Cross posted at Ms.

When I heard the news from Michigan, the first person I thought of was Eve Ensler. I’ve directed The Vagina Monologues twice and, despite unsettling doubts that the play does not actually work as V-Day events intend it to (to end violence), I loved doing it both times. In theater speak, The Vagina Monologues works in an Aristotelian way to create catharsis out of pity and fear. In regular speak, that means that the play creates for the audience an identification with the characters that leads to an empathetic emotional experience. This in itself is pretty cool, but emotional experiences are by definition internal to individuals, whereas ending violence requires structural social change.

Nevertheless, I am here to tell you that a performance of The Vagina Monologues scheduled for Monday evening on the steps of the Michigan capitol is activist theater that can work. In fact it’s just about the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.

The local artists putting together the event have recruited six state senators (Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), Rep. Barb Byrum (D- Onondaga), Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes (D-Saginaw), Rep. Dian Slavens (D- Canton Township), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D- Detroit)) to read monologues and is filling out the rest with volunteer actors. As if notified by a vagina signal in the sky, Ensler herself will attend.

In case you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen it yet, every monologue in this groundbreaking show deals either directly or indirectly with a woman struggling to describe her experience of her own body, to a create meaningful narrative out of things that have happened to her. In so doing, the women in the play say vagina, and many other words that supposedly mean the same thing (in some cases they don’t and it’s unfortunate that Ensler blurs these lines) over and over and over until the audience is comfortable not only hearing them but often saying them, too: In many cases, a highlight of the show is the audience chanting CUNT aloud together.

Unfortunately, theater audiences–typically made up of aging middle- to upper-class liberals–feeling empathy for victims of violence will not end violence. If it were going to, it would have already, and Sarah McLachlan would have saved all the abandoned animals in the world. In fact V-Day events have been held in 140 countries over 11 years, and yet violence against women continues. But feeling the liberation that comes from hearing people you identify with speak openly about the feelings, colors, smells and sensations associated with the most intimate parts of their bodies will make individual audience members more interested in and aware of the ways they talk and think about vaginas.

Taking Ensler’s play outside the relatively safe walls of the theater and putting it in the mouths of politicians will directly confront people–and by people I mean people who did not pay $45 for the privilege–with the language and imagery of female anatomy until they admit it: These are not bad words. We need these words. These words are about women, and we will not allow you to erase women by erasing the words that describe them.

This is the political action aided by the individual identification at the center of The Vagina Monologue‘s structure, and I am all for it. Of the anti-vagina events in Michigan that spurred this performance, organizer Carla Milarch of Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre says,

It’s just a perfect example of the ways we use language to oppress people. The more we understand that and say, I’m going to say the word vagina in any context–it’s a way is taking back the power of the word.

Milarch is still seeking volunteers to perform; for more information, contact her here. And if you’re in Michigan, show up at the capitol at 6pm Monday and say, “Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!”

When I’m asked to describe my work as a theater director (as anyone in this field is often asked to do), I make sure I use a few keywords: Viewpoints and Composition, gender, Epic Theater, performance of identity. When talking to artists with whom I collaborate, I sometimes say post-modern, and then I explain what I in particular mean by that.

There are other isms and ists. Feminist. Post-colonialist. I also use reconstruction instead of deconstruction. And I invoke Brecht, namely in the context of narrative (as opposed to plot) and history.

So it’s always interesting to go back to those sources and take a fresh look at what I actually do versus what the theory that inspires me asks me to do. I’m working on two unrelated productions at once right now – As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath and Rimers of Eldritch – and with both I have invoked “historicization” as a design and performance aesthetic. But what do I mean by that?

In answering that question, I decided to remind myself what Brecht (might) have meant. Historicization. “Perhaps the incidents portrayed by the epic actor need to be familiar ones, in which case historical incidents would be the most immediately suitable,” he says in “The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting.”

