Women in Theatre

Are you bored of this shit? #MeToo

I am SO tired of shitty stories about women.

I am tired of shitty stupid, how-many-times-do-I-have-to-watch-this-same-old-ass-trope, kinds of narratives about ladies.

I am quite tired of listening to the same supposed allies defend the same small NOT reprehensible parts of a female character that makes her, um, remotely a baseline human as clear evidence of a writer or director’s progressive ability to write women.

I am tired and, frankly, completely BORED of boring, boring, BORING stories that are so impossibly predictable in the way they dehumanize female characters that it has essentially become a farce.

I am tired of only seeing stories that have more women then men in them.

I am tired of every show set in a past period in history requiring women to be introduced in their roles as wives and daughters.

I am tired of women roles in which their romantic potential is ALWAYS the key factor of their plot line.

I am tired that there is never, ever, EVER just a rando female scientist or doctor or computer programmer or lawyer or ANYTHING with an actual substantive character underneath her dialogue who contributes to the larger plot scheme who is not also a lover to another character, (unless of course she’s just there to add some forwarding exposition and will never be seen again).

Here is a thing I do now on the regular: every time I am taking in a story in which women are outnumbered by men, in particular when female roles are essentially decoration or only defined in service by their desirability I just say out loud that this is happening.

And you know what, it gets to the point sometimes with articulating outrage that it gets  BORING HOW OFTEN I DO HAVE TO DO THIS.

But do you know what’s more boring than pointing out places we should be annoyed and frustrating with diminutive places for women in the arts? HOW BORING IT IS TO KEEP WATCHING THESE STORIES.

Here’s a boring thing that happened to me yesterday that also made me tired:

I turned on Netflix to put on a little background noise while cooking. I searched for any random movie that popped up. The first one Netflix recommended me was something called Sleeping With Other People. It had been a long day and wasn’t in the mood to think hard and the two main actors are people I usually find funny I didn’t FEEL like doing a lot of work to figure out if this movie would be BORING in the way that almost all stories are, and so in this moment of fatigue and weakness I just turned on the movie.

In the first scene a woman is scorned by a nerd and sleeps with some other dude  because he’s there. Then both she and the dude flash forward in time to when they are caught cheating on other people.

In the male character’s scene his girlfriend is RUNNING AWAY FROM HIM until he PHYSICALLY STOPS her in order to mainsplains that she needs to apologize for reacting to his serial lying about non-monogamy with dozens of people. His vehement tirade ends with him demeaning her single objection to a pointed targeting of her best friend as actually being her fault for not expecting that ANYTHING he EVERY wanted to do to her was on the table unless she actively received explicit agreement from him not to be a terrible human. That and she’s being emotional and irrational.

Male character leaves unrepentant and intact. He is personally unaffected by his behavior or the feelings of those around him. No one around even seems to notice him screaming at the female he ostensibly has feelings for.

In the female character’s scene she is quiet and repentant and demure to her boyfriend who talks loudly and at length seemingly unconcerned for anything she has to say until she throws herself on the table to tell him how she and her therapist have realized that she needs to come clean about the single other person she has been with since they started dating. He proceeds to scream about how she is a slut in front of an entire restaurant. He yells without being checked by anyone as she receives a myriad of blows hypothesizing an irrational and untrue litany of insults and screams as he storms out while she is left standing there in red like a scarlet indecency.

Female character is completely destroyed emotionally and publicly shamed for a fractional amount of equivalent behavior to dude in previous scene. Mostly she stands still making small mouse-like sounds to indicate her complete lack of worth in any capacity whatsoever.

This is FIVE MINUTES into a movie I turned on because Netflix RECOMMENDED it to me.

OH MY GOD I AM SO BORED OF THIS!!!!

I will not mention that the 15 minutes of the following show that I tried putting in which I realized that the licensed therapist was hiding a secret identity of an irresponsible nympho (despite clearly doing the vast majority of child-rearing duties even though she and her husband are both working professionals) because it is TOO INSANELY BORING to talk about!!!

