WARNING: This review spoils everything.

51b6e668c519dbdb04895425238f3a89When what film critic David Edelstein called “torture porn” became a trend in 2004 and 2005, its relationship to the growing awareness that the US had become a country that tortures was clear. On screen representations of people being tortured by evil but human monsters served as a means of taking what had been kept secret about Abu Ghraib and putting it in full view in all its gore. Even films like Hostel and Turistas that deliberately built their stories around Americans in foreign locations served as a kind of collective catharsis upon accepting that our country, too, engaged in such practices.

Twelve years later, with the Saw franchise eight movies in, torture porn has made its way into television, and, between American Horror Story and The Walking Dead still going and Penny Dreadful just ended, it occupies a fairly important space in the supernatural television landscape.

For this year’s Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, I had the crazy idea that I would watch all three of these shows from beginning to end, determining, if not which show is most feminist, at least which is least sexist. I couldn’t do it. I made it through only one show all the way – Penny Dreadful – and in the course of just three seasons I watched women tortured by demons from the inside out, tarred and burned alive, branded, driven to cut her own throat, smothered and brought back to life, shot in the head by her father, poisoned by her lover, shot in the chest by her creator, and shot dead by her closest friend.

Bringing together characters from Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a werewolf thrown in for good measure, Penny Dreadful’s main theme is that we are all of us possessed by demons; we all have a monster lurking inside. Writer John Logan uses the Victorian backdrop to great effect. In Season One, the Grand Guignol delights audiences with its onstage violence and spurts of blood. Season Two features a subplot about a wax museum of gory crime scenes with ambitions of becoming a full-on freakshow. Season Three features the trusty horror trope of the insane asylum in which people are experimented upon. All three elements anchor the show firmly in its gaslit era and constantly remind us that, despite a lot of talk about faith and sin, Victorians were really obsessed with bodies and their physical limits.

The potential for feminism is high. The focus of the show on a woman, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), as its protagonist gives the audience a chance to identify with and follow the story through a woman’s perspective. Patty LuPone’s second-season cut-wife character – unnecessarily violent depiction of abortion aside – is a strong, single mentor and good witch/doctor. Her third-season psychiatrist, a gender-flipped Dr. Seward from Dracula, is a smart woman succeeding in a man’s world who can handle herself in a fight to boot.

But the show’s feminism falters by treating the female characters differently from the male ones: Though minor male characters in Penny Dreadful are the victims of some pretty horrifying violence, too, the women really get the worst of it, and there are fewer of them to start with. Furthermore, for the male characters, the connection between what haunts them and their sexuality remains the subverted metaphor that it is in the Gothic horror novels in which they were created, with greed, ambition, and failure to be a good father/son mixed into an all-encompassing idea of their sins/demons.

For Vanessa Ives, however, acting upon her sexual feelings literally brings out the demon in her, creating a one-to-one relationship between her sexuality and her dark side. Though her suffering is centered, her character is actually less complex and therefore less fully human than the male ones. Other than one early sexual misstep, she has no flaws at all. To make matters worse, the female character who fully owns her sexuality, Lily, one of Dr. Frankenstein’s monsters, is also a fully evil murderer, even when she connects to the early feminist movement and becomes a leader of women.

Finally, the presence of the same female body (Patty LuPone’s) in two different characters (something that is not a recurring aspect of the show, as it is with American Horror Story, but rather only happens with this one actor) keeps female heroism in the realm of archetype. In fact, the most interesting character in the series is not Vanessa Ives but the werewolf, Ethan Chandler, whose relationships with three different father figures and his past as a soldier and an adopted Apache give him far more to grapple with than his sexuality, which, despite the Victorian setting, doesn’t seem to be a problem for him at all.  And yet he’s got plenty of it.

No possible alternative to her fate is ever implied for Vanessa Ives, for whom acting on her sexual desires is to bring about the end of the world, and the audience is given little opportunity for hope. Accordingly, Penny Dreadful lacks a key component of horror: the moments of relief, whether in the form of humor or love, that are essential to keeping audiences vulnerable to the coming terrors – nothing is so rewarding when watching horror as a laugh that turns into a scream. Torture porn as a genre has very few of those moments, creating a rhythm that is not about suspense and jump-scares but merely about the ongoing horror of watching, head on, what terrible things people will do to people.

