#ReadingForParity 2.4: Collected Stories by Donald Margulies

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When Charles Isherwood reviewed the 1996 premiere production of Collected Stories for Variety, he called protagonist Lisa “an Eve Harrington of the book world”. (He was not alone in making this comparison, which has proved prevelent in many Collected Stories reviews throughout the years.) Isherwood was, of course, referring to the title character in the classic film All About Eve. Eve is a young woman who takes advantage of her older female mentor and eventually takes over her life. This depiction of an overly ambitious young woman manipulating a successful woman feeds right into the fear that there is only room for one woman at the top and that women should not look out for each other. Perhaps there are some All About Eve style aspects to Lisa’s relationship with her mentor Ruth, but their rapport is far more nuanced than that.

At the top of the play, Ruth is an established author and Lisa is an insecure, eager student, completely awed by her teacher. From their first meeting, Ruth is discerning and demanding of Lisa, concerned not only with Lisa’s writing but also with how she presents herself. Upon noticing Lisa’s tendency to end sentences with question marks, Ruth tries to empower Lisa by instilling her with more verbal confidence.

RUTH. Why do you talk like that?

LISA. Excuse me?

RUTH. You have a tendency to add question marks to the ends of declarative sentences. Do you know that?

LISA. Oh, God…

RUTH. When a simple declarative sentence will do, you inflect it in such a way… I’m not absolutely certain but I think more young women speak this way than young men. And there’s something almost poignant about it, all these capable young women somehow begging to be heard, begging to be understood. “Can you hear me?” “Are you with me?” “Am I being heard?”

As New York Magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek noted in her review of the 2010 Broadway production, Ruth is “an exacting teacher making the ultimate demand of her student: The young woman needs not only to find her voice, but to make sure it’s a declarative one.” Unfortunately it’s not clear whether Lisa ever truly finds her own voice or whether she learns to lean more and more heavily on the literary voice of her mentor. Ultimately, Lisa writes a novel revealing the most personal and significant affair of Ruth’s private life, the details of which Ruth had told to Lisa in confidence.

In his 1997 review of the original New York production, Ben Brantley acknowledged the complexity of Ruth and Lisa’s mentor/mentee relationship, observing that “the familiar tensions and power shifts between mentor and acolyte are infused by a resonant question of literary morality: what right do artists have to appropriate the lives of others?

The issue of literary integrity adds a wonderful complexity to the narrative and to the dynamic between the two women. Unlike in All About Eve, in which the actress Eve Harrington is clearly out to steal her mentor’s lead role, Lisa is not as obviously trying to make Ruth irrelevant. Instead, Ruth’s life story has inspired the plot and characters of Lisa’s novel. Is imitation the highest form of flattery? Is Lisa telling a story that Ruth was too scared to tell? Or, as Ruth accuses, is Lisa trying to appropriate her mentor’s life?

RUTH. You’ve stolen my stories, Lisa. My stories! What good am I without my stories? I’m nothing. I’m a cipher. I’m as good as dead.

LISA. But they aren’t your stories, Ruth. Not anymore. They stopped being your stories when you told them to me, They changed my life so how can they be solely your stories anymore? You don’t own them.

RUTH. Oh, no?

LISA. No! You are a part of my life now, Ruth. Our lives intersect. My experience includes your experience. I am the sum of your experience and my experience and everybody else’s experience I’ve ever come in contact with.

Perhaps Lisa should have been upfront with Ruth about what she was doing, and should have respected Ruth’s wishes to keep certain stories between them. Interestingly though, Ruth actually advised Lisa earlier in the play not to “censor your creative impulses because of the danger of hurting someone’s feelings”. This was said in the context of Lisa showing some of her work to her father. The creative moral obligations of a daughter to her father are of a different sort than that of a protégé to her mentor, but it is easy to understand how Lisa might have rationalized her behavior when it came to her novel.

The audience is left to wonder whether Lisa rationalizing an unforgivable act of betrayal, revealing the potentially unhealthy lack of boundaries between her and Ruth or providing insight into the unusual relationship between mentor and mentee once they’ve evolved to become colleagues and sometimes friends?

 

Click here to read #ReadingForParity 2.3: Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman

#ReadingForParity 2.3: Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman

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Rebecca Gilman’s play Luna Gale has the distinction of possessing what I’d like to call a double feminist narrative—there is both a female protagonist (Caroline) and a female title character (Luna). Caroline is a social worker who tries, despite the difficulties and frustrations working within a flawed system, to be a mentor to the children in her care. Luna Gale is one such child but since she is only a baby, Caroline ends up looking out for Luna’s meth addicted mother Karlie as well.

Caroline is initially presented with what appears to be a fairly straightforward case. Luna Gale’s parents Karlie and Peter are meth addicts while her maternal grandmother Cindy is sober and religiously inclined. It seems logical to give Cindy temporary custody of Luna, while Karlie and Peter are trying to get their lives back on track. As the custody case turns into a bitter battle, Caroline discovers some disturbing secrets about Karlie’s upbringing. She becomes convinced that Cindy is not the best guardian for Luna after all.

Throughout the play, there is a real fear of women turning into their own mothers and/or of passing on to their daughters the same traumas that their mothers gave to them. Both Caroline and Karlie struggle with the parental legacies of their youth, as does Lourdes, a college student who recently aged out of the foster system. Caroline is adamant about stopping the cycle of abuse in Luna Gale’s case, telling her boss that Cindy “has to deal with what she did to her daughter. I’m not giving her Luna so she can screw her up like she screwed up Karlie.”

