Review


Perry Ojeda and Patti Cohenour in South Coast Repertory's 2014 p

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

The great Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer wrote her most famous story, “The Light in the Piazza, ” while living abroad. She had left the small town in which she grew up, Carollton, Miss., on a Guggenheim Fellowship for Italy. There she also wrote The Voice at the Back Door, about race relations in the South. This novel provoked the disapproval of her parents and her community.

As racial tension reached a boiling point, Spencer’s father had chosen to align with segregationists. Even her mother, who used to read to her and encouraged her to write, was appalled that her daughter had written so honestly about race in the South. The Voice at the Back Door was voted as the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1957, but rather than give it to her, the Pulitzer board decided not to bestow a prize that year.

Rejected by her parents and under constant pressure to stop writing, Spencer (who’s still with us at age 92)  spent the next 25 years living in Europe and Canada. It is, perhaps, this distance that allowed her to write a deeply personal work about the strength it takes to defy the “moonlight and magnolia” romanticization of the white Southern patriarchy. The Light in the Piazza was Spencer’s first story about a woman, and for the rest of her career she continued to write specifically about women who break the rules.

The Light in the Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson, who has taken her mentally challenged daughter, Clara, on a trip to Italy. Clara falls in love with an Italian man, and Margaret must determine whether to let her daughter marry him, in defiance of her husband’s wishes. The story was made into a Tony-Award winning Broadway musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel in 2005. The musical is currently running at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

Clara, whose disability is described vaguely as an inability to mature emotionally, clearly stands in for a young Spencer who, by virtue of being a writer, an artist and a woman with ambition, was marked early in her life as “different.” Like Clara, Spencer met the love of her life in Italy. Like Clara, Spencer’s father was not in attendance at or supportive of her wedding. But whereas the fictional Margaret chooses to endorse her daughter’s choice and enable her marriage to her lover, Spencer’s mother was as almost as uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s choices as her father was.

In The Light in the Piazza, Spencer has envisioned a world in which her mother’s support of her youthful creativity–her “difference”–continued into her adulthood. In reality, Spencer rarely visited Carollton, and her husband and her family never got along. But in the musical, Margaret Johnson manages to defy her husband and empower her daughter to follow her heart, come what may.

Patti Cohenour and Erin Mackey in South Coast Repertory's 2014 pIn a new documentary about her life, Landscapes of the Heart, named after Spencer’s autobiography, the writer cites a class she took in college in modern literature as a major inspiration. The modern sensibility of the The Light in the Piazza story is mirrored in the modernist music composed by Guettel, who is the grandson of Richard Rodgers. But unlike the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Guettel’s songs aren’t hummable. They are closer to something by Schoenberg: cascades of sound that never quite resolve. For the most part, it works–the music illuminates the refraction of identity at the heart of the story and hints at a musical realization of light.

Though Margaret makes the choice to defy her husband and support her daughter, the story ends without any real resolution as to whether Clara will actually be okay. Likewise, this production doesn’t quite complete itself; I didn’t even realize the finale was happening until the curtain call began.

As adorable as Clara and her Italian lover are, the story is clearly about Margaret. It is the mother’s choice whether or not to support her daughter’s rebellion that constitutes the central action of this story–not the innocence of her child or the sexy young man with whom she falls in love–making this an unusual plot for a Broadway musical. The modern music adds to the challenge of crafting a crowd-pleasing show, and the South Coast Repertory production suffers from a lack of focus on the central conflict. Moments that could have served to emphasize the central character’s rebellion– such as the revelation that she has her own savings account and the fact that she shares an illicit kiss with the married father of her daughter’s lover–are glossed over in favor of the younger characters’ love story.

The success of The Light in the Piazza (it won eight Tony Awards) proves, yet again, that stories by women–even women in their late 40s!–do sell tickets and do make great art . I look forward to a production of Light in the Piazza directed by a woman (both the Broadway and the SCR directors are male) that places Margaret firmly at the center of the story. Clara’s storyline may be unresolved, but Margaret has made her choice. She has said, essentially, “Fuck the patriarchy.”

