Christina~Philippe explores gender in the 1600s, 1985, and today

Kristi Hansen and Trevor Schmidt in Christina~Philippe. Photo credit: Ian Jackson of EPIC Photography

Kristi Hansen and Trevor Schmidt in Christina~Philippe. Photo credit: Ian Jackson of EPIC Photography

To close out Northern Light Theatre’s 2014/2015 season, Girls/Boys // Boys/Girls, the company is tackling the challenge of adding modern context to a 30 year old script that explores the question of what it means to identify with various expressions of gender and how that has changed over time. Playing at the ATB Arts Barns, Christina~Philippe by Per Brask runs April 30 – May 9.

Per’s 1985 script imagines an encounter between 17th century regents Christina, Queen of Sweden and Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, who both dressed and acted outside of the traditional norms of their gender. Kristi Hansen, who plays Christina, says, “The basis of the play and the argument is [each character asking the other] ‘What do you think about our condition?’ It’s a discussion about… Who are we? What are we? What is this condition we have? Why do I want to be a man and why do you want to be a woman? Why do I have the soul of a man in a woman’s body and why do you have the soul of a woman in a man’s body? What is that about? It’s trying to come to terms with why we are the way we are.”

Written 30 years ago, Kristi says the script of Christina~Philippe definitely reflects the beliefs and attitudes towards gender and gender politics of the 1980s. At only 15 pages long, the script had never been professionally produced, but Northern Light Theatre’s Artistic Director, Trevor Schmidt, decided to work with the playwright to add in other media that extend the show to around a one-hour run time and contextualize it in terms of where the discussion around gender is at in 2015 compared to 1985 and to the 1600s. Kristi says adding the layers of context helps show how far we’ve come in terms of gender politics, and also some of what the future might hold. To do this, Trevor, Kristi, Darrin Hagen and the rest of the artistic team has added in modern musical theatre songs, a soundscape made of verbatim clips from interviews about gender, and metatheatre elements where Trevor and Kristi stop to comment on the script.

Kristi says, “The songs are taken from newer musical theatre, songs that we thought would fit really well in context of what was happening in the scenes to move forward the story. Darrin Hagen has done the composition in a really interesting way, because the play is set in the 1600s, it has a very baroque, romantic feel to these new musical theatre songs. We have a pop song in there as well, but it really has that feeling of the time. There’s also a whole audio landscape taken from interviews we’ve done with people from all walks of life talking about how gender affects them in their life… There’s also a meta part of the piece of Trevor and I breaking down the play or having reactions to certain moments of the play where we go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Is that a product of its time? What is that saying?’ ”

Trevor and Kristi’s intent when interviewing people to create the soundscape was to help get a read on where our society is at right now with regards to gender politics and gender relations. Kristi says they spoke to as many people with different perspectives as possible. “[We spoke] to everyone from people who are huge into gender politics and understand that to people who are really religious and people with the transgender experience or people who haven’t really heard of that and don’t understand what it would be like to be a transgender or gender-neutral person… A lot of the questions we asked are pretty general: How do you identify? ‘Well I’m a man.’ Okay, how do you know that you’re a man? What is male? Do you ever imagine yourself as part of the other gender? Do you have parts of you that are typically male or typically female? What percentage do you feel that represents you in your identity?”

Kristi says the ultimate goal of the project was to ask questions about gender and identity, and explore the answers to those questions with the people they interviewed and the audience. “Certainly Trevor, Darrin and I and the whole team… We’re not experts on the subject so [the play is about] our reaction to it as well… I think we’re starting to understand that gender is fluid and humans are fluid and we can’t really ever stay static and still in our identity at anytime because we are changing creatures… We’ve talked to experts too and they also find that it’s so convoluted when you start going into the rabbit hole of gender. We’re not trying to answer any questions, we’re just trying to raise them… The play ends really abruptly and how the script was written seemed to be saying something we didn’t necessarily agree with so we were trying to re-examine it through these songs, interviews and through our natural reactions. It will be interesting for audiences to see the end and work through it with us and figure out what is this play saying?”

What this production seems to have landed on is, as Kristi says, “The idea is trying to be okay with yourself, however that may be, and understanding that we are fluid and we are changing. To know that it’s okay and that we are allowed to change our minds and ultimately we are fluid creatures and we can’t really be 100% male or 100% female because as humans everything exists within us. A penis and vagina doesn’t dictate that… Someone we interviewed, he’s a transgender male to female and he said, ‘You know, it wasn’t about feeling bad about myself, or necessarily wanting to change. It’s just how I can feel the best. At the end of the day, how can I feel the best? What do I want to be called? What do I want to wear? What takes me from feeling good to feeling great?’ ”

Kristi closes off our interview by saying, “I’m excited for people to come and be a part of the discussion. As a theatrical experiment I think it’s really interesting. I think [Christina~Philippe] is a beautiful collage and I think it’s a great way for Northern Light Theatre to end their season, to bring it on home about what they’ve been exploring this year as far as gender goes in their work.”

Christina~Philippe runs April 30 – May 9 in the Westbury Theatre in the ATB Arts Barns. Tickets are $18.50 – $30.50 through Fringe Theatre Adventures. Northern Light Theatre has a number of special events during the run of Christina~Philippe, including two-for-one tickets on Tuesday, May 5, a post-show salon with special guests on May 6, and a talk-back with the actors and designers on May 7. Check out all of the events during the run on Northern Light Theatre’s website.

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