Caroline clearly tries to have the best interests of her cases at heart. She often seems to want to be a friend or mentor to the foster children under her care (or their mothers, in Karlie’s case). Unfortunately her boss Cliff is skeptical of her dedication; he thinks that she allows her attachments and biases to cloud her judgment. To some extent he is right. Caroline definitely approaches her work from a very personal place, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

“I set out to help kids like me,” Caroline admits, “I know what it is to grow up with a mother who doesn’t protect you, or believe in you. I know how worthless that can make you feel.” She acknowledges that she sees similarities between herself as a child and many of her cases; it is in fact this emotional recognition that gives Caroline the “gut feeling” something was off in the Cindy/Karlie/Luna situation.

Ultimately, Caroline seems to realize that while she can’t save all of the children who need care, there is something very valuable that she can do. She can empower them; by believing in them, she can give them hope. When Luna’s custody dispute is finally settled, Caroline gives her a little stuffed teddy bear. This gesture is not part of standard procedure; rather, it is a new twist invented by Caroline.

CAROLINE. We usually give them out to kids when they age out of foster care but- that’s not going very well and I thought, what if we mixed it up?

What if, instead of a perfunctory, meaningless gesture of hope at the end of the story, we tried—(Stops.)

PETER. A perfunctory, meaningless gesture at the beginning?

CAROLINE. What if I said to Luna, “I believe you’re going to be OK. So I’m going to go ahead and give this to you now?”

PETER. How can you say she’s going to be OK?

CAROLINE. Because I believe in you.

It’s interesting to me that while many reviews, from The New York Times to the Chicago Tribune to the LA Times to even The Guardian across the pond, discuss the importance of Caroline’s role in the play, these prominent reviewers (all of whom happened to be men) did not refer to her as a mentor. Caroline has faith in children in whom the world has essentially lost faith. Caroline tries to empower Luna and Luna’s parents, in her own way. Caroline believes Karlie when the system seems to have already judged her and stopped listening. Caroline believes in Peter’s ability to take care of Luna on his own. Caroline believes that Luna has the potential to be alright, despite a tumultuous infancy. One could say that at the heart of this play is a story about a woman who strives to empower others, especially other young women. This theme is rare in the theater and it saddens me that none of the critics from the major publications mentioned above thought to make note of it in their own writings on the play.

Nor do they mention how there is a reversal of traditional gender roles in Luna Gale. Not only is Caroline depicted as a strong single working woman who does not need to have a husband and children of her own to seem complete, but Peter is described at times as a stay at home father. Peter actually claims that he took meth to keep up with his wife because he was afraid she might have left him otherwise. Regardless of whether or not that statement is truly why he did the meth, it does clearly indicate how Karlie held the power in their relationship. Furthermore, two out of the three most fervently religious characters are also men, subverting the stereotypical social norm of the woman being the one who is most closely associated with the religious, familial and domestic spheres of life.

I wish I could state that these themes went unmentioned because we live in a world that is too progressive and egalitarian to care much about gender norms. In reality, I think that the reason they weren’t mentioned is because our society has yet to grasp the positive significance of seeing strong female role models onstage. It still does not seem important enough to discuss. Just like when, in the Associated Press’ 2016 summer Olympic coverage, Michael Phelps’s tied silver medal was deemed more headline worthy than the fact that Katie Ledecky had set a new world record. Whether in sports or in theater or in any other aspect of our society, we still have a ways to go when it comes to acknowledging, let alone celebrating, the efforts and achievements of women.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity 2.2: Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo

#ReadingForParity 2.2: Rapture Blister Burn by Gina Gionfriddo

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Many people have compared Gina Gionfriddo’s 2012 play Rapture Blister Burn to The Heidi Chronicles. Gionfriddo herself even penned an article for The New York Times discussing her “inadvertent homage” to Wendy Wasserstein’s 1989 tour de force. “The dream,” she wrote “then and now, postfeminist and post-postfeminist (or whatever we choose to call this moment) is still simple and still incredibly hard: How do men and women figure out how to negotiate their equality better?”

The similarities between the two plays are apparent from the start. Both feature female protagonists who have successful careers in academia; both are single and childless; both wrestle with contemporary notions of gender roles.

But as The Chicago Tribune noted, Catherine (the protagonist of Rapture, Blister, Burn) “gets into stuff that Heidi Holland never had to face: the appropriate response to a man who loves Internet porn, or the counter-intuitive feminist readings of horror movies as explicated by the theorist E. Ann Kaplan… Different times. Different post-feminist strokes.”

And unlike in The Heidi Chronicles, Rapture Blister Burn does not show a young woman negotiating the start of her adult life; Catherine, the protagonist of Gionfriddo’s play effectively starts her journey where Heidi’s story seemed to end. Catherine is in the middle of her life and has already established herself as a success in her chosen field. She does not need to decide whether or not to devote her life to building her career but rather whether to continue do so. Through the device of an informal summer seminar, Catherine and her students Gwen and Avery (and occasionally Catherine’s mother Alice as well) reflect upon the life choices they have made and debate their personal philosophies on feminism.

