Volume 19 Number 1
Helping Women to Find Their Voice
01 February 2006

Actress Julia Varley uses theatre to empower. She talks to Andrea Cabrera Luna. by JULIA VARLEY

JULIA VARLEY LOOKS at the audience in silence. She fills the space with her presence as she walks across the stage in the dark. This is a path she has walked several times; and yet it remains new every time she walks it.

Did she choose the theatre or did it choose her? It is hard to know, but what is clear is her total dedication to the craft. Varley joined Odin Teatret, which is based in Holstebro, Denmark, in 1976. One of her special passions is voice training. She has also set up a solid platform for other women's voices to be heard.

Little by little, she lights the stage with candles. Then the other actors take their place: Inside the Skeleton of the Whale, a play based on Franz Kafka's Before the Law, is about to be performed.

The play's title alludes to a verse in the Gospel according to Matthew: 'Our evil and adulterous generation demands a sign. But no sign will be given to us, except for the sign of Jonah.' A man wants to enter into the gates of the Law, but he does not dare to do it without permission. He bribes the doorkeeper, who accepts the money but never lets him in: 'I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.'The man waits and waits until he grows old. The play poses a question: 'Everyone strives to reach the Law. How is it possible that during all these years no one else asked to be admitted?'

Crossing the threshold of vision to action is a central theme for Varley. She was born in London in 1954, but she has lived in Denmark most of her life. Apart from being an actress, she has worked as a director, a translator and a teacher.

In 1986, she and Jill Greenhalgh invited 36 women from around the world to Cardiff, for a series of workshops, performances and critical discussions on theatre. In the beginning they did not mean to create a women's festival, but they realised that the people they wanted to invite were all women. 'It was they who were doing interesting work and asking questions about the theatre and the world,' says Varley.

Although no performance is complete until there is someone to see it, the actors have to spend many hours in isolation, exploring the possibilities of their characters. Those hours can be times of great loneliness and internal struggle. The festival gave the actors an opportunity to feel accompanied and to get feedback from others. They found ears to hear their stories, and souls to share their pain-as well as their dreams.

'At the end all the women who had taken part in the final performance said that it had been very important for them and they wanted somehow to continue,' says Varley. So, the festival became an ongoing process through which the women have found the strength to carry on with their own projects and training back home.

Varley organised a second meeting in Holstebro. Many initiatives have arisen since then, generating a ripple effect in which 'you put a stone in the water and it continues further and further'. Today, the cross-cultural network is called the Magdalena Project and spans more than 50 countries in which festivals, workshops and symposia are organised.

Although women dropped the first stone in the pond, the ripples have also had an effect on men. 'When we started in 1986, women felt a lot of pain as they shared their stories and would burst into tears. In 1994 there was another festival in Cardiff, which was a kind of celebration, and then men started to cry. I felt proud that we had actually created a space where they could show their vulnerability,' says Varley.

Because live performance is an ephemeral act, difficult to grasp, Varley has decided to write and edit articles about it in an annual journal called The Open Page.

The journal tells the stories of women like Maria Canapa, a classical actress who decided to stay in Chile during the dictatorship. Canapa taught women in poor neighbourhoods theatrical speaking skills, so that they could speak in the meetings which their husbands could no longer attend because they were in prison or had disappeared. 'Maria must be over 80 and I felt that if I didn't interview her and write about her, her valuable voice would disappear too,' says Varley.

The last Magdalena Project took place in Santa Clara, a provincial town in Cuba, that had never hosted an international festival before. In the mornings, there were practical workshops for local people. Then there were meetings, lectures, discussions, films, and in the evening there were performances.

The visiting women worked in two languages (English and Spanish). They did several performances in the streets and organised exchanges of songs in an orphanage and in an old people's home. 'In many places where people are not used to seeing theatre, the reaction they have is that of gratefulness' says Varley. 'Bringing other cultures to their town makes it possible for them to travel without leaving their country.'

As part of her work with Odin Teatret, Varley organises Transit, another international festival which provides a forum for actors to share their artistic and political visions. During one of Transit's festivals, dedicated to women and politics, three questions were put on the table: How do we do theatre? Why do we do theatre? And where do we do theatre?

Many women taking part worked in mental hospitals, hospitals for disabled people or in very difficult neighbourhoods. So, says Varley, 'they felt they had to take a position on what was happening in the world'.

Patricia Araiza, from Teatro La Candelaria in Colombia, was one of the women invited to Transit. She brought a group of young teenagers who performed a 'rap opera'. Araiza works in the streets of 'La Crucesita', one of the difficult neighbourhoods in Bogota, with drug addicts and prostitutes. She organises her own festival with the 'desechables', which literally means people you can throw away. Instead of that, Araiza has helped them to use their skills and to be seen by others.

Another Transit Festival took the theme of 'Generations'. Varley is concerned about how knowledge is transmitted from one generation to the next: 'In theatre, pedagogy is approached in a different way; it's not something you can sit at a desk and learn. You need the physical contact.'

The most recent Transit was called 'Roots', and it explored again the issue of theatrical training. Varley was concerned about the fact that people have to travel abroad to learn stage techniques instead of staying in their original culture and studying it in more depth. She invited women from several countries who had been going back to their roots. One of them was Luisa Calcumil, a Mapuche from Argentina, who is looking at the rituals of her grandparents through experimental theatre.

At the risk of asking the obvious, I enquire why Varley is interested in other women. Her voice is sweet but her eyes are strong: 'Women who work with theatre know about the secrets of actions and how an action contains an opposition. They know about the importance of the individual, and the life of their own personal stories. They value the relationship of human to human. I think that these voices need to be heard if something is going to change in our male dominated society.'