There are a lot of preconceptions surrounding the one-woman performance. Many will sit down expecting a male-bashing escapade, insight into X-rated exploits and talking vaginas, all coated by militant feminist rhetoric. Projects aiming to steer clear of those cliches often get caught in the storm of those notions, leaving them to fight their way out with a new angle.
Despite its suggestive title, Mating Rituals of the Urban Cougar, Andrea Thompson's offering for the 2008 Calgary Fringe Festival, works to present a new viewpoint to female relationship commentary. Though it hasn't escaped pigeonholing by audiences and critics who can't resist comparing it to other works or artists, Thompson says her creative process took her to a different place, hopefully one that isn't predictable.
"I did some research on native spirits and found out that my native sign is the cougar, so with that spiritual parallel, there's almost a reclamation of the term," she explains. "There's a lot of build up to it, obviously, because I couldn't just say, 'I think that the connotation of cougar is bullshit and we should think of them like totem animals.' That's a bit of a jump."
Thompson's interest in the demographic degradingly referred to as cougars-middle-aged single women who seek out younger men-came from her own experiences in the dating world. Through poems and songs in her performance, she works to address the stereotype as well as examine former relationships.
"Obviously, there's a lot of humour there," she says. "I've been single for a long time and I've dated guys that are younger than me, but I'm not a bleach-blonde 45 year old picking up guys at the bar."
Though the project examines relationships in general and the way some of those looking for love are perceived, its personal nature has sometimes hit Thompson hard.
"It makes you feel more vulnerable when you're doing stuff that's just exposing yourself," she says. "I think all creative work is autobiographical to some degree, but I think when it's very clearly so or you're saying it's so and someone is rejecting the work on an artistic level, it's hard not to take it personally."
In addition to content, the format of Urban Cougar has taken some people off guard. Thompson recalls moments where her performance-one she considers performance poetry-was compared to well-known spoken word of a different style. As the project works to break down the barriers of female stereotypes, she also hopes it will open up the minds of people who aren't familiar with spoken word's vibrant spectrum.
"Everyone has their own unique flavour," she says. "I think of it as music: if you like hip-hop, I can find some spoken word you're going to love. If you like country music, I'll find some spoken word you'll love. My thing is giving people a chance to experience it and see that it can completely defy your expectations."