The LA Times observed that Rapture, Blister, Burn’s “originality lies in its recognition that life is infinitely messier than theory….The chorus of female voices, from the pre-feminist Alice to the post-post-feminist Avery, allows for a multigenerational examination of a subject that is too important to treat in a doctrinaire manner.” The very real stakes of the human drama prevent the play from feeling like a long women’s studies class.  Early on in the first act, Catherine says she feels “like a clock just started ticking” (pg 10). But, refreshingly, she is not referring to her own biological clock. The ticking clock image represents her mother’s mortality; Catherine is worried that her Alice, who recently had a heart attack, is going to die soon. If/when that happens, she fears that she will be all alone.  This fear causes Catherine to start “wondering if there isn’t some…wisdom in the natural order. In creating a new family to replace the one you lose.” (pg 22)

At first, Catherine yearns to switch places with Gwen, a homemaker with two children who  happens to be married to Catherine’s ex boyfriend Don.  (Gwen is taking Catherine’s class because she regrets not finishing up her own studies back when she, Don and Catherine were all students together. Essentially, Gwen wants to try living Catherine’s life while Catherine wants to try living Gwen’s). Catherine and Don begin an affair, at first illicitly and then, oddly enough, with Gwen’s blessing. Avery expresses skepticism at the situation and asks Catherine (who is richer, sexier and more successful than Don) what she is getting out of the relationship.

CATHERINE. Love?

AVERY. You can get that from girls, though. I don’t mean lesbians, I mean… If you need someone to be sweet when you have a bad day… I kind of think that’s what girlfriends are for.

CATHERINE. Really?

AVERY. My mom says the only deal breakers in marriage are money and sex. Which to me means like… The emotional stuff you can outsource if he’s pulling his weight with the money and the sex.

CATHERINE. Avery, I don’t think you can outsource love.

AVERY. Why?

CATHERINE. You’re young. Your parents are healthy. There will come a day when that’s not the case and then… I don’t think a person should be alone to face the things you have to face between middle-age and death. And I don’t think friends are enough, Avery. I think that’s what romantic love is for.

Even though Catherine adamantly rejects the idea of being able to “outsource love”, Avery proves herself to be a loving friend to Catherine, reassuring her that she doesn’t have to be all alone and saying: “I could be there for you.When your mom dies.”

This play forces its characters, and the audience, to reconsider how we define love and from whom we receive it. Is the love of a husband more worthy than the love of a parent? Is the love of a child more fulfilling than the love of a friend? Ultimately, Catherine’s most satisfying relationship seems to be as a mentor/friend to Avery, despite her earlier claims that friendship can’t be sufficient.

At the end of The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi choses to become a mom. It is arguable that she may have opted for maternal love out of a desire to be fulfilled. The notion of choosing to be a single mother instead of a wife was quite radical when that play first debuted but it is somewhat less so today. Perhaps choosing to be a friend or mentor, rather than a wife or mother, is the most liberating alternative in the “post-postfeminist world” of Rapture, Blister, Burn and in contemporary society by extension.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity 2.1: Eclipsed by Danai Gurira

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#ReadingForParity 2.1: Eclipsed by Danai Gurira

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photo via The New York Times                                                                                                                                   photo credit: Joan Marcus

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is a natural choice for this #ReadingForParity project. For one thing, when it transferred to Broadway in early 2016, Eclipsed was unbelievably the first play to have an all female cast, director and writer on Broadway (all of whom were also women of color). For another, author Gurira gave an inspiring and acclaimed speech at the 7th Annual Lilly Awards in May 2016, encouraging young women, especially young female writers, to “go where you are loved, where your voice is embraced and your vision is respected.” Unsurprisingly, female empowerment is a prominent theme, not only in Gurira’s Lilly Awards speech but in her play as well.

Eclipsed tells the story of a community of women who are struggling to survive the traumas of the Second Liberian War. Most have been sexually abused and held captive by a commanding army officer. They have even seemingly lost their individual identities, as they are referred to by wife number instead of by name.  Yet amazingly, these women look out for one another and engage in an almost sisterly dynamic of both empowering and undermining each other. In fact, Gurira writes in the author notes included at the back of the DPS edition of the play that “these relationships must be specific and rooted in a history, a need, and a sisterhood.” (pg 62).

The central conflict within this sisterhood of sorts comes from the different identities that the women choose, in attempt to stay strong and survive. Helena (Number 1) & Bessie (Number 3, who is pregnant) somewhat embrace their domestic role but Maima, formerly known as Number 2, has decided instead to become a soldier. She herself is no longer sexually victimized; she instead has to subject others to such abuse in her place.

When The Girl (famously portrayed on Broadway by Lupita Nyong’o) arrives and becomes wife Number 4, she is pulled in different directions by the other women who seem to want to help  by encouraging her to follow their own philosophy. Gurira writes, in her author notes, that “the Girl’s journey is the heart of the play…  She is losing a hold on her own humanity, and because she is an imperfect weapon of war she can abide in this world no longer. She searches for her mother, a mother, someone, or something to salve the wounds of her experiences, of her participation in violence, to bring her soul to peace.” (pg 63).

In Act 2 Scene 1, when The Girl asks Maima how she can justify committing the atrocities of war, Maima replies (in the Liberian dialect written into the language of the script): “You feed dem, you not get eaten…Dis is how you survive, you understan’? So is it you or dem, Number Four?” The Girl bristles as being referred to by wife number instead of by name, but Maima responds “if you want a name of war, act like a soldier, and HUNT”. (pg 38)

Based on this exchange, a woman’s name (and thus, her identity) depends upon how she relates to the male dominated world– whether she lets herself be defined as an extension of her husband or whether she takes on the traditionally male characteristics of hunting and fighting. Accordingly, it seems that the way for women to survive the war is to figure out either how to become like the men or how to please the men. And yet, there is another route, embodied here in the character of Rita. This other option, which seems only to be a choice for those lucky and privileged enough not to have been captured by the soldiers, is to be a peace woman. The peace women were a real historic phenomenon, a movement of women who (often through nonviolent protest) successfully negotiated peace for their war torn country.

