The fast-approaching Women’s March on Washington is shaping up to be a massive event, with 130 organizational partners, from the Arab American Association of New York to the Feminist Majority Foundation to V-Day, as well as more than 150,000 individuals signed up on Facebook to attend. And, if you’ve been following the run-up to the event on January 21, you’ve probably seen people posting about pink yarn, knitting, and “pussy hats.”

One of the many suborganizations participating in the march is the Pussyhat Project, a movement with a two-pronged mission to “provide the people of the Women’s March on Washington D.C. a means to make a unique collective visual statement which will help activists be better heard” and “provide people who cannot physically be on the National Mall a way to represent themselves and support women’s rights.” The idea is that pink, cat-eared hats worn by a critical mass of march attendees stand to reclaim the word “pussy” from our president-elect and his crotch-grabbing tiny hands. Knitters who can’t attend are knitting hats based on a pattern provided by the Project and sending them to be handed out to marchers (or, in some cases, selling them for a fairly high price). Judging from reports of a pink yarn shortage, that critical mass will be representing.

Not to rain golden showers down on the pussy parade, but I’m not sure that pink, cat-eared hats are a great symbol for the largest women’s march in years. The infantilizing kitten imagery combined with a stereotypically feminine color feels too safe and too reductive to be an answer to the complex issues facing women today. For example, while the March claims intersectionality as central to its platform, and the Pussyhat Project claims to be speaking for both cis- and transgender individuals, the latter’s conception of what it means to be a woman is remarkably narrow. According to the website:

“Pink is considered a very female color representing caring, compassion, and love—all qualities that have been derided as weak but are actually STRONG. Wearing pink together is a powerful statement that we are unapologetically feminine and we unapologetically stand for women’s rights.”

The pussycat, obviously, is a metaphor often used for female genitalia, but one far less evocative than, say, Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers, with their depth and variety of colors. It is a metaphor particularly unsuited to responding to sexual assault. Grabbing my pussy is not an assault on my femininity—which implies that I am soft, delicate, and in need of protection, and that if I’m not explicitly feminine, it’s okay to grab my vagina—but an assault on my humanity, on my inherent right not to be grabbed regardless of my biological characteristics.

Furthermore, the Pussyhat Project is engaging in a form of gender essentialism, which asserts that the gendered characteristics of femininity are directly linked to the biological characteristics of femaleness and, specifically, the presence of a vagina. This binary is one that feminists have fought against for years, arguing instead that femininity is a social construction assigned to femaleness and that females can be feminine or masculine or any combination of the two, as can males.

This kind of essentialism reduces women to their biology and goes hand in hand with the notion that women are somehow naturally “caring, compassionate, and loving.” In reverse, this implies that women who are not caring, compassionate, and loving are flawed and possibility not women at all. At the same time, it implies that the absence of a vagina at birth makes it unnatural to be caring, compassionate, and loving. Yet many men and transpeople are in fact naturally those kinds of people.

This kind of gender essentialism has been used for centuries to enforce gender conformity. Women were denied the vote based on the idea that we were too soft and too unreasonable to use it wisely. Women’s supposedly inherent compassionate nature kept us confined to the home, tasked with raising moral citizens rather than acting as citizens ourselves. Once allowed to work, we have been limited to service areas and judged as incapable of the “hard” work of business, academia, and building.

Gender essentialism, a belief used to oppress throughout most of human civilization, can’t suddenly be used to support intersectionality, a concept which posits that people are defined not solely by their biology but also by their class, their culture, their race, their ethnicity, their religion, and their own unique, personal characteristics. Though the WMW website uses an Audre Lorde quote—“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”—the Pussyhat Project proposes that because we are women, we are all the same, and it reinforces this view by attempting to make us all look the same. Unfortunately, women’s movements that have claimed that we are all the same because we are all women have not, historically, turned out to represent all women.

