Ex-Gays: Not a Str8 Remount

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I never felt quite a uncomfortable entering a show as I did for the performance of Savage Umbrella’s Ex-Gays. Of course, it’s meant to be uncomfortable. Held at Uptown’s Springhouse Ministry Center, overly cheerful “pastors” greet audience members and bless you, directing you where to check in for a “five week” camp to rid yourself of sin and find your way to heterosexuality. Not expecting this interactive aspect, I was pleasantly surprised and hurtled back to my own Sunday bible school sessions at a Catholic Church. Even the program ( a Camp Str8-N-Arrow welcome packet) brought me uneasily back to my childhood with coloring book images that were cheerful but haunting (one of a kitten staring at its reflection really got to me. I’ll save the psychoanalysis of why for another post).

The show itself follows a group of camp pastors teaching campers how to “admit we are powerless over our unnatural attraction to same-sex persons” and to “turn our lives over to the care of God’s heterosexual touch.” The cast, including Eli Purdom, Katherine Skoretz, Amber Davis, Alyssa Davis, Nick Wolf, Shannon McCarville, Meagan Kedrowski, Nissa Nordland, Matthew Englund, and Courtney Stirn, presents these issues with hilarious, over-the-top campy cheer (yes, that’s a pun on campy) which ultimately makes the serious subject matter of the show all the more powerful. We see how many of the characters are pretending to be happy and straight, trying to lead double lives, and doing harm to themselves in order to do what they believe God requires of them.

To understand the full affect this play had on me, you need to know some parts of my personal life. I grew up Roman Catholic. I came out as bisexual just over a year ago. I recently read a book about the Westboro Baptist Church and, having seeing this show during Bisexual Awareness Week, this show certainly packed a wallop. I was uncomfortable, I was entertained, I was horrified, I was heartbroken. But most of all the importance of discussing these issues was brought to mind,

Director Laura Leffler says in her notes that she feels a new apprehension during the remount of the show. I felt this same apprehension. With a sense that the current political climate cares nothing about marginalized people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+, and those in the White House already working to undo progress that has been made (be it the military ban on trans individuals or overturning Title 9) there’s a reason for the uneasiness and fear. The thoughts of extremists who believe in conversion therapy and that people need to change to fit into their God’s (increasingly narrow) idea of good humans are not just outlier voices but voices that are being given recognition and power. This play is so important because it hears those voices but shows how wrong they are. This show broke my heart but also revealed how important it is to show others – especially young LGBTQ+ community members – that they deserve respect and to be loved who they are. After seeing this, I’ll never look at a bundt cake the same way again (and it’s all for the best) and I feel stronger in resisting forces that wish to harm others. I always feel a little like I’m making up some sort of Stephen King-esque monster when I talk about the threats to the LGBTQ+ to people I’d like to make allies. Maybe I do a poor job of it, still navigating my ways through my identity. Or maybe I feel like people assume I exaggerate the threat because, “it can’t be that bad” or “this isn’t Chechnya.” But I’ve heard the horrific things that people say and heard the horrible acts people commit because someone else’s sexuality makes them uncomfortable. There is a need to speak up and be heard right now, and I’m grateful that this play is not only doing that but encouraging others to do the same.

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Velvet Swing: Workshop

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about playwriting in the last year, it’s that seeing your work presented in front of an audience and performed by actors is one of the most amazing and also the most terrifying things in the world. I especially enjoy attending workshop of other people’s work because getting a look at what putting a show together and what the writing process looks like for others is fascinating and I personally admire anyone for sharing a work in progress with the (sometimes less than kind) public.

Savage Umbrella recently staged two nights of workshops at Bryant Lake Bowl for Velvet Swing, a work-in-progress about the life of Evelyn Nesbit, a performer who became famous after her husband, Harry Thaw, killed millionaire Stanford White, a patron of Nesbit’s who had also had a sexual relationship with her. Written by Alana Horton and Megan Clark, this workshop performance featuring Nayely Becerra, Antiona Perez, Jessie Scarborough-Ghent, Mickaylee Shaugnessy, and Leslie Vincent and included forty-five minutes of the piece so far. Certain actors played Thaw and White, while the ensemble all became Nesbit in all her complex incarnations.

