Getting to the truth, & touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS

Deborah Drakeford, Lynette Gillis & Kim Nelson in SMYTH / WILLIAMS—photo by Yuri Dojc

War and violence against women not only have similar social, cultural, and religious supports, they are mutually reinforcing. These supports allow societies to tolerate conditions in which a third of women and girls can be treated violently, without mass outcry and rebellion. When we challenge the attitudes and norms that enable violence against women, we are also helping to confront the conditions that support war.—Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite (included in the program notes for SMYTH / WILLIAMS)

Trigger warning: This post reviews a verbatim theatre production based on the transcripts of a police interview with a convicted serial killer rapist.

One Little Goat Theatre Company opened its all-female staging of the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) transcript of Detective Jim Smyth’s interview of stalker and serial killer Russell Williams in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last night. SMYTH / WILLIAMS was devised and directed by Adam Seelig.

Staged in a dramatically rendered police interview room (set by Jackie Chau and lighting by Laird Macdonald), including two microphone stands, two chairs and two copies of the transcript, the set also includes a drum kit, situated up centre, behind a pile of cedar chips on a floor that depicts a map. The transcript is a notable prop, not only for its occasional and specific use by the two actors (Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson), but for the extent to which it’s been redacted—in some parts heavily so—and those portions of the conversation between Smyth and Williams are filled in on stage by drum solos (Lynette Gillis).

The over seven-hour interview, which took place on February 7, 2010, has been pared down to about 90 minutes in this staged verbatim performance, with Drakeford and Nelson switching back and forth between characters, both playing Smyth and Williams at various points in the interview. The trajectory of the conversation begins with Williams being questioned as a person of interest in multiple crimes in the Ottawa and Belleville areas, to his arrest as evidence becomes available and search warrants executed on his homes, to his confession.

The cast is to be commended for their specific, respectful and focused performances of this difficult, disturbing material. Drakeford and Nelson establish a compelling dynamic between Smyth and Williams. Smyth is presented as the classic “good cop,” conducting the interview in a respectful, methodic but gentle way. Williams is the strong, silent type; a military man of few words who serves his country and appears to cooperate in the interest of serving his community in this investigation. The result is a pairing of strong feminine and masculine energies, with the interview shifting from more easy-going conversation to urgent strategizing as new information surfaces during the course of the investigation.

I was a bit baffled at first as to how the drum solos were going to work in the context of filling in redacted sections of the transcript (this info provided by Drakeford and Nelson at the beginning of the play; they also hold up their copies, showing the large blacked-out portions of the text in these instances). Drums are a primal, beat-driving percussion instrument; and Gillis is a skilled musician, drawing out the larger redactions with kick-ass precision. It’s an interesting and innovative piece of staging for what cannot be said—and one can only imagine that the redacted sections contain the more horrific details of Williams’ crimes. As the confession unfolds, there is an increasing Riot Grrrl vibe to Gillis’s performance—the drums beating out in anger and protest.

The production has not been without controversy. Terra Dafoe, a friend and neighbour of Jessica Lloyd, one of the women Williams abducted, raped and murdered, is at the forefront of a group that’s spearheaded a protest against the presentation of SMYTH / WILLIAMS, which they argue is a non-consensual and re-traumatizing production that sensationalizes violence against women. Dafoe was present at the opening last night, handing out a one-pager that states their case and includes a link to their Lead Now petition. Here’s a sampling of interviews from both the production (via News 1130) and the protest (via CBC).

Full disclosure: I was wary of seeing this production. Although I’m a big fan of TV crime procedurals, SMYTH / WILLIAMS is not a TV crime procedural. It’s real life. This is not fictitious, made-up dialogue—this conversation really happened, between a real detective and a real rapist/murderer. The women Williams stalked, harassed, raped and killed were real people. And, like those protesting the production, I was concerned about the details that would be revealed, as well as the traumatic effect of the subject matter. I decided to see it because I was curious as to whether such a production would have anything of value to say about violence against women. And, naively, I was hoping to find a ‘why.’ Why did he do it?

