Arianne Shaffer is interested in what it looks like to be “improper,” or out of step with certain social norms, particularly as a woman.
The writer and performer’s one-woman show A Lover Improper, which was written by her and directed by Toronto actor and director Adam Lazarus, debuts at the Toronto Fringe Festival June 29.
The show explores, in four distinct acts, the themes of sex, pleasure, love and what it means to live in a female body.
Shaffer explained by phone that the idea of a “lover improper” first came to her several years ago when she decided to write a book of essays about her search for “a certain type of match.”
The plan for the book was to “write about all the different ‘improper’ lovers I’ve had over the years,” Shaffer said, and to recount experiences where she encountered, for instance, “the right guy, wrong country.”
But after she showed a few of the essays to a friend in a writing group, he suggested the stories would come across better if they were told live on stage.
Shaffer, whose artistic experience has primarily been as a storyteller, applied for the Ontario Arts Council Word of Mouth Grant, which supports storytellers developing shows, and about three years ago, she began to turn the essays into a full-length stage performance.
As she worked on the script, the idea of improper expanded to include questions such as, “What does a ‘proper’ body look like? What are the ‘proper’ relationships I should have?” Shaffer explained, stressing, “I’m looking at all the places where I am ‘improper’ in my life and discovering where I land with that.”
Shaffer, 35, grew up in North York attending the Reform Temple Emanu-El, where she said her eyes were opened to progressive ideas of inclusion, social justice and human rights.
She has long been interested in interfaith work: after studying religion at Concordia University and completing a master’s degree in interfaith dialogue in Costa Rica, Shaffer moved to Montreal and worked as a hospital chaplain.
She has also led interfaith dialogue sessions around the world.
“I’ve always enjoyed engaging with people who are different me from me and that has played into my relationships and sexuality,” she noted.
As a single woman in her 30s, however, Shaffer said she’s often subject to other people’s projections regarding what her life “should” look like.
“There are a lot of ideas within the Jewish community about how to live and how to procreate. Because I have this [female] body, I should naturally make a lot of babies. It’s fascinating to me how many questions people have about something so personal,” Shaffer noted.
Shaffer stressed that she’s not an actress, but a storyteller.
“My best strength is to show up as myself and tell these stories to the audience as I would to a friend,” she said.
The show consists of her doing so, recounting incidences from her life according to the four themes.
In the chapter on “body,” for instance, Shaffer meditates on sex and the complications that can arise from it, as well as body image.
Having grown up in a family with a lot of women, she addresses how they related to their bodies both positively and negatively, and also what it’s like “to have this body as a women in this moment in time.”
In the “sex” section, Shaffer recounts incidents such as her first sexual experience, as well as a period in her life where she didn’t have sex because of a trauma she’d gone through, and how sex eventually re-entered her life.
In “love,” Shaffer addresses heartbreak and the ways it’s featured in her life, in addition to the joys of being in love. In “pleasure,” she explores what she said is her “spiritual connection to pleasure.”
While much of the show focuses on romantic relationships, Shaffer said she’s not interested in narratives that are simply about a woman’s search for a partner and end in her finding a husband.
“I’m looking at being a whole person while you’re looking. We as women have careers, traumas – there’s so much more to being a woman in this generation than just finding love.”
Shaffer is a regular contributor to Raconteurs, a monthly storytelling event held in downtown Toronto and the star of the new web series North of Bloor.
Tickets for A Lover Improper can be purchased here.