Maima rationalizes her behavior to Rita by telling her ” I hep mek women strong.” (pg 40) However, it is unclear whether Maima truly thinks she is being a good mentor to The Girl, empowering her to find her own inner strength by committing brutal actions against other women. Maima has a lot of unresolved anger towards the two other wives; drawing The Girl into the woman soldier lifestyle could also be seen as a retaliation against the other women.

Perhaps the one identity that all the women respect, in their own ways, is that of being a mother. When The Girl is finally given a war name by Maima, she is called “Mother’s Blessing” because she fights on behalf of her mother and all the other unprotected mothers of Liberia. Helena is the oldest and most maternal of the CO’s wives; she has been there the longest and sees it as her responsibility to look after the other women. Bessie is discovering what it means to be pregnant and then to have an infant even in the midst of a wartorn country. Rita first enters the play as a mother without a child; she is literally searching for her missing daughter. Gurira states that Rita discovers instead, through her friendship with Helena and her interactions with The Girl, how “she can be healed as she truly facilitates in the healing of others”. In the world of Eclipsed, motherhood is thus not only about literally mother-daughter relationships. The concept of motherhood, and perhaps of sisterhood as well, has been expanded here to include women mentoring, empowering and helping each other.

Though these women might need to fight alongside, appease or negotiate with their men in order to endure in wartime Liberia, it is through their support for one another that their spirits and souls, their essences and identities, survive.

 

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Returns

#ReadingForParity Returns

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Last summer, I began my #ReadingForParity project out of a desire to raise awareness of the parity issue in theater, and to increase the number of contemporary female playwrights on my own bookshelves. As chronicled in an article for Howlround, I read 13 plays  by female playwrights over the course of the summer; I ended up learning a lot about the prevalence and significance of female protagonists in these 13 plays, especially female protagonists who were also writers.  I knew that I wanted to continue my parity project this summer but with a slightly different focus, reflecting the shifts we’ve experienced throughout the past year on the issue of gender parity in the theater.

As explored in a June 2016 Playbill feature , many of the female driven stories that have been on Broadway recently dealt with abuse, be it through accusations of witchcraft (The Crucible), domestic violence (Waitress and The Color Purple) or rape (Eclipsed). These abuses are absolutely horribly and should certainly be addressed onstage (and indeed in all aspects of our society until they are eliminated for once and for all) but there is always the risk that these characters will be conveyed merely as victims. Fortunately, the shows from this past season’s primarily strived to reveal the celebratory aspects in a community of women, the necessity of women empowering each other even and especially in times of crisis.

A New York Times article by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant that reexamines the notion of “the catty woman” recently caught my attention.  Sandberg and Grant refer to women who “refuse to help other women” as “Queen Bees” but suggest that this common stereotype is actually “far less common than we think”. Furthermore, they believe that “queen bees aren’t a reason for inequality but rather a result of inequality. ” Women do not instinctually want to treat each other ruthlessly but certain societal norms have encouraged certain types of women to succumb to that behavior in order to get ahead. Of course when men exhibit this same type of behavior, they are not given degrading labels (in fact, the writers point out that there is no equivalent male put down for the queen bee term). Towards the end of the article, Sandberg and Grant call upon women to  “help one another without hurting themselves”, remarking that “There’s no penalty for women mentoring women — and when they do, they’re more likely to be seen by their protégés as role models.”

Now Sandberg and Grant are primarily talking about women in the context of a corporate workplace. But I’m interested to apply their theories and observations to theater. Specifically, I’m curious to see how female friendship and mentorship is presented onstage. Do female characters empower each other in contemporary plays and if so, how?

Finding plays that explore the specific themes of female friendship and/or mentorship has not been an easy task- a fact that in itself is problematic. I asked several friends, intelligent, well read women who are well versed in theater, if they had play recommendations; they too struggled to come up with more than one or two ideas.  I ultimately put out a mass call on Twitter, tagging feminist theater groups including The Interval, Parity Productions and Los Angeles Female Playwrights’ Initiative. The response was overwhelming in its help and support. I am grateful to all those who responded, especially the wonderfully talented women writers who were so graciously willing to send me their plays to read for my parity project.

So I invite you to follow me in my second season of #ReadingForParity. I’ll be reading and analyzing a play a week for the next two months or so (10 plays total).  All of the plays will address themes of either female friendship, mentorship and/or empowerment. Eight of the plays will be by contemporary female writers but, since true parity is about being inclusive, two of the plays will be by male writers. This ratio of 80% female playwrights to 20% male playwrights will be a nice inversion on the 20% figure (the number of plays produced nationwide that were written by women) revealed by The Count.  In reading and writing about plays that focus on the three above themes, I hope to raise awareness not only regarding the necessity of supporting plays by women but also regarding the importance of how women are portrayed onstage. If we see relatable examples on our stages of complex, genuine, powerful female friendships, women helping and inspiring each other, perhaps it will motivate us to treat each other that way offstage as well. And maybe one day the “Queen Bee” stereotype investigated by Sandberg and Grant truly will be no more than a catty, and irrelevant, myth.

Lyrics and Language: How Fabrizio Naccarelli helped me to teach English in Italy

 

I’ve always found foreign songs to be a helpful way of reinforcing one’s memory of new words in other languages. For example, as a first year French student in ninth grade, I listened to the original French concept album of Les Misérables over and over again.  In anticipation of teaching English to middle schoolers in Italy, I turned to The Light in the Piazza for guidance. I had already gleaned several useful phrases from the Italian sprinkled throughout the score of the 2004 award winning musical. I knew that “aiuta me” meant “help me”, “cara” meant “dear” and that “passeggiata” was the name given to the Italian tradition of taking long walks.

