01/12/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 03/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Feminist crusader Doris Anderson's life explored on stage

Doris Anderson, the sharp-witted journalist and outspoken feminist who died in 2007, has been brought back to life on an unlikely stage.

A group of theatre students in their early 20s in the theatre program at The University of Toronto Mississauga and Sheridan College chose Anderson's autobiography - Rebel Daughter - as the subject for their final-year production. 

"In the past, the theatre chose to mount a lot of classical pieces and war stories, and we wanted to do something contemporary," says cast member Courtney Keir.

"Doris is so human. She has this Canadian icon status, her voice is so strong," Keir adds. "She decided to stop accepting the fact that men have the upper hand ... [and] Doris literally changed Canada. In our finale we go through the facts: the number of doctors who are women, the number of PhDs. We’re still fighting for total equality, her message is still relevant."

Anderson's influential and controversial career provided the writers with a treasure trove of material. As Chatelaine's first female editor - from 1957 to 1977 - Anderson transformed the heart of the magazine from recipes and décor to the pressing passions and concerns of Canadian women: Child care, abortion, equal pay, rape, divorce, politics. Her editorials laid the foundation for the feminist movement in Canada.

Not long after, as the crusading head of the National Advisory Council on the Status of Women, she battled to have one simple statement enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: that men and women are equal under the law. Anderson upended the debate on the Charter of Rights and helped change the course of Canadian legal history. 

"Doris was a trailblazer, a maverick, stubborn, adamant," says Zachary Zulauf, who worked on the theatre production. "Canada needed a woman like her at that time. She recognized the gender inequality, she wanted to make something of herself. She didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom - she wanted adventure, she wanted a career. And she did just that. She encountered adversity but she didn’t let it stop her. She paved the way for other women, she changed the law, she changed the wording of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

"I think Doris has something that everyone wants," adds student Tomas Ketchum. "She has this ability to say 'no, I won’t settle for that.' We tend to settle for things. She has this remarkable ability to not settle."

The theatre students - under the direction of Heinar Piller - started from scratch. Over six months, they wrote, debated, re-wrote, sang, rehearsed and finally performed the play at the theatre at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus.

"Doris has shown me that I can change things, her story will stick with me," Keir says. "She was a woman who grew up in a poor family in Alberta. Her future was a blank slate. She reminds us that we have the power to change."

"What struck a deep chord for me was her childhood," adds student Hannah Vanden Boomen. "She was born into a world in which equality for women was not there. Even as a young kid, she questioned that. That was so telling of the person she became. A kid questioning everything. That makes some of the best theatre."

Listen to Alisa Siegel's documentary about Doris Anderson for CBC radio's The Sunday Edition, called "Daughters and Sons." It explores why 21st century theatre students chose to create a play based on the life of this 20th century (mostly) Canadian feminist, and gives an inside look at the making of the production.