SummerWorks Preview: Erin Shields flips the gender switch

Toronto playwright's new show Beautiful Man explores what happens when men become sex objects

BEAUTIFUL MAN by Erin Shields, directed by Andrea Donaldson, with Melissa D’Agostino, Brett Donahue, Ava Jane Markus and Anusree Roy. Presented by Groundwater Productions and SummerWorks at the Theatre Centre Mainspace (1115 Queen West). August 7 at 10 pm, August 9 at 4:15 pm, August 10 at 9:45 pm, August 11 at 7 pm, August 13 at 9:30 pm, August 15 at 8:45 pm, August 16 at 3 pm. $15.

Thanks to Netflix, HBO, AMC and Showtime, TV is getting better than ever these days. Binge-watching is a thing. Have brunch with your friends and see how long it takes before you’re all discussing this episode or that character arc or, you know, that infamous scene, the one everyone’s tweeting about.

Playwright and actor Erin Shields has been watching a lot of TV, too, but while she’s entertained, she’s also disturbed. So much so that she wrote her new SummerWorks play, Beautiful Man, as a response.

“Over the past few years I’ve found myself getting exhausted by the portrayal of women in everything,” she says, nursing a coffee in an Annex café a few weeks before her show goes up. “Even in that cop drama that’s on in the early evening. Some psychopath will be killing women and leaving them tied up and naked in basements, but the women are always tied up and looking oh so beautiful.”

And then there’s Game Of Thrones.

“I love that show, and there are some powerful women in it,” says Shields. “But, as in Shakespeare, there are one or two women to every 10 or 12 interesting men. And the side characters include these writhing harems of naked women, and that’s considered okay, because it’s sort of this historical fiction or fantasy world.”

The irony, says Shields, is that the gender imbalance feels disconnected to everything else in her life. 

“Every man in my life is pretty awesome,” she says. “I have an incredible husband [former Fringe general manager Gideon Arthurs, who’s now heading up the National Theatre School in Montreal] who’s a feminist. All the young parents I meet at the park with my kids are progressive, and they’re not artists. We live in a pretty great time. But there are systemic problems.”

One day last January, she’d had enough. She dropped one of her daughters off at daycare and on the way home brainstormed a play. She wrote the script in two days.

“I knew I had to get it out there soon. I didn’t want to get all caught up in developing it with a theatre. I called up Andrea [Donaldson, the director of many of her plays] and told her about it and asked if she wanted to direct. She told me I was crazy, but wanted in.”

Beautiful Man turns the tables on gender and power. Instead of exploited naked women, Shields has an exploited and naked man (Brett Donahue). A trio of women (Melissa D’Agostino, Ava Jane Markus and Anusree Roy) objectify every inch of him, down to his foreskin and testicles. 

“It’s a familiar idea – to swap gender to expose something,” says Shields, whose adaptation of the rarely produced Ibsen play The Lady From The Sea is currently on at the Shaw Festival.

“But I thought it’d be interesting to have a female cop character. She’s got a boyfriend, but he’s only there to help develop her character and her plot. And what if there was a naked man in a basement, set up as beautifully as the naked women in those TV shows?”

It was when she had her female cop sit down and watch TV that she had her light bulb moment. 

“She watches this Game Of Thrones-type story, which leads to another type of story, and you have this Russian doll structure of tales within tales.”

Shields is fascinated by the detached way men and women talk about TV and film. 

“We all do it,” she says, “and it can get pretty graphic and explicit. One of the results of seeing all this stuff on TV is that we’ve got so used to the violence, particularly the sexual violence, that it doesn’t affect us any more. In fact, it has to get more violent to affect us. Which is why TV shows feel they have to keep upping things.”

Shields is used to standing stereotypes on their heads, theatrically speaking.

In her Fringe hit The Unfortunate Adventures Of Masha Galinski, she put a postmodern, feminist twist on fairy tales. In the SummerWorks show Montparnasse, she and co-writer Maev Beaty played Canadian women who became artists’ models in 1920s Paris, subjugated by their more famous painters.

And in her Governor General’s Award-winning play If We Were Birds, which also began at SummerWorks before getting an award-winning remount at the Tarragon, she retold a Greek myth from the perspective of the raped and abused women who were the spoils of war.

“I react to things that make me angry and frustrated,” she says about her inspirations. “With If We Were Birds, I was reading about rape used as a weapon of war, which made me crazy with rage.”

Being the mother of two young daughters has made her more ferocious about the subject, she says.

“A lot of my writing comes out of frustration and rage,” she admits. “Young girls and boys are constantly being marketed to. Advertising drives the gender divide. My daughters are told they have to like princesses. Shows on Netflix are for girls or boys.”

But she’s found a way to educate her kids while watching TV.

It’s not uncommon for her to quip, “Oh, is this another show with skinny pretty girls?” in a knowing way while they’re viewing something.

And they’ve absorbed the lessons. One of her daughters said it was weird and unfair that there were no girl robots in a Transformers TV show called Rescue Bots. 

“What I want for my daughters, and the boys they’re friends with, is that we can have a world where there are female protagonists who are human,” says Shields.

“I want men to identify with them, too, and say, ‘That’s me!’ I’ve had to do that as a woman with 95 per cent of literature, film and TV. I’ve had to see my own struggle in Hamlet, Lear and Pip.”

It’s not all bleak in TV-land. There are encouraging signs.

“Orange Is The New Black is almost all women, and there are lots of different races,” she says. “It allows people to be people.”

And with films like 50 Shades Of Grey and Magic Mike XXL eroticizing men, are women as capable of exploiting the other sex as men are?

“They’re capable, yes, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” she says, smiling. “The people who are making all the decisions about what gets made and seen for the most part are older white men.

“And of course they’re going to be drawn to certain stories. So they’re the ones that are getting told.” | @glennsumi

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