The Light in the Piazza runs through February 23 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

 Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

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Originally posted at HowlRound

Before he shot himself in the head, Kurt Cobain wrote a suicide note in which he said, “I still can’t get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone. There’s good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad.”

Before they do their own fair share of shooting, the characters in Anton Chekhov’s unfinished play Platonov (1878), an early dramatic work written while he was a schoolboy, say much the same thing—at least they do in Jay Scheib’s adaptation titled Platonov, or The Disinherited, which recently ran at the La Jolla Playhouse Without Walls Festival. Chekhov never saw a production of the play, but it has had several high-profile adaptations and productions in the last few decades and is occasionally even staged in its full four-hour glory. The author used elements from this early piece—a drunk doctor, the decline of an aristocratic estate, extramarital affairs, and revenge by gunfire—freely in his later works, lending any performance a sense of déjà vu: If you’ve seen any Chekhov, you’ve seen parts of Platonov.

Platonov begins with the dinner party of a young widow named Anna (Judy Bauerlein). Her stepson Sergey (Jon Morris); his wife Sonya (Natalie Thomas); Platonov, a country school teacher (Mikéah Ernest Jennings); his wife Sasha (Ayesha Jordan); her sister Nicole, a doctor (Virginia Newcomb); and wealthy investor Porfiry Glagoyev (Todd Blakesley), are her guests. Porfiry wants to sleep with Anna, Anna wants to sleep with Platonov, Platonov wants to sleep with Sonya, and Nicole just wants to get drunk. Anna’s servant Jacob (Laine Rettmer) spends most of the play attempting to manage the chaos that ensues, and when Porfiry fails to save Anna’s estate, Jacob manages to convert her sobriety into success by buying it herself.

Scheib’s adaptation of the play, which freely alludes to its author’s dramatic oeuvre, is post-modern because of the connections it makes to the world of rock and roll and specifically, grunge. Thankfully, these connections are not aesthetic but rather philosophical: Drugs, sex, alcohol, and even the sound of a guitar (played live) serve to amplify a Chekhovian worldview, but there is no plaid and all of the actors appear to have washed their hair.

Turns out, it’s not much of a leap. The central characters in this play are at a turning point in their lives. They can’t figure out how they got where they are. They are obsessed with whether it is too late to change course, and convinced that their potential has gone to waste, are rededicating themselves to living fully and in excess. They will woo whom they want, screw whom they want, drink and do coke as much as they want, and not apologize for it. They are living the spirit of punk as defined by Cobain himself: “Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.”

Though some points of connection—Sonya’s tuberculosis might remind hardcore Cobain fans of his chronic bronchitis and Chekhov fans of his death from the same disease—are too esoteric for the average audience member, they are not incidental, nor are they a “concept” in which the director simply lays one world down on top of another. The marriage of Chekhov’s world with Cobain’s works because at the center of both is an overwhelming sense of capital-A Alienation.

Platonov‘s Porfiry Glagoyev like Cobain, suffers from an “ability to feel [that] is too great to ever possibly endure.” In fact it makes him “so fucking sad” that he has a heart attack. Porfiry, who is slightly older than the other characters, sees civilization’s downfall in our ever-increasing demand, to paraphrase Smells Like Teen Spirit, that someone better entertain us because we are here now:

Today there’s there’s just this pathetic little desire to get what you want and be gratified somehow. But Nobody really sacrifices for real anything really. Nobody feels really within a frame of real feeling and so no one dares to really love and feel real even real fucking and that really feeling loved hard sideways feeling. You know?

The characters in Platonov are alienated from their jobs (the doctor drinks too much to preserve anyone’s health) and economic situations (the widowed Anna does nothing to prevent her estate being sold out from under her). They are alienated both from their pasts (Platonov, now a mere schoolteacher, was once a promising intellectual and artist) and their futures (Sonya settled for safety in her marriage but now cannot bear the boredom she foresees). They are alienated from their own feelings and use alcohol to try to get in touch with them, the result being the kind of selfish indulgence seen only in addicts and rock stars.

