Community & Current Events

Soul secrets

By: Susan Brixton

Photography by Greg Paupst Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Greg Paupst

Community & Current Events

Soul secrets

By: Susan Brixton
This story was originally titled "Soul Secrets" in the September 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Thirteen courageous women accepted Dove's invitation to bare their souls and take to the stage in the play Body & Soul. Under the direction of celebrated playwright Judith Thompson, these women told their own stories, sang their own songs and shared their own experiences with audience after audience. And what an effect they had. "It was eye-opening," says Gail Whitehouse, who attended the play in Toronto. "Although everybody;s so different, we're really basically the same – we all have a soul."
Dove commissioned Thompson to create Body & Soul to challenge the way society thinks about beauty and aging. Dove invited women from across the country to audition for the play by writing a letter to their bodies. Once the final cast was chosen – all of them over the age of 45 – Thompson crafted the script from the women’s own stories. At first glance, these are ordinary women – mothers and wives, teachers and facilitators, travellers and nurturers – but with extraordinary stories. They overcame stage fright, self-doubt and physical fatigue to each deliver a bold and honest performance. "I felt like a fish in water," says Jeannine Boucher, the cast's eldest member.

The days following the final curtain call for these accidental actors were filled with moments of reflection and, as Lois Fine says, post-dramatic stress. They had formed a genuine bond with one another. Here are their thoughts on the experience of participating in Body & Soul and their philosophies on aging beautifully.

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Jeannine Boucher, 79
Jeannine is the eldest member of the cast and possesses a wealth of wisdom and humour. For much of her adult life, this widow and retired special education teacher has struggled with her memories of growing up in Montreal during the Depression.

Lessons from the stage:
"Many women came to me after the play, and some of them were really crying. Their stories were like mine, and they had always kept silent. They wanted to know how to feel better. I told them not to stay silent but to talk to someone they trust. The experience was a kind of therapy. You hear the good, the bad and the ugly. You laugh and you cry. It's a beautiful thing when women get together and do this."

Rewriting the script on aging:
"For me, beauty is inside the soul. I am surprised when people tell me I'm a beautiful woman. When I was young, and I was beautiful, no one said anything."

Francine Robert-Grainger, 61
Born and raised in Montreal, Francine is proud of her three adult children – all of them in the performing arts – and many grandchildren. Retired from the French school board, she now works with an organization that helps prevent aggression toward children.

Lessons from the stage: "Through the play I was able to forgive myself for some of the decisions I have made in my life. The play permitted me to reflect on my life in an objective way. When young women see it, they learn they can take hardships and turn them into valuable life lessons."

Rewriting the script on aging: "If the inside of you is comfortable, and you feel good about yourself, you will reflect beauty. In some ways I feel more beautiful now, more accomplished as a woman. Beauty is letting the adult in us play with the inner child in us."

Page 2 of 7Ruth Rakoff, 45
When Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was busy raising three boys and beginning a new practice in family mediation. When the prospect of facing her stage fright came along, she tackled it with courage and determination.

Lessons from the stage:
"It was a fantastic experience. It opened a possibility for me because I had never been on stage and was even fearful about it, and yet it felt comfortable. I was totally relaxed. It's a great life lesson for my boys: you can do new things at any age. After experiencing breast cancer I push myself to go beyond my comfort zone. Being in the play was part of that process."

Rewriting the script on aging: "Having faced my own mortality, I am poignantly aware that I am playing a crapshoot. I know that at any second life can disappear."

Ann Marie Hasley, 47
As a social worker for children with autism for the past 12 years, Ann Marie equips many kids with a positive self-image. Once the recipient of cruel teasing from other children because of her height, she now uses her long legs to exercise every day.

Lessons from the stage: "It was enlightening and the best experience of my life. I felt comfortable telling my story and blessed to be involved with this group of women. I learned so much by interacting with them because of all their wisdom; I had so many moms, and I learned to be proud and confident about myself."

Rewriting the script on aging: "You have to feel beautiful inside. It's not about appearance. I tell my three children that whatever they give out will come back to them. I tell them they're beautiful because I never heard that growing up. You have to give your kids good self-esteem."

Gloria Schmed-Scott, 63
Gloria was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., survived the civil rights movement in the southern United States and travelled to Europe, where she met her husband. She now lives in Toronto, spending time with her grandchildren and sharing her talents.