Upon a more in depth examination of the Italian lyrics, I learned Italian grammar as well as vocabulary. In Italian, “in” and “the” are technically two separate words (in and il/la/i/le respectively, depending upon the gender and quantity of the noun in question) but when the words appear one after the other in a sentence, they merge to become nel/nella/nei/nelle (again depending upon the gender and quantity of the noun). The word piazza is feminine. Therefore in Italian, the show’s title phrase “the light in the piazza” translates to “la lucé nella piazza”. Thanks to that reference, I have never once forgotten how to use in/the in a singular feminine context, and I’ve found it much easier to remember other merged preposition/article words such as from the (della) and on the (sulla) in a feminine singular context as well.

Fabrizio, the romantic male lead, taught me about past tense in Italian too. In his big love aria, he sings about how “il mondo era vuoto” or “the world was empty” before he met Clara, his American love interest. This is the form of the imperfect past tense that refers to a formerly continuous state. Many Italians use “era” to talk about when a now grown child was little, for example. If Fabrizio had wanted to imply something such as  “the world has been empty” at a more fixed time in the more recent past, then he likely would have used the past simple form “è stato” instead.

Not only did Fabrizio’s Italian help me to learn Italian; he helped me to teach Italian students too. The mistakes Fabrizio made when he spoke English gave me insight into and empathy for the thought process behind my students’ errors.

For example, when Fabrizio asks Clara out on a passeggiata, he primarily communicates with her in English. He invites her “to make” and then immediately tries to correct himself “to walking…on the road in a circle”.  The reason Fabrizio initially asks Clara if she wants “to make” a walk with him instead of “to go on a walk or simply “to walk “ is likely because in Italian, the phrase is “fare una passeggiata” which literally translates as “to make a passeggiata” or “to do a passeggiata”.  He then clearly remembers that in English the turn of phrase is different and tries to ask her to walk with him. However, he uses the wrong form of the verb “walking” instead of “walk”.  I noticed many of my students having trouble identifying when a present tense verb is in the present simple (such as “walk”) or a present continuous gerund (such as “walking”). The trick of course is that you have to look for whether there is an “ing” or not at the end, just as in the Italian form of the continuous gerund you have to look for an “ando” or “endo” at the end.

Later on in the song, when Fabrizio tries to compliment Clara’s complexion, he does not know the word for skin. Instead, he sings, “is like milk” and indicates, “is here” on Clara’s body to show what he means. Clara figures out that he is referring to her skin and Fabrizio is then able to triumphantly tell her “your skin is like milk”.  It is common in Italian for the subject of a sentence to be left off, which means, in this case, dropping the “it” in “it is like milk” or “it is here”. Since the verb is usually specifically tailored to the gender and quantity of the subject, it is much easier to identify the subject from the context of the sentence. For example, if an English sentence starts with “go to school”, it is not clear whether I go to school, you go to school, we go to school, you all go to school or they go to school. In Italian, the sentence would be “vado a scuola” which can only refer to I as the subject.  My students would often need reminders to include subjects in English sentences because, like Fabrizio, their natural tendency was often to leave them off, assuming that the ensuing verb would sufficiently clarify the context.

I spent a lot of time writing deliberately silly examples on the board to help them understand the importance of including a subject at the beginning of an English sentence. In turn, I’ve remembered that it is not always necessary to include the subject in Italian. Discovering why my students (and Fabrizio) struggle with certain literal Italian to English translations has made such a strong impression on me that it has helped me to remember the proper phrasing for that grammar in Italian.

Clearly lyrics can have value even beyond their original storytelling purpose. Lyrics can help people learn and remember new languages; they can even provide insight into the verbal thought process of a foreign culture.

Female Empowerment: Finding Strength Through Embracing Vulnerability

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In taking stock of the past year, especially the past few months, I’ve noticed a prevalent theme in many of the stories that have impacted me most: Women who were not afraid to explore their complexities, their imperfections, their messiness. Women who, in fact, found strength through revealing vulnerability.

Back in November, I attended “Ambition and Hunger: A Conversation with Jeanine Tesori”, which was an event hosted by The Interval. I was particularly struck by Jeanine’s observation that people who feel the need to constantly pretend to be perfect (especially on social media) aren’t as real or as interesting as people who own up to their humanity. This assertion was not stated in a judgmental way; her intention was not to put down perfectionists, but rather to build up those who are overly aware of their faults and fallibility. Similarly, the characters in her musical Fun Home are presented as complex, flawed beings struggling to figure out their own identities. In fact, the character who is most preoccupied with maintaining appearances is also the most unhappy. It occurred to me that the most interesting characters are often the most flawed, perhaps because they are the most human. Unfortunately, many female roles are not written with such complexity. For every Momma Rose or Mame, there are multitudes of Adelaides and Cosettes. Both onstage and in real life, it can sometime feel like there is a dearth of strong, multi-dimensional female role models who are unafraid to face difficult truths.

Around the same time that I attended the conversation with Jeanine Tesori, I was working as a script supervisor on a one-woman show created and presented by Melissa Errico at Joe’s Pub. The show, called Sing the Silence, explored the silences in women’s lives, particularly the women in Melissa’s family, through the lens of Melissa’s own silent journey during a vocal injury and an extended period of vocal rest. By choosing to publicly tell the story of her enforced silence, and to literally sing about it, Melissa boldly and successfully asserted that such injuries are a common occurrence in the musical world, as in the world of sports, and not weaknesses behind which to retreat. Her show was an engaging, emotional and unique cabaret because she wasn’t hiding behind a glamorous façade. Instead, she embraced the messiness of life, the challenges she overcame and the subsequent battle scars. She honored her own humanity, in a way that few singers have done in the past.

