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Director Helen Shaver Q&A: ‘I’m Not Interested in Sentimentality’

Editor’s Note: We culled your questions from Facebook and Twitter for this week’s Q&A with an Orphan Black crew member. This week, it’s director Helen Shaver. So, what is it really like being a female director? Do you have any tips for women who want to direct?
Helen Shaver: Thank God that’s evolving … slowly, but it is evolving. I was in fact one of 140 delegates at the DGA national convention a couple of weeks ago, representing 17,000 members where we elected the new national board of directors, all the alternates and trustees. We elected 44 people and 22 are female! So this is a big step forward. In fact revolutionary.


Donna Dietch was the first female director I ever worked with. She directed me in Desert Hearts in 1984. I was 33 having starred in movies, television series, radio plays, theatre and commercials, but had never ever been directed by a woman. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Times are changing, but when I began directing in the late ’90s, 95% of the time I was the first female director they’d worked with. In the beginning I felt a big need to “be one of the guys.” I would use much more of the warrior stance inside myself for about a year or so, and then I began to realize that what I bring to my work is myself, and myself is a woman. Now, I believe art has no gender. Henrik Ibsen said that there’s a truth shared by women, children, and artists that men will never know. Of course if you’re a man who is an artist you will understand that truth, but there are all of these underpinnings of the social political stuff. I have certainly experienced a lot of mansplaining over the years, and it used to really ruffle me the wrong way. But as I become more mature as a director it bothers me way less. I mean, I have faced many people who — as they’re speaking to me — I realize that they think that they need to mansplain, and so you have two choices: One is to go into a personalized reaction, but that’s fear-based; that’s like reinforcing the belief of that other person in fact when you take the reaction. Or you just let them talk, and go, “OK thank you. Now then, what I’d like to do is this…” So I have found that for me, the way to do it is to bring myself, be myself, hear everybody around me, and not carry a chip on my shoulder, which I don’t. Because certainly if you do I don’t know how you get up in the morning, why you would ever go there. On the positive side, I feel like women have the unique capacity to include; think of a pregnancy, we expand to include another human being totally within ourselves. And I think that that truly inherent aspect is really wonderful for creating an atmosphere for doing “the work.” As a director I want to create an atmosphere where people are safe enough to make a mistake.

At the same time, being a woman and being an actor, I feel like those are incredibly enriching qualities that I bring to my work. I’ve had a miscarriage. I’ve had an abortion. I’ve had a child. I’ve been the woman across the room being looked at as an object. I’ve been the woman walking into a male world as an equal and participating in those ways, so when you start to delve into characters, these are not just ideas. I see so many young women when bring an imitation of an imitation of what they saw instead of going to what the truth is for them, which is different than a glamorized sanitized version.

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