Written by: Rachel Ganz
This week the winners of Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Awards were announced and, while I’m not sure I fully understand the point of literary accolades (other than to direct an audience towards irreversible literary tunnel vision), I was thrilled to read that Colleen Murphy has won, for the second time, the country’s most drool-inducing award, this time for her play Pig Girl (2013).
Colleen Murphy has been a long time member of the Actually Edgy Club (a small group of writers I follow who commit to writing a tangible darkness instead of some of the gratuitous fetish”issue” theatre that keeps popping up and stealing any audience we may have left).
Murphy is a hero, actually. Because, there was a year in my life where, if I hadn’t read Pig Girl at the exact moment I did I would have assumed all of our theatre was sanitized, sparking issues and then shying away from them, critiquing conflict without showing any at all, caressing the bunny, if you will, and dissecting the frog which is, of course, the opposite of what I feel our mission should be.
Pig Girl saved my resignation from writing. It induced a new confidence in me: a sense of security knowing that if I love dark, disgusting things, I can write dark disgusting things as long as they’re stories. “Things” can appear. But, a Story needs to happen. As it does in Pig Girl.
Murphy tells a story with GUTS. Ripped out, torn apart, ugly, smelly, upsetting guts, displayed not just for display but to convey a painful occurrence, a narrative, a grievance, a shameful happening she feels we need to see truthfully and therefore violently, if necessary, as it happens to be.
Now that it’s won an award I’m sure and I hope that you’ll read it but, if you’re like me and you don’t usually trust accolades I’ll list a few basic reasons why it’s worth a read anyway and why it’s recent success has renewed my faith in Canadian literary awards (and probably theatre in general).
1. Obvious political controversy
Pig Girl is based on the Pickton murders, a famed series of really upsetting slayings which occurred on Robert Pickton’s pig farm in Port Coquitlam, BC, roughly between 1980-2002. Since most of the victims were First Nations women the story is considered by many to be one that belongs to First Nations storytellers, and since Colleen Murphy is not of First Nations descent it felt painful to many individuals to hear their story depicted by a White writer before they had a chance to share a version of it themselves.
The controversy would have been obvious to any writer but Murphy wrote Pig Girl (brutal violence included) regardless thereby asserting her status as a reputable writer to voice a story she felt deserved representation and proving her badass commitment to personal authenticity despite conflict.
I cannot pretend to be an expert on this specific dilemma but I have to admire any writer who outputs her instincts and impulses regardless of consequence.
For more information on the conflict and to hear what the original (all White) cast had to say about it, you can read the Edmonton Journal’s report on a 2013 post-show talk back.
2. Courageous Cinematic Stage Direction
Pig Girl is what I would call a Banquet of Challenges. It isn’t a producer’s dream by any means. The action occurs with such detail it echoes cinematic privilege. Despite no real opportunity for “close-ups” Murphy remains specific at crucial moments. This tactic is masterfully directed at artists who need to work from the text (actors, directors) so that they can properly interpret Murphy’s vulgarity. Rather than writing for producers Murphy has written her play for the production’s involved artists thereby committing them to the same energy she’s put into writing it.
3. Relentless Pain
Pig Girl begins with a woman in pain and it just gets worse. The show is a journey from pain to more pain. Whereas most shows would fear relying on such a dead-end process, Murphy throws it on stage in what feels like an uncensored heatwave of hopeless agony. The result is a sickening but pragmatic truth: Sometimes there’s no way out. Unlike so many of us who are afraid to expose ourselves too aggressively in our writing, Murphy has invested her writing into portraying a purity rather than a dilution.
4. Disposal of Hope
Murphy knows that we’ll be watching the show desperately hoping for something OK to happen and she very impolitely trashes our virtuous wishes. It isn’t cruel because it’s satisfyingly, so basically real. The documentary feel of the play doesn’t allow for disappointment but it also can never allow for the usual glimmer-of-hope-ending we’ve come to love. As a result, we can’t help but hope while we watch, tragically knowing that this can only get worse.
5. Inescapable visceral imposition
Given all of the above qualities, Pig Girl goes beyond invoking the audience’s senses to elicits the viewer’s entire body. Again, the shock value is gone well into the play because we’re asked to watch a vulgar story rather than a vulgar thing. We follow the narrative and accept the volatile circumstances long enough not to be shocked and so it isn’t gratuitous sensations that we feel but rather the actual upset, the real nerves of a horrified witness, inescapable because rather than just having a few characters discuss cruelty, Murphy gives an actual display. The audience can’t be helped. Pig Girl is the full experience of disbelief, of that moment where you cannot accept the terms of a tragedy, but then you fall to the floor knowing you must.