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Allied Arts & Media Our Voices

Women Talking Gives Me Hope for the Future

An image of Sarah Polley, a white woman wearing a whte tshirt with a movie camera in the background. She is wearing a mask.
Sarah Polley on the set of Women Talking. Credit: Sarah Polley / Twitter

I’ve known Sarah Polley since she was a young activist. Over the years, I’ve watched her career as a film and TV writer and director with some pride. She helped me enormously by telling me about a concussion clinic in Pittsburg a few years ago, so I was aware that she had been unable to continue directing because of her concussion. 

Polley has come back to directing with Women Talking, one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. Based on the extraordinary book by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is a powerful feminist film not only about women organizing to confront or escape male violence but also about the different ways trauma affects us and how to emerge from its grip. As the film begins we see this line “what follows is an act of female imagination.” I am struck by the fact that such a film could even be made within the Hollywood system.  

The story, as you may know, is based on a true horror story of an extremely conservative patriarchal Mennonite colony in Bolivia where seven men were convicted of drugging and raping more than 100 women and girls in 2011. The film, as does the book, imagines the women are meeting in a barn to discuss whether to stay and fight, leave or do nothing in face of the realization that so many of them and their daughters have been sexually assaulted over night after being drugged. The men have left the colony to bail out the rapists. There is not much time to decide what to do.

I’m not a film critic but the acting, cinematography, writing and direction is all wonderful enough that a film that is literally about women talking held my interest for the entire runtime without pause. It is a profoundly feminist film for the obvious reason that trauma from sexual assault is central to many women’s lives and gendered violence affects many more.  But more than that, we see a group of women who have not been taught to read or write as is the belief of their sect, who are basically slaves to the men in their community, who have taught their daughters to accept these conditions based on their religious beliefs are able to face the horror of what happened to them and then debate, discuss and sometimes fight about what to do.  

Most of them believe that leaving the community will mean that they won’t go to heaven. Despite the extreme circumstances, the debate reflects many of the debates we have had about how to end violence against women. Some argue that it is up to the police and courts to punish these men, not up to the group. Others argue that whether or not the rapists are punished doesn’t solve the problem faced by the women, or even guarantee the protection of their children. Can they leave and create their own beloved community? If they stay and fight  won’t they become like their assaulters taking their anger out in violence? Despite the extreme circumstance, the debate and discussion reminded me of some deep divisions I’ve been part of debating in the feminist movement and on the Left. 

Collection of comedy clips from Anne Marie Scheffler shows (4 minutes)

Debates about violence and non-violence, whether to include men on a march, how to stand up to the Catholic Church on abortion, whether to defy the law. As sometimes the case in social movements, or in the decision of whether to become an activist, whatever they decide will profoundly change their lives. In the film we also experienced how different women are affected by their trauma in profoundly different ways from deeply angry to almost beatific. We also learn that it isn’t only the men who are responsible because mothers have taught their daughters to accept the conditions. And perhaps most extraordinary of all, Sarah respected the religious beliefs of the women.

In the Q and A after the film, Sarah talked about how the process of the film was also feminist. As the mother of three young children, she didn’t want the ten-hour days that are normal practice on a film so she organized it differently. There was a therapist on site to help actors and others deal with the psychological impact of the story. Instead of acting the usual role of the brilliant, domineering auteur writer-director, she encouraged her crew and the actors to contribute to how the film was being made, especially at crucial decisions.  

Women Talking made me feel hope for the future. It is coming to a theatre near you in December. Please see it in the theatre. I’m sure it won’t have nearly the impact on your TV or computer.

Publishers Note: This article was originally published in on September 30th after it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival (TFF) 2022. We are grateful for the opportunity to republish this review for our audience! Thank you!

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Serving up “MILF and Cookies”

Image of comedian Ann Marie Sheffler in the foreground and theatre billboards in the background highlighting her shows.
Canadian actor and producer of nine one-woman shows, Ann Marie Scheffler. Photo by Time Leyes

Look, between the ongoing global pandemic, crushing defeat of Wade v. Roe and an escalating international conflict low-key threatening to go nuclear, we at LiisBeth know it’s been a tough year (or three) but rest and pleasure are an important part of resistance work. To lighten things up a little (and help you get your laugh on) we interviewed Anne Marie Scheffler, a long-time career actor, writer and producer, about her new, up-coming holiday show MILF and Cookies.


LiisBeth: Let’s start with the facts. Who is Anne Marie Scheffler?