And I will not speak at length about the comedy set in the early 80’s that I watched a bit of after that in which the main female computer programmer sleeps with some guy she’s known for 10 seconds without protection cause she’s CRAZY and her CRAZY is apparently the thing that makes her the only girl who can do computer-based things and after he says sleeping with him won’t get her the job she looks hurt and tells him not to worry because she’s not one of those girls who gets her feelings hurt, which is why we understand that he CAN hire her because she is willing to put up with tough emotional situations like this one without displaying any girly feelings because if I were to talk about the first 10 minutes of that show I would be SO BORED OUT OF MY MIND THAT I MIGHT DIE!!!!

Want to know part of the reason why men think it’s ok to harass women? Because the stories they grow up with tell them that this is how the world is supposed to work. From the moment one is born they are indoctrinated with narratives that normalize and reinforce abuse of women and the subjugation of their identities in service of the narratives of males. We shove the stories of “don’t worry your abuser is actually a prince underneath” of Sleeping Beauty and the “it’s totally not a biggie if you are forced to spend a substantive portion of your life inactively passive progressing to the point in which you are literally asleep, so long as a prince wakes you up with a non-consensual physical act” of Snow White down their throats until they are so populace and so commonplace it never even occurs to imagine otherwise.

And seeing the vast number of #MeToo’s that filled my Facebook wall yesterday I was made tired but I was also so freaking BORED.

Not because these women are boring. Not because their experiences are not real and emotionally charged.

But because it is so IMPOSSIBLY BORING AND TIRING AND INSANE to have to experience these stories over and over and OVER in an omnipresence that is narratively PLAYED-FUCKING-OUT.

Maybe all the #MeToo creators on my Facebook feed need to start moaning in pain the next time someone hands them a script with a cardboard deep female character or overtly yawning in the face of a director who is telling them to play something “sexier” or bend forward and start lightly hitting their forehead on a table during a male-dominated season planning meeting. Maybe we should all go to the movies and just start loudly stating that we are BORED of what we are seeing because misogyny is SO IMPOSSIBLY BORING and we are tired of watching this BORING PROBLEM CONTINUE TO BORE US.

So here’s a thought for those that want to do something to counteract the displays of BORING, SHITTY and emotionally EXHAUSTING stories you’ve recently seen:

If you produce, if you write, if you direct, if you defend stories and plotlines and characters that do these tiring and damaging things in relationship to women, if you don’t acknowledge that these tropes and limitations are also part of the violence that perpetuates the behaviors, if you cannot see how it is just one more boring kind of control, if you cannot think of women as something that does not require them to inhabit the roles of victim or princess or witch or old hilarious hag or nympho or life changing manic pixie dream girl, if you are silent and standing by to the constant assault of intelligence capability and capacity and depth and potential of women…

If you see this and you don’t SAY something, if you create this and find it too tough to figure out how to DO something else, if you participate in things like this without BOTHERING to notice or comment, you are not simply observing the problem.

You PART of the problem. And a BORING one at that.

Because until we ALL are BORED of having to deal with this, nothing will get fixed.

– A

Awesome Lady Squad Town Hall Dispatch

Awesome Lady Squad is back with a vengeance: a huge thanks to the 20+ ladies who joined us at last night’s meeting. Here’s a dispatch on what we got up to and what’s next:

First, the TL; DR version:img_0026

  • Made a list of the specific fears, dreads, and causes for concern that we see
    and feel in the current political and cultural landscape
  • Made a list of concrete hopes and dreams we seek instead
  • In small groups, brainstormed tangible action plans the Awesome Lady Squad might take in response to the above

In more nitty-gritty terms…

After realigning ourselves with the values set forth in the Awesome Lady Squad Ladyfesto, we each had five minutes to individually answer each of the following questions to develop a sense of the landscape: 

What is it specifically that you see and feel? What are the manifestations that create your cause for concern?

Given these negative outcomes you anticipate, what would you hope for instead, as concretely as possible?