Penny Dreadful comes close to performing feminist work by showing how hard it is for women to live in a society that thinks of their sexuality as dangerous and their bodies as “nasty” and “disgusting,” with blood coming out of their wherevers. In the end, however, it doesn’t just depict the oppression of women, it reifies it, concretizing the idea in the audience’s mind by making the women’s suffering disgusting.

I couldn’t get further than one and a half seasons into American Horror Story, which puts even more torture on screen than Penny Dreadful. Though some bad things happen to the men in that show, too, the rape, mutilation, deliberate transmission of the bubonic plague, and unnecessary amputations in the episodes I’ve seen are reserved for female bodies. The buzz around this year’s season premiere of The Walking Dead indicates that it has gone from being a means of examining the variety of ways that people form societies and families to a means of examining the variety of ways people kill one another. Some scenes in the premiere were too graphic to be shown during prime time in the U.K.

At this point, our culture is no longer using torture porn to work out our guilt about our conduct abroad. Small screen torture porn, at least in the cases of American Horror Story and Penny Dreadful, seems to be serving rather to take our fear of sex and women out of the dark and into the light, giving us an opportunity to vicariously take women apart and show them as disgusting as a substantial portion of our society fears we might be.

Perhaps these depictions of torture are a necessary step to take before we finally accept that sexual women are not demonic, the women’s movement is not led by a superhuman killer with a vagenda of manocide, and our bodies don’t need to be tortured to be made pure. If anything good can be said about recent public discussions of sexual harassment, abuse, and oppression, it’s that they are public. Women all over the country are sharing their stories of being grabbed in the pussy and kissed against their will, are owning the descriptor of nasty as a badge of pride, and are refusing to be seen as anything less than fully human, inside and out.

Unfortunately, Penny Dreadful doesn’t ultimately reject the notion that women need to be tortured to be sure that they’re not evil. I can’t tell you where American Horror Story and The Walking Dead are going because, even though I am a hardened, life-long horror fan, I can’t take any more torture, and I don’t want to keep seeing bodies, and women’s bodies in particular, used to create disgust.

I watch horror because identifying what we are afraid of tells us a lot about ourselves, but also because it’s fun to be scared. As my Halloween binge-watching experiment draws to a close, I’m a lot more scared by what it means that torture porn TV is so popular than I am by torture porn itself.

db042b0198By virtue of the fact that, at many colleges, students can earn credit by being in theater productions, academia has cultivated a strange, liminal space that is both a classroom and a rehearsal room. I’ve been hired a number of times to direct students in a production, teaching them as I go what is expected of professional actors in a rehearsal and performance room. I call this “teach-directing” and it is one of my favorite endeavors. Unlike the whiny, undergrad PC warriors that the media would have you all fear, student actors are on the whole pretty interested in taking artistic risks. They want to emulate professional labor standards because they see them as important protections for both actors and their collaborators, but students, I find, are not as interested in limiting discomfort in the class-rehearsal room as they are simply eager to know just what the rules are. All the better to fearlessly jump into creative and intellectual challenges, after all.

Last week I responded to the University of Chicago’s letter to its incoming class warning them not to expect trigger warnings and safe spaces by saying that in the theater classroom, some safe space rules are necessary. This is not to keep students from having to experience psychological discomfort (to make theater they have to be willing to do that), but rather to ensure that while they are in that vulnerable place – that place where they’re willing to really be present and really feel in front of other people – they can know they are protected from abuse and real danger.

If I were teach-directing this semester, I’d be attempting to lay out the rules of our safe class-rehearsal room space more clearly than ever before, not because I fear today’s politically correct student body, but because they do in fact have a right to know whether they are putting themselves in danger, and they need reassurance that they will be supported when they take artistic risks.

Here’s what I would tell my student-actors about our shared educational-creative space.

