Any examination of the Brontë sisters’ legacy is usually (and understandably) focused on their novels—English-major mainstays like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, lauded for early flashes of feminism and the spirited, original use of language—or how the authors first disguised themselves as the Bell Brothers. But the family’s most compelling story might well be itself: the complex relationships that existed between the Brontë kin, how literary success shifted and complicated those connections, and how the pervasive tragedy that seemed to stalk the family like a vengeful spectre: the family matriarch and two older sisters passed away when Anne, Charlotte and Emily (and the oft-unmentioned brother, Patrick Branwell) were young. Later, Anne, Emily and Branwell would all pass within a year of each other.
It’s a history full of grim curiosities, easily as quizzical as what’s inside the novels (or, often, referenced within them). So it’s understandable that when Ellen Chorley pitched the idea of a burlesque-theatre hybrid based on the sisters’ writings and lives, Send in the Girls’ resident director Lana Hughes had some measure of reservation.
“I think when she first said it to me, I was like, ‘How is that burlesque?’” Hughes says, with a laugh, seated next to Send in the Girls co-founders Chorley and Delia Barnett. It wasn’t the content she was hung up on, mind you: it was the idea of how to frame it.
“The idea of feminism, and the interesting family dynamics, and what these women were like was totally appealing to me,” Hughes explains. “The interesting part was how we were going to turn it into something that was a theatrical, burlesque-y, event.”
But that’s a question that Send in the Girls has been honing their answer to for a few years now. The company’s created its own singular overlap between theatre and burlesque, where dramatic storytelling meets the art of the striptease. The company’s 2010 debut, Tudor Queens—in which the six wives of Henry VIII find themselves together in the afterlife, staging a nightly show for their ignominious mutual husband—was a Fringe fest sleeper hit, with sold-out houses and Kijiji ticket hunts. A Brontë Burlesque arrived the following summer and the shape they’d settled on was that of a ghost story: on the last night of her life, Charlotte receives a spectral visit from her deceased sisters and brother, together revisiting the highs and lows of their lives together.
Now, after last year’s Tudor remount at the Canoe Theatre Festival and a Fringe off, the company’s resurrecting Brontë as part of the Roxy performance series. (In a theatre with its own rumoured ghosts, no less, though, at least as of this interview, nobody involved had seen any.)
Being removed from show’s former haunt—the now-defunct New City Legion—and placed in a proper theatre means the show’s technical side is getting an upgrade, in addition to script revisions and new costuming. As well, two fresh faces, Samantha Duff and Chris Cook, are rounding out the cast.
The historical bent of Send in the Girls’s current, two-show oeuvre is less a mandate and more a perpetual interest, Chorley notes. In the case of Brontë, getting to dig into the family’s history proved a venerable gold mine of theatrical possibility.
“I knew that Charlotte Brontë had written Jane Eyre, and I knew that Emily Brontë had written Wuthering Heights, but I didn’t actually realize there was a third sister until I started doing research,” Chorley says. “I didn’t realize there was a brother, either. So when I started doing research about the four of them, how close their family was, that was something that was super-interesting to me: the idea of the family dynamic.”
Still, even with its concept in place, the paring of theatre and burlesque proved to be a curious mash-up here: Where Tudor Queens was structured to acknowledge an audience, which eased the burlesque and theatre elements together, this scenario, of the Brontë family alone, together, didn’t offer the same luxury.
“We’re constantly trying to figure out how we make the play—specifically, this play—be aware of the audience, and then bring the fourth wall back,” Chorley notes. “You really have to think about it, and talk about it, and discuss it.”
“We never want it to look like we put burlesque in it as a gratuitous thing to sell tickets,” Barnett adds. “It has to be woven into the entire thing.So that’s where it gets really tricky, in bringing the burlesque element into the story—especially if we’re not going to do what we did with Tudor Queens, which was a show within a show, taking out that meta-theatrical level and still having the burlesque, which is a little meta-theatrical anyways.”
The solution’s been a somewhat broader interpretation of burlesque, though one that still aligns with the art-form’s more socio-political roots.
“Burlesque obviously evokes the idea of people taking off their clothing,” Hughes says. “But there’s a whole element of political satire and that kind of thing in it, so we have the characters create people in the town to make fun of [the Brontës], and it’s a big physical moment in the piece. We try to incorporate a lot of little bits of that, where they are performing for each other … they’re always telling each other ghost stories, when they read each-others’ poems there’s movement involved. There’s always some sort of element of the movement and the performativity behind burlesque, as well as little bits of the satire and that, you’d often find.”
The benefits of working through those issues have proven to be more than skin deep: as darkly tinged a tale as the Brontë’s family history may be, it offers the chance to expand on the why behind burlesque’s clothing removal.
“Tudor Queens was great, because it was a show with really funny elements, and it was more what you’d expect from burlesque,” Hughes says. “But on this one you can see the other side of the coin: you can see the true beauty of it, the sadness and the raw emotion behind it. There’s much more weight, a lot of the time, when people are taking off their clothes, and it means something a lot heavier, and a lot deeper. It’s kind of cheesy, but ‘stripping’ more to the core of the characters as they take off their clothes, it’s more of a symbol of that. And maybe where Tudor Queens had more of the funny and the whimsy, I’d say this play has more of a heart, and more of a deep emotional core to it.”
Until Sun, Feb 2 (7:30 pm; Sun matinees at 2 pm)
Directed by Lana Michelle Hughes
Roxy Theatre, $16 – $20