By Tim Kitz

Behaviour, a new play by Darrah Teitel currently running at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), examines the interplay of abuse and power among Parliamentary staffers with a fierce and funny eye.

The Leveller interrupted the playwright’s feverish rewrites over pints in a local bar in order to ask a few questions about our current post-#MeToo zeitgeist and about what inspired her.

Pierre Antoine Lafon Simard, Sarah Kitz and Zoë Sweet. Photo: Andrew Alexander

Can you explain the genesis of this play?

While I was working on [Parliament] Hill, there was a really messy event where two Liberal MPs were fired after they sexually “harassed” two female MPs.

One of the compounding effects of that event was that a lot of Hill staffers were extremely triggered. They were thinking of all the abuse and sexual misconduct and labour rights violations that they had experienced throughout their lives and while at work. This was before #MeToo and right before [the] Gomeshi [scandal].

What happens in the years and months following, when women do what we’re urging them to do, which is to speak out and tell their truth? What are the actual real-life consequences of speaking that truth?

It was terrible how deeply unsupported Hill staff are and how vulnerable a workplace it is, given that we don’t enjoy the protections of the labour code of Canada and its extraordinarily hierarchical and every day is win or lose and it’s super-bullying and macho, blah blah blah.  

That’s where the genesis, the germ of wanting to write this came from.

I was really interested and curious in how endemic assault, rape, and abuse is in women’s lives — almost how statistically insignificant it is, the number of women who don’t have [experiential] knowledge of rape, abuse, sexual assault and harassment.

So I started to write a play called Behaviour, thinking about this — if we all have that experience, then it is clearly informing what appears to be normal female behaviour. I wanted to write something that unpacked that claim — that normal female behaviour is fed and coloured and influenced by the experience of assault.

I also wanted to see what happens when that compartmentalization begins to erode inside a person. The kind of cognitive dissonance required to lead your life when you have had experiences of rape, assault, and abuse that you’re not dealing with – and have never even voiced to yourself, never mind others.

How did the play relate to #MeToo, as that unfolded?

Obviously, it had a necessary impact on this play. I had a full draft before #MeToo erupted. And if my thesis statement had something to do with proving that everybody’s raped, then #MeToo showed up and proved that for me.

So art being what it is – needing to ask the important questions, not the foregone conclusion questions — I needed to start with where we were now. What questions remained, what needed to be asked, what needed to be challenged?

It required me to write a third act, because I needed to explore what happens the day after silence is broken. What happens in the years and months following, when women do what we’re urging them to do, which is to speak out and tell their truth? What are the actual real-life consequences of speaking that truth?

Pierre Antoine Lafon Simard and Zoë Sweet. Photo by Andrew Alexander

If speaking out has been popularized, to a degree, is that a weapon that allows women to level the playing field? To protect themselves from men who could otherwise take advantage of them?

I would say no. I don’t think the playing field has been equalled in any way, because we didn’t create a system in which women can tell the truth. If a woman tells the truth, she will lose a lot more than she gains.

If you tell the truth, all you gain is a painstaking litigious battle, which is probably followed by total and utter disappointment and failure. Financial ruin. Nothing but an incredibly tarnished reputation. At the very least, a bunch of fear following you, because you’re ‘the girl that did that.’

I actually think we made people more vulnerable because we encouraged them to tell truth and we actually didn’t tell them “oh by the way, as soon as you tell this truth, nothing good is coming at you. Only bad things will happen to you.” Unless you sign a non-disclosure agreement which robs you of your ability to tell the truth. And then maybe you’ll get some money.

It’s really rough because not telling the truth is incredibly painful. And telling the truth is incredibly painful.

Telling the truth in a culture that supported that truth telling — that would be the answer.

Right. At least it seems like powerful men can no longer take for granted that they will never be exposed. Do you think the culture of impunity has been dented in the wake of #MeToo?

Maybe. I guess we will see. It hasn’t been that long. Also, I think that most people think that what they’re doing is perfectly okay.

I think people have a generally very shallow understanding of things, unless they’ve taken a lot of time and a lot of energy to figure out what this grey zone looks like — what these power imbalances do, what human rights are, what hierarchy means, what consent is. Understanding that actually takes a tremendous amount of effort, not just a terrified thought when you read a headline — “oh shit, I better not do shit anymore.”

So in the absence of that sort of deeper work, most powerful men won’t know what they’re doing. They will think they’re good.

“Everyone always thinks they’re good.” That’s actually a line in my play.

To be clear, I don’t think this is about men. I think this is about the behaviour of people in power. In fact, one of the people in this play who commits some of the most atrocious abuses of power is a woman.

So obviously if people want to start doing that deeper work, they should just come to your play.

Ha! Maybe.

I think my play does ask for change. It asks for bystander change. I think it asks for people to examine the ways in which their strict categories of ‘victim,’ ‘perpetrator,’ ‘good guy,’ ‘bad guy’ are actually far more muddied than they realize. And that we have to operate based on the knowledge that almost everybody could be a victim. Almost everybody is a perpetrator. And we all have a part to play in [finding] justice.

Pierre Antoine Lafon Simard and Zoë Sweet.
Photo: Andrew Alexander

Does that explain why you’re interested in exploring these issues through story-telling?

Well, I do work in politics. Politics requires simple, repeatable, and airtight soundbites that you have to say are true and that you have to campaign on.

Art will inevitably seek the cracks inside any dogma, in any ideology.

I exploit the tools of politics to campaign for the greater good. Whatever I decide is the greater good — ha ha.

You need a room full of people chanting the same thing. But there is something deeply anti-intellectual, anti-emotional in that. Because it refuses or is somehow weakened by the existence of contradiction and of hypocrisy inside any dogma, or any ideology, or any chant.

The beautiful thing about art for me is that it flows into those spaces. So whenever I come against something where I go “Ooh, this doesn’t quite work” — that’s where I seek out art.

Maybe some writers find their conclusion before they begin a writing process. I don’t. I start writing things, usually, when I come up against a problem I don’t know how to fix.  As soon as I come across something where I think “I can’t fix this on my own” — that’s when I start writing. You know, instead of going to therapy.

What do we gain by exploring some of this complexity?

Well, it’s more the grey zone stuff that we’re reconciled to. We haven’t had very sophisticated tools to detect some of the abuse — or know when we’re perpetrating it against others. That’s why we call it a rape culture.

There’s a line in the play where somebody asks somebody else “Why didn’t you come to the police after you were raped?” And the character says “Because I don’t know when that is. Because there’s the time you were raped, the time you realized you were raped, and there’s the time you decided to tell somebody you were raped. These are different times.”

I think people are more aware of these dynamics because of #MeToo. There’s more of a conversation.

I think that men who want to be feminists will probably think about their behaviour more. Hopefully women will too. Although  [#MeToo] didn’t do the best job of pointing out the ways women are complicit and also guilty.

Was there just not enough talk about hierarchy and power?

Yeah. And this is one of the problems with how it’s being interpreted, right? Because then it breeds men’s rights activists who feel like men are being attacked, or there’s a war against men.

Because the simple narrative is that men are villains who are doing horrible shit to women. As opposed to the actual narrative, which is that capitalism and power have created immeasurable vulnerability within society.

That’s a much more difficult transformation, of course. It’s more than “hey men, learn to ask for consent.” Because it implicates everyone.Behaviour is running at the GCTC March 12-31. There will be a free live stream for World Theatre Day — March 27  at 8pm on behaviourplay.ca.

Sarah Kitz. Photo: Andrew Alexander

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