In Focus: Handsome Alice Theatre

By Maureen McNamee

Calgary’s Handsome Alice Theatre is taking its efforts to give a voice to women one step further with inVISIBLE, a collaborative project involving members of the community whose perspectives are often ignored.

“I wanted to bring together theatre practitioners with people in the community to create a piece about identity—what it means to be visible and invisible in society from the female perspective,” says artistic producer Kate Newby.

Newby, an actor and director, took the helm of the feminist-based theatre company formerly known as Urban Curvz two years ago and rebranded. She says the name felt dated and its reference to “curves” suggested a comment on the female form.

The “Alice” of the new name refers to the character from Lewis Carroll’s novels. “She is an extraordinarily curious, rebellious, strong voice,” says Newby. “Those are the elements I’m looking for in this company.”

She paired “Alice” with “Handsome,” a word sometimes used for women who are seen as strong, striking and intelligent. “I really wanted to incorporate the masculine and feminine aspects that are in all of us, so that makes it more inclusive to the world around us.”

Newby says the name reflects the company’s progression to the third wave of feminism, which aims to better reflect diversity. That’s also the goal behind inVISIBLE. Newby reached out to the broader community through partnerships with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, Mount Royal University’s department of Diversity and Human Rights and the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts. For several months 40 participants came together about once a week to discuss their lives.

“They have very individual experiences but also share collective experiences that we all face as women or female-identified humans,” Newby says. “It’s been fascinating to explore this unique bond between very different people.”

From there, a core group of 20 is creating an immersive and intimate “slumber party” that explores the ebb and flow of life through a female lens. The show will feature about a dozen people onstage, with the others involved in design, movement, sound and direction. In keeping with Handsome Alice’s mandate, all participants identify as female.

Newby says the lack of opportunities for women in theatre is an ongoing issue. The Playwrights Guild of Canada’s annual Theatre Production Survey found that 26 per cent of the country’s 804 productions in 2016–17 were written by women, compared with 64 per cent by men and 10 per cent by mixed gender partnerships. Not only do females have fewer acting opportunities, but women in executive positions are also paid less than men. “We’re still in the dark ages in that respect,” says Newby. “It’s a male-dominated narrative even though the majority of audiences are women.”

Under her leadership, some of the works presented by Handsome Alice have included an all-female version of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) and the dark comedy The Tall Building by Edmonton playwright Jill Connell. The company’s website also features a photo gallery of Calgary’s female theatre artists and administrators.

Newby plans to continue involving people from outside the theatre community in the creation process. “Ultimately, it takes all of us to progress, to advance our society.”

—Maureen McNamee

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