In the site-specific production of the WOW Festival, Schieb made the theme of alienation literal by limiting the audience’s view of the performance. Neither the stage nor the seating was raked, making it difficult to see the live action for everyone except those in the first row. Scheib himself stood on stage with a camera which projected footage live to a screen that everyone could see. For some scenes, the actors went inside a room with only a small window and the audience could see only that at which Scheib pointed the camera. The result was reminiscent of the voyeurism of reality TV, in which the audience watches something presumably private being made [selectively] public.

Platonov Jay Scheib Anton Chekhov adaptation HowlRoundAs with reality TV, the camera’s control over the narrative complicates the question of authorship, a question that mirrors not just the seeming post-structuralism of the piece but also the existential debate at the heart of the drama. Just as the audience wonders whether these are Chekhov’s characters or Scheib’s and imagines what’s happening that we can’t see, the characters ponder whether following one’s passions is even possible or whether the endings to their stories have already been written.

I wish the use of the camera and the obstructed views had evolved as the story unfolded—as it was, the frustration of not being able to see the live action eventually overshadowed my interest in the experience. However, though actual emotional connection to the characters was inhibited by the verfremdungseffekt, close-ups of people enduring both pain and ecstasy did ensure that the audience’s experience was as visceral as it is upon hearing the music of Kurt Cobain, whose sound Rolling Stone described as “a grenade detonating in your car radio.”

In this adaptation, the titular character of Platonov is one of the least interesting. Though most of the other characters are in love with him, I was never quite sure why. The most interesting character is Jacob: in Chekhov a male servant, in Scheib’s version a lesbian who rose to fame as an opinion-maker but managed to drink away her fortune. Jacob shared Cobain’s inability to manage success, but unlike Cobain, her suicide attempt failed and at the beginning of the play, she is sober and putting the pieces of her life back together, working whatever jobs she can to pay the bills. In true Chekhovian fashion, by the end of the play she is the owner of an estate that its aristocratic owners mismanaged into bankruptcy.

It’s not the sort of ending that makes one feel that everything is going to be all right for everyone, but it’s a better ending than Cobain saw. Scheib’s Platonov, therefore, leaves open the possibility of recovery—of a life lived fully but without dependence on substances to feel and to really live. Cobain himself said, “Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self esteem,” but he never stopped struggling with addiction. Perhaps Jacob has more in common with Cobain’s wife Courtney Love, who said of herself, “I’m a survivor. At least that’s what everyone tells me.”

Originally published by HowlRound

Theatre_Movement_Bazaar_01_0 (1)The 2013 Radar L.A. interdisciplinary theater festival brought artists from around the world to perform alongside and in collaboration with Los Angeles theater artists. Presented by REDCAT and CalArts in association with Center Theatre Group, and curated by Mark Murphy of REDCAT, Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group, and Mark Russell of The Public Theater in New York (yeah, it was that collaborative), this year’s festival featured 18 productions from the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Netherlands.

The first Radar L.A. was held two years ago when TCG held their annual conference here. Co-curator Diane Rodriguez told me that she and her collaborators had already begun discussing creating a festival with national range, and the conference provided a perfect opportunity to launch it. This year, she says, though some professional theater makers came from elsewhere for a symposium that was part of the festival, the local audience also turned out in droves.

The festival expanded its geographical reach to include The Getty Villa in Malibu, the Grand Central Market, and theaters downtown as well as the Kirk Douglas Theatre and REDCAT. And this time around, the festival not only presented existing interdisciplinary theater pieces, it also commissioned and co-produced new work from both local and international artists.

I managed to take in five shows, including two solo performances, a collaboration between a Los Angeles theater company and one from the Netherlands, a deconstructed version of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters created by a local group, and Prometheus Bound.