We came back together and shared our individual thoughts to collaboratively compile a list of responses for each question. Thoughts for the first question came fast and furious, ranging from “visible apathy towards hate speech on social media” to “lack of accessibility to support systems for people who are poor or don’t speak English as a first language” to “Where does art fit now? Does it still matter with all this?”

Then, we switched to our hopes, sharing ideas and challenging each other to spin negatives into positives towards a visionary response to the challenges at hand. Here, ideas ranged from “develop language or a cheat sheet for talking about our issues/concerns” to “volunteer with non-artistic organizations to share art with kids” to “tap into the bridge-makers to disconnected communities.”

For a full listing of all our brainstorms, click HERE.  If you weren’t there, we encourage you to take a moment to write down your own responses.

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After putting these lists together, we switched to small groups for a Project Brainstorm, in response to the following question:

Knowing the problematic issue or outcome, and knowing what we might want to have in its place, what are projects or creative solutions that we could manifest? Assume that money is no option for now. What are tangible actions to take?

We shared the initial action plans folks dreamed up, including a Family Communication Skills workshop and making protests inherently theatrical.

On Saturday, December 10 from 2-4, we’ll continue that conversation. Newcomers should come having thought through their own sense of the artistic landscape and be prepared to dive into brainstorming projects, while returners will have a chance to flesh out their ideas even more. Then, we’ll move forward in concretely planning ways the Awesome Lady Squad can move forward with some or all of the projects.

Hope to see you there! We’ll be meeting in the rear studio at Headlong (1170 S Broad St).

An Open Letter to my Awesome Ladies and my Awesome Lady Allies

Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…


At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.

In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

Another quote from farther on in the piece:

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.

But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.

And so.

I’m reconvening the Squad.

Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:

A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall

Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &

Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm

at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)

The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.

Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.

RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.

Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.

– Adrienne

What century is this?

It’s been a long time since I saw a big “Broadway musical.” But I was offered free tickets to the national tour of Bullets Over Broadway at the Academy of Music yesterday, and since I had a free evening, I was happy to accept. I knew nothing about the show, but I generally enjoy musicals and I figured it’d be an enjoyable night out.

What I did not expect was for it to rile me up to the point of shouting about it to my roommate over breakfast this morning. Which is how I knew I should probably explore the root of that irritation, and what we can do about it.

Bullets Over Broadway is a big glitzy musical set in the 1920s, about an emerging playwright/director bringing a play to Broadway through the assistance of a mobster financial backer. The show opened with “Tiger Rag,” which featured a group of leggy women in skimpy tiger costumes performing for a bunch of gangsters. The song offered no exposition towards the plot, and seemed to serve merely as a chance to dress some pretty chorus girls up in sexy costumes.

As those thoughts flitted across my mind in the first minute after the overture, I also had the strong sense that  I’d be in for a bumpy ride. And I was right. Not only were the female ensemble only ever used as flappers/”gentlemen’s club” dancers/sexy train conductors to give unnecessary exposition about what new location the story was moving to, but the leading ladies were no better. Let’s assess.

The Women of Bullets Over Broadway:

  1. Ellen – The playwright’s girlfriend from before he makes it big, who gets so little stage time in the first act that we hardly even care when her boyfriend strikes up a love affair with his play’s star. She almost gives women a little independent agency when David confesses his affair and she responds by saying she’s cheating too and doesn’t seem at all upset about his infidelity. But then along comes the finale: just as David’s lover dumps him, Ellen returns and says that she has realized she’s much more interested in their steadfast love than the passionate sex she was having with her man on the side. (Yes, really.)
  2. Helen Sinclair – The darling of the theater who David recruits into starring in his show. Has the authority/independence to do whatever she wants, but mostly just comes off as an alcoholic diva bitch who destroys David and Ellen’s relationship and then dumps him.
  3. Olive Neal – The mobster’s girlfriend who lands a role in David’s play because the mobster won’t give him financial backing if he doesn’t cast her. Your basic Lily St. Regis: lots of pink clothes, lots of blonde hair, and lots of stupidity. Her voice is so annoying and her talent in David’s play so lacking that the real audience enthusiastically applauded when she got shot.

