November 11, 2018

4 Questions: Shawna Dempsey

50 Years of Disruption
This article is part of our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
Shawna Dempsey(Photo: Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press)
Shawna Dempsey (Photo: Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press)

Shawna Dempsey (Fine Art Studies, 1986) is one of Canada’s best-known performance artists. She and collaborator Lorri Millan have created works such as We’re Talking Vulva, Lesbian National Parks and Services and Wild Ride(a carnival midway on Toronto’s Bay Street). They have been featured in women’s centres in Sri Lanka and the Museum of Modern Art, NYC. They have also published books and curated exhibitions. Dempsey is Co-Executive Director of MAWA, Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art.

1. Who are you?

I am a performance artist who has been impacted by two pivotal decisions in my life.

One was to work collaboratively with Lorri Millan for the past 30+ years. Although I knew her brother casually while we were both in theatre at York, it wasn’t until we were both working as technicians in Toronto’s small theatres that Lorri and I met, bailing out an alternative performance space that had flooded on the first day of rehearsals. I stole her ideas for awhile, we became friends, became lovers, formalized our collaboration, broke up … and still everything we create, we create together.

For 16 years, all of our income came from our artist creation. It was harrowing. Surviving as freelancers was the hardest, bravest and most bonding thing we have done. These days because of my job at MAWA and her family responsibilities, we only have 2 days a week in the studio. But still: scheming with her, imagining with her, making her laugh … it is golden. The work is better because we bring both of our skills to it. Plus doing it together is way less lonely.

Shawna Dempsey in Dempsey and Millan’s Big Wig, 2017. (Photo: Anita Lubosch)

The other life-event that shaped me was moving to Winnipeg. Rents were super high in Toronto. Lorri and I wanted to have time to create, and we found it! At the time we left, many people felt leaving the centre of the art world was suicide, but we found another centre where rent is cheap and artists have the time and space to help each other. The point isn’t “where” you create, but “what”, and Winnipeg has enabled our long and diverse careers. People have given us opportunities here that wouldn’t have been available in a larger centre. We always say we are one phone call away from being able to produce an opera. It is crazy the things this community helps each other do!

As Lorri says, “We like to put on shows.” And that sums it up. Whether a performance, a video, an interactive event, a curated exhibition, or even my work doing programming at MAWA, I like to connect ideas and images with audience, to change us all, to make us all a little smarter and more compassionate.

I also take the long view. If I can create something that I consider great every decade or so, I’m doing OK. Not everything Lorri and I make resonates the same way. That’s OK and is part of the process.

Shawn Dempsey in in Dempsey and Millan’s The Local Sky Tonight, 2016. (Photo: Peter Chen)
Shawn Dempsey in in Dempsey and Millan’s The Local Sky Tonight, 2016. (Photo: Peter Chen)

2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?

Shawna Dempsey in We’re Talkin’ Vulva, 1987. (Photo: Cyndra MacDowell)
Shawna Dempsey in We’re Talkin’ Vulva, 1987. (Photo: Cyndra MacDowell)

I loved having the opportunity to work with the York graduate theatre program as a technician. I learned so much from them as creators and was inspired to create my first public performance piece, Breasts. Controversy ensued and I ended up on page two of the Globe and Mail, but I was ultimately able to perform my fledgling work at Stong College and the Theatre Centre.

3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?

I had some great professors, but probably performance artist Toby MacLennan was the most influential. She was my role model: a strong feminist and an awesome artist. She quietly made every student feel valuable. Her line of questioning opened up the world. I felt like she believed in me, so I should, too. I can’t remember direct quotes, but interwoven into conversations was the message, “You can and you should.”

4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?

I believe that all performative traditions employ tools that can be used by the performance artist to create stronger images and better articulate ideas. My theatrical training gave me a foundation in body work, taught me presence and opened me to technical disciplines that enhance presentation. It also taught me how to collaborate, how to work with others. Whether it was doing props for the York production of the musical Grease or giving notes to grad students as they rehearsed their one-person shows, we worked together towards a common goal and cared about each other throughout the process. That is a lesson that transcends art.