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King and Trieu Tran in Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam used the instability of identity inherent in solo shows to tell stories about that most volatile of subjects: race in America. Theatre Movement Bazaar‘s Track 3 used a combination of spoken text, song, and dance to tell the whole story of Three Sisters in seventy five minutes using nothing more than a table, chairs, a few books, and some teacups.

One of my favorite shows, Hospital, resulted from a collaboration between a local performance group called The Los Angeles Poverty Department and the Netherlands-based collective Wunderbaum. Reminiscent of the WPA’s Living Newspapers—a Depression-era theatrical tradition that showcased current political events, Hospital uses the story of one real-life participant in the health care systems of both the United States and the Netherlands to address the larger health care issues facing both countries.

This combination of music, dance, video, and personal narrative, delivered both through reenactments and direct address, was at once both a defense and a criticism of Obamacare as well as of the Netherlands’ entirely nationalized health care system. Much like Living Newspapers existed to address national problems with concrete proposals, Hospital even goes so far as to pose a possible long-term solution to our collective health-care woes.

The largest-scale production I saw was Travis Preston‘s Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Preston, who commissioned this new version of Aeschylus’s metaphysical tragedy, said he was looking for a translation that uses language to clarify the internal action that moves the play—after all, the only physical action dictated by the text is Prometheus getting nailed to a rock.

What movement existed in performance derived from Preston’s use of the amphitheater, such as the aisles between sections of the audience and the acoustic effects of such open-air stone theaters; a chorus of twelve women that moved and spoke as one; and the turning of a massive metal wheel that represented the rock to which Prometheus was tethered.

Preston added that through extended workshops and rehearsals, he found that “the piece resisted any decorative impulses.” He aimed rather to invoke the kind of iconography that would allow the audience to infer and project their own meanings onto the performance. The wheel spoke simultaneously of industrialization and of the medieval wheel of fortune, while the Chorus seemed to embody both water and birds. Live musicians gave even the most philosophical portions of the text forward motion, while also creating a meditative rhythm that harkened back to the communal nature of Attic tragedy as originally performed.

Based on audience feedback, Preston found that audiences brought their own interpretations to the images on stage, including that of a black man in bondage (Prometheus was played by Ron Cephas Jones). Preston shared, “I didn’t cast Ron because he was black, but he was black. It’s undeniable that people saw it through the prism of slavery and the condition of people of color throughout the world.”

By not making the production an explicit commentary on slavery or race relations, Preston enabled the audience to make that connection themselves, providing for a far more imaginative and less didactic experience than simply setting the play in antiquity would have.

Similarly, though Preston believes the play to be proto-Christian in its emphasis on sacrifice, the lack of overt Christian symbols allowed the audience to read the performance both from a religious perspective, in which the essential questions it asks are about obedience and sacrifice, and from an existential one, in which the question is whether life really consists of anything more than suffering.

The combination of dance, music, and spoken text used in Prometheus Bound perfectly encapsulated Radar L.A.’s interdisciplinary focus. As to the future of the festival, Murphy shared the specific role he wants Radar L.A. to play in creating new work in Los Angeles.

“It’s important that the local work and local artists have a larger context in which the field is evolving and what important developments there are elsewhere that might influence the way we work. In particular because of the unique geographical location of LA and its demographics, some of the cultural influences that are most relevant are from Latin America and the Pacific Rim,” he continued. “Aesthetically, which is where we can blur the boundaries of states and governments, we’re interested in finding new ways to tell story, a narrative that is expressed or constructed through imagery, choreography, and other forms in addition to spoken word.”

The feminist in me cannot help but point out that ticket prices for Radar L.A. and the connected symposium are high enough that audience members and participants are, as one symposium attendee pointed out, “sitting in seats of privilege.” Nonetheless, Radar L.A. confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for some time now: That Los Angeles is currently one of the most interesting places to make and see theater in America.

[Mic drop. She exits.]