Those are the female roles in this musical: a ragdoll who comes running as soon as the man who cheated on her is available again, a scheming bitch, and an obnoxious dumb blond. If you’re not one of them, you’re a chorus girl at the gentleman’s club, or an insecure and irritating supporting actress with a pet dog who has his own therapist, or if you’re lucky, the assistant director with only one line.

I tried to tell myself that maybe it was sort of okay, that the show was just a product of its time. For example, I have a lot of problems with the way women are portrayed in South Pacific, but because it was written in 1949, I give it a little leeway in its contents. (I have questions about why anyone still does shows that are problematic because of “their time,” but that’s an issue for another post.) This musical, set in the 1920s, felt akin to the old classic musicals, very much in the world of Guys and Dolls; since I’d never heard of it before this tour, I thought maybe it was a 40s or 50s piece that had been revived as a fun touring option.

And then I looked it up, and found out that Bullets Over Broadway premiered on Broadway last year.

What? WHAT? WHAT?!

Why are we still making show like this today? It’s bad enough when productions of the classics maintain the inherent sexism and racism that so many of them have, without thinking of ways to update them to be relevant and useful for a contemporary audience, rather than memorializing the problems by refusing to acknowledge they exist. But why is anyone STILL making NEW theater that only treats women as objects of men and the butt of their jokes? Why would we offer a play like this a Tony nomination for best book? Why would any actress accept a role in such a play? How could Susan Stroman, a director/choreographer who is more than successful enough to turn down bad offers, be pleased with directing other women in a show that treats them like this?

Of course, one of those answers is obvious. The women performing in Bullets Over Broadway, leads or not, are getting credited for a national tour, probably being paid quite well, and honestly probably having a lot of fun with all the dancing and singing. With factors like that, it can be easy to bask in the personal growth opportunities offered from being a part of such a great gig and ignore the bigger picture of what the musical is actually saying and doing to women.

I get that. I really really do. I question sometimes if I made the wrong choice by not going for an apprenticeship or ASM/PA job at a big theater that could fast track me to a professional career in stage management for large-scale, big-name shows. But then I see this production, and I know that I will take all the challenges that come with my path to make sure that that’s not the kind of theater I’m helping put into the world.

For many audiences, this is all they know that theater is or can be. The perception of money equating to quality and that good professional theater has to originate from New York that many people have means that, most likely, there are hundreds or even thousands of Philadelphians who only really go see shows at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music, and maybe the Walnut if they’re lucky.

So many people laughed at the expense of the goofy female characters in this musical. So many people were so impressed by the moving car with real headlights that appeared on stage for less than ten minutes total and probably cost more than the budget of any single Swim Pony show. So many people clapped or cheered when David and Ellen got back together again at the end, even though it took away any measure of independence she’d built up. I walked out of the theater with all these people around me, and I felt so sorry for them, that they’re content to shut off their brains and consciences and enjoy without asking questions.

It’s no wonder that young people, people who care about the way women are treated in art and entertainment, and who want to be able to express their opinions and engage with what they’re seeing, don’t care much about theater and go to see it in such minimal numbers.  Because honestly, if this show is what traditional theater is offering, I’m glad it’s “dying out.”

Not everyone has to make shows that are immersive and participatory and site-specific like Swim Pony; there are many excellent traditionally structured plays and musicals that I get excited about. But new musicals that play into old stereotypes are not on that list.  I hope that all artists can accept and find work not just because it’s likely to be good for their career, but instead because they care about it, about what its saying and how it’s saying it and what impact that will have on an audience.

Because if you don’t believe in the art you’re making, then why are you making art at all?

-S

Let Me Tell You Why

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed.