  1. You will be uncomfortable. You will be off balance. You will occasionally fail in front of other people. This will not be nearly as painful as you think it will be.
  2. You might not like everyone else in the room. You definitely won’t agree with all of them. Disagreement is totally normal and really healthy, and it actually leads to better art. It is not a sign of a problem; it is a sign that everyone is really, fully engaged.
  3. You cannot improvise violence or sex. That does not mean that having the impulse to add violence or sex to a moment is a bad thing. It means you have to stop yourself when you have one of those impulses and instead say, “I have an idea, but we need to work out how to do it safely.” So please, honor your impulses, even the unattractive ones. Trust them. I want to know what they are and I want to support them. I promise I will not shame you. But in this class-rehearsal room, you can’t act on the violent and/or sexual impulses until you have consent.
  4. Don’t tell other actors what to do. It’s not your job. If you have that many ideas about what they could be doing, think about studying directing. Here and now, in this class-rehearsal room, your job is to figure out what you can do, not what others can. Have ideas about your part and share them. Then shape your ideas in relationship to other people’s ideas about their part. Do not try to make your ideas other people’s ideas.
  5. I am here to enable you to have so many ideas you don’t even know where to start. My vision is intended as a springboard for you to use to get to other ideas that I could never think of myself, and I trust you to come up with those ideas. If you feel like you’re not getting enough direction, or like you have ideas but you don’t trust that you could try them and fail and not be judged for it, or like your ideas are too different from my vision to work, or like you don’t have any ideas, or best of all like you have so many ideas you don’t know where to start, please tell me. I can help with that. The only thing I can’t do is know what you’re thinking and feeling if you don’t express it to me. I will not judge you for being uncomfortable, afraid, excited, sad, passionate, happy, disconnected, turned on, angry, judgmental, amused, incessantly logical, ridiculously illogical, or any other thing you could possibly be feeling while making theater. In fact all those feelings and more are common and expected. We all have them and we have to have them in order to our job well. What I can do, if you tell me what you’re going through, is help.

If I were teaching this semester, I would also emphasize that theater is not made alone; it is made in companies. Even one-woman shows require more than one woman to make them. Our class-rehearsal room is one in which you have the chance to experience the discomfort, the lack of safety, in front of other people, that is essential to making good art. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, fall down, and get back up again, all with other people in the room. And that is neither comfortable nor, depending on your definition, safe. What is has to be to work is communicative.

 

9349743409_1fde8abd91_bThe University of Chicago made news by telling its incoming students not to expect trigger warnings or safe spaces, and not to bother petitioning the administration to disinvite problematic speakers. Responses have varied from “good for them!” to “how authoritarian!” In between sweeping bans on a major component of campus culture and the sweeping fear that administrations are trying to silent student voices is the possibility that some trigger warnings in some situations are a good idea and some student protests are valuable contributions to campus culture.

U. of C. is just the latest university to try to craft a policy to deal with the expectations that today’s college students have that their institution has a responiblity to protect them psychologically. In the 14 years that I’ve been in higher education, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in anxiety among students, and had a number of students ask that I change my pedagogy to make them feel more comfortable. In particular, whereas I have always positioned myself as co-learner with my students, students increasingly want their professors to be more like their parents than their colleagues. In one review, I even had a student use the phrase “grown ups” to refer to faculty members. Having to be a next-level babysitter while also providing an educational experience can make co-learning difficult.

Successfully democratizing my own classroom is especially difficult if the college and/or department culture leans more towards professors having to be distant, uncollaborative authority figures. For the students and faculty who see college as an extension of high school with no change in the nature of their relationships with their teachers, this works well. For faculty who see college as a time to train adolescents to be adults by treating them like adults, this can be deadly.

These issues all come together even more dramatically in theater departments. A college rehearsal room – which is often, by virtue of the students getting academic credit to be in a show, also a classroom – is not a safe space. I don’t mean to say that it is a space in which students have to put up with being psychologically abused, I mean that it is a space where people have to take risks and fail. This is a scary thing to do. It’s not safe because failure feels bad, no matter how you experience it. Unfortunately, there is no other way to make good theater – no way around the fact that art is always an experiment. The artist is always venturing an idea – whether it’s an image or a metaphor or a character choice or a feeling – the artist must have an impulse, follow it through, and share it with an audience. That will never feel safe, and I don’t think it should.

The possibility for abuse in these situations is an obvious but unnecessary evil. Artists are required to be vulnerable with one another, and some people prey on the vulnerable. Therefore, director/teachers should have the same professional boundaries they would have in a professional theater, which is to say that they should not use this space to become sexually intimate with the actors/students, they should not physically endanger the actors/students in this space, and they shouldn’t force them to work in conditions or for hours that have been deemed excessive by the people who do this professionally. (This is as much a liability issue as a pedagogical one.) Thus, ironically, the theater classroom is a place where “safe space” rules become almost a must, not so that the students can be protected from experiencing discomfort and vulnerability, but so that they can do so knowing that they will not be preyed upon in the process.

