York film professor’s research leads her to Rwanda and beyond

York film Professor Colleen Wagner’s current project, “Theatre of the Wounded”, places women at the centre of heroic myths, a space they have not traditionally occupied. Wagner’s creative undertaking, which is funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, seeks to give women and girls a new role and voice, something that no longer characterizes them as diminished or victimized.

Right: Colleen Wagner

Often typecast as temptresses, stoic wives or the spoils of war, women have been overshadowed in myths by the male protagonist. Wagner’s project, which includes the writing of a play, the film documentation of the research process and the preservation of oral traditions, will be developed in post-genocide Rwanda and post-apartheid, AIDS-plagued South Africa.

Wagner says she is interested in “how trauma and atrocity impacts upon the ways that women in particular come to understand their affiliations and notions of community, responsibility and citizenship and how these might give shape to a new female-centred mythology.”

She considers post-genocide Rwanda a site where women’s roles are changing, since their traditional ones are no longer sustainable in the post-traumatic climate. Wagner says that Rwanda offers an ideal setting for an exploration into how these changes may inform a new female-centred mythology.

Her multi-faceted and collaborative project will bring together artists, women’s organizations, the local community and other professionals. During the first phase of the project, Wagner will travel to Rwanda and South Africa to lead workshops with women’s organizations, students, teachers and artists. With the help of a cinematographer, she will capture the process and make it available as a documentary. She will also be travelling to various memorial sites, prisons and throughout the countryside to record traditional oral myths. This essential component of her project, she says, will ensure that the oral stories and discussions can be made available as archival records that will be submitted to various libraries and universities in both Canada and South Africa. Following the completion of this research, Wagner will mount an initial sketch in Rwanda, Cape Town and Johannesburg of a play that will bring her research and oral traditions together.

The final play will be performed in Toronto, Rwanda, South Africa and as a York student theatre production. Though the play itself will be a fictional narrative, Wagner places great importance on the research potion of the project “in order to let the women’s voices speak to their particular environment…and give the play a base in reality.”

The stories portrayed in the play will rise out of the actual experiences of women who survived horrific political events, coped with troubled realities and went on to rebuild their lives and the lives of their families. For Wagner, “A new female-centred myth, is timely” in light of the ongoing bloody civil wars, genocides and rapes.

Wagner is a professional playwright, film script and short fiction writer. Her first stage play, Sand, was shortlisted for best international play at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England, in 1989. She won the 1996 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama for her play The Monument, which was also nominated for a Dora Award. The Monument has been translated into French, German, Romanian and Mandarin, and has been produced across North America and in Australia, Europe and Beijing – the first commercial production of a Canadian play to be produced in China. In 2006, The Monument became the first production by a non-black writer to be presented by Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre Company.

Wagner’s other stage credits include Eclipsed and The Morning Bird, which premiered at the NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival in Fredericton, NB in 2005. Her other current projects include a new play titled Home, a screenplay adaptation of The Monument, and the story-editing of a documentary film, Hallowed be thy Name.

Submitted to YFile by Vivian-Sofia Mora, a fourth-year visual arts student in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts