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Hooked on Language

September 16th, 2015 · No Comments

Seven notorious twentieth-century women come alive in solo show

Nicky Guadagni in her one-woman show, Hooked, returning to the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace Sept. 16 to 26. Guadagni won the 2014-15 Outstanding Performance (female) Dora Mavor Moore award for her performance. Courtesy Michael Cooper

By Annemarie Brissenden

It turned out that Zelda was most comfortable in the bathtub. For Elizabeth Smart, it was doing dishes in the kitchen. Or so Dora-award winning actress Nicky Guadagni discovered as she rattled around a big, old farmhouse, coming to grips with the seven women in Hooked, Carolyn Smart’s collection of poetry. Together with director Layne Coleman, Guadagni would adapt Smart’s seven poems into a critically-acclaimed one-woman play of the same name, which is being remounted at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace this month.

“I was visiting [Carolyn],” recalls the Annex resident, explaining their families are long-time friends, “and she showed me the galley proofs for the book. I took a cursory look and the words just kind of jumped out at me. They were all women I felt a connection to, except Jane Bowles, whom I didn’t know.”

Each of Smart’s poems is narrated in the voice of one of seven notorious women from the twentieth century: Myra Hindley, Unity Mitford, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dora Carrington, Elizabeth Smart, Carson McCullers, and Jane Bowles. The poems provide an intimate glimpse into the inner life of these women, and can be jarring, particularly when told in the voice of England’s Myra Hindley, the Karla Homolka of her time, or Unity Mitford, who idolized Hitler.

“I wanted to choose women that would hold my interest for the full period that I would research and write them,” explains Smart. Hindley – who “loomed large over my childhood” – had just died when the poet began working on the project, so there was lots of coverage in the British press at the time.

“The stories [about Hindley] were so markedly different…. I wondered, who is this woman?”

After Hindley – the most despised woman in British history – Smart moved on to the most hated woman in British history, Unity Mitford, who never smiled in pictures, except in those with Hitler.

“Unity [has] a bad effect on some people,” says Guadagni, admitting that portraying such women can provoke a strong reaction from her audience. “Some people refuse to look at me, they are so filled with hatred.”

“You call tell a lot about a person by the way they interpret history and their own times,” says director Layne Coleman, who recently appeared in the Annex as Sir John A. Macdonald in The Postman. He collaborated with Guadagni on adapting the poems, and says the biggest challenge was finding a way to connect the seven narrative vignettes into a cohesive whole.

“We added a musician, which [provided] accents that made it more of a play,” he says, adding that his primary role was really to give Guadagni the space and confidence to develop the characters as she saw fit.

“Nicky has a real gift for speaking in the tongues of others,” Coleman explains. “I tried to protect [her] instincts.”

Guadagni now recognizes that such approval was just what she needed.

“He never gave me a note, but allowed me the freedom to keep experimenting.”

Of all the women, both Guadagni and Smart feel the strongest affinity with writer Elizabeth Smart (no relation), who grew up in Ottawa, and fell in love with poet Charles Barker, a doomed romance she detailed in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

“Perhaps because, aside from Zelda, she’s the only mother,” reflects Guadagni, who adds that she’s Canadian, and more contemporary than the others.

Smart, who lived in the same house and went to the same school as Elizabeth Smart, says “the ones that I love the most were Elizabeth and Carrington. Elizabeth because I was able to talk about the landscape that I grew up with and loved.”

For his part, Coleman says he likes Guadagni’s portrayal of writer Jane Bowles, describing how the actor transforms herself into a what he calls a “borscht belt comedian”.

“I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard,” he says of Guadagni’s first performance. “I nearly split a gut watching that one.”

After six years of performing Hooked, Guadagni says working from a script adapted from poetry has made her far more attuned to her sensitivity and connection to language.

“I have much more confidence in language and my determination not to interfere with it.”

Hooked runs from Sept. 16 to 26 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. Tickets are available at

For further information, please visit Regular contributor Annemarie Brissenden is also the play’s publicist.

Tags: Annex · Liberty · Arts · People