FEMCAB presented by Nightwood at the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles West). Monday (May 2), 8 pm. $28-$48. 416-978-8849. Rating: NNNNN
Nightwood theatre's never been in the dark about its purpose as an artistic and political company.
Founded in 1979 by Cynthia Grant, Kim Renders, Mary Vingoe and Maureen White, it's the oldest and currently the only professional women's theatre company in Canada.
The group has expanded its mandate in the past quarter-century, but one of its most popular events continues to be the Five-Minute Feminist Cabaret (FemCab), inaugurated in 1983 by Nightwood and the Toronto Women's Cultural Building. The launching pad for dozens of women performers, writers and other artists, the annual event is a jubilant celebration of female voices.
To mark the company's 25th anniversary, this year's FemCab is a retrospective look at Nightwood productions - some of which had their first hearing at FemCab - and the artists who've grown up under its supportive artistic umbrella (see sidebar). The evening's hosts are Diane Flacks and Karen Robinson, and the guest speaker is feminist powerhouse Gloria Steinem.
"It's all about empowerment," offers current artistic director Kelly Thornton. "Nightwood has always invested in emerging talent today in order to produce the leaders of tomorrow. This year's FemCab will contextualize who we were then and who we are now."
Writers and performers who have star presence today - among them Djanet Sears, Sandra Shamas, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Flacks and Monique Mojica - have all been nurtured by the company.
The quartet of women who founded the company and named it after a novel by Djuna Barnes, explains Thornton, did so to create their own art at a time when women weren't doing much of that in Canada.
"And of course they were branded as feminists because they were a group of women. But that branding meant that the mandate became bigger than the founders, and Nightwood's responsibility as a theatre company grew to one that supported all women."
Thornton looks back at how the company's history was amplified by its later leaders. Kate Lushington drew forcefully from the feminist movement and its increasing diversity as women of colour became involved.
Leslie Lester, Diane Roberts and Alisa Palmer built on that element of diversity and added mentoring and outreach. Thornton and the group's current artistic producer, Nathalie Bonjour, have amplified those areas, both in the office and among the artists. The current team is attracting more national and international attention.
From the beginning, politics has been key to the art produced by Nightwood.
"I love a mandate that allows the two to work together, for theatre is a powerful tool not only of communication but also of change," says the artistic director. "In fact, I think being an artist is an inherently political statement. Having a feminist mandate keeps me alert and aware of the political responsibility of my art form.
"At Nightwood's centre is the desire to make great theatre, and feminism is our fuel."