Alas, most theater departments have yet to bridge this gap between “no trigger warnings/no democracy” and “students can complain about anything and genuinely expect their professors to fix it for them.” What I hope to find eventually is a department culture that doesn’t infantilize students but rather actually protects them by making space for them to learn to experience unsafe things as adults. Processes, guidelines, transparency, and safety standards that address both the physical and psychological risks of making theater are essential to achieving this. And giving students a voice in creating those standards is a great way to push them beyond demanding that we keep them safe to learning how to keep themselves safe.

I wrote this satirical piece the other night out of frustration with Chicago’s Porchlight Theatre, which is doing In the Heights with white actors playing leading characters of color. Companies like Porchlight have oversimplified what it means to do diversity, believing apparently that saying they “tried” is enough. This is an oversimplification because it is actually complicated, difficult, and time-consuming to build alliances and trust and find new people to work with. But since theaters that do this are being simplistic, I thought maybe they could use a similarly simplistic program to help them achieve diversity.

Welcome! If you’re reading this, you’re a white artist who has decided to do a show that has characters of color in it, and you’re wondering, “What do I do next?”

When you committed to producing a show that has characters of color in it, you committed to expending the resources – both financial and temporal – necessary to hiring artists of color to play those roles.

If you don’t already know a lot of artists of color, there’s no time to waste, so let’s get started! Just follow this simple 6-step technique, and you’ll not only find artists of color with whom to collaborate, you’ll also protect yourself from the media shit-storm that will happen if you don’t!

  1. Start by contacting the professionals of color in your community and letting them know you plan to produce this show. Ask them for advice, recommendations, thoughts, endorsements, warnings, and anything else they are willing to offer.
  1. Offer something in return.
  1. Do not cast white actors to play characters of color.
  1. Do not produce the show if you can’t “find” actors of color to play the roles.
  1. If you can’t “find” actors of color to play characters of color, ask yourself, “Where am I looking?” If you are looking in the same places you’ve always looked and only ever found white actors, you’re not looking in the right place.
  1. Look in different places.

Easy enough! But what about the artistic staff, you’re wondering?

  1. Interview directors, choreographers, designers, and stage managers of color.
  1. Hire them.
  1. Acknowledge their expertise.
  1. Do not produce the show if your entire artistic staff is white.
  1. If you can’t “find” any artists of color to work on your show, ask yourself, “Where am I looking?” If you are looking in the same places you’ve always looked and only ever found white artists, you’re not looking in the right place.
  1. Look in different places.

I know that’s a lot to do in a short period of time, so you better get started!

Godspeed, white ally!

Originally published by Howlround on January 28, 2016

Lynn Nottage’s newest play, Sweat, a co-commission by Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and Arena Stage, originated in OSF’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. Nottage’s contribution to this ten-year program of commissioning “up to thirty-seven new plays from moments of change in United States history” deals with the moment of change that we are in right now, a moment she calls the “de-industrial revolution, the bookend to a century that began with the shaping of America through the Industrial Revolution.”

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage had been struck by a 2011 New York Times article about the impact of the Great Recession on the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, and, along with director Kate Whoriskey, decided to approach this project the same way they approached Ruined, Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play about Congolese women living in a war zone: by immersing themselves in a place and getting to know the people who live there.

Speaking by phone from New York, Nottage shared her love of that process:

There is something lovely about the playwright and the director going through the same process, having the same reference. I know that the experience we had in Uganda is that we made these lists. She’d write down everything she was experiencing and I’d write down everything that I’d experienced and what we found is that a lot of time our eyes pick up and see different things, which I think complement each other and fill out the experience. So when I reached out to Kate it was with that same concept in mind: that we go and do the research together, sharing the same experience but writing it down and then comparing our lists. For me it was kind of eye opening. For so many directors, theatre is a visual medium and for so many playwrights it’s a literary medium. So she would describe textures and colors whereas I would tend to describe the nature of the encounter.

What they found in Reading was a town in which the economic contraction that began in 2008 and has nearly disappeared the middle class in the ensuing years is realized literally in the architecture. Whereas Reading used to be the site of a thriving shopping economy, now “the outlet malls are all closed and you see the shells, these hollowed out buildings that still have the Kenneth Cole logo painted on them but there’s nothing inside.”