Scheffler: I was born in Toronto, Rexdale in fact. I’m a first generation Canadian. My parents are German and Polish. My father was a bank manager and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I started getting paid as an actor at the age of 15. I went to the University of Toronto, got a degree in English, and was at the same time booking professional acting gigs while writing my university exams. From there I went to George Brown Theatre School for formal training. And TV. Oh boy, I wanted to marry TV. With TV you could talk to the world, and I really wanted to talk to the world. Not surprisingly, I’ve been in over fifty TV commercials and love being on TV.

LiisBeth: You’re an actor first and foremost. What led you to write and produce your own shows?

Scheffler: When I got my first agent in my 20s, she got me film and TV auditions. And I was thrilled! Until I saw the roles: rape victim. Go into the audition room and scream. Look, I did go into the audition room and scream. But I kinda didn’t want to get the booking. And another audition was “girl number 1” and I went in with “guy number 1” and we had to neck. That was the actual audition. No lines. So, I’m thinking, “maybe I need to write the roles I want to play.” And so I wrote funny monologues for myself. Honestly, I wrote my first play in grade 3 that our class put on in front of the whole school. I had always been writing for myself. Doing improv. Imagining the possibilities.

When you’re hungry and ambitious in your twenties, you want to act as much as possible. My fellow actor friends and I would do open mic nights, fundraisers, anything to see if our stuff worked. I had about five monologues in my back pocket that I wrote for myself and auditioned with. Artistic directors would be like: “That was great! Where did that come from?” And I’d say “I wrote it.” And that sometimes got me writing job offers which I never took because I was an actor!

In 1994, I had a spot in the Summerworks theatre festival in Toronto. Basically you pay for a spot to put on a show in a respected theatre festival. I had been doing clowning at the time, but my clown partner had left me, and all of a sudden, I didn’t have a show! The producer Benj Gallagher said to do a one woman show. I was like, “Hell, no!” but I was working at His Majesty’s Feast as a singing wench, and my fellow wench, Sarah Sked, said she’d be my director. I sewed my five funny monologues together and created my first solo show Situation: NORMA. 

NOW magazine’s late, legendary and much-beloved theatre critic, Jon Kaplan, was at my show on opening night. He loved it so much that he sent a photographer to my house the next day. My picture appeared in the theatre section, with Kaplan’s glowing review in which he called me “a gem.” My career took off. I got a better agent, I worked even more in TV and film, and I wrote two more Norma shows: Watch…Norma’s Back and Leaving Norma.

I toured my Norma shows at fringe festivals in Canada and the US, selling out and getting rave reviews and honing my comedy chops on stage, really poking fun at what it was like to be (supposedly) following society’s norms. I make fun of myself in my comedy, spoofing the conditions I find myself in, to actually shine a light on the ridiculousness of the roles we play in order to be good.

In 2001, I went to a taping of Everybody Loves Raymond at The Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, and the penny dropped. At this point, I was doing TV roles, TV commercials, doing my own live shows, and here was a multicam sitcom. A marriage of theatre and TV. I fell in love with multicam. Soon after, my live comedy show Not Getting It long-time into a one-hour Comedy Now! special for CTV/ The Comedy Network by SFA Productions. A seven camera shoot. Of course, I’m still priming the pump for the seven season multicam series–or single camera, I’m flexible–but the path was unfolding.

Ironically, my old agent said to me: “I can see you being like the wife on Everybody Loves Raymond!” And I said “I’m Raymond!”

LiisBeth: What is your relationship to feminism? When did feminism come into your life? 

Scheffler: In terms of feminist influences, I can start with my mother. She taught me unconditional love. She is a walking love machine. My mom is, literally, love

My father told me that to have my own money is to have my own freedom. That shaped me a lot. I didn’t think in terms of being a dependent, or a wife, I wanted to make my own money, make my own success, in the way that I wanted to.

That worldview was ingrained in me. It’s why I said no to demeaning roles. I wasn’t up for a career of playing victims. I lobbied with my actor’s union to influence producers to have more women roles that reflected whole, real women.

I knew how to write, and I took charge of my career and wrote and produced “myself.” As Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) told me in an article I wrote for the Alliance of Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) on women in the business: “Don’t wait for the phone to ring–call yourself.” Now that I am older and coming from a place that is so much more whole, I have moved way beyond the “pick me, pick me, pick me!” approach to my career to one where, basically, I pick myself. 

LiisBeth: So as a woman actor making her way in a Harvey Weinstein world, how do you reconcile a highly sexualized approach to comedy and use of the term “MILF” in a world where sexualization of women in entertainment is seen by many as problematic? 

Great question. So, as a comedian, it’s my job to mirror our shared experience as a society back at that society. I push the boundaries. I say what we are all thinking but I’m not afraid to say. To quote my comedy special: “I’ve achieved my goal! I’m fuckable! But now I’m offended by it!” Honestly, the comedy special is partly based on my experiences as an actor in really inappropriate situations with a producer. Which could have been victimizing, but instead I turned it into comedy gold.