Take this morning for example. I sat down for my daily check in with my fabulous company associate Sam. We chatted about upcoming deadlines and big picture project dreams. I made myself a list of things to work on today including rehearsal plans for my new work with a phenomenally funny group of students at Drexel. I put together some notes for an upcoming grant. I wrote a letter to a collaborator from my recent directing freelance gig for Ego Po.

I was doing things that were adding up to a happy and productive art-maker’s day. Things that would never lead me to think about the fact that being a female creator might put me at a disadvantage in my community. Too bad then that I had to go and read the Inky’s review for Luna Theater Co’s current production of Animal Farm.

I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to drive up the readership stats but I’ll summarize and quote here the relevant stuff. If you really want to find it, you can look it up online.

The review begins with an overview of Orwell’s story and then follows up by saying that the production’s performances (carried out by an all female cast) are genuinely terrifying and display a “startling physicality.” It cites some issues with direction and overall vision. It says that two of the performers Michelle Pauls and Tori Mittelman are both “brilliant” in their ability to “contort themselves by gait, posture, tone, and expression into pigs.” The review rounds out this first half of the review by stating that the “six actors craft stunning physical performances.”

I haven’t seen this show. I have no idea if these are accurate assessments of the directorial issues the reviewer hints at. I have no idea if the performers are “stunning” or “brilliant.” But I do know that up to the halfway point I was reading an article about a classic work performed by an all female cast that hadn’t yet cast aspersions on the quality of the project simply based on the performers’ gender rather than their unique and individual abilities to carry out the roles for which they had been assigned.

Some days I read about productions doing things like this and I see reviewers manage to actually see female artists taking on roles traditionally walled off from them by the default power of the canon just as “artists” that don’t need to be defined by gender. Some days I see such reviewers not remark or wonder whether female performers are equally capable of taking on such roles. Some days I think, “Gosh, maybe there is hope to finally just erase that Smurfette Principle “men will always and forever be the default” thing. Some days I start to think that maybe we don’t need to just wholesale throw out the canon because maybe I’m thankfully wrong in my fear that it’s just too hard for people to re-imagine stuff that comes from a time of straight white cis-male privilege into a world where we all see that straight white cis-male privilege should no longer be the case.

Today, alas, is not that day.

Because after citing the power of these particular performers for several paragraphs the reviewer gets to the crux of his review. After stating the terror induced in the audience through the performances the reviewer begs a question:

The only question is: Why?

And following that question there are a lot of other questions. There are plenty of these I have no problem at all with. There are plenty of these that I think are great questions to be asking a contemporary theater artist making a modern adaptation of a work from the past. Questions like:

Why create one disturbing moment after the next without offering more than the horror of slaughter?

And:

Why unleash Pauls’ fear-inducing portrayal to prowl the stage, appear at random like a spy, direct the atrocities, if only to terrify in the abstract, and point no real or allegorical fingers at modern targets?

And some days I might have read this review and its thoughtful questions been able to move on. But today that series of questions also had to include this one:

The only question is: Why?

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Perhaps I might respond to this particular rhetorical question with a bit of rhetoric inquiry of my own:

  • Why do you need to lump useful negative criticism about directing choices and staging with a comment on casting choices that create more inclusivity and space for female creators?
  • Why question such casting when you just called their performance abilities “stunning” just a second ago?
  • Why are you subtly implying a director ought not cast people with “brilliant” acting ability for a particular role simply because they do not posses the talent-irrelevant attribute of being a dude?
  • Why would I bet a million dollars that you would never ever ever ever have commented on an all male casting even if it meant a cross-gendered Muriel the goat and Clover the mare?
  • Why do pigs and cows and horses and donkeys need to be so obviously gendered to be performed well?
  • Why does a pig’s gender even matter when animals are clearly being used as an allegory anyway?
  • Why do I have to sit here for an hour and wonder if this stupid random sentence is an emblem for the embedded anti-female sentiment that runs deep in our creative community?

Back to that original question:

Why cast all women as animals clearly identified as male in the book?