When things became fractured, they became fractured along economic lines but also racial lines. What we experienced was that everyone is sort of pointing over the divide at everyone else and placing blame. So instead of placing the blame on those who are really responsible, the greedy corporate interests, we tend to cannibalize each other. We say “it’s your fault, person of color, for coming in and taking our jobs” rather than really examining what’s happening on a larger and broader scale, which is that the companies are making decisions to move the factories to a right-to-work state, or out of the country so that they can exploit workers in different ways.

Wary of pillaging Reading for their stories and leaving, Nottage is now working with the Labyrinth Theater Company on an installation project that aims to create a space that puts people in Reading in conversation with one another, allows them to tell each other their stories, and hopefully shows them what Nottage saw, which was that despite their differences, they actually share one fundamental narrative. Labyrinth and Oregon Shakespeare Festival will also co-produce a reading of Sweat in Reading this spring.

(L-R) Stephen Michael Spencer as Jason and Tramell Tillman as Chris in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Asked whether she’s concerned that the upper-middle-class audiences that frequent large theatres in metropolitan areas might not be able to connect with her working-class characters, Nottage was optimistic: “There’s a fear that upper-class audience members can’t see themselves in the characters, but I think that that’s not true of everyone who goes to the theater.” She continued:

One of my frustrations with what happens on the stage a lot of the time when working class people are put up there, it’s like poverty porn. They’re laughed at, or they’re the villains, or they’re ridiculous. I think the struggles folks are going through are really real. It affects you physically and emotionally. And I think about America where you have the majority of people living in that state and we’re seeing what it’s doing to us in the level of gun violence and the level of sexual abuse and assault that happens around the country. I think it’s a result of the stress that we’re under to survive.

Despite the underlying economic and social critique and the painstaking research that went into creating the play, the people it renders are familiar, and the audience encounters these people in a very familiar place—one that has served as an apt home for classics from Eugene O’Neill and William Saroyan to John Patrick Shanley —a bar.

(L-R) Tramell Tillman as Chris and Tyrone Wilson as Evan in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage chose the setting in order to write the kinds of conversations people have in neutral, relaxed spaces like bars, and she based her bar on one of many that she and Whoriskey visited in Reading:

There was one that we walked into where the architecture definitely affected the design impulses: You could see it was filled with history and knick-knacks and little things that told the story and told you how much the space was kind of beloved.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t bet on the relatable characters and familiar setting keeping the play from hitting a few nerves, but that’s part of Nottage’s goal:

What I see in New York is that the shows are shrinking down. I don’t see a lot of politics on stage. And I think that when work is confrontational the confrontation is about people taking off their clothes, it’s not about ideas and ideologies being challenged. It’s interesting what people think provocation is.  I think that provocation is when you enter in the space and everything you believe in is challenged.

I think that what surprises people with this show is the alliances that they forge with characters that are then undermined. I think that that’s what people respond to—that the whole show exists in the gray area. Everyone in the play makes a compromised decision that ends up having implications that hurt someone else. There’s no character in the play that doesn’t do that, and I think that’s challenging.

Originally published by HowlRound on November 10, 2015

This piece is a follow up to an earlier preview of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Read the original piece here.

Was it Oz? Well, it took me about as long to recover from my weekend in DC as I imagine it took Dorothy to settle back in to Kansas. I was on a theatre high for weeks after a visit to see as much of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as I could over three days—which is actually not much given that forty-eight women have new plays in this festival.

Destiny of Desire
First up was Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela, at Arena Stage. When I spoke with Zacarías in September, she described her show featured a troupe of actors doing a telenovela. The women in the acting company, she said, are not pleased with where their characters are going, so it becomes about “What happens when women take destiny in their own hands and start changing the script? What happens when we go off the path that is expected of us and test new things?”

Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo, Elia Saldaña as Victoria del Rio, and Fidel Gomez as Doctor Diego in Destiny of Desire. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Given this description I was therefore surprised that, though the show contained many Brechtian elements, such as visible lighting apparatus and the interruption of the action by actors delivering sometimes humorous, sometimes sobering factoids about love, marriage, family, and Latina/o life into microphones, the actors in the telenovela never actually acknowledged that they were actors or that they were “changing the script.” The reality was something much more subtle, wherein all of the typical devices of a telenovela were employed (swapped babies, mysterious deaths, fabulous costumes) without question, yet merely by focusing the narrative on the two young women— who according to the usual structure, have little authority over their own lives— Zacarías allows us to watch them, in the most Brechtian sense, nevertheless persist in making their own choices about how to get what they want. The overall effect was hilarious, moving, and a truly insightful look at Latina/o life in relation to pop culture.

