Director, Producer, Trailblazer: Ida Lupino

In the 1940s and ’50s, in what is considered by many to be the “golden age” of the film industry, few women were working behind the scenes. They could be seen on screen, usually portraying polarized female stereotypes: the virgin and the whore, the good girl and the villain, the love interest and the mother. Behind-the-scenes positions for women virtually disappeared after WWII, coinciding with the societal shift to focus on the nuclear family and feminine ideals. Any role that did exist were always given to white women — women of colour, if they appeared on screen, were generally only given roles that either cast them as servants or fetishized them. That’s an issue that’s still being addressed today. When it comes to contemporary female directors, we are finally seeing support and recognition for their works, but we are only still at the very beginning.

It was the same in the 1940s as it is now: in order to see the stories they want to see, women needed to make the movies themselves.

Ida Lupino did just this. In the 1940s, she was a big ticket actress, working alongside high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart. She was top-billed, talented, and beautiful, but she wasn’t finished. She wanted to make movies. While on the set, she would watch the directors and the camera operators and learn from them, probably one of the best education a young filmmaker could ever get. While she was always a student of film, Lupino didn’t get a chance to direct until she sat in for director Elmer Clifton for the 1949 film Not Wanted when Clifton fell ill. Lupino was not credited, but it was her first unofficial project.

Ida Lupino. Photo via TIFF on Twitter.

In 1950 she opened her own production company with her husband, Collier Young. There, she wrote, directed, and distributed a number of films without studio backing and without famous actors. These were films with strong female characters, complicated women, women on the outside of society. Her topics were controversial for the time — sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, and mental health to name a few —, and even now, despite more open dialogues on these topics, the stories Lupino told and the films she created are still very relevant.

“She’s a humanist,” says Anne Morra, Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “She doesn’t pack her films with known movie stars, so the audience has a character without a story attached to them. Her films could be documentaries.”

In her official directional debut, Never Fear, the subjects are professional dancers and lovers with Carol and Guy at its center. Carol contracts polio and loses the ability to dance, causing feelings of worthlessness and inferiority. In Outrage, Lupino tackles sexual assault, depicting a violent attack on a young woman and the subsequent emotional fallout and police investigation.

A still from Outrage (1950). Source.

These are topics that big production companies would never touch since the box office payoff would have been minimal at best. Who would want to see such terrible and unromantic things? Generally, films at the time were much more formulaic, falling under romance or crime. Think of the noir thrillers from the 1940s and the romantic comedies of the 1950s. The main characters are cool, competent men and the women are seductive, soft speaking side pieces. Lupino’s realistic, female-driven narratives were hardly what audiences at the time were used to consuming.

“She’s quite avant-garde in her role,” says Morra. “She learned from other directors but it’s important not to compare her because her works are very unique.”

Despite not fitting in with her contemporaries, Lupino’s works have staying power. This month, TIFF is hosting Lupino’s first-ever retrospective, showing a restored selection of her works as a director and an actress. Morra, who has done extensive research on Lupino, introduced the screening of Never Fear last Wednesday at the Bell Lightbox. The retrospective celebrates Lupino as both a pioneer for women on screen and in independent filmmaking.

“I hope [viewers] take away the idea of Ida as a revolutionary filmmaker. She was a woman working without a blueprint,” says Morra. “I hope they’re able to rediscover her or discover her for the first time.”

As someone who wasn’t very familiar with Lupino, I discovered her for the first time through Outrage, a movie that tore me up emotionally but impressed me with how it handled a story of sexual assault, arguably better, despite some religious overtones, than some television shows aim to depict it now. I was surprised by it, shocked by it, and thrilled to have discovered such a strong point of view from a female director. We now have many more female perspectives. We have Ava DuVernay, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent, and Kathryn Bigelow, all talented filmmakers with distinct perspectives and styles. It doesn’t make sense to compare them with one another, just as it doesn’t make sense to compare them with Lupino, who worked in a very different time and industry. What cannot be denied is Lupino’s effect on cinema, her legacy of a phenomenal body of work and the ground she broke in her time.

As Morra put it, “She’s someone who deserves to be seen.”