In “Indirect Impact of the Epic Theater” he espouses,

[Scenes] must be portrayed as emphatically and significantly as any well-known historical episodes, though without sentimentalizing them. In this epic theatre serving a non-Aristotelian type of drama the actor will at the same time do all he can to make himself observed standing between the spectator and the event.

From “On the Use of Music in an Epic Theater:”

The epic theater is chiefly interested in the attitudes which people adopt toward one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant (typical). … The concern of the epic theater is thus eminently practical. Human behavior is shown as alterable; man himself as dependent on certain political and economic factors and at the same time as capable of altering them.

I’ll be honest. I often choose historical subjects for productions simply because I think history is really interesting. I like having an excuse to learn as much as I can about a particular period – to devour the music, the images, the words and sounds of an age.

But I also chose to adapt Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath partly because its historical material so perfectly speaks to our current economic concerns. (Also partly because it’s brilliant and beautiful and the things he does with words are wow.) Part of my point is that we can learn from the ways history repeats itself – we can see ourselves in the past and understand that we can’t keep making the same mistakes. When we see how history repeats itself, surely we will realize that we have to change, or so my thinking goes.

Though I was sure I got the idea from him, Brecht’s take is actually a little different. He actually goes to great length to argue that we should perform history in order to show people how different the times are, not how similar. In a contradiction to his earlier thinking that historical material might prove most suitably familiar to the actor, in “Short Description of a New Technique of Acting” he argues:

The actor must play the incidents as historical ones. Historical incidents are unique, transitory incidents associated with particular periods. The conduct of persons involved in them is not fixed and ‘universally human’; it includes elements that have been or may be overtaken by the course of history, and is subject to criticism from the immediately following period’s point of view. The conduct of those born before us is alienated from us by an incessant evolution.

So whereas I want to use the way that things don’t change to convince the audience that we must change, Brecht wanted to reinforce change by showing all the changes we’ve already made. The endpoint, I would argue, is the same: to get the audience to think critically about the ways we behave. But the means are actually pretty different.

Now, if you’re still with me, you have either have some preexisting interest in me or in Brecht, so bear with me a little longer, because what’s fun is how these things manifest in rehearsal. For As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath, it’s in 4 ways in various combinations: what is historical, what is Steinbeck, what makes our political point, and what is good theater.

Two examples: the women actors in the show play both Women characters and a Used Car Salesman, a Truck Driver, and a Manager. They do not have time to change costumes (we can’t afford more than one costume per actor anyway), and the question came up of whether they should wear dresses. The dresses would be historically accurate when they are First, Second and Third Woman, but not as the other characters. So the question becomes what will the audience believe (“believe” in the sense of “be able to make meaning out of”), and the answer is they are more likely to believe Women in pants than Truck Drivers in dresses. So then the question becomes do I want to challenge what the audience believes? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. In this case, the gender of the characters is not the main point I’m making, so I’m not interested in defying the audience’s expectations with that particular choice.

At the same time, because I am adapting text that was not written as dialogue, I have the opportunity to assign lines by gender in ways that empower the Women characters. My choices here have also involved going against historical assumptions, though in a different way. Together with the actors, we have created three distinct man-woman marriages, in some of which the women are equal partners with the men, and in all of which the women have genuine thoughts, feelings and opinions and take genuine action. But here I can argue that though it was not the norm, inevitably some women in 1935 had fairly equal relationships with their husbands. Inevitably some women lived as the subjects of their own lives. I can therefore justify the fact that in the adaptation I create a world in which that is true. (I cannot similarly argue that some truck drivers wore skirts.)

But in making these sorts of choices, am I in fact perverting history? Am I encouraging people to believe in a falsehood? Am I “Oliver Stone-ing” the Okies? This is a work in progress, but right now, I’m thinking no. And here’s why.

