Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.

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Photo by Tony Nelson

“This play should not be well behaved,” Alice Birch writes in the notes for her play Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. One of the most powerful things about Birch’s play is the language and form and how it misbehaves – it violates the expectations for how a play looks on the page and how it’s written, how dialogue works and how a plot is structured. Frank Theatre is currently staging this gem at Gremlin Theatre’s new space in St Paul and I couldn’t have hoped for a better company to tackle this piece.

With a powerful ensemble of Charla Marie Bailey, Joy Dolo, Jane Froiland, Emily Grodzik, Grand Henderson, and Gabriel Murphy, this play certain misbehaves. This play grapples with the difficult and often contradictory ideas throughout the waves of feminism, from refusing to marry, to starvation as protest, to “my choice.” I would have love to have been a fly on the wall during rehearsal to see how lines were split among the actors, who was going to be in each scene, and how the lines interact with each other. For those of you have never seen the script, Birch breaks away from the conventions of typical playwriting and doesn’t often note what character is saying what line (in fact, only in one specific scene are certain characters given names).

What I love best is how this play deals with layers of feminism – pointing out how large the issue really is and how often we get pushed into dealing with smaller issues. It reminds me of an episode of the Savage Love podcast that Leslie Vincent initially told me about – guest performer Rachel Lark sings a song about freeing the nipple but decides that it’s too nuanced an issue after the election of 45. She instead sings a song repeating “women are people” because that’s where we are. Another podcast I listen to (called Nancy) remarked recently that sexism has changed – it’s become more sinister and harmful in a way. It’s somehow hard to point out the workings of the patriarchy when it’s learned to hide itself – or even when it’s so clearly blatant (looking at you, Harvey Weinstein and 45) that it surrounds itself in power so that it can’t be taken down.

This show also struggles with the ways in which women take each other down and perpetuate the patriarchy themselves, how they have been taught to harm each other in ideas of resistance, how “my choice” is a complicated idea, and that men too are affected by the patriarchy that confines the idea of what a body is supposed to look and act like. It’s not often that a show this refreshing and bold comes along and I’m so glad that Frank is doing it. It’s exactly what we need right now to give us perspective and the drive to keep resisting.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is written by Alice Birch and directed by Wendy Knox. It is playing now through October 22 at the new Gremlin space in St Paul. Ticket and show information can be found on Frank Theatre’s website. 

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Juliet: a poem

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Source: author’s photo

I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it. 

Juliet
“beautiful flower”
A contradiction
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways

Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
senseless hatred
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages

Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told

She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice

Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion

Juliet
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
her innocence
her love
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on

 

 

The Awakening

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Source: facebook.com/SavageUmbrella

I’ve been trying to find the words to describe Savage Umbrella’s The Awakening, playing now at the Southern. And I have to admit that I’m more or less lost for words.

This isn’t a new phenomena for me recently – more and more I’m finding it hard to discuss shows I’ve seen in an review or post. Part of that I think is due to pressures around me. And part of that is due to how do I, as an artist, discuss another artist’s work?
The Awakening has the added caveat of being a highly musical and visual piece, so much so that I can’t describe the experience because you simply need to see it. And while any show is like this, The Awakening, based off of Kate Chopin’s landmark novel of the same name, takes emotional moments and performs them through movement and musical styles. A novel which takes place primarily in the mind of its protagonist, the unhappy Edna Pontellier who desperately wants to break out of the fragile mold society has forced her into, it at first seems an impossible work to adapt to stage. However, it’s the perfect story to tell because it is so emotional and, with the waves of feminism we ride like waves on the sea, it once again feels very present and very live in our current culture. Though it deals with Victorian women and their yearnings, it contains a force that is still very much alive in the lives and minds of modern women.
With a marvelous ensemble of Emily Dussault, Nick Wolf, Amber Davis, Seth K. Hale, Alexis Clarksean, Mike Swan, Russ Dugger, Nathan Gebhard, Lauren Diesch, Nayely Becerra, Rachel Kuhnle, Tinne Rosenmeier, Aaron Henry, Eric Marinus, Thomas Ferguson, and Daniel Rovinsky, with music performed by Nic Delcambre, Carley Olson, and Alissa Ona Jacobsen, the world these performers create grips you and ensnares you. Edna’s life of leisure on Grand Isle which becomes a life caged in back in New Orleans becomes a portrait of a life that cannot be fully lived as long as one’s society does not fully accept you. In the middle of women’s history month and in discussions of current events, a play like this has never felt more important.
The Awakening is adapted and directed by Laura Leffler-McCabe and created by the Savage Umbrella ensemble, with music by Candace Emberley. It is playing now through March 18th at the Southern Theater. Tickets can be purchased on Savage Umbrella’s website.