Based on early Facebook posts about the event, my original fear for the WMW was that it would be more a celebration of femaleness than an act of resistance against sexism, Trump’s sexism in particular. Months later, the organizers have somewhat assuaged my fears by releasing a four-page guiding vision that connects the march’s feminism to economic and racial issues, inequities in policing and criminal justice, reproductive freedom, better workplace protections, unions, voting rights, immigration, and environmentalism. (A note: The platform, which originally called for solidarity with sex workers, has changed its wording to call for support for “those exploited for sex and labor.”) The Pussyhat Project, on the other hand, has one goal—for all marchers to subscribe to the stereotype of women as feminine. This is in direct contradiction to the guiding principle of the march, which articulates the need for freedom from “gender norms, expectations, and stereotypes.” Ideally, the variety of bodies, signs, and coalitions present at the march will reflect the emphasis on diversity that the organizers have put forward. Let’s hope those things speak as loudly as pink hats.

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Originally published on HowlRound on September 10, 2016

The original idea behind Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle was to commission a new play for every American president. But when Artistic Director Bill Rauch brought in his longtime colleague from Cornerstone Theatre Company, Alison Carey, to direct the program, she steered it towards a more inherently dramatic premise: To commission thirty-seven new plays about a moment of change in American history. Associate director of the program, Julie Felise Dubiner, told me she thinks the idea is working because “it lets playwrights follow their passions and that moment-of-change imperative implies dramatic action.”

Lisa Loomer and Bill Rauch in rehearsal. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

If the number thirty-seven sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the number of plays generally accepted as written by Shakespeare. According to Rauch, “Both canons—Shakespeare’s and our American Revolutions plays—are composed of relatively large-cast epics that employ a variety of tonal and stylistic devices.” But, he added that the new plays offer at least one very important thing that Shakespeare’s plays are missing:

As a large classical theatre, with the overwhelming preponderance of male playwrights in the classical canon, we have to work even harder to include women’s voices in the work that we commission ourselves. Women are the majority of ticket-buyers, theatre attendees, and of course the population of the world in general. Our field’s lack of respect for gender equity is appalling.

Dubiner agrees that choosing which playwrights to commission has been at least partly a product of their desire to diversify their stages:

There’s a specific way of handling plot and drama, there’s a specific type of passion for history, there’s the kind of passion someone needs for character when writing a history play. And we are deeply committed to the idea that, when we’re done, we will have created diversity in every way—diversity of ethnicity and religion and gender as well as of style and storytelling.

Other than three targeted commissions, the American Revolutions Cycle has allowed playwrights to choose the moment of change about which they want to write. The process has been guided by what Dubiner calls “passive curation,” in which the theatre brings the writers together to talk to each other about their projects, ensuring as little overlap as possible. The program has yielded instant classics, like Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, about LBJ passing the Civil Rights Law and running for reelection, which became a Broadway show and an HBO special, and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat about the deindustrialization of America, which was a co-commission and co-production with Arena Stage. Currently on OSF’s boards, audiences can find Lisa Loomer’s rollercoaster ride of a play about reproductive rights, Roe, directed by Rauch.

Roe begins just before the meeting of Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade, and Norma McCorvey, the woman who is usually known as Jane Roe. It tells the story of the case, the relationship between the two women, and the dramatic changes that McCorvey has undergone in her life, right up to the present. In fact, for a history play, the piece is very much a product of its current moment—Loomer even wrote a new line based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the Court ruled that Texas cannot place restrictions on the delivery of abortion services that create an undue burden for women seeking an abortion.

Operation Rescue member Ronda Mackey (Amy Newman, center) tries to convince a woman (Gina Daniels) not to have an abortion at the clinic where Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) works. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Neither Loomer nor Rauch initially realized that they had chosen a moment of change that not only makes a great story, with a number of little known twists and turns, but also provides opportunities for all kinds of diversity in addition to great roles for women. In fact, they didn’t know a lot about their topic when they started out. Rauch told me that,

Before directing this play I knew very little about the history including the divergent paths of Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey. Some of my colleagues at OSF also helped educate me about the role women of color in particular played in the battle for reproductive rights justice.

Loomer echoed those sentiments:

When I began to do research, I did not know the points of Blackmun’s decision, which have come to influence subsequent cases on abortion. I did not know that Sarah Weddington clearly stated, at twenty-six, in the Supreme Court, that she was not advocating abortion, she was not saying that it was “good” or “bad.” She was advocating choice. Something else that surprised me was how race and class are bound up in the larger subject of reproductive rights. In the very first moments of the play, one of the protagonists says that one’s account of “history” is colored by factors such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. This idea is a predominant theme in the play and I saw it played out again and again in my research.