My work is Brechtian. I’m not actually trying to convince the audience that women wore pants in 1935. Nor am I suggesting that they actually had social or economic power. I’m actually assuming people know the truth on both scores, and that they know that this is theater and therefore a fiction. And I am hoping that in seeing real women with their own thoughts and motivations living in 1935 circumstances, we can get closer to understanding how absurd assumptions about gender are in all times.

Or maybe my work isn’t actually Brechtian at all. Either way I’ll leave you with this: Women always have been and always will be fully human subjects of history. How we document that, as far as I can tell, has always been pretty much up for grabs.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had time to write because I’ve taken on a new project: As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath, an adaptation of selected chapters of a certain great American novel, will be presented as part of Son of Semele Ensemble‘s Company Creation Festival in January and February. In the novel, which is set in the Great Depression, the author essentially tells the same story twice: the bulk of the book focuses on the personal experiences of the main family’s journey from Oklahoma to California to find work, but the interstitial chapters paint a picture of the collective Okie experience by retelling the same story in broader terms. Our adaptation focuses on those chapters and thereby attempts to show that the scourge of poverty infects whole societies, not just individuals.

As with most theater, on this project the producers, the company of actors, a designer and I are working for free. The production currently has no budget and no resources other than the rehearsal and performance space provided by Son of Semele. Why, you might ask, would we want to travel from our day jobs during rush hour to the theater every night and on the weekends to rehearse and perform a piece of theater that will, in the course of its 10-performance run in a 35-seat theater, be seen by a total of 350 people at most and not get paid?

Because we have something to say. And the theater is a good place to say it.

The play, like the book, begins by illuminating the consequences of an unregulated home loan industry; we then follow the collective Okies as they are swindled by used car dealers, forced to beg for bread to feed their children, denied pay for work they have already performed, and kicked off the one piece of land–the Hooverville–they have chosen to occupy.

People will not believe that the words of this theater piece were not written about current events. The problems these families face and the conclusions they draw are separated from those of the Occupiers only by time, not by sentiment. Our collaborative process of creation is not quite as egalitarian as Occupy’s General Assembly–I lead the company as adapter and director, my husband co-produces, and the text was written a while back by a more skilled wordsmith than any of us could ever hope to be. But together we are turning the narrative of the book into a company-created playworld with the intention of historicizing the Great Depression and revealing its connection to today.

We believe that there is power in telling stories and that awakenings can happen when people witness the real human struggles of poverty, hunger and oppression, if only in performance. In this piece, we hope to embody the spirit and goals of the Occupy movement, to reinforce the necessity of collective action, and to warn the powers that be that revolution is coming. For where the people come together,

[T]here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. [T]here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning–from “I” to “we.”

Check out our tumblr of images from the Depression and from Occupy and add your own (in pairs, please). And come see the show in LA: January 11, 12, 13, 28, and 29 and February 8, 9, 10, 25, and 26.

Part of a a collaboration between The Good Men Project and Role/Reboot on a special series about the End of Gender. Cross Posted at Ms.

I am gendered, just not in all the ways you might think. Whatever part of my brain makes me like makeup and sparkly jewelry isn’t going away any more than is my tendency to argue, solve problems and boss people around. I have no problem emphasizing different aspects of my sometimes feminine, sometimes masculine gender when the occasion calls for it and when I feel like it. I also do not experience much cognitive dissonance when I see other people do the same. My husband’s love of cooking amazes me only because of how much I hate cooking, not because he’s a man.

I believe I have theater to thank for this. As both a consumer and producer of theater, I have learned to see character not as an immutable constant but rather as a complex and constantly shifting combination of biology, neurology, sociology, anthropology and choice.