Turning on your sexy and beautiful self shouldn’t be bad and unsafe. And if it feels bad or unsafe, I’m happy to shine the light of love and humour on it and expose it.

Collection of comedy clips from Anne Marie Scheffler shows (4 minutes)

As for MILF, I renamed and reclaimed a term that really offended (some people) but now has become less charged. Maybe soon you’ll be able to google ‘MILF’ and instead of porn, mostly comedy will come up. MILF and Cookies is sexy and hilarious.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Anne Marie? 

Scheffler: Like other actors/producers such as Reese Witherspoon and Pamela Aldon, I’ve been a great artist, now I want to shift to be an equally great business person.

I’d like to turn my one woman show MILF Life Crisis into a limited series like Phoebe Waller-Bridge did with her show Fleabag, and create blockbuster comedy movies. I’ve written myself two comedic vehicles–The Bachelor Whisperer and Princess Candy Cane–and am looking for the right producing partners. 

LiisBeth: Congratulations on an incredible journey as a woman in a tough industry! What advice do you have for others? 

 I remember being in my early 40s, and being a new mom with two little boys. I was juggling childcare to go to auditions, and lying in bed at night, thinking it’s very possible my life and my career are both over. And then I turned on the TV to a new show: 30 Rock. What? A new face? Tina Fey? A woman in her 40s? A mother? Who created a TV series she wrote and stars in herself? Again, the penny dropped. There was still hope. There is always hope. The only one who can limit you is you. Find your own voice and work it. There are a million different flowers in the garden. There is room for everyone. Decide what stories you want to tell, and then tell them really well.

LiisBeth: Speaking of stories, tell us about your upcoming holiday show, MILF and Cookies. 

MILF and Cookies is Anne Marie 2.0. It’s our sexy, single lead from MILF Life Crisis, with a woman who now has decided to be comfortable as a single MILF. She owns her MILFdom but then finds herself spending Christmas eating pot cookies with her BFFs and examining all the men she’s loved, all the men she didn’t love, and the men she is about to love. People walk away feeling lighter. And stronger.

LiisBeth: Sounds a lot like you Anne Marie! Thank you for sharing your talent with the world. 

MILF and Cookies plays December 15- 23rd at Toronto’s Comedy Bar Danforth’s main stage. Tickets available at

Not in Toronto? You can catch Scheffler’s one-hour comedy special, Not Getting It, Monday December 19th on MTV2.

Publishers Note: Anne Marie Scheffler is a member of Fifth Wave Connect, a community of feminist women entrepreneurs who participate in the Fifth Wave  Initiative, a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women self-identified feminist entrepreneurs in the digital media and commerce sector in southern Ontario. Fifth Wave sponsors a series of profiles highlighting their work.  Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to a minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse level. Fifth Wave 

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This Show Must Go On

Planet Protectors on the Pier

Vanessa LeBourdais’ copper-coloured cat-eye sunglasses and hair match the Prius she drives. In early May, she wheeled in to a seaside park in the suburbs of Vancouver, for our interview.

That LeBourdais has suggested we meet in person during the COVID-19 pandemic is odd, especially given that her theatre company is now performing entirely online. But being out in nature is where she thrives, and we sit a generous two metres apart on a log overlooking the ocean.

LeBourdais, 54, is the executive producer of DreamRider Productions, a charity that puts on musical theatre shows to get elementary school kids excited about conservation and the environment.

In “normal” times, the company delivers about eight live shows at schools per week and also produces an interactive digital program, the Planet Protector Academy, designed for teachers to use in the classroom. DreamRider Productions created the digital platform in 2014 to extend its reach from 42,000 kids a year in the Vancouver area to 72,000 per year in cities across Canada and in India. With schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company, which employs six people, adapted its digital classroom program to reach children in their own homes.

Training Kids to Become Eco Superheroes

DreamRider Productions has come a long way since its unexpected beginning in 1998, when LeBourdais and her partner (they married a year later) responded to a classified ad in a local newspaper. The City of Vancouver was looking for someone to put together environmental theatre programming for kids.

Through the play they wrote, which they continued producing for several years, the pair realized the power of turning kids into environmentalists. Parents kept telling them that their children made them change their behaviours after seeing the show.

LeBourdais, drawing on her values, added feminist environmental superhero characters who invite audience members to imagine themselves as superheroes who can also save the planet.

In 2002, the company registered as a non-profit charity. It relies on grants for about half of its revenue, and generates the other half with sales of its programs to cities and schools. In 2019, its operating budget was $500,000. They sell the online classroom program to more than 150 cities in Canada, the United States and India. Pricing, at $10 to $30 per child, depends on a number of factors, including whether the content needs to be customized. The live theatre events performed at schools in the metro Vancouver area are $750 per show.