Lessons from the stage: "Being a part of the play has had a profound impact on my belief in the sisterhood. We shared the essential part of ourselves, stripped to the bone, the deepest hurt, joy and despair, and felt the laying on of the hands of other women. All of us will go on with our lives; however, the imprint of this experience will stay with us forever."

Rewriting the script on aging: "The bloom of youth has left my face, yet the joy of my life has left me with beauty and confidence for all to see. Often fear and anger can rob us of our beauty. I would advise any woman to tell her story, rid herself of hurt and anger, and reveal her beauty for the world to see."

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Judy Wark, 52
After losing her husband to cancer, Judy, a writer and musician, volunteers with grieving families and is developing a book for other young widows. She is an active mother of three teenagers and lives in Calgary.

Lessons from the stage: "I rediscovered the creative side of me that has been undernourished until now. From the very beginning of the process, the cast realized that the stories we shared were sacred. We found courage to be ourselves by listening to and accepting each other. I believe I am more whole because the cast so completely shared their lives with one another."

Rewriting the script on aging: "Pretty is the domain of youth, but enduring beauty comes to those who have mastered what life hurls at them with grace. The women I most admire allow their beauty to shine through their convictions and character, and this tends to come as we age. Aging is part and parcel of being human."

Pauline Patten, 56
Pauline is an endless well of energy. This mother of four and grandmother
of 11 owns two hair salons and loves helping young people.

Lessons from the stage: "Before I did this play I was a little critical of my body. Now, I feel so good about myself. I feel beautiful! I did things I never knew I could do: sing, act, memorize lines and tell my story to hundreds of people. I have so much confidence. I've finally found the person I really am."

Rewriting the script on aging: "Beauty is within, that's how I see beauty. It has no age. People say I'm so beautiful because I'm always happy and smiling. When a woman comes to my salon, I feel so good inside when I see her smile on the way out."

Janice Kulyk Keefer, 56
Janice is an accomplished novelist and poet – her work has twice been nominated for a Governor General's Award – as well as a professor of literature and theatre at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Lessons from the stage: "I have made friends with 12 extraordinary women with very different backgrounds and experiences. In a few months, we have gotten to know one another in ways and to a degree of depth that we might not have achieved in 30 years. Working collaboratively on and in a play has given me a wonderful sense of community."

Rewriting the script on aging: "I hope younger women especially will see the documentary and learn that aging is an experience to be lived to the fullest and not feared. It presents challenges and bestows gifts in equal measure. We learn with age to find beauty in a host of things outside ourselves. What a liberation!"

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Barbara Nichol, 54
Barbara doesn't sugarcoat her thoughts. The once-unruly teenager who was banished to boarding school is now an accomplished and award-winning writer, producer and director.

Lessons from the stage: "Following my recent treatments for breast cancer, Judith Thompson got me out of the house and into the world. I became less afraid of my fatigue and more aware of what I could do. The bond between the women is genuine. We were all unsure – standing up in our canoes. Theatre bound us together because none of us knew what we were doing at first."

Rewriting the script on aging: "I had a mother who wasn't vain at all. I'm a monster of vanity! I like the aging that occurs on the inside and seeing how things turn out. As painful as life is, it's always interesting."

Polly Clarke, 64
Polly is an avid traveller – Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Spain and Japan are just a few of the destinations she has visited. She is a retired high school English teacher and former Leader for Heritage Education.

Lessons from the stage: "I feel as if I have walked many miles in the shoes of the others after my experience on stage. I have become a bit more introspective, reconsidering the events of my life and imagining different outcomes."

Rewriting the script on aging: "I am becoming increasingly aware that maintenance is a factor in beauty and well-being. I need to slot in time for exercise and treat myself to the occasional massage. When I get together with my friends from university, we slip back to that age again."

Rhonda Tepper, 49
Rhonda began to lose her hearing as a young child and lost it completely by age 18. She now enjoys improved hearing due to a cochlear implant three years ago. She is a dedicated teacher for children with hearing impairment and autism and the mother of two teenage daughters.

Lessons from the stage:
"The play has had a wonderful impact on how I regard myself and how I view my friendships with other women. I feel richer and blessed by the compliments the other women gave me (on my hair, my writing, my mind, my work ethic), which means so much to me. I think about their words every day."