Like the creators of the show, the audience for Roe might leave knowing a lot more about Roe than they came in knowing. They will discover, for example, that the Roe baby was McCorvey’s third child, but before that pregnancy, she had never even heard of abortion. With the third child, she tried to self-abort but failed, and, as the case took its time making its way through the courts, “Roe” eventually gave birth and gave the baby up in a closed adoption. Two weeks after giving birth, McCorvey tried to commit suicide. Audiences might also be surprised to learn how prominent a role women of color play in the reproductive rights movement and to see those women onstage alongside their white feminist counterparts.

Informed by all of this, Loomer has written a play that refuses to oversimplify what is obviously a very complex topic. Using a variety of structural components, such as narration, direct address, and on stage costume changes; other actors staying on stage to observe and help with transitions; projections; and suggestive props and costumes, Loomer has intricately depicted not just the complexity of the story, but also the complexity of telling a complex story.

The larger structure of the play is that of a memory, created by the characters beginning the play in the present, telling the audience who they are and what they’re going to be reenacting for us, and ending the play back in the present. These bookends dramatize the idea that memories, the material out of which history is made, are themselves imperfect and often contradictory. References to a variety of sources, such as books, historians, obituaries, and Wikipedia, remind the audience that even with a great deal of research, history is still a product of a many different forces and not fully understandable from any one point of view. An accompanying stylistic blurring of reality, especially in the scenes in which McCorvey is using drugs and drinking, reminds us that reality itself, at any given moment, might not be what we think it is.

This combination of epic devices, the structure of a memory, moments of surrealism, and a focus on the character of Roe all keep Roe from being didactic docudrama. In fact, Loomer and Rauch have been pleasantly surprised by how much empathy the audience feels for Norma, given her difficult life and sometimes questionable choices. Loomer says this came from her desire not to oversimplify:

A man I respect a great deal and conferred with, Father Greg Boyle, talks about the value of having a “reverence for the complexity of human beings.” What surprised me in my research, what never ceases to surprise me, is how complex we are. When you see that … well, for me at least, it’s the beginning of compassion. Even compassion for “the other side.”

Nevertheless, abortion itself is such a polarizing topic that OSF planned ahead for the potentiality of pushback and/or emotional responses to the play. They sought and received a grant from the General William Mayer Foundation to bring in a trainer to help them create emergency protocols and procedures to deal with, for example, a company or an audience member being triggered. Most of OSF’s post-show discussions are led by actors, but with Roe, the company decided to also always have a staff member from the education department or the Revolutions Cycle there to field questions that the actors might not want to or be able to address. Oregon is an open carry state, so OSF made sure to clearly define that patrons cannot bring guns into theatre.

Connie Gonzalez (Catherine Castellanos, left), and Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) find love and stability, two things that have been hard to come by in her life. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Dubiner says most of these measures will remain in place as part of a larger effort to practice good “company and audience care” and better engage in all kinds of dialogue. In fact, though the connection has not been explicit, Dubiner sees this training as part and parcel of the work the theatre is doing on diversity, which also involves a lot of trainers, and is essentially about answering the question, “How do we talk to one another?”

What better play to do this work around than Roe, a play on a topic about which America has almost completely lost the ability to dialogue? Loomer says she gets letters every day from patrons telling her the ways in which seeing the play enabled them to talk about abortion, sometimes for the first time:

One woman who is “pro life” told me that she talked about the issues with a “pro choice” friend on the car ride back from Oregon to California. They had never broached the subject before. It is my hope to get people talking. In this country, we yell, we obstruct, we wave placards. We don’t talk.

Perhaps the quality of the play’s dialogue and the dialogue it creates are a result of how much dialogue went into writing the play and mounting the production. The American Revolutions Cycle was able to support Loomer on a research trip to the University of Texas at Austin where she did a reading of the play, solicited feedback from students, attended women’s studies classes, and otherwise engaged with the people and culture about which she was writing. Moreover, the production itself is a three-way co-production with Arena Stage and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, necessitating an additional layer of dialogue between three different institutions in three different cities.