What I saw was a production that does not serve up salacious details—in fact, the disturbing details are kept to a minimum and what is included is presented in such a way as to show Williams’ apparent detachment from his actions, as well as the atrocity of those actions, when the actors peer out from their male characters and speak as women. Ironically, the turning point for Williams comes as he learns that search warrants are being executed on his homes—and he becomes deeply concerned about the negative impacts on his wife and the Canadian Armed Forces. Whether his concern came from a place of love and honour, or from a place of losing his grip on domination and control, it appears to be what ultimately spurred his confession. And an even bigger question mark is why he did what he did. Even if Williams knew, he wasn’t saying.

While I agree that seven years may be too soon for a theatrical examination of this case, I also have to wonder how one puts an arbitrary time limit on loss, grief and that deeply troubling ‘why.’ Theatre is a medium that helps us to explore all aspects of humanity and human experience—from the gods to the monsters—and I believe SMYTH / WILLIAMS and its opening night audience treated this real life piece of the more horrific side of humanity with respect and dignity.

The quote included at the beginning of this post, taken from the program notes, connects the dots between war and violence against women. While not a fulsome answer to the ‘why,’ it does give us a glimpse into the workings of a social infrastructure that supports ongoing violence against women and girls; and one from which a man like Williams emerged. I believe that widespread outcry and rebellion are growing, and that such push-back is amplified by the grief and rage incited by crimes like these, as well as the election of misogynists to high office.

There was no applause after the cast left the stage. No curtain call. A moment of silence for several moments followed before the audience gradually began hushed conversation and exited the space. This was not a reflection on the performances. Like the production, the audience wanted to treat the memories of the women that Williams harmed and murdered with respect and dignity—and in this way, the production and the petition are in agreement.

Getting to the truth, and touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS.

This is not a production for everyone. If you decide to see SMYTH / WILLIAMS, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself. Why are you going to see it? Do you think the production contributes to the conversation about violence against women in a meaningful way? And if you happen to cross paths with Dafoe or another protestor, treat them with respect, hear what they have to say and read the hand-out. Free speech goes both ways—and both the protest and the production have important things to say.

SMYTH / WILLIAMS continues in the TPM Backspace until Mar 12; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529.

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Melanie Peterson’s “Sunshine” a breath of TLC for a broken heart

Photo by Bri-Anne Myers: Melanie Peterson

Wistful, but hopeful—and perfectly illustrating her vibe as “Mary Poppins with a broken heart”Melanie Peterson’s latest single “Sunshine” is a breath of TLC for a broken heart. And even more poignant is the fact that it’s being addressed to an ex in need of some heart healing.

The lyrics are full of wise and warm advice from a trusted friend, compassionate and positive—all delivered with Peterson’s sweet, lilting vocals.

You don’t have to take my word for it: give “Sunshine” a listen on her Bandcamp page.

Check out Peterson’s upcoming dates (all in Toronto, except for Aug 19 in Ottawa):

Feb 18: Dora Keogh (Winterfolk)

Feb 18: Mambo Lounge (Winterfolk)

Feb 19: The Black Swan (Winterfolk)

Apr 29: Sauce On The Danforth

May 27: Castro’s Lounge

Aug 19: Lumiere Festival in Ottawa

Otherwise, you can keep up with Peterson on Facebook and Bandcamp.

Current & upcoming visual arts feasts

Wanted to shout out some current and upcoming visual art exhibits – in Toronto and Ottawa:

Photographer Pamela Williams has an exhibit up at Sunderland Hall GalleryFirst Unitarian (175 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto – west of Avenue Road, south side of St. Clair). Running now until April 21. Hours: Sun. Noon – 3 p.m., Tues. 5 – 9 p.m., Wed. 5 – 9 p.m., Thurs. 7 – 9 p.m.

Multi-media artist Victoria Vitasek’s MFA thesis exhibition Anxiety (a self-portrait series of photography, video and text) will be going up at Fran Hill Gallery (285 Rushton Rd., Toronto – St. Clair and Rushton Rd., west of Bathurst). Runs from April 9 – 20, with the opening on April 11 (6 – 9 p.m.). Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. or by appointment.

