Gender politics on stage became a 'bit of a nightmare' for this actor

It was a kind of living nightmare that inspired Lucy Hill's latest script.

The Toronto-based writer and actor encountered two separate theatre rehearsals — both dramatizing domestic violence — that left her feeling trapped, shaken and unsafe.

"The men involved in both cases were very well-intentioned, but completely unaware of the harm they were causing me," Hill said.

"I wanted to write about that in a way that was a little bit of a send up of it. So it's a bit stylized, and we explore it through humour to begin with. And then eventually the idea is that the viewer gets a little bit more and more uncomfortable with what's happening and they're no longer laughing."

Shut Up, which premiered Thursday at the St. John's International Women's Film Festival, recalls those feelings, amping them up to a fever pitch and lending the short its eerie, uncanny-valley quality.

There's still so much to be talked about and work to be done. - Lucy Hill

"It's based on true events, so it was a bit of a nightmare," Hill said.

The story starts off in a theatre, a location neither the characters or the audience will leave for the entirety of the 11-minute film.

The main character, played by Lucy, is practicing for a domestic violence scene, one where she'll be grabbed and tossed around.

In the theatre world, "when there's a fight rehearsal, or anything physical that has to happen, a fight director is called in for the day," explained Shut Up director Molly Flood. "So this story takes place on that special day. And the events snowball into something heavy on Lucy, I would say."

Submitted by Lucy Hill
Submitted by Lucy Hill

Although Hill includes some dark humour at the outset, the events that unfold start to feel oppressive, thanks both to plot and setting.

"I think that Lucy really intelligently set it in a black box theater," a space meant to be transformed by the characters — but one that also contains them, said Flood.

"There is a feeling of her being trapped both physically in the space, and also her feeling trapped within herself, feeling quite isolated within a group of people."

As Hill's character rehearses, what's happening to her begins to spiral out of control — just like a bad dream.

The feeling mimics what she noticed in real life, Hill said.

"Sometimes people get railroaded. The momentum continues, and things can escalate, I think, quite quickly if you're not sensitive to that."

Malone Mullin/CBC
Malone Mullin/CBC

Hill said since her personal experiences, she's noticed an uptick in the number of performances assuring actors that the theatre is a safe space before production even begins.

The #MeToo movement, she said, has made that conversation easier, with production teams explicitly acknowledging gender politics in a way they hadn't before.

But Hill remains wary that the reassurance may turn into lip service.

"There's a danger in this movement and in the thinking of, 'Well, we're there now so it's OK,'" she said.

"I've also experienced recently comments like, 'I can't say this anymore, but,' and then they still say the same thing but they just prefaced it with a warning. So I think there's still so much to be talked about and work to be done."

Hill says her colleagues who've seen the film all find its subject matter uncomfortably familiar.

"It has resonated because it is about a theater rehearsal," she said.

"But it's also not — it's just about gender dynamics in any workplace. And so I think both men and women will be able to watch this and get something from it."

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