By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I’m going to let you in on a secret, girls. Eyelashes are back,” advises Marilyn Miles, the original face of Estelle Cosmetics, in The Look.
Lashes may be back. Live in-person theatre (formerly known as ‘Tteatre’), alas, is not. Which is why the solo play, a beauty culture satire by the Australian playwright/ screenwriter Alexa Wyatt, opens Friday in a debut digital streaming venture from Northern Light Theatre.
“Stressful!” declares director/ designer Trevor Schmidt, NLT’s artistic director cheerfully of NLT’s “straight to video” move online for this second production of its 45th anniversary season, a quartet of shows devoted to showcasing the work of actresses of a certain age. “Twice as much work, to be honest…. A lot of things are out of my control and that’s challenging — at a time period when we’re all feeling that things are out of our control.”
If there ever was a play, though, that lends itself to being “reconceptualized” (as Schmidt puts it) for film, it might be The Look. “It’s a kind of TED Talk, a training video lecture for the young women who’ll be working the Estelle make-up counter,” says the director of the prophetic 1992 play, updated in details by the playwright for this North American premiere.
The glamorous Marilyn (played by Linda Grass), the first “Estelle girl” who’s lived inside an identity forged in beauty and youth, “has aged out of being the Estelle super-model now.” Her career on the wane, she’s been relegated to training the new generation of Estelle beauties. Says Schmidt, “and as the play goes on, she digresses from the speech she’s prepared, to reminisce about her famous fantasy looks from the past. She shows us all the people she has been, she’s been created to be, in ad campaigns.…”
“We see them on the the giant screen behind her. And we see where she’s at now, emotionally, in the present. A bit unmoored…. She lets her guard down.”
In the course of her training talk, Marilyn is liberally applying layers of make-up, and we’re in the presence of an expert. As Grass puts it, “the more she puts on, the more she reveals” — of her real self and her identity crisis.
In the beauty industry, time is not on anyone’s side. Marilyn “has lost her sense of personal identity,” says Schmidt. And there are wider applications. “It happens to many women for various reasons at points in their lives.” He points to empty nest syndrome (“who am I if I’m not a mother?”) and relationship break-ups (“who am I if I’m not a girlfriend?”). For the protagonist of The Look, the question is “who am I when I’m no long seen as an object of beauty? What is my value? How do I fit into the world? Where do I get my validation now?”
“Her career has fizzled out,” says Grass, a favourite Schmidt leading lady. “And if your identity is all about your work, how easy is it to reinvent yourself when that happens? Her personality is tied up in her looks…. She tells the girls that wearing make-up lies at the very heart of her perception of herself. She knows who she is because she’s seen.”
Almost from the time she relocated to Edmonton in the mid-‘90s from her home town of Regina, Grass, amusing and genial in conversation, has starred in many Schmidt productions. Her fearlessness and affinity with the offbeat darkly comic muse of The Unconscious Collective, an indie-co-op of the time where many of Schmidt’s early pieces, like the monologue quartet Tales From The Hospital, premiered, made them ideal collaborators from the start, he says.
And Grass has the the resumé to prove it. It includes such off-centre comedies as Too Bad She’s A Big Ol’ Slut and Kiss My Asp!. In the wacky musical Congo Song, a cross-gender, cross-species comedy, she played the snake. At NLT, among other productions she starred in the The Beard (as Jean Harlow, in a cage made of swimsuit elastic in Schmidt’s theatre-in-the-round production), and as the teacher in Miss Margarida’s Way, a dark Brazilian satire about the limitless expansiveness of power.
Schmidt is fulsome. “I love working with her! Great sense of humour! No ego!”
For theatre artists the pandemical era is a test of flexibility (and survivability, that’s a word). We Had A Girl Before You, originally planned for the Studio Theatre in the TransAlta Arts Barns, had to be re-thought and re-designed (“on the same budget!” says Schmidt) when it was bumped to the much larger Westbury in November. Like Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs, The Look was originally planned in a live cabaret format, with make-up mirrors and palettes at every table. When that proved impossible, NLT spent December considering options. “All of them, except film, included ‘cancel’. And we didn’t want to do that,” says Schmidt.
Ergo, the transmutation of a theatre into a film company. Filming The Look, says Schmidt, was “a whole new level of planning things out . two cameras, long shots, medium shots.…” The company received an AHS exemption to gather, with a minimal crew, in the Studio Theatre, masked and distanced, to shoot, during limited hours in the building.
The Look is not a movie, Schmidt emphasizes. “We don’t have the money for that; to try to deny the theatre roots of something is to fall short…. We are filming a play.” In April Something Unspoken, the third of NLT’s 2020-2021 shows, will be filmed for digital streaming too. “I’m still struggling to wrap my head around how we’ll do it.” Plans for the fourth anniversary production, The Ugly Duchess in the Westbury Theatre in May, depend on the state of the world by then.
Meanwhile, the timeliness of the play, after nearly three decades, hasn’t faded, says Schmidt. “It doesn’t say anything new…. It talks about the pressures on women in the beauty industry, and in a patriarchal society where women’s currency, sexual viability, is based on looks…. So, nothing new. But it’s interesting that we still need to (explore) it.”
In a way, he thinks, “COVID has done a good thing. A lot of people went gray, stopped colouring their hair…. We’ve become obsessed with youth, what’s new and emerging blah blah blah. We don’t have to be constantly chasing youth.”
Theatre: Northern Light Theatre
Written by: Alexa Wyatt
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Linda Grass
Where: streamed from northernlighttheatre.com
Running: Jan. 22 to 24 and Jan. 28 to 31