Visual artist Blair Sharpe presents new works from his On Some Faraway Beach series at Wallack Galleries (203 Bank St., Ottawa) April 13 – 27, with the opening on April 13 (meet the artist 2 – 4 p.m.) and an artist talk and tour of the exhibit on April 20 at 3 p.m. Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Ottawa trip – museum visits

Hey all – realized I hadn’t done my final Ottawa trip post and I’d better get on it, ‘cuz there’s Pride and Toronto Fringe stuff coming up.

After staying with my friend Lesley and her son in Ottawa, I met up with Mum at my aunt and uncle’s place in Carp, which is a bit west of Nepean. From there, we travelled to Gatineau, Quebec one day to visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization (which I hadn’t been to since I was a teenager): http://www.civilization.ca/home

Canadian Museum of Civilization – totem pole
Canadian Museum of Civilization – totem poles (west coast)
Canadian Museum of Civilization – petroglyph detail
Canadian Museum of Civilization – ceiling mural detail

We saw an amazing IMAX film Mystery of the Maya, and wandered about the various exhibits, from first peoples, to religious beliefs/iconography, to a history of the postal service in Canada and a great exhibit on people who were instrumental to Canada’s evolution. Here are some snaps I took there.

A couple of days later, Mum and I took a tour of the Diefenbunker (aka Canada’s Cold War Museum), which is located in Carp (I know!): http://www.diefenbunker.ca/  Also check out:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diefenbunker  This was set up to protect the Canadian government – house the prime minister, his cabinet and a mini army of military, medical, admin and even CBC personnel – in the event of a nuclear missile attack. And you may recognize the entry tunnel from the movie The Sum of All Fears. The closest they came to emergency use was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an interesting – and rather sobering – experience, so I’m going to shut up and just show you some highlights.

If you’re ever in the Ottawa area, check these museums out.

Diefenbunker – portrait of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker
Diefenbunker – entry tunnel
Diefenbunker – detail of the O.R. in the hospital section
Diefenbunker – instruction booklet in the hall outside the computer room (the old computers are huge!)

Ottawa – GGFG Annual Ceremonial Review

One of my favourite moments during my weekend stay in Ottawa was attending the Governor General’s Foot Guards (GGFG) Annual Ceremonial Review (ACR) with my friend Lesley and her son Chris at the Cartier Square Drill Hall.

The Drill Hall is a beautiful piece of architecture itself and, in addition to being home base for the GGFGs and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, also houses a museum: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartier_Square_Drill_Hall

The GGFGs (12 to 19-year-old cadets) are sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Ottawa. Check out their site here, including lots of great photos from the ACR: http://www.ottawakiwanis.org/home-page/ggfg-cadets-annual-review.html

Three battalions marched into the hall, followed by a flag ceremony (which included my pal Chris, aka Private Wallace) and inspection by Reviewing Officer, Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel J.L. Adams, CMM, CD. We were treated to some demos as well: emergency field response to an injured cadet and the GGFG drill team (including Private Wallace), which was really sharp. This group is tight and a prime example of the excellence that the GGFG strives for. Awards and promotions were handed out, and several cadets aged out (19 is “retirement” age for cadets); Private Chris Wallace had been promoted to Corporal earlier in the week and will be replacing his single stripe with a double stripe soon. Check out the GGFG Facebook public page here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2435384671/  And here’s their Flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/2784ggfg/sets/

Cadets are a youth program, fostering physical fitness, self-confidence, leadership and community involvement. For more info on the Canadian cadet program, check out this link: http://www.cadets.ca/home-accueil.aspx?LangType=4105

Congrats to all the cadets who were promoted, as well as those who aged out – all the best with your future endeavours. Here are some pics I took at the ACR.

