An Interview with the Creators of Mouthpiece
April 13, 2015
Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken are co-artistic directors of the multi-disciplinary performance company Quote Unquote Collective. They are the co-creators and performers of Mouthpiece, which makes its world premiere at The Theatre Centre in Toronto April 17 through May 3, 2015 in association with Why Not Theatre. In the midst of the final crunch of development, they took some time out to ask each other a few questions about the process.
Norah: Can you describe your experience of making this show?
Amy: Well, simply put—we are totally different because of it and there is no going back. No?
Norah: Understatement of the year.
Amy: Over the past three years, Mouthpiece has completely changed shape and form so many times because once we started digging down in search of “womanhood,” we changed, everything changed, even the society around us changed—it also stayed very much the same.
But initially, back in 2012, I was fascinated with the way that I felt about and how I interacted with other women, how I could experience deep love and hate, jealousy and compassion all at the same time.
Norah: Right, that we can share the intimacy of bathing together, crying together, popping each other’s butt pimples, and promising to live together until we are old crazy ladies who drink brandy on the porch, all the while sensing this dark sister of competition and menace living right beside that love.
Amy: This conflict is captured in some of the poetry of Sharon Olds, Amy Gerstler, and Anne Sexton, who take us neck-deep into a disturbingly intimate mess of motherhood, friendship, vengeance, cycles, birth, death, rebirth, releasing, menstruation, suffocation, cocks, fucking, eating, blood, food, spite, vomit, venom, jealousy, aborting your baby to stab a knife through your mother’s heart. It is extremely complex and also disturbingly familiar. Inspired by these women, I wanted to examine why this darkness was there, and I wanted to make a play about it using the strengths of the female voice. And that’s where you came in, hey? I needed a strong voice.
Norah: Yes, and when I came into the process we had only just met. Which in a way gave us the gift of starting with a blank slate, and it also meant that we had very different (although often alarmingly parallel) perspectives and stories to bring to the table. We began improvising around the subject of female relationships—physically, vocally, using the work of these poets. But day after day what we kept gravitating towards were the stories from our own lives, our friends’ lives, and our mothers’ lives. Our own experiences from that very day, and our reactions to the headlines about a “woman’s place in society,” the memes, the articles, the enraging ads, the blogposts, the Beyoncé—these were the things that were getting us all fired up.
Amy: Then, the penny dropped. Or rather, after years and years of pressure building behind it, the penny blasted into my face knocking off my rose-coloured glasses. I can tell you the day it happened because I wrote a feverish six-page essay and sent it to Norah and to my mother—January 11, 2014. Up until that point, if asked what the play was about, my answer would be: “It’s about female relationships…” and in that same breath I’d add “…but it’s not, you know, a feminist play.” In exploring the core of how women relate to one another, in delving deep into the question of how we define ourselves as women, in talking about our lives in relation to our mothers and our mothers’ mothers, it slapped me hard: we haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think. The bullshit is still here, it’s just been rearranged and pumped with steroids and now there is more, it is everywhere, and it starts from day one in the womb. Of course it is about feminism, of course I am scared to admit it, and of course we needed to dig deeper to find out why. Why would I deny being a feminist? Why am I (a supposedly strong, liberated woman) reluctant to admit it, to proclaim it? Why was I, a woman in 2014, still afraid to accept that, in order for change to occur within the society around me, I had to be the one to change it? Me, right now, today. This smashed everything to pieces.
Amy: So what is the play about now?
Norah: Well, the play had to be different because we were different. We realized that our own actions were contributing to the whole problem. By passively accepting the status quo, or by laughing off the jokes, or by making a play that didn’t acknowledge our own internal conflict, we were perpetuating a culture of apathy and acceptance. So it seemed absolutely crucial to air out our own experience, to bring to light our own conflict, our own hypocrisy, to say out loud what we were struggling with so that other people might relate to it. Or they might not. But either way we were being truthful.
Now the project is about that specific cognitive dissonance in our brains. That I can be working towards independence and strength in my own right, all the while hoping to be swept off my feet by Prince Charming. I sing along with superstars who preach about women’s lib while they strip naked, cover themselves in suds and shake their butts. I style, groom, and starve myself to look like a model while I burn copies of Glamour magazine. I don’t think I’m alone; we are a confused generation of women.