Because if we don’t fucking figure out a way to get women’s voices and perspectives into stories from the past that previously excluded them then as we inevitably progress to a more equitable and just society where female voices are no longer marginalized we will have to ditch this shit into the garbage bin because apparently you’d rather do that than find a way to modify such works to be more inclusive.

That’s why.

That tiny line, one in an otherwise unremarkable and potentially totally relevant review, bothered me enough to take an hour out of my day to write this. That’s an hour that could have gone to raising money or researching or admin upkeep or even just farting around on the internet. Instead it went to venting frustrated feelings so that I didn’t feel like I had to just sit there and take casual undercutting of female bodies being represented on the stage.

Some days I wake up in the morning feeling excited and refreshed. Some days I manage to put my nose the grindstone and define my work path and get shit done and make some amazing art. Some days I manage to do all those things without someone making a comment in a public paper of record that makes me stop and write a blog post about how much better we’d be as a creative community if they didn’t make an offhand comment about how my gender isn’t as useful a default as the male one.

Today, alas, is not that day.

– A

The Awesome Lady Coefficient

When I was growing up my mom, a family therapist, used to talk about the problematic representation of women in The Muppets.

I’ve felt a lot of ways about this at different points in my life. On the one hand, I totally get that it’s super crappy to have the extent of a gender be portrayed as mean/bossy, blonde/ditzy or chicken. This is why I advocate so hard for gender parity versus representation. Some women are blonde and ditzy or mean and bossy or chickens. But when you have so little room in our cultural narrative space, when this is the only version of women we see, these limited categories that appear again and again get really problematic. This “tokenism” and its cousin The Smurfette Principle are pernicious and pretty widespread in many parts of our cultural consciousness.  So in that sense I am one hundred percent with my mom.

On the other hand, The Muppets.

And this is the thing. It really sucks to be the person who has to fight the silly, sublime and nostalgic force that is this thing that Jim Henson made. It’s so freaking difficult, in the face of something that you agree is wonderful in some ways and that you see is wildly commercially successful and popular, to try and fight for conversation space about the other ways in which it’s hurtful and plays into larger forces that harm women and misrepresent them. (Shout out to Katherine Fritz who wrote a lovely essay about this.)

Harder still, is the moment you have to decide if you want to be the proverbial Smurfette. Or direct her in a show. Or sign on to light her. Or whatever your part in the larger creative system might be.

This is the sticky place where our theoretical desire to stick to our Awesome Lady principles is put into real conflict with our day to day artistic and professional goals.

It sucks.

There’s misogyny for you. Pouring a big bucket of suck on everything.

And part of that bucket of suck, part of what sometimes happens, is that it’s super hard in the moment to figure out how to balance those two conflicting considerations.

Obviously, if there’s a project where you make a million dollars starring in the most artistically fulfilling role but there’s a tiny imbalance in the casting ratio (let’s say 5 dudes to 4 ladies), you might figure it’s still worth it. And just as obviously, if there’s a crap no-line female part with no pay and no audience and the play is about how stupid and terrible women are and the director likes to point out how much he thinks this is true, you might realize there’s really no reason to do this horrible thing.

Actresses out there, can you feel the tiny niggle inside of you that is still considering that second option?  Just sayin’…

I think this instinct to jump at any and all work is part of how a perceived lack of agency pressures us into doing things that are against our ethics, don’t give us artistic fulfillment, and don’t even pay us. It’s as if any work is better than nothing at all.

I don’t buy that.

I think there is a reasonable estimate we can make of the artistic and/or professional merit in a potential project. I also think that it is possible for the problematic ethics of something to outweigh that artistic and professional merit if the problematic nature is problematic enough. What we need then is a living artist’s guide to figuring out how to measure those relative merits and ethical levels of importance – within ourselves and for individual opportunities – and come up with a way to help us gauge the overall worth.

Which brings me to the most recent meetings of The Awesome Lady Squad.

We started with exactly this question. We have internal values we want to uphold. We have a lot of factors to consider – factors of age, demand, opportunity, etc. that all play into how we make choices.