In fact, all of the American Revolutions productions have been produced or presented elsewhere by design. Knowing that it may take quite some time to produce thirty-seven plays, the Cycle has been encouraging playwrights to identify where their home theatres are (or where they wish they were). Then the theatre reaches out on their behalf, ensuring that writers are getting the opportunity to work with people they want to work with and to have their plays seen by a wider audience.

The level of complexity involved in producing Roe was present in Loomer’s writing process as well, and she is celebrating that:

The more I thought about the issues in the play, the more I questioned why we want to take what is complex, what is difficult in life, and make it simple. Why should it be easy?

My guess is that none of the American Revolutions Cycle plays make history especially easy—because history is not, in fact, easy—but they do make it dramatic, present, and human. Rauch put it simply:

In these crazy political times, [these plays] are a reminder that who we are as a country and the choices we make are important and impactful, and will be affecting the lives of Americans for decades, if not centuries to come. Countries and their histories are serious business, and we treat them with the importance they deserve.

Originally published on HowlRound on September 14, 2016

It’s a fascinating time to be a feminist in the theatre. Thanks to The Kilroys, The Count, and women like Sumru Erkut and Ineke Ceder, we’ve made incredible progress in raising awareness of the lack of equity for women in our field. Actual change has been slower than we might like, but change takes time because for many people, becoming aware of a social problem doesn’t necessarily come with the knowledge of what to do about it. Simply being “woke” isn’t enough; a newly raised consciousness requires that you also put in time and work educating yourself about ways to create change. Catherine Castellani and The League of Professional Theatre Women are curating a series asking what a feminist play is, and I’d love to build on that important conversation by also addressing how to direct a feminist production.

First, I must offer my definition of feminist theatre. It is heavily inspired by post-structural analyses, which built off earlier feminist film theory by Laura Mulvey, who argued that the camera “constructs a specifically male viewing position by aligning or suturing the male’s gaze to that of the fictional hero, and by inviting him thereby both to identify narcissistically with that hero and to fetishize the female (turning her into an object of sexual stimulation).” Feminist theatre theory, accordingly, identified ways to disrupt the male gaze and avoid objectifying women by making the female characters subjects rather than objects: In order for the audience to see the world from their point of view, women characters have to act rather than simply be acted upon.

These feminist theatre theories were also shaped by the prevailing feminist thought of the time that there are more than two sexes of people and no one, normative way to combine sex, gendered behavior, and sexuality exists. Accordingly, feminist theatre has long sought to disrupt the male gaze by dismantling the binary of man vs. woman itself as well as the associated binaries of masculine/feminine and gay/straight, acknowledging instead that there are more than two possible identities.

My first feminist theatre theory book, edited by Helene Keyssar, includes essays such as “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright,” by Jeanie Forte, and “Frame Up: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Theatre,” by Barbara Freedman.

During the same period, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins were postulating the intersectional theory that issues of sex, gender, and sexuality cannot ever be completely separated from issues of class, race, ethnicity, and all of the other identities that overlap with that of gender. In fact, due to the intersection of gender with other aspects of identity, equality among the genders cannot be achieved without also addressing racial, class-based, and other forms of inequality. To that end, my feminism seeks to dismantle not just sex and gender binaries but also the uber-binary of normative (male, straight, cis, white, Judeo-Christian, upper-class, abled, etc.) vs. other.

Feminist theatre, then, according to my definition of feminism, is theatre that provides an alternative not just to the male gaze but also to the normative gaze by intervening in cultural assumptions about identity, dismantling binaries, and creating equality.

I emphasize what feminist theatre does over what it is because even the most feminist play may not do the work of feminism—creating equality—if the process is authoritarian. Most theatres still operate along the patriarchal model in which a single person sits at the top of a hierarchy and controls, if not all of the decision making, then at least who gets to be involved in the decision-making. But presenting the world from a non-normative perspective requires the inclusion in decision-making of non-normative perspectives.