Feminist Sensibility

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Source: guthrietheater.org

Last night I saw the Guthrie’s performance of Sense and Sensibility. Since I’m a staff member at the theater, I can’t review the show. But I am going to share some thoughts with you that the show and program notes provoked as well as some issues I’ve been juggling around in my mind for some time. This may have little to do with the show, but it served as a good jumping off point.

In the program, there’s a piece written by Kate Hamill, discussing what it’s like to be a female playwright, especially a playwright to adapts novels into plays. Hamill gives us statistics from the Dramatist Guild that state in 2015, over three-quarters of all plays produced on American stages were written by men. As a playwright myself, this isn’t new information, but seeing just how large the gap is between male and female writers is shocking. It’s even more disconcerting given the quandary I find myself in at the moment.

I’m worried that I’m having a crisis about feminism. After discussing with friends how much feminism has changed from the 1960s and how millennial feminists are dealing with issues that are different than what second wave feminists dealt with but still feel threatening, I struggle with knowing how I to approach certain issues. The example I’ll be using is male feminists.

Let me break this down for you. I did some research, trying to find a really good article about how it’s hard to talk about feminism with your male friends, even when they consider themselves feminists, because – well, the patriarchy is still alive and well and their views aren’t mine and communication is hard. I mean, it’s hard to talk about feminism with female friends (feminism is downright hard. But more on that in a moment). I was really hoping for some pithy article to actually got the nuances and the difficult emotional issues involved – something with a nice does of both skepticism and empathy. Instead, I found articles like these. In New York Magazine, the writer cuts down male feminists and simply states that men will always be the enemy and that’s that. They can try being feminists, but it’s ingrained in them not to be. This is valid, but a bit harsh. And a bit narrow-minded, I think. But then on the other end there’s this article from the Washington Post that calls feminists out for being misandrists and making mountains out of molehills over issues like mansplaining and friendzoning. So, yes, sometimes feminists get really negative. Sometimes this hurts more than it helps. But our anger is valid. And while clearly mansplaining is not comparable to, you know, getting the right to vote, it’s also not fair to brush it off as a non-issue. Then I hoped for some kind of sense to be found in this post from Medium, which seems more calmly concerned with male feminists rather than hating on them. Except that it seems to assume that men are only feminists because it can benefit them and doesn’t pause to consider things like women also watch porn, women can also be guilty for only caring about issues that relate to themselves, and, good God, why are mainstream articles so petty? There were other posts too, but they gave terribly obvious advice like “Don’t rape.” Really? You have to put that in an article on how to be a feminist?

So after seeing Sense and Sensibility last night and being inspired by seeing women take the stage in a story that (more or less) is about relationships between sisters, being incredibly happy to see a cast that had so many women in the artistic and creative side, and seeing audience members warmly respond to it (despite having heard people complain about it being “too conservative” for the Guthrie’s new season or uninteresting because it’s all about women), I decided to take some advice from Marianne Dashwood to heart. “Leave me, hate me, forget me. But do not ask me not to feel,” she cries. So, I’ve decided to write the article I wish I could have found. And I’m going to unleash a lot of feminist feelings on you.

Remember when I said previously that feminism is hard? Yeah, it’s hard. The basic premise is very simple – people of all genders should be equal. But the practicing of it is much more difficult. Feminism is no longer focused on getting voting rights or fighting for a woman’s right to marry when she chooses or proving that women are the intellectual equals of men (though we still have continue to argue these things from time to time, which is frightening). Feminists want a lot of different things because lots of different terrible things have happened to women and it takes a lot of arguing to point that out. And that’s the tough part – one doesn’t just decide “women are equal” and you’re done. It’s an all-day, every day, 365 days a year argument against cultural norms that have built up social injustices (aka: the patriarchy) and it takes a lot of work. It’s exhausting to resist a culture that is so focused on certain standards of femininity, body image, behavior, sexuality, and so on. Especially that not only are men taught inequality towards women, women are taught it to each other. We’re taught to critique each other’s appearances and bodies and general state of being. And it’s more exhausting when you’re not only arguing with people who aren’t feminists, but people who think they’re feminists but maybe don’t have the whole picture, as well as arguing with yourself.