***

Images:
Track 3 by Theatre Movement Bazaar. Photo credit: Joey Bernheimer.
Marleen Scholten, Maartje Remmers, John Malpede, Linda Harris, Walter Fears, and other cast members in Wunderbaum/LAPD’s Hospital at Radar L.A. festival. Photo credit: Steven Gunther.
Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus; Mirjana Jokovic as Io carried by the Chorus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Originally published by Ms., Sociological Images, and The Huffington Post

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to 7167066734_95a0688a25signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order–as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now–when 41 percent of Americans report being born again–was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters, Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers–who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening–and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation–coming into her power–which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end–as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed–but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her–and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. For more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwo, Three, and Four.

Originally Published by HowlRound

Though Shakespeare created around 798 male characters, his dramatic corpus contains only about 149 female ones. That’s a ratio of roughly sixteen to three. Yet every year the best conservatories accept at least as many women as men—if not more—and every year they graduate both men and women trained to act in Shakespeare plays. The women are even trained to swordfight. Ninety nine percent of them never get to use that skill.

The difference undoubtedly accounts for why so many talented women create their own opportunities to play the full range of Shakespeare’s best roles, including male ones. This month two productions on opposite sides of the country are providing women with just that chance. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company is running Hamlet, directed by and starring Lisa Wolpe, and Taffety Punk in Washington, D.C., is producing Riot Grrrls: Titus Andronicus, directed by Lise Bruneau.

Titus is the fifth all-female Shakespeare production of Taffety Punk. Their first, Romeo and Juliet, was staged as a companion to/protest of an all-male production of the play at D.C.’s prominent The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Bruneau, inspired by Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, and Fiona Shaw’s Richard II, has always been interested in the performance of gender. However, with her Riot Grrrl productions, she’s interested less in staging a commentary than in staging good Shakespeare.

Lisa Wolpe has been running the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for 20 years. This is her second Hamlet. Like Bruneau, she doesn’t consider what she does a “concept.” She does it because the parts are great, because she loves it, and because she’s good at it. 

Though both directors are wary of doing anything in production to comment on the sex of the actors, they acknowledge that inevitably text about gender—and there is a great deal of it in Shakespeare—becomes especially loaded when the entire cast is made up of women: Just imagine Claudius as a woman in drag criticizing Hamlet for his “womanish” tears. Both directors have also dipped their toes into gender flipping. Bruneau’s Measure for Measure included a pregnant Provost, which I imagine highlighted the hypocrisy of punishing Juliet for something everyone is doing. Wolpe has made her Rosencrantz a woman and believes that doing so reveals something about the nature of the relationship between Rosencrantz and Hamlet.

“Rosencrantz is a player, a woman with an agenda, who wants certain things for herself. She is a player who then gets played by Hamlet,” said Wolpe, during our interview. “And there are women like that. There are women characters in Hamlet like that. Gertrude stands twenty feet away from Ophelia and watches her drown.”

Though the actors in these companies are in it for the opportunity to play great roles and not to study sociology, the fact that their characters are men means that acting the part is different than it is when they play characters of the same sex, and that involves understanding the ways behavior is gendered. Bruneau has interesting insights into the outside-in process of building a character, who has a different relationship to the world by virtue of his gender than the female actor.

“We have found that changing your physical stance changes the impulse,” she said. “Once you change that it can start opening doors to a different perception of information and a different way of responding. It leads to a lot of discoveries about the differences of the sexes, of which there are many.”

Bruneau volunteered an example. “One of the most basic differences we’ve found is that women tend to sort of reach their chin forward as they’re talking and listening, and really try to encourage the other person to speak. We reach forward with our whole face. Men tend to sort of sit back and to receive and they tend to not reach. So that’s a very simple physical difference that makes you realize that they are dealing with everything based on a completely different type of experience than you are.”

According to Wolpe, women tend to break the alignment and the angles in their bodies, their wrists, their elbows. “Usually they’re off their voices, their heads are tilted, their faces are going in one direction and their hips in another, their hands turned open in a helpless ‘what can I do?’ supinated position—not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because that’s what you’re trained to do as an American girl,” she said.