This play confronts a subject that is extremely relevant both personally and socially. We are creating something that at times actually scares us both to talk about and to perform, which makes it all the more compelling for us to share. When we began to create this new play, we set out trying to uncover what a woman’s voice truly sounds like, and when we couldn’t find it anywhere, we created Mouthpiece.
Amy: The play follows our protagonist, Cass Hayward, who thinks she’s got it all figured out. She is strong, she is in charge, she is a working woman who lives by her own rules, so what’s the problem? The play opens just after the death of her mother and spirals as she begins to recognize the resemblances between her “doormat” mum and herself, and the frightening similarities between the struggles of past generations and the reality of the present.
We follow Cass for twenty-four hours as she tries to accomplish a seemingly simple set of tasks: getting dressed, shopping for a casket, choosing flowers, picking out a dress for her dead mother to wear, having a drink at a bar, all the while writing the funeral speech for her mum. She has to deliver the eulogy the next morning, but she has woken up without a voice.
And it is this confusion, this conflict that is at the heart of the play. The making of Mouthpiece has been and continues to be a quest: Where is my/our voice and what does it even sound like?
Norah: Why music?
Amy: Music has the ability to communicate the stuff that is too big for words. The grand emotions, the poetry, the insanity, the forty things we’re thinking at the same time. In the face of music, words can often feel kinda pathetic.
Song is our storytelling device to touch audiences in places that speech and images cannot reach, but it’s also the story itself: throughout history when women couldn’t speak up, when they couldn’t vote or write or create or perform or direct or defy, they could sing. And they did. And we do. Depending on the culture, it’s not always for others’ ears, and it’s certainly not always our own words or melodies or accompanying dance moves, but that’s exactly the point. Through song we reflect the confused inner state of our heroine, while integrating our shared history into the very current world of the play—Toronto 2015.
Norah: From the beginning the voice was the thing: raw, unfettered, unaccompanied. We definitely explore the far reaches of our vocal ranges—from guttural to ululating to soprano. Melodies inspired by fourteenth-century choral music, Southern hymns, the Andrew Sisters, Billie Holiday, Janis, Tina, Joni, a piece we’ve dubbed the Bulgarian chant, an opera duet, a throat song, a pop song. There’s some wailing, a lot of breathing, probably some screeching.
Amy: Affirmative on the screeching
Amy: What scares you about performing this show?
Norah: Mouthpiece puts us in a very vulnerable position as creators and performers. Both literally and figuratively, we are exposing ourselves. Our most shameful, naked, confused selves who are very much in the midst of a discovery. There is nothing concrete about my thoughts on these subjects, it is a continual dialogue, an argument, a conversation that you and I have to have every day to make sure we are still saying the things that we want to say. Vulnerability is inherently terrifying, like exposing your bare neck to a knife. It is also necessary as an artist, I think, to make work from this position in order to provoke ourselves to push our limitations, as well as to provoke a dialogue with an audience.
Amy: Nice, what she said. Also the white bathing suits.
Norah: How do you think Cass would describe herself?
Amy: Laid back, low maintenance. “I really don’t care about this shit so stop bothering me with stupid questions. Nobody reads blogs.”
Norah: “I’m too busy pouring myself a glass of neat whiskey to open my computer and read your silly article about feminism. Did you hear the one about the feminist blogger? No? Exactly. No one did.”
Amy: What is the significance of the title?
Norah: We stole it from a Dan Mangan song.
Amy: Who is Dan Mangan?
Norah: Exactly. But seriously. Amy came up with it when we were on a run out in the countryside during a residency at Stoneboat Farm one day. We had been calling the project a few other things along the way. Nothing seemed quite right. Then she slowed down so I could catch up with her (have you seen the length of her legs?!) and said, “what about Mouthpiece?” I was instantly sold. It spoke to all of the layers we were trying to reveal. The single voice for many, the amplification of the voice not being heard, the fact that we were focussing on our mouths in the piece, the singing component, it all worked.
Norah: In regards to this show, how would you finish the sentence, “Sorry mom, …”
Amy: My mom once told me: please don’t wait until I’m dead to do exactly what you want. Instead of sorry I might say: don’t forget, it’s fiction.
Quote Unquote Collective, in association with Why Not Theatre are proud to present the world premiere of Mouthpiece, which runs from April 17 through May 3 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario.
Mouthpiece is premiering as part of the RISER Project, a collaborative producing model presented by Why Not Theatre with the generous support of the Toronto Arts Council, Canadian Heritage, and the Ontario Arts Council.