Natalie Liconti was pretty dissatisfied with the theatre scene as she experienced it, but instead of throwing in the towel she took matters into her own hands and started her own theatre collective, Daughter Product.
Two productions later and with the third (A Dyke’s Guide to Fair Play), set to premiere at this year’s Fringe Festival, the interdisciplinary, devised performance collective is quietly rebelling against the theatre industry from the inside.
“I was interested in all the shows I had done that had been shitty working circumstances,” says Liconti, a producer, writer and performer. “I formed this collective because I was sick of male directors telling me what to do, and they were usually wrong. This industry is really fucked up sometimes, and the great thing about performance art is that there’s space to make your own work.” The collective’s mandate, borrowed from the title of a song by ’90s pop star Robyn, reflects this sentiment perfectly: “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do.”
The collective came together in 2016 as a large group, eventually boiling down to its five core members Emily Sirota, Darah Miah, Lucy Fandel, Joseph Browne and Liconti herself, though guest artists are frequently invited to collaborate on projects, including their current production. “I always felt like I had more to say as a collaborator, more to offer to the creative process. So that’s what I wanted to create for people, especially queer and femme artists, because like any industry, theatre is still driven by cis-straight men,” she says. “That’s the main thing I’m interested in, authentic representation.”
Collaborator Sarah Culkin, who co-stars in A Dyke’s Guide to Fair Play, attests to the unorthodox configuration of cast and crew. “On the first day I asked Natalie who was directing the show, and she was like, ‘Ummmm… kind of all of us? But kind of me? But like, I’m a facilitator,’” Sarah recalled. “I really don’t like directing!” Liconti said with a laugh, “but I do think I can facilitate a space where you can offer ideas and it can become collaborative in that sense.”
A Dyke’s Guide to Fair Play addresses notions of safe space and the performativity of activism within the queer community, set against a campy dystopian game show in which two contestants compete for an elusive prize. Liconti says it was recent events within the Montreal theatre and comedy community that motivated her to write this show. “There were a few instances of ‘cancelling’ due to sexual assault allegations, and a few examples in my own life,” she says. “I was really frustrated with the lack of restorative justice and the lack of patience and understanding how cycles of violence work. I was fed up with this really strict dichotomy between abuser and survivor.”
The concept of “performativity” is explored in the way the characters act and interact on stage. “I think in Montreal there’s this culture around performing activism, and how as long as you have the right vocabulary to contribute to the rhetoric of social justice, then you’re a ‘good person.’ And I think that’s bullshit,” says Liconti. “The game show aspect of it is feeding into this idea of performativity and performing the ‘right’ answer, trying to do and say the right thing. So it’s kind of making fun of that.
“The second aspect is this whole conversation about sexual assault and rape culture. I found it was really centred around cis-straight men vs. cis-straight women,” she says. “With the #MeToo business, I felt very excluded. So it’s extending that conversation to include other marginalized groups, and specifically queer culture, to show that this discussion isn’t just a straight issue.”
Like the all-American game show, these conversations have become a national pastime and an enduring presence across all media platforms. “#MeToo and rape culture has very much become a dinner conversation, and it has permeated mainstream culture and our homes,” says Liconti. She hopes that bringing a new, queer perspective to the subject in the all-too-familiar format of the game show will change the nature of the discussion as it plays out throughout the media, and in people’s intimate lives. “And we’re also in drag,” she adds, “so it was taking the least gay thing possible, this super-straight game show, and just infusing it with gay.”
“With all of this stuff that’s happening, we’re coming to this conversation that’s literally thousands of years in the making and we just don’t know how to talk about it. So right now it’s this super-polarizing thing. Nobody wants to be wrong, everyone wants to say the right thing,” adds Culkin.
In terms of “saying the right thing” and polarizing audiences, A Dyke’s Guide to Fair Play is a case study in itself. “It was inspired by how comedians treat their work, they test material out constantly. It might bomb, it might be genius, and they have no control over that,” says Liconti. “But you have to constantly be trying new things out. I think theatre needs to incorporate more of that trial and error mentality.”
“I feel like there’s gonna be an even split of people who walk away like, ‘Hell yeah!’ and people who’re like, ‘no, no,’” says Culkin. “But the spirit of the show is not to make anyone feel bad, the intention is to create a conversation.” Liconti adds, “We throw a lot at you, and it’s basically up to the audience to piece together what makes sense to them and what resonates — or what doesn’t.” ■
A Dyke’s Guide to Fair Play opens at Studio Jean-Valcourt du Conservatoire (4750 Henri-Julien) on Friday, June 8, and runs through June 17, various times, $8