Drill Hall interior – GGFG insignia
Drill Hall interior – stained glass coat of arms above the entrance
GGFG ACR – flag ceremony
GGFG ACR – drill team demo
GGFG ACR – emergency field response demo
GGFG ACR – Private Wallace (promoted to Corporal) & mom Lesley

Ottawa – Doors Open @ Château Laurier

Doors Open Ottawa was in full swing when Les and I ventured out after Sunday brunch – and we decided to visit the magnificent Château Laurier (http://www.fairmont.com/laurier), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, complete with cake and costumed folks wandering about the lobby.

Grand Trunk Railway (which became part of the Canadian National Railway in 1923) president Charles Melville Hays commissioned the Château Laurier, with a vision toward having a chain of luxurious and majestic hotels all along the rail route. The grand opening was delayed when Hays, on his way back to Canada for the event, perished aboard the Titanic.

Château Laurier Ottawa – exterior

For more info, check out what our friends at Wikipedia have to say: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_Laurier

Here are some pics Les and I took during our tour. More Ottawa adventures to come soon.

Château Laurier Ottawa – lobby
Château Laurier Ottawa – 100th birthday cake
Château Laurier Ottawa – main floor hallway
Château Laurier Ottawa – lion head at the end of hallway
Château Laurier Ottawa – pool (lights are new but copper heat lamps – not shown – are original)

Ottawa trip – subway flood adventures & a haunted jail

Okay, so now I’m ready to tell the tale.

The Ottawa trip started with an adventure before my mum and I even got on the VIA train – namely, the flooding of the TTC section of Union Station. I was still at the office when I got word of the flood over Twitter (thanks to stage manager Kat, who RT’d a Toronto police bulletin). Soon there were more tweets, co-workers were giving me a heads-up and one had even been down there for lunch and strongly recommended that I call a cab and get the heck outta Dodge so I could meet up with my mum and get our train on time. After a half-hour wait and a $20 cab ride (from Yonge/Bloor down Church and then I had to walk from Yonge/Front due to construction), I found that the GO Train folks were spilling out onto Front. Hoping my mum was able to meet at the Cinnabon in the GO concourse, I made my way through the front entrance of VIA and wound down to the GO section. All was good and we had time to grab subs and coffee before heading to VIA departures.

Once in Ottawa, my aunt and uncle and cousin’s youngest daughter picked us up and dropped me at my friend Lesley’s – I’d be joining the family in Carp on Sunday night. Over pizza slices and wine, Les and I made a plan for Saturday: errands, stop by an art show in a park in the Glebe to see my friend, photographer Pamela Williams and go on a haunted walking tour.

And that’s what we did – we went out for cat food and stopped by a neat arts/crafts shop in their neighbourhood (west end), then got on the bus to the Glebe (a cool, artsy ‘hood) to say hi to Pamela, who takes amazing black and white photos of gorgeous cemetery sculpture: http://home.interlog.com/~romantic/  From there, we had an early dinner at The Works – sweet Jesus God, they make good burgers there – and there are locations in Toronto too!

The main event on Saturday was the Crime and Punishment Jail Tour, a haunted walking tour of the Carlton County Jail, which has been converted into a youth hostel called the Ottawa Jail Hostel – where the motto is “A great place to hang” (I know – spooky!) – with a portion kept as the original jail for historical preservation and tourism. Check out the hostel here: http://www.hihostels.ca/OntarioEast/en/index.aspx?sortcode=2.0 and take a look at Ottawa haunted tours here (if you go to the home page, there are also tours for Toronto and Kingston:  http://www.hauntedwalk.com/ottawatours.php

This was a jail until 1972 and the last execution (by hanging) was in 1946 – and the gallows still works! And I was surprised to learn that, in Canada, that’s the only method of execution we ever used. Check out what our friends at Wikipedia have to say: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_Jail_Hostel

Here are some snaps I took while I was there. Don’t be scared. They’re just pictures. Back with more Ottawa adventures soon.

Carlton County Jail – cell block

Carlton County Jail – stairwell: light flare or …?

Carlton County Jail – gallows (it still works!)

Carlton County Jail – exercise yard: we found this guy hanging out

Carlton County Jail – exterior: Governor’s residence at the front with a mass grave under foot in the parking lot