Defying Pronouns

On Presenting Ungendered Performance
Thursday, October 10, 2013

What started as an idea to combine writers and musicians evolved into a powerful artistic statement about the failure of traditional gender roles.

For the Chan Centre’s first performance in a new “Writers and Music” series, I was keen to book Vancouver novelist Ivan E. Coyote because I was familiar with Ivan’s readings, which addressed gender issues in a candid and humorous way. Through her agent I discovered that Ivan was working with musician Rae Spoon and video artist Clyde Petersen to develop a multi-media project called Gender Failure.

Since the Chan Centre is part of the University of British Columbia, Gender Failure was a perfect reflection of the university’s intercultural plan, which acknowledges that gender and sexuality issues are important to students. Gender Failure also fit the Chan Centre’s goal to increase student engagement. We were thrilled when the president’s office gave us financial support through the President's Endowment Fund.

By partnering with UBC’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, we were able to connect with students who were interested in gender issues and harness the resources to offer free tickets to all students.

Leading up to the performance, Ivan’s agent and Dr. Mary Bryson, director of the Institute, stressed what we already knew:  it is important to be mindful of our use of pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she,’ especially when working with artists who address gender issues.

Once a week, our programming, operations and ticketing managers meet to compare notes on upcoming events. In the meeting before the Gender Failure show, I brought up the subject of pronouns: “Ivan is ok with ‘she,’ Clyde uses ‘he’ and Rae prefers ‘they.’”  As the staff took notes our production person looked at me and said, “Can you send that in a memo?’” We all laughed but it showed how everyone was making the effort to get it right by addressing our language usage and assumptions.

On the day of the show, when the artists arrived, everyone tried to use their names in place of pronouns but years of habit are hard to change. I found myself stumbling over the ‘pronoun challenge’ and despite my best efforts I managed to put my foot in it at least once but the artists were gracious and appreciated our efforts. Backstage, the mood was fun and enthusiastic.

Ivan, Rae and Clyde’s performance to a sold-out house was candid, poignant and very well-received. Even though many of us thought we were knowledgeable and sensitive about gender issues, this performance greatly increased our understanding and compassion for people who do not fit neatly into the clichés of one gender or the other.

The audience was mostly students, many of whom had clothing, hair and body language that defied traditional notions of gender. Proactively, our Customer Services Manager had instructed FOH staff not to be concerned who used which bathroom.   

In an engaging and challenging performance, Ivan, Rae and Clyde highlighted the importance and value of the arts in addressing social issues.

Wendy Atkinson is the Programming Manager at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The Chan Centre is a WAA member.


Wendy Atkinson