I first met Svetlana Zylin (1948-2002) when we were both graduate students at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the early 70s. I was in Art History and she was in the Dept. of Theatre.
In the early seventies she founded the first Women’s Theatre Cooperative in Vancouver (of which I was a part) and I co-founded ReelFeelings, a feminist Film and Video Collective (of which she was a part). Svetlana was the first woman to get an MFA in Directing from UBC and went on to direct groundbreaking theatre works all over Canada, to develop and nurture theatre collectives, and to write plays with particularly fascinating, strong female characters, only some of which have been produced.
She starred in my first film, So Where’s My Prince Already? (1976) as the naive, romantic tragicomic bride who never takes her gown off, though the red heart pin moves from her chest to her sleeve, as she somewhat drunkenly stumbles through her marriage and motherhood.
She worked and lived in Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and travelled far and wide to assist small groups with theatre productions. She was a devoted teacher and mentor to many. When she died in 2002, at the age of 54, she left a legacy for everyone interested in contemporary theatre- in Canada in particular.
I visited her back in Winnipeg (where she lived as a child) in late 2001 when she found out she had late stage inoperable cancer. I recorded this interview in which she discusses her passion for theatre, for plays, for feminism and for life. She was 7 years old when she first knew she wanted to be in the theatre. She and her brother set up their garage in Winnipeg as a theatre, made a stage, put on shows, charged a nickel for them. When the Manitoba Theatre Centre (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/manitoba-theatre-centre/) was led by John Hirsch, she got involved as a volunteer and enrolled in the school when it started, where she was inspired by seminal Canadian theatre artists.
Quotes from For the Record:
“I think it was in those days (the 70s) that I had my initial realization that I could never do work on the stage that I could call mine if it was divorced from my political and emotional convictions. So my work has always had a feminist slant. I’m also very dedicated to a lot of life on the stage, to interesting, lively stage pictures, sounds, movement. I’ve never been that enamored of plays that were linear, one set, one story construct.”
“Feminism, for me, was— I don’t know if I’d call it a validation— for me it was a necessity. It gave me a way to justify my need to be- in whatever capacity I chose- center stage of my own life. In those years there weren’t many women directors, I didn’t have many role models, and feminism gave me the strength to maintain my desire and my work and keep pushing forward with it.”
“In 1991, I finally got to produce (in collaboration with Cynthis Grant) a play I wrote called “Djuna, What of the night?”, based on life and work of Djuna Barnes, a melding of all my ideas in terms of feminism and what it takes for a woman to be an artist. I was very intrigued by this woman who was a cutting- edge artist in the 20s and 30s and virtually dropped out of sight and became a recluse- lived alone in a one room apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village for 40 years. “
“Ardele: Would that play (Djuna Barnes: What of the Night?) fly now?
Svetlana: Oh yeah, it’s a very interesting piece…
Ardele: …and has anybody done it since you did it?
Svetlana: No, no.”
“The next play I wrote by myself was The Destruction of Eve, a feminist musical, and it was a revisionist take on the creation myth. God is a woman. It started as a monologue by Eve and then she needed someone to talk to, and she got into a conversation with Mary Magdalene…and then the Blessed Virgin Mary got involved, and you couldn’t do a play about the creation myth without Lilith, so Lilith came forward, and then God. And God had to have minions, so I had three angels originally, but I had to cut two of them due to budgetary restrictions… One angel stayed…Uriel. In the rewritten, big budget version, the other two will come back.”