Luckily, we seem to be entering a new era of empowerment for women, especially for women in the theatre. This past fall, Laura Benanti publicly discussed her miscarriage, in an effort to serve as a positive role model to other women undergoing similar losses. “If we as a culture can talk about it then it’s healing in some way,” she stated in an interview with CBS. Furthermore, Marin Mazzie has opened up about her battle with ovarian cancer and how she refuses to let it define her. As she told The New York Times, “I am dealing with what I’m dealing with, but I’m really strong and I’m really healthy, and I’m getting through it. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

When we as a society can accept that vocal trauma, miscarriage, serious illness and other challenges women face are not weaknesses of which to be ashamed, we will be healthier, happier, and much closer to reaching gender parity. In the coming year, let us all try to applaud those who speak out about overcoming personal struggles and to support those who present characterizations of strong, flawed, dynamic women whether it be on the stage or in any other artistic medium.

 

 

 

#ReadingForParity BONUS PLAY: Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl

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You thought I was finished with the Parity project, didn’t you?

Although I said I was going to read and blog about 12 plays this summer, I’ve had a hard time narrowing down the number of plays to just 12. There are many more fascinating contemporary female playwrights whose work I am hoping to read over the next few months. In some cases, I couldn’t find a copy of their play in time for this project. In other cases, the work was not yet published.

But I decided that I couldn’t take on a project like my #ReadingForParity one and not include a play by Sarah Ruhl. Not only does she have fantastic initials (I too am a Sarah R.) but I can definitively say that seeing her Eurydice at Second Stage Theatre in June 2007 was the first time I was aware of seeing a contemporary female voice writing for the theater. Obviously there were women writing brilliant plays before 2007 (some of which I’ve read this past summer such as Tomorrowland and Las Meninas) but for me, Sarah Ruhl, was the beginning of my understanding that there were women in contemporary theater breaking boundaries, experimenting with style and language and, most importantly, writing compelling plays from the point of view of compelling female characters.

To that end, just before summer officially comes to a calendar close this week, I’ve decided to include a bonus blog post for #ReadingForParity. And in fact, this is sort of like a triple bonus blog because I chose to read Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play trilogy- three full length plays in one.

In Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, she explores the behind the scenes stories of three different communities in three different time periods as they each take on a passion play- a dramatic performance of Christ’s story. The first play takes place in Elizabethan England, when practicing Catholicism – and by extension, putting up traditional passion plays- was severely frowned upon by the Queen. The second play takes place in the German village of Oberammergau on the eve of the Nazis’ rise to power. The third play takes place in Spearfish, South Dakota in the years of the Vietnam war through the Reagan administration.

All three of these locations actually have histories of producing passion plays, but that is not the only thing Sarah Ruhl finds in common between these three seemingly disparate communities. There is a story of forbidden love at the heart of all three plays. In one play, the unmarried woman who plays the Virgin Mary sleeps with the unmarried man who plays Pontius Pilote and becomes pregnant. To save her reputation, she lies about her baby’s origins, claiming that her pregnancy too was miraculous and immaculate. In another play, the man playing Jesus falls in love with the woman playing the Virgin Mary- who also happens to be his married sister-in-law- while her husband is fighting in VietnamThere are also instances of homosexual love at times in which that type of relationship would have been perceived as dangerous and sinful.

The same actors appear in all three plays, often portraying different characters in each piece but with traces of similarities. There is always a seemingly innocent but actually sexually active woman (often called Mary I) who plays the Virgin Mary in the town passion play, and there is always a Mary II who plays Mary Magdalene in the town’s passion play. The man who plays the character of Pontius the fish gutter in the first play (and plays Pontius Pilate in all of the passion plays) is the foot soldier in the second play and P, the Vietnam pilot in the third play. In all three plays, he is restless and, especially in the first and third plays, seems to percieve himself as slightly different from the rest of his community.

Throughout the three plays, the characters grapple with how the world of the play influences their own reality. Is the actor who plays Jesus inherently holier than the actor who plays Pontius? Is the actress who plays Mary Magdalene less pure than the actress who plays Mary? There is a sense of finiteness to the casting: when the women playing the two Marys want to switch roles, the director refuses to let them. When an old man becomes too infirmed to play Jesus, his son struggles to take on the responsibility of playing the son of God and claims that there was a holy glow emanating from his father when his father played the role.

However, the artificiality of theater is acknowledged too, and used as a means of seduction. In the first play, Pontius tells Mary I (the Mary who subsequently becomes pregnant and claims divine conception) that, “plays aren’t real. Your knee on my chest, Mary, that’s real.” Echoes of this same logic can be found in the second play when the Foot Soldier- played by the same actor who played Pontius in the first play- tells his love interest Eric that “play aren’t real. The soldier’s boot – that’s real.” It’s interesting that the version of the line said in the Elizabethan era  talks about physical intimacy as being more real than theatre while the version said in the Nazi Germany  talks about violence as being more real than theatre. In both cases, one has to wonder if the statement is actually true.