Because this isn’t a performance, this piece isn’t a review but rather a look at this workshop and what I love about this process. Though the performance was only a small part of what the piece will eventually become, there was a bold look at what sort of story is being told about Nesbit – a look at what it’s like to be a woman, especially a woman who’s considered good-looking in America. Conversations in the talk-back and had by me after the show involved thinking about Nesbit as a sex symbol, someone who has star power and how the cult of fame can be dangerous, how the court room can turn on a young woman and make her the criminal instead of the victim (ie: look at Kesha, every woman involved in campus rape allegations, I could go on), and how women continually struggle between inaccurate dichotomies of being sexual and innocent. This workshop was the perfect thing to lure me into wanting to see more and I can’t wait to see where this work goes. I’m still overwhelmed in admiration for Horton and Clark to share their work with us and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

The Awakening

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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.

The Glass Menagerie, Memory, and Time

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This isn’t really a review, as I didn’t make it to Coup D’Etat’s wonderful production of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie until closing weekend. But because it was such a splendid production, I wanted to share some thoughts about it, generated greatly by the director’s note left at the door of the theater.

Directed by Lanny Langston, this production starring James Napoleon Stone, Kaylyn Forkey, Cynthia Uhrich, and Kevin Fanshaw highlights the claustrophobic nature of the play and the tense, fragile foundation of the Wingfield’s hopes and expectations. Glass baubles hang from the ceiling, ethereal music weaves in and out of the soundscape, and Savage Umbrella’s SPACE, located in an old warehouse, lends perfectly to this show whose characters struggle with modern ideas of success while harboring romantic notions of a different lifestyle. Amanda dreams of the past when she enjoyed gentlemen callers before she married, Laura is repeatedly called old-fashioned for her shy demeanor and simple outlook on life, and Tom escapes to the movies, to watch stories of adventure so unlike the monotonous life he leads.

Langston’s directorial note asks the audience to consider their own memories and how they remember them. This came easily for me with this show because many of Laura’s experiences resonated with my own (realizing you’ve heard lines of dialogue the echo things people have actually said in your life is a very bizarre feeling) and I was wound up in seeing my personal connection with Laura. The greatest sadness of the show involves Laura and Jim, her gentleman caller. Some might say that the greatest tragedy is that Laura’s love for Jim remains unfulfilled, as he is already engaged to another, despite the interest he seems to show in her. But it isn’t just that Laura doesn’t end up with Jim (especially as that could be interpreted less as the sadness of unrequited love and more of the fear Amanda exhibits that Laura will become an old maid. As a person who has been single most of her life in a society that isn’t very kind to single people, I refuse to submit to that nonsense. Rock on, single ladies). Rather, it’s the false hope that Laura receives and the work that Jim does to ease her out of her shyness, which she immediately recedes back into once she realizes Jim’s interest in her is not what it appears. Finally in her life, someone has seen her as more than shy and embraces her difference, and then in the span of a few minutes, she finds that it’s not enough and it all falls apart.

At the top of the play, Amanda wonders what they are all going to do with the rest of their lives. She is disappointed that her children are not where she expects them to be. Laura is 24, not married and not on a strong career path. Instead of trying to figure out why or what other options might exist for Laura, Amanda berates her (rather harshly in this production) and pushes her into situations that make her shyness (which looks – and feels, as audience member –  an awful lot like anxiety) stronger and prevent her from succeeding. As a millennial, the pressure and idea that you should be at a certain point in your life is something I greatly empathize with. As a young person concerned that I’m not where I should be – and realizing that being an adult is not some kind of formulaic success pattern and that worrying about such things is not worth it – the concern about what one is doing with their life and Amanda’s fretting over it is both familiar and frustrating.

This show is described at the beginning as a memory play, and it’s Laura’s brother Tom who narrates this memory for us, describing it as “the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” What truth then is Tom telling us? Is it that events in our life become more powerful when we look back upon them? That it is difficult to tell the importance of time when we are young? That children are fated to be like their fathers, as Tom is, and that happy endings will never exist for people who are different, like Laura? That memories are like glass and, like Laura’s menagerie, must be tended to be recalled and reflected upon their importance? Or how our memories of the past better reflect who we are than what happened? That our memories are as sensitive as glass and can just as easily be broken or distorted? That Laura – like her glass unicorn – must be broken in order to fit in to what society expects of her so that she does not always appear different? All of these? None of these?

This is my first time seeing a performance of The Glass Menagerie and I’m grateful that it was this production that I saw. It’s one of those shows that is often done and, when done well, is striking and thought-provoking. I’ll certainly be mulling over this one in the weeks to come.