Here’s my major concern – I’m worried about how the patriarchy works on feminism. I’m beginning to feel like there’s certain ways of being a feminist that more popular than others. After seeing friends mention those friends of theirs that will team up to destroy the patriarchy, I wonder: do I look like the kind of person who would do that? Why look; why do I have to look like that kind of person? And yet I wonder. I think some of my female friends would say yes, but I struggle think whether my male friends would say so. To be honest, I feel like either my friends – and usually this applies to male friends, but perhaps I’m more aware of it with them than I am others – are weary of my perspective or think it’s not edgy enough. Either my complaints are too commonplace or I’m making too much of an issue. I find myself seeing a new double bind, the double bind of a female feminist who has male feminist friends but doesn’t feel like she fits in with the female feminists they know or, at times, with feminism at all.

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with my perspective. Not in way that white female feminists are criticized for not branching out into intersectionality; I make that as large of a focus, especially as I’m a bi anxiety-ridden woman in a city with fairly large diversity. What I’m concerned abut in my perspective is that maybe I’m great at discussing and talking about feminism but not so great at practicing it. But how do I practice it when things keep me in check? Little passing comments from people that cut off my arguments, lack acknowledgement of issues I see. Feeling like if I talk about feminism, no one cares, but if someone else says the same things I do, it’s more important. Am I not cool enough to be a feminist? Am I too uptight? Too angry? Too anxious? Too conservative? Too liberal? Too prudish? Too sexual?

And we’re back to the whole issue of being too much of something, an issue that feminism has grappled with forever.

I’m hopeful that most of this anxiety-driven and that I’m grappling with myself, not others. Because I don’t want feminism to become this water-downed fashionable thing that people find cool and hip to be and not really think about what it implies. Don’t get me wrong – I want people to be feminists, even though some find it scary to be part of a label that large and broad and you can’t control. But I don’t want it to become this sort of marketing “I’ve got a t-shirt that says feminist so I’m one but I go home and gaslight my girlfriend” or “I’m a feminist which means I as a woman can pass judgement on the choices of other women because equality means I can criticize them all I want.” The articles above worry me so much because the continue this sort of feminism that doesn’t really seem to understand how it applies to ourselves. It’s all fine and well to point out how other people are bad at feminism, but how about overcoming our own flaws? How about talking about how much work it takes to be a feminist, especially in regards to yourself, or your ex, or your boyfriend’s ex, or someone who’s choices look nothing like your own?

On the other hand, I don’t want feminism to feel like an exclusive club where you have to prove yourself to show you belong, which is where I feel like I am right now. I’m clearly really passionate about this and it largely fuels my writing. I want to keep talking about this because it’s important and it needs to be discussed. I know what it feels like to be ignored or silenced with these issues and I don’t want that feeling of not being taken seriously to perpetuate. But how can I include feminist perspectives in my writing without being called out for being the wrong kind of feminist? How can I write about any of this at all in a way that makes sense? What more can I do to avoid these feelings I have about not being good enough? That I’m too angry or too emotional, too sensitive or too fragile for what feminism wants me to be?

This is a problem, because feminism is not about being one kind of woman, or one kind of person that supports feminism. My views are valid because of my experiences and, while I certainly don’t know everything, I want to listen and learn about the perspectives of others. I used to believe that diverse perspective could bring us together around a common goal – a goal of equality – but I’m beginning to worry that’s not the case any more. I don’t feel a coming together. Especially when I still have to fight to understand where my own friends are coming in their perspectives of feminism, especially my male friends. Especially when I’m still fighting with myself to feel like I belong. There is never going to be one way to be a feminist, but it feels clouded by contradictions, double standards, and a push-pull feeling of trying to move forward towards new goals but still fighting to protect rights we’ve already gained but are still threatened to be taken away.