Throughout the three plays, the relationship between politics, religion and theater is explored. In her playwright’s note, Sarah Ruhl states: “I found myself fascinated by how leaders use, misuse and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons.” Though the trilogy was finished during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency, this theme is particularly relevant in 2015 given the hype and theatrics already demonstrated by the 2016 presidential candidates. (Were Sarah Ruhl ever to consider adding a fourth, contemporary play to this work- which I doubt she would- it would be great to see Donald Trump make an appearance at a twenty-first century passion play!)

Parallels exist not only between the actors in all three plays but also between the depictions of the political leaders. The Reagan character makes a speech that echoes imagery from the speech made by the Queen Elizabeth I character at the end of the first play. In fact, Queen Elizabeth and Hitler both make out-of-time appearances in the third play as well. And in every play, every political leader is championing a war. In her playwright’s note, Sarah Ruhl wonders about the similarities between theater and war, “what is the difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action? It is no accident that we refer to theaters of war.”

The impact of war is perhaps most obvious in the play set in Nazi Germany but Queen Elizabeth’s religious war leads to the culminating action of the first play and the effects of the Vietnam war make their mark on the third play. This pattern is best stated by the child Violet, played by the same actor who plays the Village Idiot in the first play and the town’s only Jewish child in the second play. She often says and does extraordinary things that the rest of the community ignores or misunderstands. In the third play she tells her father, the former Vietnam Pilot played by the same actor that plays the German foot soldier and the English Pontius, “there is always a war before and a war after”. What a truthful and yet damning perception of human nature, especially from the mouth of a child.

But Sarah Ruhl is not writing a nihilistic piece of theater. And she is quick to deny that Passion Play is any sort of “a political treatise”. Instead, she intends for her Passion Play to “provide us with another occasion to be in one room together as we continue to meditate on the relationship of community to political icons.” And so there is indeed hope in Sarah Ruhl’s three passion plays, alongside and perhaps because of the terrible social truths she explores.

This is particularly true in the third and final play, where she seems to be suggesting that coming together as a community could be the first step towards social harmony. For one thing, the director of the South Dakota passion play exasperatedly asks, “If we can’t get along in a theater when the world is falling apart then how can you expect anyone to get along in this world?” An inversion of his question could lead readers/audience members to the notion that if one can get along in a theater, then maybe one can learn to get along in the world as well. But even more significantly, at the very end of the third play, P the veteran has the realization that “when you’re awake you can fight for what you believe in, no matter what costume you’re wearing.” It doesn’t matter what role you play in the theater or in life. What matters are your beliefs and how you intend to act upon them.

#ReadingForParity Week 12: Las Meninas by Lynn Nottage

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Las Meninas is an exploration into historiography, as well as being a thoroughly entertaining and well-written play. It poignantly examines the question of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, to quote the new Broadway musical HAMILTON (also a strong example of historiography in theater). This play tells the story of Queen Marie Therese (wife of the famous ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV) and her illicit relationship with Nabo, an African dwarf. The tale is told by their daughter Louise who has spent her whole life locked up in a convent and is about to take holy orders. Her harsh treatment is the result of the Sun King’s attempt to erase her very existence from history.

Interestingly, one of the main pieces of historical evidence given at the top of the play (and included in the program of the play’s 1997 Brown University production) is a source from a woman: the memoirs of the royal mistress Madame de Montespan. The Sun King may have succeeded in removing Louise’s presence from the official court records of the time, which effectively wrote her out of mainstream European history dominated by white men, but he seemed to have overlooked the importance of historical documentation kept by women. Paradoxically, it is the Sun King’s own narrow-minded conception of history that permitted the very story he tried to erase to still be told.

But in Lynn Nottage’s play, Louise has no written sources upon which to rely. She must piece together the story of her own creation, often from a mixture of gossip, logic and imagination. The very fact that this story is framed by Louise’s narration, thirty years after it happened, encourages the audience to question the power of memory and the accuracy of historical narrative.

Not only does Lynn Nottage ask the audience to redefine their understanding of how history is told and how Africans fit into the royal narrative of seventeenth century France, she also presents a court that is less glorious and sympathetic than many history books would suggest. In Las Meninas, the pious and dutiful Queen Marie Therese is angered by her husband’s infidelity, telling Nabo that she prays the king will “contract syphilis from one of his whores and die and I’ll rule”. Furthermore, Lynn Nottage pokes fun at the system of the ruling classes, who appear to do more gambling than ruling. When Nabo asks the Queen what she likes to do, the Queen responds as follows:

QUEEN: I do whatever I like.

NABO: Which is?

QUEEN: Oh I see… I’m queen of France, I don’t know… I rule.

Marie Therese speaks a rough Spanish accent written into the text of the play, which serves as a constant reminder that she is an outsider at the French court, sent there against her will as part of an “unfortunate alliance that brought peace between Spain and France but no peace to the bedroom”. While the Queen’s situation is certainly much better than the horrors the enslaved Nabo had to endure, Lynn Nottage does recognize an interesting parallel that could have helped the Queen and Nabo to find some common ground: albeit for very different reasons, they were essentially both strangers in a strange land. Nabo bravely suggests this similarity to the queen but she refuses to see his point.

QUEEN: Are you equating yourself with a queen?

NABO: No, with a sad woman a long way from home.

QUEEN: You have no shame!

NABO: You, Your Majesty, own it.

In a brief but brilliantly crafted exchange, Lynn Nottage manages to highlight both the similarities and the differences between the Queen and Nabo as their relationship dynamic continuously shifts from mistress/servant to friends (later lovers) and back again. Despite the lonely Queen’s frequent statements that she wants Nabo to be her friend, she does not seem capable of understanding what true friendship or freedom means. At one point, she even says to Nabo “if every man had a free will, then imagine the chaos that would be imparted.”

