I recently attended my first “Bard on the Beach” performance in Vancouver. Bard on the Beach is a not-for-profit Shakespeare festival that happens every summer. It has been running since 1990 and presents almost 200 shows every season, running from June to September. Their mandate is to provide high-quality Shakespeare performances and educational opportunities through both on site and by partnering with schools.
The performance I attended was the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. They did so with a twist though. In the original the women of Greece were exhausted of the constant warfare between Athens and Sparta that pulled their men away from home and was depopulating the entire region. In response they banded together to take over the city treasury and refuse to surrender the treasury or come home to do any of the household work that was expected of them until peace was negotiated. This would be a good time to stop reading if you intend to attend the play this season as there are spoilers ahead. Instead of simply performing the play as written, they presented it as a modern protest piece.
The setup for the play is that they were supposed to present Hamlet, but made the decision to switch plays at the last minute in response to the city’s plan to rezone the park that hosts Bard on the Beach and turn it into a major shipyard. This was delightfully done, with a realistic looking rezoning notification posted outside of the venue for attendees to read as they walked in. I’ll admit they had me going, I read the sign before the play started and was baffled that I had heard nothing of such a major change, especially in a city where greenspace is aggressively defended! In the play, the characters had talked management into letting them put on this play at the last minute, with no rehearsal and no costumes or props. So, the play started with them rushing around building the set, and collecting materials for costumes out of the recycling (pop cans, bubble wrap, a Starbucks cup, and pool noodles among other things). A character would enter the stage carrying a curtain still on the rod, leave the stage and a short time later an actor would enter to play a role in Lysistrata wearing said curtain as a very well-crafted costume! As the play progresses layers are added, argument amongst the actors debating value of doing this play interrupts the performance. Local ‘police’ become involved, adding a layer to the protest of the performance.
One of the interesting things that was done in this piece was the layering in of Aboriginal themes. For those of you who live outside of British Columbia, when this land was colonized, no treaties were signed with those who lived here. The land that we live on is stolen land. On various levels our government and culture are starting to try to make restitution, beginning with acknowledgement of the ownership of the land. Layered into the play was discussions of the history of the land on which Bard on the Beach operates. It is in a part right beside the Fraser river, which once was the primary source of food for the people of this area. The weaving in of 3 layers of social discourse was seamlessly done, the protest of the women in the Greek play against the men’s wasteful war and the women’s frustration at not being heard, the protest that the actors were making against the rezoning of the land, and the discussions of the indigenous naming and rights to the land.
I left the play with a lot of thoughts in my head, and many questions.
Why is it important that we take the steps to acknowledge the dark history of how the BC first nations peoples were treated? Why talk about it and not just move on?
If the city really was rezoning the land for a shipping facility, should that be a problem? Is the park as necessary as a facility that will create jobs and spur economic growth?
How far have we come since the play was written in terms of equality for women? Do women feel their voices are heard, or is it still a struggle?
I had a fairly long walk home, and listened to a Ted talk at random on the meaning of work, which was coincidentally very on topic for the evening. The topic revolved around the fact that workers are the most effective when they find value in what they do, if they feel they are contributing to something and especially if they feel their work makes a difference. An example was given of janitors in a hospital that regularly did things outside of their job description, such as cleaning a floor in a room a 2nd time because the dad sleeping beside his sick son’s bed didn’t see it happen the first time and was angry the room wasn’t being kept clean. Obviously, it was, but the janitor in question recognized that it was about helping a frustrated and scared parent feel a little better.
How does this connect to Lysistrata? One of the questions raised repeatedly was about the value of a protest. Does putting on a play hold value? Does it accomplish anything? In this story it did, but more importantly the characters felt it was important. The question of the value of park land, of preserving it instead of putting in a commercial facility is one that seems obvious to so many of us. Of course, we keep the parkland, it is where community happens, where art happens and we value those things. We also have the privilege of living somewhere with a strong economy so it isn’t as critical. The discussion becomes cloudier when you are talking about an issue such as putting in an oil pipeline. For those of us in BC that fear the environmental cost, it’s not something desirable. But for the people in the small communities in Alberta and other parts of Canada, the oil industry is their entire way of life. If that ends, it will be devastating on their community. So where saving the parkland in Vancouver is critical for community and culture here, the creation of those jobs through a commercial construction has the same effect of saving the community.
The question of why we delve into the history of colonization in BC and why it’s important that we acknowledge and talk about it. Because sometimes the act of talking about something has the effect of making a change, even if it’s just a mental one. Sometimes you need to talk something to death, to stretch the topic so far to an extreme that when the discussion snaps back to a more moderate place, it doesn’t go all the way back to start. Progress happens in small steps.
The question of equality and women’s voices being heard is another one that has no clear answer. Has change and improvement occurred in the 2500 years since this play was written? Certainly. There is no question that women have more of a voice, more control over their own lives. Do we have equality? Certainly not. But progress is by definition an ongoing thing. As with any social issue, progress requires reasoned discussion, examination from a variety of angles, and occasionally a play about a bunch of Greek women saying ‘enough is enough’ and standing up for their rights.
I went into this play exhausted and emotionally drained from a long day at work, wanting more than anything to turn around and go home. I spent the 2 hours I was in that tent smiling, laughing, thoughtful and emotional. I forget how freeing it is to watch masterful artists at work. As I type I’m getting mentally prepared to go watch my friend’s Heavy Metal band’s CD release show. That’ll be a whole different experience.
Thanks for reading!