“You’re trained to disempower yourself, to make yourself look less strong, more delicate, more ‘oh push me off of my pumps and I’ll be unable to resist the rape’ type of a thing. It’s not believable in a man who doesn’t have any threats.”

Wolpe went on to elaborate,  “This is a crazy quick map through how to play a guy, but basically: it’s not your fault, you don’t take it on, and if you hurt somebody’s feelings, they’ll get over it or they won’t but it’s really not your problem. The thing about women is we usually anticipate having an apology before there’s even an event. Men don’t negotiate. They command.”

The end game for Wolpe is a production in which the quality of the text and the acting enable audience members to forget that most of the roles are men being played by women. However, when I saw Hamlet, I did not ever forget that the performers were all women. In fact, I yearned for the fact to be more foregrounded. Though Rosencrantz was a woman, no use was made of the possibility that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be a couple, which would have been logical and, given, the eroticism that pervades Shakespeare’s male-male pairs, not un-Shakespearean. Similarly, the revelation about Gertrude’s character did not result in her coming across as any more cold-hearted or self-serving than she usually does.

Bruneau reports similar responses from critics in D.C. who expect her productions to do more with gender, but the Riot Grrrl aspect of her shows represents a desire to be accepted as a serious artist and not be singled out for being a woman doing a man’s thing. Similarly, Wolpe repeatedly expressed frustration that people expect her to do anything other than what the greatest actors of their times have always done when playing these roles: Play them well. 

Unfortunately, productions that keep all the male characters male inadvertently preserve the gender status quo: In their play-worlds, the men still have all the power. On the other hand, flipping some of the male characters and gendering them female would reveal a world in which women can be powerful, violent, and vengeful, too. Women can woo their lovers, protect their families, and command armies. (They could in Shakespeare’s time, too, whether he represented them as such or not.) The practice also reinforces a false binary in which men are always masculine and women are always feminine, whereas in reality some men and women defy gendered norms of behavior.

As pleased as I am to watch well-trained women deliver fantastic performances of the kind they too rarely have an opportunity to give, I yearn for a production that reveals that behaviors defined as masculine can be embodied both by women playing men, and by women playing women. Changing gender pronouns does not disrupt the verse—he, she, her, and him are all monosyllabic. Though Anglo-Saxon names like John might require some tinkering, modern audiences are unused to Latin, so they can easily accept most character names as either male or female. If anything, the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s stories become even more apparent when they are populated by people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexes.

In the meantime, both companies continue to receive rave reviews. Though some Shakespeare purists may still wring their hands at the prospect of women playing men’s roles, Wolpe says her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

“There’s never been a negative comment about an all-female production. There never has been in twenty years. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You’re ruining the play.’”

Now that these companies, along with Judith Shakespeare and The Queen’s Company in New York as well as others across the country have proven that women are capable of playing roles with all of the depth and complexity of Shakespeare’s male characters, I hope they’ll turn to creating play-worlds in which women don’t have to pretend to be men in order to be powerful.

**

Images: Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo credit: Kevin Sprague. Riot Grrrls production of Julius Caesar. Photo credit: Abby Wood.

Hollywood Fringe PicOriginally posted at HowlRound.

This year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival–only the fourth in it’s history–featured 212 separate productions in 50 different spaces for a total of more than 1,000 performances. They took in $258,000, all of which went directly back to the individual productions. For a city not known for its theater, that’s no small beans.

The Hollywood Fringe, like most Fringe Festivals, places a premium on being uncurated: Provided you can afford the $250 registration fee, the rental of a theater, and your own marketing and production expenses, anyone can participate.  Unlike with the New York International Film Festival, which is curated and provides space and publicity for its shows, participants in the Hollywood Fringe are required to be their own producers, from choosing a suitable venue to targeting their audience to setting their own ticket prices. As with individually mounted productions, every show keeps 100% of their ticket sales.

