Playwright Susanna Fournier, aka ‘Stencilboy’?
Each scene of Susanna Fournier’s play Stencilboy and Other Portraits ended with a soap opera-esque dramatic drum roll. Everything else worked just fine, though, which means I can focus on playwright Fournier’s writing rather than the production.
Theatre tends to get left out of the literary circle. It has its own listings in the free weeklies and radically different social scenes, but writers aren’t nearly as important as actors and directors in this world, and actually publishing plays in book format is typically an afterthought following a successful production run. Tennessee Williams and Judith Thompson can be found on book store shelves and high school English syllabi. Harder to find are literary discussions or reviews of new plays instead of reviews that focus, understandably, on the performance.
The gap between fiction/poetry authors and playwrights is primarily economic, as one group depends on publishers and the other depends on actors and directors. Without recognizing that a hierarchy of genres persists in literary culture, drama has been quietly dropped from it. Economic differences do not mean that drama does not count as literary enough to merit a literary review, though, and expanding literary reviews beyond fiction and poetry may help reintroduce plays to literary culture.
Stencilboy and Other Portraits centres around Lily, a girl who grew up on a farm, eyes shut in family photos to display her malcontent. She hops a train and winds up in the City, a bleak place with more concrete than jobs and a lingering apprehension and stagnation following “the bail-out” and “the riots.” In the train yard she meets Stencilboy, a graffiti artist who works for the city by day painting over his own stencils. The reason she came, though, was to convince a big name artist—rather obviously called “The Artist”—to paint her. The trouble is that “The Artist” no longer paints, he only writes artist’s statements to buy time before his city-funded show.
In this play, Fournier is tackling several topics all at once, including objectification, violence and politicization as they appear in various forms of artistic expression. Lily does not come to the city to be a model or to get her portrait taken purely out of vanity. She wants to be transformed into art because, for her, art is better than life. She wants to see herself transplanted into a better world that can touch the divine or the beautiful. What Lily neglects to account for is that art can also be worse than life. “The Artist” soon discovers that Lily’s younger brother drowned some years ago and he begins to make various sketches based on the boy’s death, inspired by the darkness in Lily’s past, rather than the bright future she sees for herself in the art world, a dichotomy she is eventually forced to come to terms with.
By the end of the play, Lily needs neither “The Artist” nor Stencilboy to paint her. She’s been photographing the city all this time. After “The Artist” hits her in an alcoholic rage, she balloons her bruised selfies and plasters “The Artist’s” city-funded gallery show with her own bloodied image. “The Artist” finally paints Lily as well, in an 8×8 portrait, pregnant with her drowning brother.
Stencilboy adds his own touch from the canister to the 8×8 portrait and winds up in jail. Despite the focus on Lily, Stencilboy gives most of the narrative perspective to the play, interrupting from time to time with soliloquies that fill in characters’ mental states. While Lily is at the centre of a story about a woman learning to be the creative force in her own life and evolving beyond how men see, use, and abuse her, it is Stencilboy’s narrative arc that implicitly criticizes Lily’s move to the city and rise to art-fame. Both Stencilboy and Lily sabotage the established art world to give their own art a stage but Stencilboy actually vandalizes a painting and crosses the boundary from acceptable “artsy” transgression into criminality—even in the eyes of scandal-hungry art vultures. Fournier’s story rewards Lily’s growth toward self-expression. She makes a minor tragedy out of Stencilboy’s boyish irreverence for high art and his refusal to accept help from a violent and exploitative man. By the third act, Lily fades from lead to supporting role. With Stencilboy’s character, Fournier complicates a typical feminist victory with a failure to overcome class-based prejudices.
Street arts like graffiti exist largely as adaptations to a poverty of resources, like lack of studio space and expensive paints and canvases. They are still widely rejected as art and suffer from a reputation as vandalism and public nuisance. As satisfying as it is to see the established and abusive “Artist” shamed and exposed in public and his art ruined, Fournier is careful to point out that Lily presents the incriminating selfies to the art world and not the police. Character roles are further complicated when, in the end, it’s Stencilboy and not “The Artist” who ends the play in handcuffs. While it is possible to criticize Lily for artistically exploiting her own victimization, the play’s gender-based plot line resolves positively with a woman’s ascension to the art world, whereas its class-based conflict ends with injustice.
The androcentric art world, rebuked as it is, remains in control, lending itself as foil to up-and-coming feminine stars while continuing to exclude and punish street arts like graffiti. The program bills Stencilboy and Other Portraits as taking place in a dystopian city, a slightly exaggerated version of post-recession Toronto. However it may not be a stretch to call any city dystopian where art remains a crime and artists can be jailed because their genre or their medium is officially unacceptable.
Stencilboy and Other Portraits was a Next Stage Theatre Festival production at Factory Theatre. Next Stage Theatre Festival wrapped up on January 19th.