Tickets to Ida Lupino’s retrospective can be found here. The retrospective runs through September 2nd. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Couple of Storytellers: a Conversation with Andrew Shaver and Marie-Ève

A synopsis of Ivan Viripaev’s Illusions on Crow’s Theatre’s website reads, “Passion and death, loyalty and betrayal, truth and fiction, hope and despair, Illusions is a deceitfully dark comedy that playfully unravels the paradoxes of the lives of two couples.” To watch the play, for couples in various stages, seem equal to attending an event where so much self-consciousness and suffering is foreordained; the disparity between rom-coms and life is disheartening, but the similarities, the moments of recognitions in art is a downright catalyst. Perhaps for the better; perhaps for the worse. Imagine the conversation on the ride back home, the late-night not-quite-sleepy thoughts.

Now imagine you were a real life couple delivering the unraveling of ‘paradoxes of the lives of two couples.’

Andrew Shaver and Marie-Ève Perron, who are partners in life, will do just that as partners in storytelling. Andrew, who is also a co-director in the production, plays Man 2 while Marie-Ève plays Woman 2, infusing their voices that carry their personalities and experiences into Viripaev’s text. I called them up the other day to ask about the production and the creative process in talking about a subject in such proximity to their lives.

Due to scheduling conflicts, we could not conduct a three-person interview and instead I spoke to them separately and asked some similar questions; I have conflated portions of the interview where appropriate. 

Hoon: What drew you to Ivan Viripaev’s Illusions

MÈ: I actually saw a production of Illusions and I really liked the text. And I was really excited to come and work in Toronto, in English. It’s my first time playing here, and it’s a big challenge for me as a French Quebecer who spent like 10 years in Paris not speaking English at all. I also really like the space at the Crow’s and it’s exciting to do a production in a new theatre. The group that we are, those who are playing with me, I like them and I thought it’d be fun to play the show together.

A: Marie-Ève introduced the play to me. The initial impulse came first but when I read it, I felt a lot of exciting theatrical potential in it. The text has an interesting and layered storyline. I was drawn to the potential dramatic and comedic possibility of the text. I also knew I wanted to work with Marie-Ève on a piece. She wanted to act in something in English in Toronto and this was an opportunity. So when I was considering texts to do that with, it became obvious that Illusions would be a really interesting fit because it speaks of two women and two men on stage speaking about lives and love and death and betrayal and sadness and illusions. I thought it could be a really good fit for Marie-Ève and I to be actively doing together. Initially, I was thinking of just directing but then I thought, Well, no, it would be nice to act with her, especially on this piece with such a thematic resonance. And it was from there that I thought of Brett Donahue and Laurence Dauphinais who are also a real life couple composed of an Anglophone and a Francophone.

H to Marie-Ève: Describe your character for us. How did you prepare for your role? 

MÈ: It’s interesting because it’s not a usual play — we are playing storytellers who are mostly telling a story about two couples, Danny and Sandra, and Margaret and Albert. I’m Woman 2 and there’s a Woman 1 and there are Man 1 and 2 as well. The author is really funny. At the beginning of the play he wrote, These four people come onto the stage just to tell the story, as if we have no other purpose than to tell the story. But of course we are telling a love story — one couple’s been together for fifty years and the other has been together for fifty four years — so of course what we are telling will be influenced by our perceptions and the way we tell it.

H to Andrew: Were there any difficulties working with a translated text? 

A: I got my hands on the English translation, the one we’re presenting and truth be told I think it’s a fantastic translation. But I also had the French translation that was helpful in cross-referencing ideas. The French translation came second and there are subtle shifts in the text. I think it’s more than just shifts between sensibilities in English and French translations. The French translation happened two or three years after the English one and the play evolved over that time. You know I haven’t spoken to the playwright about this but I can only assume that the shifts that happened in the translations are something he condoned. So his evolution in seeing the play has grown, rightly. So we’re not doing an adaptation by any means, we are presenting the English translation. But it is informed by our access to the French translations and its sensibilities.

H: I know this isn’t your first project together but it seems that Illusions may be the first one that deals so directly with relationships. Could you tell us what it was like working alongside each other on this production? 

MÈ: It was interesting because the first time we worked together he was directing and I was on stage. It’s a different perspective with a different relationship because there’s the director and there’s the actor. But this time, he’s the director but he’s also acting and we’re playing a couple together. It’s a different process with a different way of talking to each other. Usually in life we like the same things; artistically speaking, we have similar tastes. It was easy on that part — we agree on when some thing is working or when some thing is not. It is challenging in the sense that we speak more directly to each other than we would to, say, a coworker. But mostly I would say that it was fun trying to create together. Of course we all share different stories together and some of the things we are telling remind us of what’s happened to us or what could happen to us, which makes it a good reflection of our own lives.

A: That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do the play; the real life resonances in the text. It’s not without its complications, for sure. Any creative process, from my perspective anyways, with your partner involved is potentially — not necessarily, potentially — fraught with frustrations and miscommunications, arguments. Truth be told, we’ve managed to steer clear of most of those. When you wake up with a person, you go to work with that person, and you are creative with the person then you come home with that person… there’s not a whole lot of relief. It can become more agitated than it needs to. The fact that Brett and Laurence go home together — they have their own dynamic, which Marie-Ève and I aren’t a part of. So any pressure that might build up during the rehearsal day or in any process [between us], when everyone leaves, it sort of escapes and the next day you just start again. But when you are working with your partner, you have to be really vigilant about not bringing that tension home because it will become a pressure cooker. We are two people who, when we go home, will continue to talk about the work. For me, for Marie-Ève, for us, we had to learn to leave the work where it is and to be partners again. We had to try not to affect our lives as partners affect our working relationship. But then again, the lines are intentionally blurred in this play. So I think we are just gluttons for punishments, so to speak [laughs].

H: You both work across film, television, and theatre. What would you say, as an actor and a director, makes theatre different from or exciting in ways not found in film and television?

MÈ: It’s the audience. The fact that we play in front of real people and it’s about communication; it’s direct and raw. I think that makes it thrilling and exciting — nobody will edit anything at the end. We’re responsible from the beginning to the end to what we’re bringing to the stage and giving to the audience. I really like that part, which is something film and television don’t have.

A: I love TV and film. I love them but theatre is my first love and when you have your first love, it’s hard to kick that. But what I love about theatre doesn’t exclude my love of tv or film, because they have their own things that make them wonderful. But with theatre, a lot of it for me is the process, the fact that you actually get to dig in for weeks on a text with the artists and the creative team. In film, that’s just often not the case; there’s neither time nor money for that. But the process is sort of part and parcel of what makes theatre theatre; the fact that you spend weeks working on something with people; then you have to bring that night after night after night and bring the work to light over and over again to the audience. The creative process for me and the rehearsal process is for sure about understanding the text and characters and the arc of the piece, but it’s also about living and breathing as an ensemble. Again, I don’t mean to say that this is not necessarily the case in film or television, but it is true of theatre for me. It’s about teamwork and the ensemble. For me I think that came right from playing sports and loving collaboration, being on a team, and doing something as a unit. I love the fact that we get the chance to try again and again, and totry something new: it’s like a baseball or a hockey team, ‘the power play is not working, we gotta do something different tomorrow night.’ That’s what theatre is for me.

Hoon to Andrew: I’ve asked the same question to a few directors and I think you’re the first one to speak less about the audience and more about the process behind the stage and what goes on it.

A: So many of us talk about the audience because we love the audience. But I also think it doesn’t need to be binary like that: theatre is about audience and tv and film are not about the audience. TV and film are also about the audience. It’s on a spectrum. It’s ultimately done to share with an audience and the way we share is different. But in all mediums, the work is shared with the audience.

Hoon to Andrew: How would you describe your style as a director?

A: I think my approach changes every time, given the new material and new stimulus, new teammates. Like a coach — a coach brings in a system and the players execute the system. But I don’t think the system can exist in a vacuum, it can’t just exist in a coach’s head. He or she needs to be able to communicate that to the team for them to execute it. And I think it needs feedbacks need to come back to the coach and there’s going to be a back and forth. I think, for me, that’s what it is: I have a strong idea of what it is that we should be doing, an aesthetic I gravitate toward, and a lens I look through and come back to at moments of confusion. But ultimately it needs to involve the imagination, intellect, and instincts of the entire creative team. And not just the performers but also the designers and stage management; the development of a true creative ensemble voice. It needs to come through, I think, for it to be cohesive, a single lens’s end but I don’t think it needs to begin and end with that single lens. In fact, for my money, that’s limiting. To have the opportunity to have access to many imaginations over one single imagination is a gift.

Hoon to Marie-Ève: What are some roles or ideas you’d like to explore in the future? 

MÈ: I like to sing, so I would like to play with that, something where there’s more singing. I watched really great documentary plays lately that I really enjoyed. I like this kind of theatre and it intrigues me.

Crow’s Theatre production of Ivan Viripave’s Illusions, directed by Andrew Shaver and Paul Flicker and starring Brett Donahue & Laurence Dauphinais and Andrew Shaver & Marie-Ève Perron opens on Friday, April 21st and closes on May 7th. You can purchase your tickets here.

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