In 1995 Hope McIntyre proposed she direct Fefu and Her Friends for her master's thesis at the University of Victoria.
The all-male thesis committee turned her down, claiming that the all-female cast would not mix with other works being presented in repertory at the school and that, furthermore, they didn't understand the feminist script by Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes.
She lost that fight, but on May 22, she wins the war, when Sarasvàti presents Fefu and Her Friends at Ralph Connor House with McIntyre directing.
"It's what launched me into having my own company and doing the work I was excited about rather than the work I was being told to do," says McIntyre, the founding artistic director of Sarasvàti Productions. "In a way, it was a rallying call. This has been a very long time coming."
She discovered Fornes while an undergraduate at the University of Saskatchewan, where she read every play in the library written by a woman. Of the more than 100 scripts she read, it was Fornes she wrote a paper about and for whom she carries an enduring admiration.
Fornes, 84 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease for more than a decade, has been called the greatest and least-acknowledged female playwright in late 20th-century theatre. She spent her career on the theatrical fringe, off-off Broadway, for which she penned nearly 50 works, nine of which won Obie (Off-Broadway) theatre awards. She was a painter until she saw a French production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Paris, after which she adjusted her focus to the stage and became a major influence and mentor in the theatre community.
Discovering perhaps Fornes' most successful play was a game-changer for McIntyre, who is originally from Saskatoon.
"It was the first time I read something that opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in theatre," says McIntyre, who launched Sarasvàti Productions in Toronto in 1997 before she relocated the company dedicated to social change to Winnipeg in 2000. "There is so much under the surface of this play, and that's what really attracted me. You see the facade but there is so much underneath it."
Fefu is the nickname for Stephany, the protagonist who brings together seven other highly educated upper-class women to her New England country home in 1935 to plan a charity event. It's a time when these kind of women were unable to do much with their intelligence. All eight are struggling in a world where they don't feel whole.
Although Fefu, which debuted in 1977, has been labelled a feminist classic, leaders of the women's movement initially criticized the playwright for painting these characters in a less-than-positive light. Fornes responded that she was motivated by a need to show how things really were. One scholar called the three-act play a progress report on the ongoing fight for equal rights and women's liberation.
Fornes' writing has been compared to that of Caryl Churchill, the pioneering British dramatist who was the subject of the 10th annual Master Playwright Festival here in 2010. Fornes also borrows from Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov and Ibsen in examining gender roles and repression.
"Her writing is very symbolic, mixing reality with elements that are hyper-real or surreal," says McIntyre. "Sometimes we had to remind ourselves during rehearsals that this is not realism and if you try too hard to understand it logically, it doesn't always work. Some people may want to figure it out intellectually, but our goal is to encourage them to just experience it."
Not only was the play groundbreaking for the all-female cast, it was also one of the first ever site-specific works, taking the audience through various rooms during the performance.
Fefu and Her Friends requires a special venue and McIntyre could not consider staging it until she could do it in what could pass as the home of a well-heeled philanthropist. A few years ago, she attended an event at Ralph Connor House, the heritage house at 54 West Gate, and immediately recognized she had found Fefu's home.
For the Sarasvàti run, audience capacity is capped at 60 to enhance intimacy with the world of these women. All 60 are together for the first act but in Act 2, the audience is split into quarters; each sees scenes in four rooms in different orders before re-assembling for the final act. Spectators watching the middle scenes will be in the middle of the action, sitting on a couch or on kitchen chairs.
"Each audience group will have a different experience of the play," McIntyre says.