Interview with Kate Stockburger about Tragic Queens

Tragic Queens. Photo Kate Stockburger Tragic Queens. Photo Kate Stockburger

Summer, as soon as its begun is already coming to an end. It is almost time, my pretties, time to turn your brains back on in a back-to-school Pavlovian instinct that you cannot seem to resist. As the sun sets sooner and sooner, it becomes time to turn your mind to higher minded things, and get your butts back into seats. It is time to put away the slapstick and and go see something thought provoking

Thankfully, Cabal Theatre, of Confiteor vol 1 and 2 fame, is back with something to sink your teeth into. The juicy apple that they are presenting us with is called Tragic Queens and we are being promised site-specific influences, video, feminism, imagery and hysteria no less. Featuring an episodic modular structure, with changing guest performers every night, we are to be treated to shades of Virginia Woolf, Audrey Woolen and Anne Carson channelling Sapho. I contacted the dramaturge on the project, Kate Stockburger, for more info.

Angela Potvin (AP): What is the 30-sec elevator pitch for this piece?

Kate Stockburger (KS): Tragic Queens is a relentless, intense and horrific performance party, a maelstrom of eras, emotions and mirrors. Time traveling girls trapped in a state of perpetual girlhood. Melancholic queens luxuriating in a tragic pastiche, playing a power game of Pain Olympics. The moment when the tension of the humid, heady brewing summer storm breaks. Longing, breaking, intimacy, alienation, crying, alienation, strength. At the end of the elevator pitch, I would whisper in my listener’s ear: this is a spell for getting out of girlhood alive…

AP: Why did you guys feel that this was a topic you wanted to explore?

KS: The original idea was the impulse to expand on their previous production of Mary Stuart but in a more contemporary way, with a reprise of the characters of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. CABAL was also interested in expanding on Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl, which has been a part of the ensemble’s previous repertoire. Eventually things evolved to applying Sad Girl Theory to the Tragic Queens of classical plays and texts. The show has now evolved into a monster of its own. I was drawn to the idea for personal reasons, I have a mood disorder I’ve been through the psychiatric system – been through it all, the stigma, the judgement. Sad Girl Theory was profoundly liberating for me as someone with a mental illness. It connected me to a whole legacy of “sad girls” who come before me. I feel much less alone.

AP: For you, what’s the connection between women’s sadness as political protest?

KS: Tragic Queens is heavily inspired by Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory, which is about the sadness or self-destruction of girls being seen and witnessed as political actions. The way protest is defined and talked about is usually in masculine ways – it is expressed publicly, actively, and often violently. Often, women’s only recourse, only available way to protest, is through embodied, internal means. Wollen says, “We can redefine what violence, activism, and autonomy can mean for girls by looking at the actions that are already so pervasive in girl-culture (self-hate, sorrow, suffering, and even suicide) and asserting them as scenes of protest.” Sad Girl Theory traces a legacy of resistance, which has been occurring for centuries – but this history has been erased and conceptualized as inactive. Similarly, queer resistance to patriarchal oppression and compulsory heterosexuality (to use Adrienne Rich’s words) has always been happening – we have always been resisting. Something I struggled with in this piece is not feeling like I am a “woman” so much – I’m non-binary – but I resonate with girlhood as an experience. Audrey Wollen is also interested in disrupting the linearity of gender. She uses the word “girl” because the patriarchy constantly infantilizes women. It seems like we can never escape this state of girlhood. If these are the conditions — if we are going to be patronized or caught in a paradox no matter what we do – how can we integrate that into our politics and use it to our advantage? This show opens up space for mourning our experiences of oppression, and locating them as a source of empowerment.

Audrey Wollen wasn’t the first one to articulate women’s sadness being a form of political protest, the Chicana scholar and poet Gloria Anzaldua writes about women’s public acts of grieving as forms of political protest, and “sad girl” culture stems out of Chola culture in East L.A. It doesn’t come from white girls on tumblr. It’s important to recognize the lineage of these ideas and although Wollen condensed this theory into these words, she wasn’t the first to recognize and talk about them.

Tragic Queens. Photo Kate Stockburger

Tragic Queens. Photo Kate Stockburger

AP: In your opinion, are women still considered “hysteric” in pop culture? Where do you see it?

KS: I’m at a point of tuning out any of the commentary on pop culture that calls women hysteric – I’m sure it’s out there. It happens all the time. I got called crazy on the street last night. The language may have changed, taken on another name. We don’t call women hysteric anymore, but we diagnose them with feminized mental health diagnoses, we still get institutionalized, we are still shamed and stereotyped. The history of hysteria is entwined with the history of performance; patients at the La Salpetière hospital in 1800s France were used in staged re-enactments of the “hysteria” symptoms – and performed to audiences that travelled from far and wide to see them perform their illness; they were celebrities of their times. There are a lot of women, femme, and queer artists out there reclaiming the “crazy” stereotype, taking back the words used to oppress them, or openly talking about mental illness – and creating the most exciting art out there in my opinion, the few that come to mind  – F.K.A. Twigs, Lorde, Lady Gaga, Grimes, Mal Devisa, Marina and the Diamonds, Anohni, St. Vincent, Banks, etc.

AP: I’ve been sent these lovely research image boards. Does the imagery translate into the design?

KS: We’re obsessed with melancholy – with the slowing down of space and time to feel waves of mourning, joy, sadness, nostalgia, and grief. In the creation phase we talked a lot about the spaces, the colours that make us feel melancholic – often the blues of the ocean, mist and fog, weathered wood. the distant sound of a train. These were images from the research phase which reminded me of that heightened sense of melancholia. The costume design is all blues, purples, blacks – a pastel “bruise-scape” of sorts – the design is heavy on the blue. We’re all about the online “Sad Girl” aesthetic of pastels and bruises and teen angst. Blue is also the colour of royalty – indigo was the most expensive pigment – this is why queens wear blue, why the Virgin Mary was wearing blue in the stained glass windows of old churches. The motif of water and bathing – and the moments of intimacy and competition in women’s relationships, rituals of purification competition – are in the show. “Real Bitch Island” is a place we imagine to go when we need strength – this reference made it into the sound design as well.

AP: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight in this piece?

KS: The feat of performing in four different time periods, styles, dialects – of transporting characters from one place to the polar opposite on a dime – is truly impressive. Our three intense, powerful performers Meagan Schroeder, Jillian Harris, and Alex Petrachuk carry the show to heights and plummet to depths in a fast paced, swirling frenzy. I would also highlight the work of the designers, the elaborate and luxurious costumes designed and created by the brilliant Sophie El-Assaad, the haunting and visceral sound design by Devon Bate, the scintillating high fashion lighting design by John Cleveland. I’m in love with the tender and brutal language written by the Rhiannon Collett. The show is stage managed by the intelligent, dedicated and sharp Anne-Marie St. Louis, so you know all those cues are going to be on point. And of course, everything is brought to life by the detailed and meticulously thought through vision of our director, Anthony Kennedy. This show is EXTRA.

AP: Also, what can you tell me about the guest performers, without of course going into spoilers!

KS: Alas, I must keep my lips sealed! Montreal’s veterans of the theatre and emerging artists alike, will all try their hand at playing an iconic Queen. and there is an extra special guest star on opening night…a hint…OPERAAAA.

Tragic Queens is playing at Mainline Theatre (3997 St-Laurent) August 17-19th at 8pm, August 20th at 2pm, August 24th to 26th at 8pm, August 26th and 27th at 2pm. Tickets available by phone at 514-842-FEST (3378) or click here . $21.50 for students/artist/QDF/ELAN/senior or $26.50 general. Please phone for discount or same day tickets.