Cities buy the program as a way to help meet their environmental goals. They recognize that reducing waste, saving electricity or opting for greener commutes requires a culture shift – and that starts with kids.

Zooming into the Future

After COVID-19 closed schools, LeBourdais and her employees jumped into action, creating a live Zoom show for children to watch at home. From their homes, two actors, dressed in character, talk to the kids about the environment with great gusto and silly banter, making for perhaps the most compelling Zoom meeting hosts on the internet.

“Kids really experience it like going to Jedi school, they are Planet Protectors,” LeBourdais says.

The hosts ask the kids to come up with their own superhero name and draw themselves as a superhero, and then send in their drawings, which they share on the show the next day. They also get the kids moving, and show the kids how to stand tall and strong like a superhero.

LeBourdais directs the daily show, which is interspersed with clips of pre-recorded highly produced videos starring the company’s planet protector superheroes. When adventures get scary – and touch on the very real issue of environmental collapse — the Zoom hosts jump back on the screen and encourage kids watching at home  — addressed as “Planet Protectors” — to take action.

“We send them on missions every day to change their families and themselves,” explains LeBourdais. This can be as simple as instructing the kids to create “Eat Me First” labels to place on food that’s about to go bad in their family’s fridge.

The hosts also teach kids about proper handwashing and the “Superhero Calming Breath,” to help with COVID-related anxiety. Then they send the superhero kids on a mission to teach it to their families.

“It’s pretty cool,” says LeBourdais. “We’ve got parents saying (to us) ‘I needed that more than my kid did.’”

Their survey results show that 71 per cent of children who participate say the Zoom programming made then feel more calm and relaxed, and 82 per cent said it made them feel more cheerful.

The show is a remarkable to watch, and its success can be attributed to her talented performers and her own directing and leadership philosophy. “We’re not perfectionists, we’re just really into excellence,” she says.

The leading superhero, Esmerelda, knowledgeable and pro-active, models feminist behaviour. Her sidekick, Goober, is a likeable male character who is constantly failing, and then learning from his mistakes. He models vulnerability by talking about his feelings, and Esmerelda proves a compassionate and good listener as she gently guides him towards making things right.

Leading the Show, Feminist Style

LeBourdais’ marriage echoes some of the power dynamic between Esmerelda and Goober. LeBourdais and her husband – who plays Goober in the shows – were once equal partners in the production company. But ten years ago, LeBourdais stopped performing so she could focus on leading the business and parenting their now teenage daughter.

She struggled to take the reins. “If the genders had been reversed, it would have been a lot easier to navigate at that time, because it’s really going against (traditional) gender dynamics in relationships, and all that (programming) stuff that’s in you that you don’t even know is there.”

On business development decisions, she remembers telling her husband, “Sorry, you don’t get your way, you just gotta trust me.”

Learning to trust herself has been key to LeBourdais’ success and will continue to be crucial, according to her friend and board member Kate Sutherland. “Intuition guides what she does.”

It’s a process LeBourdais isn’t shy talking about. She “feels out” decisions and spends time in nature, allowing answers to come to her. It’s a process that may sound a bit woo-woo, and at times has conflicted with business collaborators who felt she wasn’t rational or strategic enough.

But true to herself, LeBourdais has persisted.

Getting Kids to Deliver the Future

Her independent streak and determination, evident from an early age, run deep in her blood. Her maternal grandmother was disowned by her family after kicking out an abusive husband, and raised four children on her own. Her paternal grandmother, Isabel LeBourdais, was a prominent writer and prisoner-rights activist.

By age seven, LeBourdais was putting on elaborate musical puppet shows for neighbourhood kids. Her mother, Karlene Gheinke, recalls that she would sing loudly everyday while she walked to school. “She sort of went to the tune of a different drummer from quite early on.”

It’s an apt metaphor for LeBourdais, who continues to drum up opportunities for her venture. The Planet Protector Academy has plans to expand further into India. A recent partnership could catapult their program into 200,000 schools in India (by contrast, there are about 10,000 schools in all of Canada).

A TV show in the works also has LeBourdais hopping. “Last Friday I had this amazing call,” she says. “Kids production companies in India, Spain and Ireland – we had this international call – and they all agreed to make this show, and each of them has 200 shows reaching 140 countries, and it’s a bit mind-blowing, the power of the people that were on that call.”

LeBourdais, who calls herself an “experience designer,” will have her work cut out for her. She doesn’t want kids watching the show “like zombies.” Getting kids around the world to become environmental superheroes will depend on being able to spread an embodied practice, she says.

“Because it’s in their bodies, they don’t forget.”

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