Theater

Rewriting the Rules: Collaboration Is the Engine Driving WomensWork’s Madwoman in the Volvo

One particular female-centric group making their mark on our vibrant local theater scene is rewriting the rules for just how theater can be — and perhaps should be — created. In keeping with the group’s focus to provide roles both on and off stage for women over the age of 40, WomensWork Theatre Collaborative is presenting the regional premiere of Sandra Tsing Loh’s raucous rollercoaster of a ride through the female experience, The Madwoman in the Volvo.

In their season announcement, executive director and “Founding Mother” Lynne Collinson explained that the season has the unifying theme of madness. “WomensWork has chosen plays — all written by women — that examine the ways madness manifests itself in women’s lives,” said Collinson. 

Based on the author’s acclaimed memoir, The Madwoman in the Volvo is a candid, funny and painfully honest look at what truths lie behind the oft-whispered taboo topic of (gasp) “the change.” Throwing away all of the euphemisms and shining a bright light on the subject, the show chronicles one woman’s tumultuous journey through menopause. 

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“It’s a humorously honest narrative of women redesigning the way we navigate life’s middle-years and meeting it head-on,” explains Joanne Fayan, who portrays Sandra, the fictionalized version of author Tsing Loh. As is the case with all of their shows, Madwoman has an all-female cast, director and production staff. “That was important to us,” explains Fayan. 

In response to her impending sixth decade, the “Madwoman” of the title, Sandra, decides to head off on a spontaneous trip to Burning Man. Fayan plays the main character throughout and is joined onstage by local actresses MJ Daly and Paula Faber, who portray the myriad other characters in the play, almost a dozen different characters each. “We really think women will be able to identify with a lot in this show,” explain the actresses, “either having experienced menopause, or seeing it in someone else, or even learning about it.”

Where this show breaks new ground for WomensWork is that the three performers, alongside stage manager Lauren Katherine Pothier, are directing the show as a group. “With the current events in the women’s movement, we think it’s significant to showcase women as collaborators, and that’s just what we’re doing,” explains Daly, Fayan, Faber, and Pothier. “We have collaboratively created the set design, analyzed the play, coached and directed each other.”

The production cites the group of progressive female Democratic congresswomen dubbed “The Squad,” as the best example of the power of collaboration. “Women who shine as individuals can also come together to work as a team. Women are often looked at as not being able to work together. So, for this project we thought, no one person claims leadership … and we have not yet run into an instance where we could not compromise and accept each other’s differences. There is a lot of respect in the room. And a lot of listening. And no egos.”

The group reports that the rewards from pursuing this creative process have so far well outweighed the challenges — with the biggest challenge being the sheer amount of time it takes to discuss each decision. As opposed to a lone director who plans the production out and comes into the rehearsals with their completed directorial vision, the group explains, “We all come to the rehearsals with ideas to share but the decision-making is done in the room together…”

One of the more surprising challenges of “group directing” according to the cast is “finding a way to have that third, objective eye, for four people, when three of them are on stage.”

Fayan and the company explain that thankfully, technology was the solution to that problem. “We film ourselves for say 10 pages, watch it, make notes and then try it again. That’s double the time as having a director watch a cast run through 10 pages of script one time and give notes. We are finding the filming part to be invaluable.” 

They add that the other challenge is “being in two heads at once,” explaining, “That’s the toughest thing. While you’re trying to play the objective as an actor, there’s a piece of you that also commenting in your own head on how you and everyone else is doing. As you’re doing it, you’re asking yourself, ‘Is this working?'”

And as to the rewards that they have found through collaboration, the women agree that their ability to come to a consensus, while again time-consuming, was very rewarding. “I think the biggest surprise to all of us, and something we said over and over to each other during the process, was how uplifted we felt after each rehearsal. No matter how crappy we felt at the start…we always left feeling good. We didn’t expect that to happen.”

WomensWork Theatre Collaborative presents The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh at The Artists’ Exchange, 50 Rolfe Street, Cranston, on March 6 and 7 at 7:30pm, and on March 8 at 2pm. The group is offering talkbacks after each performance to foster further public discussion around the themes of the play. Seating is limited. Tickets and more information: artists-exchange.org.

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