Jill Dolan’s Feminist Spectator as Critic was my Bible when I began teaching feminist theatre. Her distinctions between liberal, cultural, and materialist feminism and her strategies for reading the politics of performance have deeply informed my understanding of the difference between a subject and an object.

This is why feminist directing begins with the process of casting and selecting the rest of the artists for the production. Working with as many women as possible is obviously key, but so is creating diversity and avoiding casting that reinforces inequality. A feminist director, for example, cannot choose to do a Latinx play and then not cast Latinx actors or hire any Latinx artistic staff, as that would result in a production in which the world is presented only from the perspective of a white gaze that fetishizes, rather than represents, Latinx culture.

To be inclusive, a feminist director’s vision has to be more malleable and permeable than some artists are used to. In What’s the Story: Essays About Art, Theatre, and Storytelling, Anne Bogart talks about the difference between the director’s job and the actor’s job: The director’s job is to direct the play; the actor’s job is to direct the role. This means that just as the director must have a vision of the whole, the actor must have a vision of how her role can be played. (I would add that the designers must also direct the design.) The director’s vision, therefore, must be strong but flexible enough to encompass to the actors’ and designers’ ideas.

A vision that adapts to the ideas brought to the table by each member of the team exists in a state of “dynamic equilibrium” in which balance (equilibrium) is maintained through the ability of the director to shift (be dynamic) in relation to the constantly shifting circumstances in which she is working. Fear of destabilization can often make directors say no to the ideas of others, but a vision built on the idea of dynamic equilibrium can adapt and expand to include big ideas that come from actors and a designers without losing its center.

Elin Diamond appeals to my love of Brecht by using his theories to postulate a feminist theatre that makes familiar gender norms seem strange and strange ideas about gender seem familiar.

Maintaining dynamic equilibrium is difficult. In reaction to an overwhelming number of vastly different viewpoints, a director might understandably compensate by going too far in the direction of fidelity to her original idea. Or, in response to a plethora of great ideas, a director may lose sight of an original vision that would have been worth maintaining.

Dynamic equilibrium is also a challenge when not every artist responds well to having to “direct their role.” Young artists in particular might feel less inspired by the freedom to try their own ideas than terrified of the abyss that has thereby opened up in front of them. In the excitement of not only coming up with my own ideas but also being inspired by everyone else’s, I sometimes fail to notice the team member who is not excited, not coming up with her own ideas, and/or not feeling that her ideas would be accepted should she try them. An ability to hear that person despite her silence, to see her despite her fear that she is invisible, is a difficult to develop but important skill for a feminist director to have.

Rosemary Malague’s more recent An Actress Prepares: Women and “the Method” details the historical and contemporary ways the Method puts women in the control of dominating directors and turns them into over-sexualized hysterics. 

To that end, the most useful manual for directing I have read recently is not a theatre book at all: It is Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, recommended to me by playwright Jami Brandli. Brown’s research into shame identifies the defenses that people commonly employ when they find themselves in a vulnerable position, such as being asked to try their own artistic ideas out in front of other people, helps readers get beyond their own defenses, and teaches them to identify and empathize with other people who use them. Now that I can tell when a collaborator is having a hard time jumping into the abyss, I hope that I can be more present to her in the moment and more willing to be vulnerable myself.

Because the overall mode of the feminist director is to empower artists to make their own choices, when dealing with scenes that include violence, sex, or nudity, a feminist director has a responsibility to get consent from participants at every step of the process. The human body sometimes does not know the difference between real violence or sex and the mimesis of violence or sex, meaning that staging those moments requires particular attention to the safety, both physical and psychological, of everyone in the room. Using trained fight choreographers, mindfully choreographing sexual moments while repeatedly seeking renewed consent as the ideas evolve, and checking in with actors about how they are doing are tools directors can use to make theatre in a feminist way.

For theatre to intervene in cultural assumptions about identity, the process must intervene in assumptions about who can lead and what kind of processes are considered leading. For theatre to dismantle binaries, the process must dismantle the binary of authority/follower. And for theatre to create equality, the process must empower all artists to take action—aka be subjects—in their own areas. In addition to the content of the play and the choices made about performance, feminist directors, in order to make feminist theatre, must engage in a feminist process.

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!