This focus on entrepreneurship constitutes one of the central aims of the company behind the Hollywood Fringe. Los Angeles is flush with actors and directors, but despite all the film producers, the city has relatively few theatrical producers. Festival Director Ben Hill says he structured the Fringe as a collective of self-produced shows in order to solve that problem:

To run any kind of theatrical endeavor in this town you can’t just throw a bunch of actors together and think that fantastic things are going to happen. You need at least one person that is business-minded, that knows how to put a marketing plan together, to create the financial environment in which great art can thrive. Otherwise all the actors are always stressing about money and they shouldn’t be. They should be stressing about creating great art.

In addition to providing participating shows with discounts from marketing vendors and affordable theater rental prices, the Hollywood Fringe offers artists a kind of producer-training program in the form of town halls and workshops that guide artists through creating a budget, a Kickstarter, and a marketing plan.

As a result, the Festival hosts productions of all sizes, from one person sitting in a chair to multi-media productions to musicals with live bands, reflecting an astonishing variety of ways to make theater. The downside to this structure is that groups with more money can afford a nicer space, better design, more marketing, and ads in the Fringe program, which constitutes an advantage over other participants in attracting audiences and winning the coveted Festival awards.

The awards ceremony was the first time I had the opportunity to see all of the Fringe participants in one place, and though I thought I had seen a number of shows, I was astonished by the number of productions I hadn’t even heard of. Because the central Fringe organization provides no marketing for the actual productions, the only way for shows to get the attention of the press is to have the money and know-how to pitch us on their own. I therefore chose what to see not based on content, style, or on what the HowlRound audience would be interested– in fact the Fringe website provides little guidance in sorting through hundreds of offerings–but rather on which individual shows invited me.

At the ceremony, I was disappointed to see that though I had attended a number of shows by people of color, I had actually seen most of the shows by people of color at the Festival. Furthermore, many of the shows I saw were by black writers, but I was unable to find any productions by or about Latinos or Asians at all. When asked why he thinks the Festival lacks the same diversity that characterizes the city–Latinos make up 48% and Asians 15% of the Los Angeles population–Hill responded,

The thing about open access is we don’t invite, we don’t solicit. We put the flag out there and say gather round the flag. It’s just a matter of who responds. We don’t recruit, but everyone is invited.

This perspective, common to people in positions of privilege who have been taught to assume they are always welcome, fails to take into account the fact that without a pre-existing sense of belonging to a shared community–a problem the Festival says it aims to redress–not everyone is in a position to see the metaphorical flag. In terms of future outreach, Hill believes that,

The best thing we can do in terms of outreach is to have a giant, huge, and successful festival so people can read about it and say, ‘Oh that looks really interesting, I can produce whatever show I want, I want to do that.’

Unfortunately, the longer the Hollywood Fringe is known as a relatively homogeneous event, the less likely other groups will be to participate. If Hill and his team want a Fringe that reflects the reality of life in Los Angeles, they will have to make a concerted effort to diversify before the Festival gets any bigger.

Though I question whether anything so market driven can actually be “open-access,” as the Fringe calls itself, the emphasis on producer-training is sure to serve the Los Angeles theater community immeasurably. Judging from the bonhomie among the parts of the Los Angeles theater community involved in the Festival, it is well on its way to achieving what Hill calls their larger purpose:

Los Angeles is tricky when it comes to theater because it’s so vast and dispersed, a problem public transportation hasn’t been able to solve. There is no one place to see theater. So one month out of the year we provide a true sense of place, a sense that if you come to this place you will see people you know, you’ll see people you saw theater with, made theater with, talked about theater with. And any time when artists are congregated in the same place for any period of time, that’s when movements happen.

eternal_thou2_webOriginally posted at HowlRound.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was wary of attending the theater. LA is an industry town, and if there’s one thing I’m not interested in, it’s staged screenplays. Don’t get me wrong–I love film. I just don’t want to see it on stage. Because technology allows for far more realistic representations on film than we can ever hope to achieve live, I want to see theater that is truly theatrical–that makes use of the presence of the performers, the visibility of the apparatus, and the constraints of space and time. On film, moment-to-moment story is created through editing. In the theater, all we have is our bodies, the room, and the audience.

