If our clothes could speak: women-driven CLOTHESWAP examines the implications of clothing consumption

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Dale Boyer and Amanda Barker (photo by Bryan Cacciatore)

This morning, I’m in my closet, wrestling a hanger out of the tangle in the “dress section”, and for the first time in a while, I don’t feel frazzled. It’s a one-sided fight because once I free the dress, I won’t be putting it back. The reason? I’m taking it to Amanda Barker and Dale Boyer’s new show Clotheswap. Premiering at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival, Clotheswap is built around women’s narratives told through clothing from the last century to today. The show examines the “seams of empathy among women, the high cost of fast fashion and the stories our bodies tell”. Described as “an inclusive, interactive, and body-positive theatre experience”, it perches atop the modern-day subtextual hell of clothes hoarding, and the closet wrestling it spawns . . . and subverts it through a literal clothing swap. 

Clotheswap’s exploration of clothing, energy consumption and the female narrative is a brilliant creation born of Barker and Boyer’s own clothing swaps over the years. Clotheswap invites audience members to bring bags of used clothing that will inspire improv within the performance, and then be donated to the organizations Sistering and Dress for Success. Each performance of Clotheswap even includes a clothes swap with everyone – including the cast – and free admission to the production’s venue, the Textile Museum of Canada. The fact that the audience’s clothes form the fabric of the show’s comedy (sorry) means each show will be as distinct as the donating audience members themselves.

Barker and Boyer spoke with us about the genesis of this unique show, the environmental and economic impact of garment manufacturing, and how clothes make (or re-make) the woman. (And in the process, they prompted me to wonder who will next wear my dress . . . where . . . why . . . and in the service of what fresh narrative.)

SesayArts: Can you speak to us about the concept of Clotheswap and what inspired you to create the show?

DB: 15 years ago I invited Amanda to a clothing swap at my house, and we’ve been swapping buddies ever since! We are part of a core group of women who have shared hosting swaps for over a decade. Aside from swapping clothing both Amanda and I have worked together on and off for those 15 years on many shows. A few years ago, we decided to take this on as a personal theatre project combining our love of theatre with our love of clothing swaps and our love of women at clothing swaps. 

AB:  We started this process officially in 2015, I think – I was finishing a long 3-year tour of a show that was phenomenal as a performer but left me craving to write and create something new and challenging.  Dale had a colicky baby at the time, had wrapped a few other things, so we were both in a space of new beginnings. We had written sketch previously together as part of a foursome, and I think we both felt it was time to work on something that was female-driven.  From that first conversation, this has been a show that would ask its audience to bring their clothes to swap, and it’s something that excites us and has continued to, for the last four years of creating it.

Dale Boyer and Amanda Barker (photo by Bryan Cacciatore)

SesayArts: What has the developmental journey been like, and what will be performed at the Fringe?

DB: Once we got a first draft finished, we submitted and received two OAC Theatre Creator’s reserve grants to write a second draft – the recommending bodies being Mixed Company Theatre and Fixt Point Theatre, which we will be forever grateful to and for. With a second draft in hand we had read-throughs first at The Second City in 2016 and then at Theater Northwest in BC in 2017. We took notes and had a few writing weekends away, and we are here with our 3rd and final (for now!) draft that patrons will see and hopefully enjoy at the Fringe. 

AB: During our research, we visited the Textile Museum of Canada and immediately fell in love with the museum and the energy of that space. We had heard about it, we knew it existed, but this was our first time going there. We wandered into their beautiful, intimate, wood-panelled auditorium with plush velvet seats and tapestries on the walls and looked at each other thinking: WHAT WAS THIS? As creator/performers for 20 years in Toronto, you think you’ve gone into every possible performance space available (and definitely a lot of found spaces, churches, and alleyways). It actually took us a year and a half of meeting and discussing possibilities with The Textile Museum to discuss our dream for the project and finding the best ways of partnering with them. The Fringe affords such an opportunity for us to bring a new space to the festival and to offer patrons an experience that has never (I think?) happened in their 30 year history – a show at a museum that offers theatregoers free admission with a ticket. The Fringe has never had a clothing swap before either as part of its festival – it will now see 12!!! And what’s really incredible – we are the very first show to open the Fringe this year, as well. Women are leading the way.

SesayArts: What can audiences expect at Clotheswap, and what do you hope that they will think about as a result of experiencing it?

DB: Audiences can expect a fully-fledged play with improvised moments weaved into the narrative. They are encouraged to bring donated clothing to the show for the cast to use within the show. 

AB: We can’t stress this enough – we need your clothes to make it happen!

DB:  After the show, all of the donated clothing will be then released back to the audience for a public clothing swap. Whatever isn’t swapped gets donated to “Dress for Success” and “Sistering”. This show has a lot going on it. We discuss body narratives, the high cost of fast fashion and the bigger question, who is paying that cost? How do women relate when they feel safe, and who is left out of these conversations? 

AB: And if they stay for the post show swap, they will leave with some great new duds that have been saved from going to landfill.

SesayArts: How do you think that Clotheswap will speak to contemporary audiences, many of whom might not know about organizations like Dress for Success or have considered swapping clothes?

DB: We would like to think that most of our contemporary audience would know that we buy and consume too much, but we’d be curious to know how many people are aware that it takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce just one pair of blue jeans. If one of us takes those jeans at a clothing swap, that is 1,800 gallons saved, not to mention the savings of not buying a new pair! The characters in our show range from seasoned swappers to brand new initiants, so no matter what the audience’s experiences of swaps are, there will be a voice there for you.

AB: I really hope every person who sees this show goes on to host and/or attend some more swaps. 86 percent of what you donate goes to landfill. I’m going to repeat that: 86% (so the vast majority) of what you donate (bins, pick ups, and even fantastic organizations) goes to landfill. Buy less; swap more.

SesayArts:  The final word is yours. What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?

DB: The show is attempting a zero-carbon footprint production. We are sponsored by BullFrog to provide us with sustainable power. Everything in the show, the props, the set and the wardrobe, is all upcycled, reused and repurposed. For harder-to-avoid waste, like posters, for example, we have allotted room in our budget to buy gold- star carbon offsets to support communities affected by the textile industry. Big surprise: printing on recycled paper costs more! We are making everyday decisions to make sustainable choices, and while most of the time they aren’t the cheapest choice, we believe these are the right ones. Thankfully with have the most talented, on-board cast and crew we could have every assembled! 

AB: I bring it back to the women. This show is by women, for women, about women. It is the person you want to be like when you try on those fabulous wedges. It is the person you don’t want to remember when it’s time to give away that necklace. Your closet is who you are and who you want to become. This show is about that, ultimately. 

Dale Boyer and Amanda Barker (Photo by Bryan Cacciatore)

News You Can Use 

What: Clotheswap, written and produced by Amanda Barker and Dale Boyer; Stage Management by Julia Beaulieu; Dramaturgy by Melissa D’Agostino; Set/Costume Design by Vanessa Wishart; Directed by Dale Boyer
Performed by Amanda Barker (Brenda), Cassie Cao (Erin), Ashley Comeau (Krimp), Tarah Consoli (Geri), Karen Parker (Renata)

Who: Audiences 13 years of age and older

When: Wednesday July 3 – Saturday, July 13, 2019

Where: Textile Museum of Canada, 55 Centre Avenue, Toronto, Ontario

Info and Tickets: clotheswapshow.ca

Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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