Rewriting the script on aging: "I look at women, and it's not their age I see but the novella, the saga, the poetry of their journeys. I look at how hard they work, how well they are loved, how generous they are and how they express their talents. They simply radiate beauty."

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Glenda Klassen, 54
Glenda is part of the Cree nation and lives in Langley, B.C, where she works at a women's transition house. She survived a difficult childhood and adolescence and genuinely hopes young women and girls will learn from her experiences.

Lessons from the stage: "The play allowed me to journey into my past. I was able to heal and finally have freedom. Being with 12 extremely confident, courageous and kind women gave me a safe environment to do this healing. I must include Judith Thompson, the director, because without her encouragement none of this would have happened."
Rewriting the script on aging: "Beauty has often been measured by the outside and by what our eyes behold first. Today, as I gain wisdom, I am learning that beauty is what I value: a sense of humour, the laughter of a child, the laughter of an elder."

Lois Fine, 49
Lois was one of the cast's most striking comedic talents. She is a mother, active gay- and lesbian-rights advocate, certified general accountant and an artist at heart.

Lessons from the stage: "Being in the play was an incredible experience. I learned that it's healing to tell my deepest truths and that all of our stories resonate, not only with one another but also with the wider circle of people who get to hear them. The bonds that we have made by sharing our stories with one another, and by performing together, means that we will always be connected."

Rewriting the script on aging: "I hate seeing young women and girls trying to look a certain way and harming their bodies to get to someone else's idea of beautiful. One of the funniest parts of the play was when we sang 'Signs of Aging.' My line was, Chin hairs sprouting, every morning. We were laughing at ourselves because our bodies are decaying, as Jeannine says. But who cares? We're still here, we look great, and being human is beautiful."

Page 6 of 7Reality TV with soul
Canadian Living Magazine talks to award-winning producer and director Veronica Tennant about the one-hour performance documentary she has created based on the play Body & Soul.

CL: What interested you about 13 women over age 45 who were not professional actors yet were starring in a play about their own lives and experiences?
VT: I have always greatly admired playwright and director Judith Thompson, and it has been absorbing to experience the depth of the play and its progression; how mature women have such resilience and textured pasts and presents, and ultimately the courage to reflect on their stories and share them.

CL: As a former prima ballerina – a profession that one can only do, or is only allowed to do, up until a certain age – what did you learn from Body & Soul?
VT: My personal philosophy is to live in the present tense. This means embracing and grappling with the forks in the journey as well as the knives. It also means joy, zest and spontaneity. What I discovered was the resilience of these women, their openness and their tensile strength of vulnerability. What amazed me, and continues in every step of my editing process, was the quality of their stage work. They were not professional actors, but they gave their stage performances the hallmarks of the craft: integrity, consistency and communication with simple humanity. Professionals take years to come to this point, and not all achieve it to the degree that each member of the cast of Body & Soul did.

CL: What can viewers expect when they watch your piece on CBC?

VT: It is about transformation, the over-arching strength of Body & Soul. The play, and the ideas driving it, tapped a nerve in the public in terms of interest and response – standing ovations every night and unprecedented sold-out attendance. In a one-hour show on television, I aim to distill and deepen what Judith so brilliantly gave to the theatre audience, combining the often raw discoveries and revelations in the process of creating the play with the remarkable polish and honesty of the performances.

The television show will be multilayered: wit, grit and beauty. The play was shot in high definition, and the months of auditions, writing and rehearsing were shot by my wonderful codirector-cinematographer, Anita Doron, in a documentary format. Judith described to the women how the making of the play was like quilting, and this is exactly the metaphor I have always used for my style of filmmaking: visually appealing, multilayered, dense and probing.

CL: Why do you think it will engage viewers?
VT: It's relevant and riveting – and make no mistake, this is entertainment. Call it artistic reality TV! It's important to remember that with Judith’s deft guidance, each of these brave women wrote her own material. Their personalities are engaging and their stories searingly truthful. We, as viewers, can relate to each of the women and are provoked to think of our own experience.

These women are all singular achievers: leaders, mothers, activists and, above all, survivors. They illustrate with scars and smiles, hurts and triumphs, a quintessentially Canadian composite of personal stories. Their narratives are harrowing, their words are authentic, their laughter infectious, and their combined voices resonate.

Read more about Body & Soul here.

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Canadian Living applauds Dove for all the work they have done to get the message out that aging is a beautiful thing.
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Soul secrets