At the Odyssey Theatre on South Sepulveda, an assortment of Hollywood types mingles, drinking $4 glasses of wine outside one of the three 99-seat houses. Among those in attendance: Jennifer Beals, Sandra Oh, Mark McKinney, Kimberly Peirce, Helen Hunt, Nia Vardalos, Phyllis Nagy, Jeremy Podeswa, et al. This is a special event, a two-night run of a two-woman play called Mouthpiece. The only way to get a ticket? Be friends with Jodie Foster and wife Alex Hedison.
The couple happened to be on vacation in Toronto when Canadian director Patricia Rozema (Into the Forest) suggested they go see the last night of a sold-out hit play, created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken and directed by the latter. After the show, Foster and Hedison approached the women during the talkback, much to the surprise of the two Canadians.
“That was shocking to us,” Nostbakken recalls. Then a few days later Hedison called to set up a lunch meeting. “That’s when they pitched the idea that they’d bring Mouthpiece to Los Angeles, to potentially spread across the U.S. We were blown away by that generosity and that offer. We’re not used to. … Well, we’re Canadian, so there’s not a lot of celebrities, let alone Jodie Foster.”
The play itself is an hourlong verbal adventure of a woman “learning her own voice.” It’s difficult to describe, but it has Nostbakken and Sadava essentially playing two sides of the same woman as we see her nonstop internal dialogue performed aloud just after the character’s mother has died. The story traverses the spectrum of feminist hot topics, from the legitimacy of fashion magazines to how people react to a woman crying and whether a woman eating french fries in public is a feminist statement. Both actors don matching ultra-thin white one-piece bathing suits. There’s extensive choreography and haunting medleys of original music — you could tell me Nostbakken and Sadava were trained opera singers or that they were in a pop duo and both would be believable to me. Also, it’s funny.
So what’s it like being plucked from a small Toronto theater to perform for some Hollywood elites in an intimate setting?
“We had to look at each other in the eyes and tell each other that we’re not dreaming,” Sadava tells me over the phone from LAX, where both actors are waiting for the plane that’ll take them back to Canada — with a little more confidence in their step.
The play, which took three years to write and choreograph little by little in a basement room with a wall-to-wall mirror, has already garnered wide acclaim in Toronto. But it’s important to remember how much of a driving force Los Angeles can be in the culture wars; we have the money, resources and reach to launch a play, a film, a web series onto an international stage. As gatekeepers, Hollywood ostensibly should be searching far and wide to promote the best stories, whether on the stage or screen, but if you’ve been to a megaplex movie theater in the past few years, you might wonder if Hollywood's decision makers are taking that job as seriously as they should.
While talking about her whirlwind time in Los Angeles, Sadava tells me it was so refreshing and freeing that Foster “doesn’t want anything in return.”
“There’s an urgency to this topic that I think [Foster and Hedison] recognized,” Nostbakken chimes in. “If the play had all the same stylistic choices but was about dating or something, they wouldn’t have gone to this length. I think it speaks to the urgency of getting on a chair and screaming about this topic, and it’s why Jodie Foster flew two Canadian girls to L.A. to scream about it.”
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In the play, Nostbakken and Sadava “become” different female character types, their voices taking on different accents and intonations. The singular woman they collectively play questions every action she’s ever taken in her life, wondering whether it was something done for herself or someone else, or something she thought she was doing for herself that turned out to be satisfying an invisible man’s expectation of her. In one scene, the two deliver, in unison, a monologue, in which they admit that there has never been a time in their waking life where they haven’t unconsciously imagined a man looking at them — even in private — and displayed their body to be pleasing to the invisible man. The admissions, though strange, are wholly relatable, and there’s something freeing about hearing them said aloud.
The night I attended, the audience gave a standing ovation and rushed the actors after the play, to talk about process and, mostly, about their own personal journeys into feminism.
“Onstage, we’re autobiographical and nearly naked, and so when we walk out and speak to people, there’s no BS,” Nostbakken says. “People dive right in and talk to us about how we can all make the world better for women. The audience in L.A. was no different from any audience we’ve ever had.”
If you weren’t one of the lucky audience members for this limited-engagement play, just know that Rozema is in the process of adapting it for screen. It’s time the film world looked anywhere and everywhere for its next great inspirations.