The queen is, in this regard, an example of the unfortunate narrowmindedness of her court and of her time. When she gives birth to Nabo’s child, everyone chooses to believe that the baby looks part African because Nabo looked at her while she was pregnant. It is inconceivable or inadmissible to them to admit that a queen could have had a sexual relationship with an African slave. The king arranges to have the baby Louise sent away to a convent and he tells the queen that her child was stillborn. This lie makes her want to run away with Nabo. First, she suggests that they go to Africa.

NABO: You wouldn’t survive there.

QUEEN: Why not? You’ve survived here.

NABO: Some of me, but not all.

QUEEN: To the New World.

NABO: Old values have taken root.

There seems to be no place in the world of the seventeenth century where a European queen who is supposed to be “a vessel of empires to come” can be with an African. Similarly, there is no place in the Sun King’s world for Louise’s existence. Ultimately, he manages to make both Louise and her father disappear from the court and from history. As Louise takes her vows at the end of the play, effectively becoming a nun, she states “I have no family…the King decreed them out of existence. And now I too will be lost to history.”

It is fortunate that Lynn Nottage and others have prevented Louise’s prediction from coming true. One can only hope that by examining the hidden truths of the Sun King’s court, Las Meninas provides audiences with a broader understanding of the racial complexities in our own recent past, as well as the importance of how we choose to remember history.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 11: Belleville by Amy Herzog.

#ReadingForParity Week 11: Belleville by Amy Herzog

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When I first read that Belleville was about a young American couple living in Paris, I imagined that the characters would be leading vibrant, chic, enviable lives. But the world in the play Belleville (which literally means Beautiful City) is like a fantasy gone wrong.

Although the couple’s Parisian experience appears to be pretty perfect on paper, it is clear from the first scene that something is amiss. Zack is supposedly working at Doctors Without Boarders (a job for which he missed his own med school graduation) but he is home, pleasuring himself, in the middle of the day. He receives frequent calls from a mysterious woman, supposedly his secretary, and he claims that they cannot return to the States for Christmas because one of his superiors messed up their visas.

The play’s protagonist Abby used to dream of going on vacation to Paris but the reality of ex-pat life is not what she wanted. She has stopped taking French language classes and has given up on pursuing a career as an actor (she teaches yoga now instead). Abby rationalizes her career change by explaining that “to be an actor you have to love to suffer and I only like to suffer”.

Happiness and suffering seem to be on Abby’s mind quite a lot. She might only like to suffer but she does not seem to believe that happiness is possible for her either. At one point, an exasperated Abby tells her husband:

ABBY: I am so tired of this fucking pressure to be happy. I am not happy, okay, that’s just not my, like, mode of being, so if that’s what you’re trying to accomplish, stop.

One of the reasons why Abby might find it difficult to be happy is because she constantly compares herself to other people, particularly to her pregnant sister Meg who is back home in America and about to go into labor. Abby constantly seems to struggle with the fact that she and her husband picked a less conventional lifestyle than did Meg and Meg’s husband. At one point, Zack actually calls her out on it and she admits an unhappy truth:

ZACK: You wishing you had a corporate job and a husband who enjoys shopping for lawn furniture online?

ABBY: I’m wishing I felt less disdainful of everyone else and expected a little less from myself. So maybe if I were more like that I would have a corporate job and a husband who shops online, yes.

But Abby’s sister and brother-in-law aren’t the only married couple who impact Abby and Zack’s world. There are also frequent appearances by Alioune and Amina, the Senegalese-French husband and wife who are Abby and Zack’s landlords. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Belleville, for me, was how these two couples function as foils to the central couple’s story. Alioune and Amina are younger than Abby and Zack but they are more settled and, perhaps, more grounded. At 25, Alioune has a property management business and two young children. Like Meg, Alioune and Amina seem to be embracing an aspect of adulthood for which Abby and Zack are not yet ready.

Interestingly, there are barriers preventing the audience from truly getting to know both of these foil couples. Meg and her husband never appear onstage. We hear a lot about them, especially once Meg goes into labor, and we understand that the sister dynamic played a crucial part in how Abby sees herself, but we never actually meet anyone from Abby’s family. Alioune and Amina do appear in the play but many of their lines (and the play’s entire last scene) are in French. Presumably not everyone in an American audience would be able to understand what these characters are saying when they speak their native language.

Therefore, we have a language barrier surrounding one seemingly responsible married couple and we never actually get to meet the other seemingly responsible married couple. We are left with the central couple, who married at a very young age, for all the wrong reasons. Their relationship is built on a foundation of lies and mental instability that lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly affable marriage.

As Abby and Zack’s Parisian fantasy takes on a more nightmarish tone (involving excessive drinking, blood and a kitchen knife), Alioune and Amina are the only characters onstage that appear to remain grounded. As a result, their observations of the central couple often provide a way into the mystery of the play, giving the audience clues that something more sinister is amiss with Abby and Zack. For example, at one point, Alioune realizes Zack has been lying about some very important things (I won’t give away exactly what) and confronts him, saying, “we don’t know you. I thought I knew you”. It takes Abby many years of marriage to notice what Alioune and Amina noticed in just a few short months.

But perhaps that is how it always is in a marriage. Those on the outside have enough perspective to notice things about the relationship that the couple is too close to see for themselves, until it is too late. In this way, Belleville could be seen as a dark, honest commentary on some of the unacknowledged truths of contemporary relationships.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 10: 26 Miles by Quiara Alegría Hudes