At the same time, the world we live in is increasingly technicized and increasingly virtual. “Reality” is no longer defined simply as “real life.” Today we have many “realities:” who we are in-person, who we are on social media, our avatars, our handles. We are now capable of creating as many realities for ourselves as we desire. If theater is to speak to our current conditions, it therefore must deal with the effect technological advancement is having on human relationships.

So where does an Angeleno go for theater that is explicitly theatrical but that also deals with contemporary realities that are increasingly technological? I missed Matthew McCray‘s Eternal Thou when it opened in L.A. last year, so I was pleased to see–via social media, natch–that it was being remounted at South Coast Repertory in Orange County (an affluent and politically conservative area just south of Los Angeles). South Coast Repertory is known nationally for it’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival of five readings and two productions of new plays. Less well-known is a program designed to strengthen ties to the local theater community and provide “alternative programming” to their traditional main stage: Studio SCR.

In order to bring their audience into contact with theater from the surrounding environs and to bring audience from those environs to South Coast Rep, Studio SCR provides brief residencies for companies and artists not located in Orange County. One of six productions mounted through the program this year, Eternal Thou is simultaneously a story about the invention and development of the internet and a philosophical meditation on the nature of human relationships.

In 90 minutes, five actors–all of whom remain on stage the whole time–move in and out of a variety of realities. They enact both historical events, like the first computer-to-computer phone calls and the ongoing fight to maintain net neutrality, and metaphorical ones in which the characters move in and out of the internet itself. Essentially, Eternal Thou is sci-fi theater.

A cautionary tale of sorts, Eternal Thou perfectly fits famed-fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s definition of science fiction as that which “extrapolate[s] imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.” The play embodies technological forces like computer code and hacking in human characters to create a world in which people are being “programmed,” whether they know it or not. Via the philosophy of Martin Buber, it warns against the objectification of the other that necessarily results from technologically mediated communication and encourages us to hold on to the holy nature of human-to-human contact.

At the same time, the production celebrates the very technologies that threaten to overwhelm us. A combination of projections, electronic and live sound, television sets, and a scrim that makes some projections appear to be holograms, the designs of Sarah Krainin, Adam Flemming, Ian Garrett,and Joseph “Sloe’ Slawinski entrance spectators even as the play warns against allowing technology to determine our fates. And yet despite the profusion of special effects, the audience never forgets they are in a theater: A mass of conduits and wires hangs in front of a table off to the side, only partially obscuring the director and stage manager running the show. The actors interact athletically with the design, and their physical presence as well as their vocalizations (some of the best sound effects are created by them) grounds the piece’s philosophical and technological underpinnings in the real time of the theater.

The Studio SCR remount of Eternal Thou gave McCray a chance to cut 30 minutes from the piece and strengthen the story as well as the central metaphor. Partly because of that and partly because of the somewhat surprising open-mindedness of the OC audience, McCray confirmed that reception was even more positive this time around than in LA:

I really worried that because of the experimental nature of the piece, the South Coast audience might not be as receptive as LA, but actually they were more receptive. In LA I was getting notes from people like, “Just look at the form of movies. Go back to movies.” At SCR I could feel them thinking. To me that’s a message that even being as abstract as it is, the play provides a universal experience.

It’s hard to imagine that Orange County residents who see these Studio productions will then travel north to see more of Los Angeles’ experimental theater, but by bringing LA artists south, SCR is certainly expanding their audiences’ notion of what the theater can be. That they can do that gives me hope that we can get the half of LA that can’t stop thinking in terms of the three-act structure to consider the possibility of new forms as well.

In California–home not just to the film and television industry but also to Silicon Valley–the media is always the message, or as the play puts it:

There’s no division anymore, no division between what’s real and what’s not.

If theater is to speak to the technological here and now in which we find ourselves, new definitions of realism are in order, and in my opinion, science “fiction” is a great place to start.

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