I know that change can’t happen overnight, that we can’t ask for instant remedies, and can’t look to feminists, especially women, to have all the answers or to fix it. But I’m curious to know if these feelings of not being on the same page as others, as feeling too radical, of being too much, too sensitive, are fears that other feminists have. I’m sure they are, but how do we deal with them? How do we acknowledge that our perspective is valid? How do I understand where my friends’ views are coming from and understand without invalidating them? How can I talk to my male friends about feminism without sounding preachy, how can I avoid giving them feminism 101 when they do understand it, how do I make them realize they don’t get it when they think they do? And before you think this is only about men, it’s not. I’m embarrassed by the number of times I’ve heard women say sexist things and I’m more embarrassed that I didn’t intervene in some way.

I don’t think there’s any easy answers to this. But I do feel that it’d be better if we talked about our flaws as feminists more frequently and acknowledged that it’s really difficult, regardless of gender. Same goes for acknowledging hidden racism, intolerance of the GLBTQA community, ableism, and so on. I’m tired of feeling angry and that I’m doing something wrong. I’m even more tired of getting angry at friends because I don’t know how to express how I feel about this issue or how I respond to certain things they say and post. I want to be a better feminist and I want feminism to do better in general. None of us are perfect, our ideals may never come true, but working towards them and not giving up, but acknowledging how much damn work it is feels like something, at least.

Calendar Girls

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Source: parksquarethatre.org

I’m not accustomed to writing reviews that negatively convey a performance. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m not always comfortable voicing my opinion to the internet when it’s divergent from the norm, as I worry about how it will be received. Being a writer, this is the kind of an issue I need to overcome and am thus am daring myself to get over this as soon as possible. Second, I don’t want to keep people from seeing a show – I truly believe that most theater is worth seeing and don’t want to be like newspaper critics who (to steal an idea from a colleague of mine) think know better than the people performing or seeing the show. I’m also hesitant in this particular case, as Calendar Girls was part of an event for the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. And while I’m very grateful for the event and enjoyed it, I don’t want to keep that from being honest about the show. Because I was very disappointed by Calendar Girls. But before I go on to the critique, let me give you a little bit of background where I’m coming from.

I am a young woman who has had a number of body image issues in her life. I can hardly remember a time before I worried about my weight, worried about how I looked, and received comments on my body. Since at least the age of eight, I’ve dealt with being considered overweight, heard, from doctors to classmates, the word “fat” used negatively, and harbored a dark self-loathing for my own body. I lost weight when I started college and, though I’m now at what most people consider a healthy body weight, I still suffer somewhat from body dysmorphia and have no good conception of what size I really am. I find it easy to support people of others sizes and strongly support body positivity/embracing “fatness” as something that’s not a pejorative, but still struggle to feel good about myself.

This being said, I expected that Calendar Girls – a show that deals with female nudity and undressing onstage – would deal with issues of female body image, body positivity, and embracing female power. While the show did this in some ways, it feel dreadfully short in others. This being said, don’t skip the show on my account – but do take into account the following perspectives.

Most of my issues deal with the script, not the production by Park Square itself. The cast is lovely, dynamic, and clever. But the pace of the show felt a bit slow, especially in the beginning. There were moments where I questioned why certain actions were happening and wondered what the point of certain scenes were. Overall, it felt a bit disjointed. I never fully understood why the WA sold calendars. I never fully understood what the WA was. And I certainly didn’t understand why the way to raise money for a memorial for Annie (Christina Baldwin)’s deceased husband John (John Middleton) was to sell calendars with the WA members nude. If you’re going to pose nude for a calendar to benefit a man (a well-liked deceased man, but still), there needs to be a strong explanation of why.

Part of this is due to how little John is in the play. While the show’s focus is clearly on female relationships, I do wish it had spent a little more time building up John’s character so that we understand why he was so important to the women of Yorkshire and why he is so sorely missed (aside from dying from cancer. Yes, this is tragic, but is a person is more than their disease). The show doesn’t reveal this much, nor does it dig into other issues that women have with their bodies. It is mentioned that some of the ladies, such as Cora (Laurel Armstrong), are reluctant to undress because they don’t look like Chris or Celia (played by Charity Jones and Carolyn Pool, respectively) though Jessie (Linda Kelsey) shows little reservations, though she is the oldest in the group. But it doesn’t divulge further into this and maintains the idea that the calendar viewers who are men are far more interested in these two than the others. Nor does it explain the idea that the women – primarily Ruth (Shanan Custer) – are concerned about undressing because their husbands have never seen them nude. While this line is intended for humor, it never explores this idea that seems to be true for many of the women. How is it you can be married to someone and never see them without clothing? How can photographing female nudity never lead to a deeper discussion of body image? The issues at stake with this are ignored.