As a student director, I began casting women to play roles written for men in order to make up for the lack of roles for women. I quickly became interested in the increased storytelling possibilities created by this destabilization of identity, and I began to experiment with what I could say about the nature of gender by treating it as a performance. To this day, whenever I direct I use some cross-sex casting. Sometimes I change the sex of the character to match the sex of the actor by adjusting pronouns and costuming according to the actor’s body. Because parts for men are usually written with traditional ideas of “manhood” in mind, this usually results in the creation of a “masculine” female character: an identifiably biological woman who nevertheless speaks and acts like a man. Sometimes I do not change the sex of the character but rather have the actor actually pretend to be a member of the opposite sex–to play the part in drag. In that case, the audience, aware of the pretense, is reminded that all of the performances they’re watching are pretend–in a sense everyone is in drag–and is thereby enabled to ask, What else about these characters is not “natural” but rather a construction of the writing and/or performance? And if writing and/or performance are reflections of the cultures out of which they arise, what else in culture is constructed?

More recently, I have added sexual orientation to the mix and democratized the process by asking the actors to determine themselves whether their characters are female or male, feminine or masculine, homosexual or heterosexual or some combination of the above. Whether the choices ultimately highlight or subvert the author’s original intentions, the act of choosing and performing creates possibility.

You might think this would be confusing, but it turns out that it’s a great way to get the audience to engage on a deeper imaginative level. I have had audience members tell me that they mentally assigned a variety of sexes, genders and sexualities to the same character in the course of the same performance. Fewer people than you’d suspect are bothered by the idea that a character could be one thing in one scene and another in the next. For many, this is more like their experience of the world.

What I’ve discovered is this: For audiences, seeing stories in which kings and CEOs are women helps people imagine a world in which women can hold positions of political and economic power. Likewise, seeing stories in which men are caretakers, homemakers, shoppers and cooks helps people imagine a world in which that can be true as well. And the more you mix it up in the same show–put a woman in a typically masculine role and a man in a typically feminine one in the same play in which another woman plays a very feminine character and another man a masculine one–the more you reinforce the fact that, in real life, real people play all kinds of roles too.

For performers, pretending to be someone else reveals that, to a certain extent, everyone has the power to be whomever they want regardless of social expectations. Many aspects of identity can be chosen and shaped: In a sense, we are the playwrights of our own lives. Pretending to be someone else also reveals the ways people are inherently different from one another, sometimes in unchangeable ways. Through literally embodying the other, performers learn to recognize and respect those differences. Further, crafting a performance based on an actor’s differences from the character (rather than the similarities) gets performers to think about the ways character itself–including sex, sexuality and gender–is a complex product of hormones, genes, neurology, socialization, culture and choice.

The possibilities for application of this practice are endless. Anyone else remember having to read plays aloud as part of high school English class? What if, in that setting, boys read some of the girls’ parts and girls read some of the boys’? What if we provided reading material to young people in which none of the characters are sexed or gendered, asked them to determine those things themselves, and then questioned the assumptions on which they based their decisions? What if we each spent a week consciously trying to be more masculine or more feminine than we usually are? What if we each spent a day disguised as a member of the opposite sex? What if, as part of playing “let’s pretend” with our children, we encouraged them to pretend to be a sex or gender that they’re not?

Empathy can only be created when we see the world from another person’s eyes, and outside of the theater world people don’t get enough opportunities to do that. Engaging imaginatively in what it means to be a feminine man or a masculine woman won’t end gender, but it will help us to understand the endless possibilities of it. At least it might blur the gender binary and the idea of a fixed relationship between sex, gender and sexuality.

Photo of Twelfth Night at the University of California at Riverside, Directed by Holly L. Derr. FROM LEFT: Vesta Rounsaville, Alexandra Franke, Samantha Spada, Kyle Filippelli, Fracis Chen and Andrew Mena. Photo by Alan Call.

The Good Men Project and Role/Reboot have collaborated on a special series about the End of Gender. Dozens of bloggers are taking on Hanna Rosin’s ongoing (and recently reignited) “End of Men” argument and what meaning gender has in contemporary society. This collaboration includes bloggers from Good Men Project, Role/RebootThe Huffington PostSalonHyperVocalMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free Zone,The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.