As social animals, we like being together: we watch each other, listen to each other, and share in witnessing. It goes without saying that when we are together, we feel less alone.
Among the many things that COVID-19 unexpectedly wrenched from our lives in early 2020 was the ancient ritual of live spectatorship. Sports, political debates, religious gatherings and arts events were cancelled in rapid succession. Some managed to migrate online, but many simply did not translate.
We discovered that breathing together in the same room creates its own magic. We discovered how much we like sharing space with strangers. And we discovered exactly how risky that intimacy can be.
This wasn’t news to Debbie Patterson, who, through her work as a theatre artist, has enacted states of human vulnerability in venues ranging from darkened rooms to school gymnasiums to monastery ruins to parkades. For decades, she has provided audiences with the shared rite of fellowship and transformation that theatre provides. She gives us permission to watch.
Throughout her remarkable career, Patterson has repeatedly challenged audiences to question whose history matters, whose stories have and have not been told, and whose bodies are worthy of being seen. Above all, she has enabled us to see ourselves in the fullness of our humanity, as she describes it, in “our messy, leaky bodies.”
Modern Western theatre traces its roots to miracle plays, liturgical spectacles that date from the 5th century. Even today, there remains something of the transcendent in the form. Despite the artifice—a stage, theatrical lighting, the “fourth wall,” etc.—live artforms transport us, individually and collectively. We are less alone.
Debbie Patterson traces her theatrical roots to “the family business.” Her father was a United Church minister and her mother was a singer and a singing teacher who performed in operettas and recitals. To stand, to speak, to share, to sing was “simply what one did.” The churches in which she was raised in small-town Ontario were the centre of her life. Even Patterson’s childhood homes were extensions, almost literally.
The manses in which she grew up were located next door to the sanctuaries. Patterson credits the social gospel with shaping “my assumptions that we should be dedicated to making the world a better place for people who have less or are less privileged than we are.” But at the same time, she saw the potential for oppression in this doctrine. Being taught that you should always give up your own things for other people “really created barriers for me in terms of feeling like I didn’t deserve to have anything. It is kind of a doormat philosophy that impacted my own sense of self and that of the women around me.”
As a young feminist, Patterson rebelled. She “left home, lived in a van and graduated high school—in that order.” She got married at 19, attended the acclaimed National Theatre School, dropped out and got a divorce. Her childhood dream of being an architect was channeled into puppetry. Patterson, who identifies as bisexual, joined a punk band and moved into Thunder Bay’s House of Lesbians. She experienced the heartbreak and rage of coming of age. She found her voice. And in moving to Winnipeg in 1992 with Arne MacPherson, her partner in art and life, she found a home.
The all-encompassing nature of Patterson’s early church life would be echoed in her commitment to local theatre community. When asked what she is most proud of, she does not hesitate. “My relationships.” As well as parenting two children, Gislina, 27, and Solmund, 22, she has raised up a huge range of Winnipeg arts organizations and artists alike. In 1993, she co-founded Shakespeare in the Ruins, a theatre company that performs Shakespeare’s plays at the outdoor ruins of a 115-year-old monastery in St. Norbert, on the outskirts of Winnipeg. For 15 of the next 16 years, she performed in every Shakespeare in the Ruins production. She also worked as the artistic director of the Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba, a theatre company that enabled community groups to perform their own experiences as popular theatre—a method known as theatre of the oppressed.
Patterson has adapted, written and directed canonical and original works—including Head, a musical she wrote about the women of Henry VIII’s court—and throughout her career has created opportunities for others. She supported other artists through collaboration on cross-disciplinary projects, from experimental video to dance. For years, she performed at every feminist fringe cabaret, Pride cabaret and pro-choice event, even risking nipple injury as Winnipeg’s only topless accordion player! She has been particularly passionate about the importance of bringing theatre to children, and, as both a director and a performer, has inspired future generations. In other words, Debbie Patterson has been a one-woman juggernaut of cultural production for almost three decades.
But along the way, there was a shift. In 1999, Patterson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As someone trained in physical theatre, who could be found performing at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, starring in an independent film or building giant parade puppets within the same week, the impact was profound. She continued to act for a decade but began to focus more on playwrighting and direction. She believed her disability would be a liability in a performance career. Her 20th century theatre training had taught her that the performer’s idiosyncrasies must be stripped away to achieve “neutral,” a blank slate upon which a character could be built. However, the prevailing definition of this neutrality tacitly encompassed all of the biases of the time: white, gender-conforming, able-bodied. She believed that walking with a limp—and later a cane, and then using a wheelchair—would negatively impact her “range.”