The actual nudity in the show does feel fun and empowering, but this effect doesn’t last after the printing of the calendar. While the focus should be on the letters Annie is receiving from women who have lost loved ones to cancer and grateful for the calendar making this issue known, I feel the script spends a lot of time with how men (never present onstage but mentioned) react to seeing the women nude. Perhaps it’s because I’m from a different generation (one that hears about nude selfies being leaked all the time and knows how personal images can be used against women) but I’m never comfortable with the underlying bit of objectification that comes with the production of the calendar. This is not the kind of empowerment I want – women’s liberation of their bodies at the cost of being continually ogled by men. I felt heavily bogged down in this issue by the end – especially with Chris trying to get the women to move into advertising – and I never felt the connection the women between regain its former joviality after this. There’s a quote from Charlotte Perkins Gilman that says, “Women’s economic profit comes through the power of sex-attraction” and I can’t help but feel this idea of using sexuality to sell calendars (though for humanitarian reasons) never loses a uncomfortable edge that takes away from the empowerment that should be happening onstage (Donovan 44).

 

 

My biggest issue with this show is the lack of diversity. I know that this takes place in Yorkshire, but as Yorkshire is being created for us, then why not create it so it looks more like our own communities? Yes, it’s based of a true accounts, but I feel like that’s a weak excuse to not include more diversity in terms of race, age, ability, and body size. However, it can’t be overlooked that this show does do something radical. It is rare for women of a certain age to be able to work together on a show in the theater world (as was mentioned in the post-show discussion) and Calendar Girls certainly does this. And while this is marvelous and groundbreaking, it makes me sad at still how far we have to go in terms of representations of women in theater. I admit, I’d be more intrigued by this play if it allowed a larger representation of women to be cast in it. Again, I know that I am from a different generation and that I have a different perspective on feminism than the characters in the show do. I realize that this show’s purpose is not to portray young bodies because young bodies get all the attention in the mainstream media. But what about young bodies and all the other female bodies that don’t match up to media expectations? Overall, I still find the representation of women sorely limited. A scene with Ruth really drives this home for me. In a wonderfully-acted scene, Ruth confronts Elaine (Anna Hickey), the woman with whom her husband is having an affair. While this scene is powerful, I can’t help but wish it were different. I don’t like the attack of the “other woman” and I don’t like that there’s no chance for Elaine to respond, to apologize, to team up with Ruth and find positivity together, to confront the husband together and demand an answer. Instead, it shames her and seems to condemn her more sexual nature, rather than just the affair. While Ruth’s shift from complacent and shy to outspoken and demanding here is incredible, I found myself clapping but uncomfortably so, wishing the scene had a different result. It certainly takes two to cheat, but it would seem that both women got used here and mutual understanding of one another would be a lot more fulfilling.

At the end of the show, I wasn’t sure what it had accomplished. Did I feel that I had a better understanding of people who lose loved ones to cancer? Maybe. Did I feel proud of womanhood and empowered that we can take control of our bodies and create change? Slightly. Was I happy to see so many women gathering together for a show that they so clearly enjoyed and felt celebrated them? Absolutely. Was I happy to see theater become a safe space for women to relax and enjoy? 100% yes. Did I feel that the show only advocated celebration for a select group of women? Sadly, yes. I had a lot of big expectations for this show that weren’t met. But I don’t think this show was meant for me. But if it does make one woman more comfortable with her body or gets one person thinking about feminism and the representation of female bodies, then it’s succeeded. I’ll just have to wait until next time for the show I was looking for.

 

Calendar Girls is directed by Mary M. Finnerty and written by Tim Firth. It is playing on Park Square’s Proscenium stage now through July 24th. Show and ticket information can be found on Park Square’s website.

 

 

Work cited: Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: Fourth Edition. New York: Continuum, 2012. Print.