Animal
Saturday I treated myself to a matinee of Animal by Claire Lizzimore, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, at Studio Theatre. Animal was in one of the theatre’s smaller spaces, while Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica played the main stage. (Because Chimerica was not a world premiere, it could not technically be part of the festival.)

Animal, on the other hand, is the kind of new play that, like an adolescent human, is still actively forming its neural pathways. The theatre provided copies of the script to attendees at their afternoon panel discussion, “Playwright as Hybrid Artist,” featuring Lizzimore and other Festival playwrights who also act, direct, or design. Studio Literary Manager, Adrien-Alice Hansel, made sure to let us know that the script has changed just since that recent printing.

Joel David Santner and Kate Eastwood Norris (foreground), and Cody Nickell (background) in Animal at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

For a play so tender its formation, Animal packs a powerful punch. The artful blend between what is real and what is not subtly invites the audience into the worldview of the protagonist, Rachel—a woman enduring a mental illness, the diagnosis of which we only learn at the end. Kate Eastwood Norris’ defiant yet empathetic portrayal drives the show and the audience’s emotional response, and though she doesn’t miss a beat, our hearts do.

This show is written to be done with a small cast in a small space with a minimal set, so the next time anyone tries to tell you that they just can’t find plays by women that they can afford to do, or that have central protagonists that both men and women can connect to, tell them about Animal.

Queens Girl in the World
Saturday night I saw Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge at Theater J. Developed by Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art initiative, this one-woman show tells the story of a young black girl (Jacqueline) whose parents transfer her from a neighborhood school in Queens to a progressive school in Greenwich Village. Set in 1962, references to historical events like the assassination of Malcolm X resonate as strongly as the decision of the heroine to stop wearing bobby socks, a moment that becomes both personal and political when uses this a period-specific metaphor for the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Jacqueline’s encounters with Jewish culture awaken her to the vast world outside her neighborhood just as the Civil Rights Movement is awakening her political consciousness and awareness of her own racial identity. All the while, Jacqueline endures everything most young women do, like crushes and BFFs. Turns out, you can learn a lot when you look at the world through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. This show is a tour-de-force for its lead, played by Dawn Ursula.

Dawn Ursula as Jacqueline in Queens Girl in the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Women Laughing Alone with Salad
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, is both the most financially supported production of one of Callaghan’s plays I have ever seen, and probably not coincidentally the best. In fact, the question of whether or not new plays by women can really be expected to succeed when they are given only half the resources of productions of new plays by men came up at Woolly’s post-show panel discussion on gender parity. At the panel, Callaghan and other activist theatre women spoke about the Summit, the Kilroys, the Pipeline, and The Count, and shared their successful strategies and tactics to advance gender parity in the not-for-profit theatre. During the panel, Callaghan barely managed to contain her frustration with inequality in professional theatre. In her play, she gives full voice to the frustration she feels at the way women are treated and places the blame squarely on the media for promulgating the mythology of beauty as value. The production was loud, bold, angry, funny, sexy, disturbing, disorienting, political, and personal, with a second act that is Churchill-ian in both structure and effect.

Kimberly Gilbert, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Meghan Reardon in Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The post-show panelists repeatedly pointed out that no hard evidence suggests that shows by women do worse than those by men when they are given the same resources for development and production. If you invest in the works of Sheila Callaghan, you will reap the rewards.

Uprising
Uprising by Gabrielle Fulton, directed by Thomas W. Jones, at MetroStage was my surprise find of the weekend. As industry weekends are intended to do, I met Fulton at the “Playwright as Hybrid Artist” panel and was able to get tickets to see her show in Alexandria, VA, on my last night there.

