Thoughts on Leadership, Feminism, and Theatrical Process by Heidi Malazdrewich
This is an article we found on Got Your Back, a website started by Martha Burns and Thalia Gonzalez as a vehicle for female identifying artists in Canada to share resources. Heidi Malazdrewich is a Winnipeg-based theatre director who is currently a first year PhD student in the department of English, Theatre, Film and Media at the University of Manitoba. She also happens to be the niece of our Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty.
I have been a theatre director for some time now. I have had opportunities to work in wonderful theatre centres, big and small. I recognize that I am a bit of a rarity in my field – a woman in her thirties who has directed in big theatres. This has been a frustration for me and it has also left me feeling vulnerable at times. And, of course, I have received a lot of advice over the years about how to appear more director-like (I assume this means more in control, more alpha, more leader-like). Some of these tips have included, but are not limited to: dropping my vocal pitch down, wearing pants (I went through a floral dress period), and not asking as many questions of my collaborators.
When talking and thinking about leadership, I have found myself consistently trying to define what a good leader looks like in the context of the performing arts.
I was a lucky young person; I was exposed to many art forms as a child and my parents sacrificed a lot so that my siblings and I could take dance classes and singing lessons. In these spaces of artistic development and learning, there was always a clear delineation between the leaders and the led: the ballet teacher tells you how to stand at the barre and you follow; the singing teacher plays the notes on the piano and you sing them. Of course, this is an over-simplification of the thoughtful and rigorous teaching I experienced in my formative years with a number of incredible teachers. When I look back, I realize that these teachers who helped shape my voice and my body were women – brave artist women. The kind of woman that I strive to be. They were leaders with thoughtful, considered words, who actually saw me and my fellow students, observed how we took in their feedback, and then steered us accordingly.
The guiding principle in my work as a theatre artist and educator has been my belief that theatre is inherently a peace-building form – by educating our communities in the practices of creating, consuming, and participating in theatre, we are contributing to a more empathic society.
Next, I think of my time as a University and College student when I began to stretch and dream about being a director. I wanted to have more say over the way that stories were being told on stage. It wasn’t until I was well into my graduate studies in directing that I even began to think of the role of the director as any type of leader. I was operating under the belief that the director was a sort of safe-keeper of the story or the primary nurturer of a communal make-believe experiment. Since leaving graduate school I have been fortunate to encounter thoughtful and generous arts leaders who believe in collaboration and respect for all members of creative teams. This, I know, has not always been the case for other women in my cohort of emerging directors.
This past winter I was preparing to direct a show in Winnipeg that had a cast of three women. The audience followed three female characters over the span of twenty years (and what that means regarding content is that there were many vulnerable subjects addressed in the play: sexual violence, death, alcohol abuse, motherhood, and a myriad of other emotionally charged topics). I knew I wanted to create a safe working environment for all who would be a part of the process. I also knew that I needed to adjust my tool kit to find a way of working so that we could create rules in the rehearsal space that reflected the needs of the artists involved in creating this good, messy, vulnerable play. So I did what any good research junkie, feminist daughter would do: I spoke with my mum and asked her about practices that she uses in her work to create safe sharing spaces in communities and classrooms.* She eagerly introduced me to the work of Peggy Chin and specifically her book Peace and Power.
On the first day of rehearsal, once the meet and greet was done and the cookies had been consumed, I asked the artistic team to brainstorm with me about what they needed to have a safe and respectful work space. I told them that I would take notes and craft a document outlining the input, process and results of our brainstorm and place the resulting document on the wall of the rehearsal space as a reference point for our ongoing work. At first, I could tell that people were reticent to say anything. So I started with an offer: I have always been a fan of the practice of checking in and checking out of spaces so I asked if the team would be comfortable with that. They agreed, and that became one point on our document. Then we talked about how we felt about being interrupted in our work and how we would all agree to let each other finish an attempt at a moment, new tactic, or goal in a scene before stopping the action of the scene and deliberating. We also came up with a system to address any moments in rehearsal should someone feel unsafe or offended. As the brainstorming continued it became clear that we all had ideas about how we like to be treated and we managed to put together a document containing a fairly comprehensive list that made sense for our particular group. I drafted our “manifesto” as I had promised. We agreed that it was a working document and that we could add to it or change it as needed. Over the first week of rehearsal we referenced the document from time to time.
What was exceptional in this experience was the productivity, creativity, and respectful loving kindness that we all worked from and that translated to the audiences’ experience of the play.
At the time of initiating this exercise my old demons came out to play. I was concerned the team would view me as soft or unsure because I had asked them for their input – invited them to tell me what they needed and worked with them to accommodate them and meet those needs. Then I had a moment of clarity: Isn’t that what good leaders, collaborators, community minded folks do? The guiding principle in my work as a theatre artist and educator has been my belief that theatre is inherently a peace-building form – by educating our communities in the practices of creating, consuming, and participating in theatre, we are contributing to a more empathic society. My goal in directing this play was to represent women on stage in a holistic and relatable way. Wasn’t it appropriate, then, that my creative process reflect the fact that I was working with live individuals who had needs and sensitivities? The outcome does not exist separate from the process. To pretend otherwise would be to perpetuate a kind of violence to which we have become almost immune.
Ultimately, the creative process is messy and hard and the process on this particular play was no exception. What was exceptional in this experience was the productivity, creativity, and respectful loving kindness that we all worked from and that translated to the audiences’ experience of the play.
In the past year, I have been actively seeking ways of taking on more responsibility in our creative community and have applied for positions where I have been asked about leadership and vision. My response has been that leaders need to reflect the community they represent. This currently is not the case in most of the Canadian theatres, universities, and academic institutions. I think it is because there are many preconceived notions about what leaders look like and many of those notions do not include a woman with big ears listening hard, reflecting and responding. I hope to change that. Maybe we can change it together, by asking each other what we need to succeed and taking the risk of actually trying to accommodate each other in thoughtful, beautiful, and artful ways. I think the audiences we serve would appreciate knowing that the artists they are watching have been respected. I know I would.
*Note: I am one of the daughters of Maureen Patricia Flaherty, PhD. She has been a practitioner of peace-building, an active feminist, and a community care giver for all of my life (and then some). She is currently a professor of Peace and Conflict studies at the University of Manitoba, a world traveler, and a kick-ass yogi.