The Clichettes


Taken from Canadian Theatre Review Spring 1996

Around the time that four independent choreographers (Elizabeth Chitty, Louise Garfield, Janice Hladki, and Johanna Householder) began working on simulating the moves and emotional attitude of rock and roll, the late David Buchan invited them to perform as part of the “Fruit Cocktails” lip-sync review at the 5th Network/ Cinquième Réseau Video Conference. Rising to the occasion, they turned the repressed histrionics of Lesley Gore’s 60s hit “You Don’t Own Me” into a rampage of sexual anger. The house came down.

Realizing they’d struck a nerve while giving birth to themselves, The Clichettes expanded their investigations into the pop cultural repertoire — performing girl group stuff from the early 60s like “Maybe” (The Three Degrees), “Too Many Fish in the Sea” (The Marvellettes), “Seaman” (Lolita), and “Past, Present and Future” (The Shangri-Las) at bars, benefits, art parties, and cabarets. Elizabeth moved on soon after, but Janice, Johanna, and Louise persisted in developing their simulacrum. They became almost completely identified as the fictitious girl group they had created: The Clichettes.

“While our personae were rooted in the girl groups of 60s pop music, our interest from the beginning was in the ironic possibilities of the lyrics recontextualized by a feminist vision. We had no desire to pursue careers as nostalgia mongers. Instead, we had discovered that lip sync was an amazingly effective device with which to approach political commentary. We soon understood that by framing the lip sync “numbers” in the dramatic devices of plot and character we could expand upon their satirical intentions. The resources of theatre offered a route along which to pursue our goal of distanciated  cultural commentary.

As independent choreographers and performers, we were part of a dance vanguard that drew upon and combined a variety of disciplines and media in the creation of dance/performance — film, video, text, and theatrical effects. This openness to other fields as sources and the collaborative process necessary for interdisciplinary work had been our method for several years. And so we found, when we came to write the first play, that we were ill-suited to the hierarchies of theatre and that we were committed to the collaborative approach which we had developed and subsequently maintained (at some cost) throughout our twelve year history.

The first full-length production Half-Human, HalfHeartache (1979-81) was written with the now famous Marni Jackson. Half-Human, Half Heartache developed as a sci-fi allegory of our experiences growing up female in the early 60s. Its epi-centre was the love/hate relationship we had with the emotional landscape of 60s girl group music. In it we played sonic engineers from the planet More (making us Morons) who while combing the galaxy for the sound waves necessary for reproduction on their planet stumble onto a fertile sound frequency from Earth. The three Morons travel to the source: the studios of Tamla Motown in Detroit City. Disguised as The Clichettes, they become internationally successful “singers” but are gradually poisoned — transformed by the music that they mouth, into boy-crazy ultra girls. Ultimately, they die.

Having done girls to death, we collaborated with Marni Jackson again to take on masculinity in She Devils of Niagara (1985). It was set in a Niagara Falls of the future, during Monogender, an all-male regime under which government labs control the means of reproduction, and sex is verboten. Males of the species are dying out and the remaining biological women must pose as Mock-Men (under the surveillance of the Gender Police) to replace them. The Clichettes are Mock-Men struggling to conform while eking out livings as nightclub performers and wax museum attendants. But Lou falls in love with her pet turtle (he reciprocates); Jo stirs up history in the wax museum (Castro through McLuhan via Gandhi and Mother Teresa); and Jan illegally reinvents sex in her underground laboratory. We sacrifice ourselves by going over the Falls in barrels of

Driven by the desire to put on ever stranger costumes, in Lip Against the Wallpaper (1988) we were the set — the walls and the furniture (lamp, shag rug, vacuum cleaner, and bean bag chair) of the last house in Toronto selling for under $500,000. A scathing look at the housing crisis (read real estate bonanza), Up Against the Wallpaper was written with Kate Lushington and produced by Nightwood Theatre. This show was designed by three artists: sculptor Kenee Van Halm; performance artist filmmaker Frances Leeming, and designer Shawn Kerwin. (All three received Dora nominations for their work.)

Which brings us to work number four: Out for Blood. Originally an attempt to recoup the horror genre by feminizing classic horror icons (The Mummy), Out for Blood became an essay on female monstrousness. Working with director Peter Hinton, the work evolved into “a psychedelic romp through women’s rage” in which revenge, remorselessness, and megalomania — Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon of Greek mythology; Fatty McCormack, the murderous child star of the 1956 movie The Bad Seed; and Bernardine Dohrn, a founding member of the revolutionary 60s terrorist cadre, the Weather Underground — might be seen as aspects of a feminine identity.

The play looks at the mediation of women by the constructs of mythology, Hollywood, and the 6-o’clock news (not to overlook popular music). We know these characters only through mediating sources. They have been defined for us and for themselves. Their struggle is to break out of these limiting constructs and to come to and bring us to new knowledge. It’s a comedy.”