Political climate often inspires the arts, but when director Alix Reynolds selected Gut Girls for her MFA thesis project more than a year ago, she couldn’t anticipate the cast and crew would march in solidarity for women’s rights even before they hit opening night.
“Every day it becomes more relevant and more and more current. It helps us to feel like we’re doing necessary work,” she said.
Gut Girls follows the friendships of five brash and unrefined young Victorian women who make a decent living gutting cattle under horrific slaughterhouse conditions.
The well-meaning Lady Helena is intent on helping the ‘gut girls’ find work as proper house maids when the gutting sheds are shut down, leaving the young women forced to choose between how they make a living and how they want to live.
Written in 1988, Gut Girls is one of Sarah Daniels’ most produced plays.
The theme remains relevant today, Reynolds says.
“This distinctly feminist work spoke to me with its relevance to current issues – the advocacy for women’s reproductive rights, equal pay, and domestic recognition – presented through the historical period of the 1890s. Gut Girls is constantly reminding me to question what we deem ‘acceptable’ and to redefine the gender binary. It is a piece of theatre that lives in 1899 and breathes in 2017,” Reynolds said.
Gut Girls gives a historically inspired look back at the Deptford slaughterhouses of the late 1800s, where women as young as 14 found friendship and freedom in one of the lowest, disreputable jobs in society.
It’s about the contrast. There are the brash gut girls with their unrefined nature, but they have freedom and community. The upperclass ladies determined to help them can’t fathom that the girls don’t wear the appropriate fully boned corsets and heavy bloomers.
“It’s a matter of what’s acceptable, what’s right and proper for a woman in that time,” Reynolds said. “How that contrast is portrayed in the script is very exciting to me. What’s deemed acceptable for the upper class for example is not even on the radar for the lower class.”
Reynolds is no stranger to tackling feminist issues through her art. She hails from St. John’s, Nfld. where she founded Joint Productions, a theatre company committed to blending comedy with thought-provoking and innovative theatre.
“Art is more important now than it has been in quite some time,” Reynolds said. “We can’t just go to a theatre or a film and escape … the second we leave the theatre we’re hit with the realities of our world.”
Gut Girls is more powerful based on current social context, she said.
“We’re not just creating art in a void for art’s sake. It gives us purpose, for artists, that we don’t always get in an educational context. This allows us to learn in a much more socially applicable context,” Reynolds said. “The change in the world and what’s happening right now, it’s almost impossible to read the script without noticing the clear parallels to what we’re fighting for today. Rape culture today and violence against women is very much presented in at the script in the same concept you could see today. My hope is the audience walks away seeing how far we’ve come since 1909 and how far we have to go.
“We have to work together to create equality.”
Gut Girls runs Feb. 9 to 18 at UVic. Tickets, $15 to $26, are available through the Phoenix box office, 250-721-8000.
The Friday, Feb. 10 show features a pre-show lecture with director Alix Reynolds and Linda Hardy to discuss the themes and process around Gut Girls.
The Gut Girls crew
• Working with her design team, director Alix Reynolds aims to present the two contrasting worlds of Gut Girls: the bloody slaughterhouse work environment and the pristine Victorian parlours of the upper class. Guest set designer and Phoenix alumna Laurin Kelsey presents slabs of beef and ornate furnishings. Fourth-year student costume designers Emma Bozoian and Clara Van Horn-Foy capture the tawdriness of lower-class hats contrasting proper ladies’ fashions. MFA student and lighting designer Eryn Griffith contrasts the dim and dingy warehouse atmosphere with the light-filled, lace-curtained home of Lady Helena. Third-year student and sound designer Michelle Fortier recreates the sounds of this industrial era as well as Victorian parlour music. Third-year student Brendan Agnew stage manages his first production with the Phoenix.