Set in pre-Civil War America in a community of free blacks, the inciting event of this play is the arrival of Osbourne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African American at the Harper’s Ferry Raid, seeking refuge after John Brown’s failed revolution. The play with music goes on to question the nature of freedom, work, love, motherhood, and history through an epic use of music, dance, sound, dialogue, and projections. The quality of the production rivaled all that I saw at the area’s more metropolitan theatres and the intimacy of the space was well suited to a story at turns philosophical and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Anthony Manough as Ossie and Cynthia D. Barker as Sal in Uprising. Photo by Chris Banks.

Union is particularly adept at decentering the historical figure of Anderson in favor of the fictional Sal, a free black and a repository of the history of being enslaved, raped, and separated from family that is particular to women of color. While Osbourne remains a fixed figure whose fate is determined before the play begins, Sal, though influenced and affected by the forces around her, makes her own decisions, using what little freedom she has to determine her own fate, ignoring the dire warnings of everyone around her. Despite all she’s lived through and even when no one else seems to trust her, Sal trusts herself.

Trust in women is not something you find often today—in some cases we are not trusted to make our own medical decisions, to raise children, to be single, to be married, to manage budgets, and to work at the highest levels. But the people who put together the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the collaborators that made world-premiere productions possible for so many playwrights clearly placed not only their trust, but also their resources, behind women.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival has also set a precedent and created a template that can be used across the country. Assuming you invest in the production, there is simply no truth in the excuse that producing plays by women is a financial risk. In fact, I’m willing to bet that almost any producer in DC who participated in the festival will tell you: Trusting women pays.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 30, 2015

Film.12664.linh-hon-lai-vangApparently the spirits of Halloween can be quick to respond this time of year, because no sooner did I wish for a Gothic horror-based film that enables its young heroine to save herself and even her family without the help of men, whether dead or alive, than I found one on Netflix: Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin, is this feminist guide to horror movies’ runner-up for top pic this season.

Like all Gothic thrillers, Haunter centers around a house: A large house, full of mysterious rooms, previously unnoticed doors, and its fair share of ghosts. Like most Gothic thrillers, it also centers around a young woman who has become, against her will, trapped in that house. Like the good Gothic thrillers, whether the young woman in Haunter is seeing ghosts or something else or is simply going mad is gradually clarified through a series of carefully placed dramatic reveals. And like the best story in any genre, Haunter empowers the young woman—well, women, really—at the heart of the story to solve their own problems.

Breslin’s disenchanted teen could have lived in any era, but the “Siouxsie and the Banshees” tee and the posters on the walls of her room place her squarely in the early ’80s. Her house, on the other hand, has seemingly been occupied by similar young women since the late Victorian era—women trapped there by one particularly insidious person, first as a boy and then a man, who commands his house even after his death as if it were his castle. This legacy of patriarchal terror is so powerful as to be able to infect every family that lives there, even after the home’s original serial killer has died. Only one individual in each of three decades, all 30 years apart, is able to step outside of the cycle and break it, and that is the 16-year-old daughter. Despite its twists, turns, and well-timed reveals, Haunter delivers a pretty clear message: It is up to young women to save themselves, and the best way to do that is to ally themselves with other young women.

Fem Points:

+4 for a central female character who is a badass teen but has nothing at all to do with Katniss Everdeen

+2 for getting that when teenage girls describe their experiences, they may sound crazy, but they are actually the only ones speaking the truth

By contrast, there’s at least one on-demand film that you can, without a doubt, not waste your time on this year. The Hole has all of the promise that Haunter lives up to, yet falls far, far short. Obviously scripted to appeal to Gen Xers in its depiction of a modern-day latch-key kid and the vaseline-y looks of many of the shots, The Hole could have been an endearing film about a family making do in circumstances they didn’t foresee. Instead, it merely re-indicts single moms for opening up a hole for evil to enter and destroy their children (get it? open up a hole?). If it weren’t for the eldest male child in this family, no fewer than three teenagers would have lost their lives before the adult in charge so much as noticed. Note to filmmakers: I am a member of Gen X, and guess what, we lived! Even the ones who had divorced parents! They did not die by anything that came out of or went into their mother’s holes!

Fem Points:

-4 points for making something that should have been easy such a failure instead

-2 points for use of sexy-teenage-girl-next-door trope without any commentary at all

-A million for dissing single moms

If you can only watch one horror movie this season, the winner is clear: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not only written and directed by a woman, but it’s also truly suspenseful, conscious of all the tropes it evokes while still being truly original, and … did I mention written and directed by a woman?

Fem Points:

A jillion bazillion