank looks.
Diane D'Aquila, one of the senior members of the cast, steps in: What is extraordinary about Her2 is that it brings together a large, all-female cast. "In Canada, an intergenerational play that has so many women of so many ages – other than Les Belles Soeurs, I can't think of one," she says, referring to the Michel Tremblay classic.
And at that, the floodgates open. These women, who play seven cancer patients, two doctors and a nurse, find nothing notable about cancer; everybody knows somebody who has lived through or died of cancer. What they do find unusual is how seldom they get to work with each other.
"There is a lot of history in this room," says Stratford Festival veteran Chick Reid. "The first or second day of rehearsal we added up [Actors'] Equity years; we have 302 Equity years."
This depth of experience is seldom called on. It's not just that the main characters in classical theatre are more often male than female; it's that new plays also seem to be written in a weird world where there are always more men than women and women over 40 simply don't exist.
"I have been watching my fellow actresses becoming older and more brilliant by the year and I have been watching many of them not getting enough work, not getting enough stage time," says Ardal as she squeezes into the group. "I was running around the world doing a one-woman show and I made myself a promise: Get as many woman as you can, as many women of a certain age, into a show. And that was before I got cancer."
She was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2011 and, when she read an article about a group of women in a cancer drug trial who were all treated in the same room, she saw the theatrical material to make good on her promise.
"There is something terribly wrong; the quality and power and creativity that exists in 50 per cent of the population is not getting to the place where it needs to. I can't do anything about the film and television industry, but in theatre we just have to treat ourselves as leaders," she says.
Easier said then done if you find that, as soon as you have the chops, the roles have disappeared.
"It takes a long, long time to get as good as you wish to be. Just as you hit your 40s and say, 'I am so ready, ready to do big things,' they are just not available," says Reid. "Whereas a guy hits 40 and boom, the world is open."
The 40-year-old actor can simply play a man but the 40-year-old actress discovers she can only play an old woman.
"A 45-year-old woman, looking a little the worse for wear," says Kyra Harper, mocking the character descriptions in many scripts. "It's always a little the worse for wear."
"Could lose a few," chimes in Reid.
And don't get them started on lookism in Hollywood.
"I look like Paul Giamatti," says Maria Vacratsis, comparing her heavy Mediterranean face to that of the American actor who has played John Adams, Barney Panofsky and Hamlet. "The roles for a woman who looks like Paul Giamatti are not being written, but Paul Giamatti is like a sex symbol or something."
Mention Russell Crowe, and the room explodes in a collective guffaw. The leading man recently patted himself on the back for taking mature roles and suggested that actresses who complain they can't find work just need to accept they won't be playing ingenue roles in their 40s.
"These women may want to play age-appropriate parts but there are no age-appropriate parts," Vacratsis says.
So, they audition to play grandmothers.
"I can't tell you how many times I have gone in for a grandmother part and it will say, age 60. You go in and look around, and you think: All the women I am seeing in this room are 40, 45," says D'Aquila.
Her2 opens Thursday and it is D'Aquila's 61-year-old body that is advertising the play produced by Nightwood Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times: She is shown bare-chested, exposing one breast and one scar.
And so, finally, she also turns to that question about the relationship between art and life: "I separate my life, the time line is B.C., A.C. – it used to be before children, after children, now it's before cancer and after cancer. … I am five years cancer free; they rang the bell … I was a little worried this might bring up elements of those five years that were painful. Not at all. I have found it illuminating."