In 2009, she stopped performing with Shakespeare in the Ruins but returned in 2016 to play Shakespeare’s Richard III. What followed has changed Canadian theatre, hopefully forever. In 2014, Patterson wrote a play entitled Sargent & Victor & Me about a Winnipeg West End neighbourhood.
“It was all verbatim. All of the texts came from people that I had interviewed,” she explains. “And in the process of interviewing them, I really kind of fell in love with all of them. So I wanted to be the one that shared their words, but I couldn’t walk without a limp or assistive devices. I decided I would do the whole piece sitting in a chair. I would walk out in a blackout, hide the cane under the chair, do the monologues, take the curtain call sitting and then sneak out afterwards.”
She videotaped a rehearsal and sent it to a colleague, her dramaturge Iris Turcott, who was confused. Why didn’t she stand up? Patterson explained her disability and was met with an explosion of insight. Turcott, in her role as outside-eye, told her she should be writing about what was happening to her body, not avoiding it. She said that it was a similar reality to what was happening in the neighbourhood.
The result? Patterson wrote and performed the award-winning play “about how we live within unstoppable processes of destruction” and embraced the restrictions of her body to find “value and purpose in what is.” Reflecting upon that moment, Patterson realizes that throughout her early career, “I didn’t know of any other artists with disabilities. I didn’t think I could continue to perform with a disability, because there were no models.”
After a performance of Sargent & Victor & Me, an audience member asked if she felt a responsibility to advance ideas around disability. Instantly she realized that what she felt wasn’t a “responsibility,” but enthusiasm!
“It wasn’t like something I should do. It was ‘Let me get to it!’”
The Sick + Twisted theatre company was born. One of the company’s first productions was a rich, multilingual (English and ASL) staging of The Threepenny Opera. However, a media interview about the piece laid bare some troubling assumptions. The interlocuter wanted to talk about “how uplifting” being in a show must be for the disabled performers. Patterson replied, “Like, yeah, every play is an uplifting experience for the performers. But that’s not why we do it. We do it for the audience.”
Patterson knew that she and the company members of diverse abilities were creating theatre at the highest professional standards. She would not settle for the “undeserving” position that had inculcated her Christian girlhood; she would insist on full resources, recognition and inclusion for disabled artists as professionals. This position was taken for the benefit of the artists and the artform—what disabled artists can contribute. Patterson believes that artists living with disabilities have something essential to share with all audiences.
This has become particularly clear to her in the time of the coronavirus. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the space between who we are and who we think we’re supposed to be. And that, when you have a disability, that space gets smaller, because you can’t fake it. You can’t pretend. Your vulnerabilities are on display.
“Right now [during the pandemic], we’re doing this amazing thing where we all agree that the vulnerabilities of our bodies are more important than the economy. It’s such a departure from our usual ableist idea that our bodies must be sacrificed in the name of productivity. And it’s hard because were all forced to ask, ‘What is my value when I can’t be productive?’ We need crip art because ableism hurts us all. When this ends, and it’s ‘nose to the grindstone’ again, will we continue to honour our vulnerabilities?”
Patterson believes that theatre provides an arena in which we can forgive ourselves for our failures and grow empathy for others. But the radical, even dangerous act of gathering together is key to this empathy-building. Patterson explains, “For my chosen artform, we all have to be in the same room. And it’s always been dangerous to expose yourself in that way, as an audience or as a performer. It’s very intimate. When you’re performing, you’re using your body to create vibrations, and those vibrations are entering the bodies of the audience, entering their ears… That intimacy creates a platform where we can deepen our ability to empathize.”
That is the gift of live art. We gather together to see ourselves and to see each other. Debbie Patterson has spent half a lifetime practicing the age-old art of theatre and shows no sign of abating. Why?
“For the audience.” She shares her fragility and her power, and in doing so, she reminds us of the fragility and power within ourselves and each other. Human interdependence is particularly evident at this time. We are a web that can share a virus and a web that can support each other. Let us hope we will reunite as an audience again soon, with “our messy, leaky bodies,” to laugh and cry and howl and wonder, and to learn the essential lesson that Patterson so eloquently shares: empathy.
Now and always, we are all in this together.