Toronto stage director, teacher, and performer Tracey Erin Smith has seen first-hand what happens when a woman transforms into a man.
As the creator of the acting workshop Dude for a Day, Smith has helped women dig into their more masculine impulses while providing them an opportunity to, literally, stand in a man’s shoes and rummage through his clothes. (Maybe even try on some facial hair, too.)
However, with the cultural currency of the #MeToo movement continuing to inspire conversation, Smith was compelled to magnify this gender-bending with her latest production for the Toronto Fringe Festival.
“Even though #MeToo is necessary and it’s time for that human evolution where women and men are treated equally… I could also see it was creating more of a gender gap,” she says.
We The Men, which begins its eight performances at the former Cadillac Lounge on July 4, focuses on eight adult men grappling with their masculinity. Each of the characters are portrayed by a woman and beyond the cast, women comprise the entirety of the show’s crew.
“I told [my cast] at the beginning, ‘I want you to play a man from your own culture, and I want you to interview men from your culture and find out how they were raised to view women,’” Smith tells The CJN.
These raw, intimate conversations spawned the material for the 75-minute show. In We the Men, the conceit that brings these eight characters of various ages and cultural stripes together is a Craigslist ad promising an evening of bonding in the “man cave”.
This location provides an outlet for the show’s multicultural cast to explore different variations of masculine behaviour. Jewish actor Savannah Binder, also known by her drag alter ego ZacKey Lime, rounds out the ensemble in a role that examines queer Jewish masculinity.
The collective Smith has assembled is a mix of classically trained stage actors, sketch comics, drag kings and first-time performers.
During those primary interviews, Smith says she wanted to know about the conversations men are having to which women are not privy – as well as the jokes being told at their expense.
These preliminary discussions with various men also enabled Smith to develop more compassion, the director explains.
“A lot of the men mentioned feeling an expectation from women that they’re supposed to be ‘the man.’… Even the women say they want a sensitive guy, but some [men] said when they start showing vulnerability or tears or fear, they see a very fearful look on the woman’s face. It made me think, That’s not fair to put that expectation on men. They didn’t come in knowing how to be this ‘man’ that doesn’t really exist.”
Beyond the interviews, the characters in We the Men also evolved from the performers’ instincts.
“Once they found the physicality, the facial hair, the costume, then I put them in what’s called a ‘hot seat,’” Smith says. “I had a conversation with them and they answered, fully, in first-person [as their character].”
“What comes out blows everybody’s mind, because when you change your physicality, your physiology changes. The brain instantly knows what a person whose body is like that would say.”
Smith has had a long career of success with the Toronto Fringe Festival. Her 2017 hit The Clergy Project focused on spiritual leaders from across the Greater Toronto area, and 2012’s ‘snug harbor’ explored Smith’s relationship with her late father.
Meanwhile, as the founder of the SOULO Theatre Company, Smith has helped artists create engaging, autobiographical, one-person shows. In We the Men, though, the characters are carved directly from male experience and not the direct lives of performers.
The urgency of the subject matter has created interest beyond Toronto’s theatrical community. We the Men will play for a one-night engagement in New York City later this month.
“I like the originality of it and the timeliness of it,” Smith says of her latest project. “I don’t think there’s a show like this anywhere yet.”
For dates, showtimes, and ticket information for We the Men, visit the Toronto Fringe Festival website.