So we began by trying to define a methodology for determining the merit of a project divorced from our Awesome Lady ethics. We looked at Neil Gaiman’s great speech that includes the metaphor of a “mountain” that artists are climbing. We tried to come up with concrete categories for this inner intuitive sense about whether a project is taking you “up the mountain” or down. We chatted about the ways that different things matter at different times in one’s career, how a solid day job may make the “money issue” shift, and how we each differently balance the relative weight of artistic merit versus professional development.

We came up with four factors that any opportunity can be evaluated under:

  • Professional Development (P) – i.e. street cred. Will this be a high profile gig that leads to more work? Is it with a big name company that will look good on the resume? Is it an internship that might not pay well but will give you access to a desirable new skill set?
  • Financial Compensation (F) – i.e. money. Does it pay well (especially when broken down by the amount of money for the total time you will work)? Is it a job that might bring in income over a longer time frame?
  • Artistic Merit (A) – i.e. art. How much do I respect and get behind the vision of this work? How much does it allow me personally to fulfill my artistic expression?
  • Interpersonal Dynamics (I) – i.e. people. Do I like my collaborators? Who is in charge and how much do I trust them? Is this company one that’s easy to get along with? Are there non-artistic partners I need to interact with and do like them?

We had everyone rate the relative importance of these areas for themselves at this moment using 20 “value” points to create relative weights for each aspect of influence. We each used 20 poker chips and had to divvy them into piles for each category. The total chips in each pile became coefficients (i.e. fixed numerical values) that were used later in our larger equation.IMG_5033

Even doing this caused some of us to rethink. I thought my artistic merit category would be far and away the highest. But when I really thought hard about choosing a project, I realized that personality and chemistry with my collaborators is nearly as important and that I feel like I can’t get to that artistry without an ability to groove and talk to the people I’m creating with. Either way, these numbers gave us constants that would stay the same, standing for our core values when it came to evaluating a project.

Armed with this info, we talked about people’s actual upcoming opportunities and tried rating them in each of the four categories. We used a scale from 1 (perfectly advantageous) to -1 (totally detrimental) with 0 being neutral. While it was easy to freak about what we didn’t know, we made our best guess with the info we had. In some cases it also spurred the person to see where they really needed to find out more (about fee or the company’s street cred) to be able to make a more informed choice. We found it helpful to start from the middle and move up or down based on subjective factors you consider.

And then we created an equation that uses these numbers and pops out a score. To do this yourself multiply your four personal value numbers for each area (each some portion of 20) with the specific project’s strength or weakness (from 1 to -1) and…

Voila! An objective measure of whether you should do this thing or not! Like a pro and con list on steroids. For you math heads, here’s how we wrote it as an equation:

(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) = Overall Project rating
NOTE: In the above P = Professional Development value to you generally and P’ is the value for the specific project.

And then we came up with a scoring system:

  • Negative: Don’t do it unless you can adjust something to bump the result positive
  • 0 – 5: Only nominally worth it. Might be worth considering saying no if you’ve got a lot of these on your plate so you don’t end up at burn out.
  • 5 – 10: Decent. Barring another great project this is likely worth your time, so long as it’s in balance with other stuff and your life.
  • 10 – 15: A pretty sweet spot. This is where the work is satisfying and sustainable.
  • 15 – 20: A mountain-climbing fast track. Chase this stuff as fast as you can.

“But, wait!” you might be saying. What about all that Muppet and Smurf stuff from the start of this blog post? Where’s that factor for Awesome Lady ethics? How do we include the value of projects that advance or detract from our Awesome Lady principles?

I thought about one project in particular, the statistic project I did a while back analyzing data on female creative professionals in the Philadelphia theater community. This project, if looked at only in terms of the equation, would be massively negative, a definite no-go. It made me no money and took time away from finding projects that might. It offered no professional advancement because if anything I was a little nervous it might put people off of working with me if I’d criticized them. It had no interpersonal reward because I was all alone and had no obvious artistic merit because it was all admin.

Using my value numbers and the equation I came up with a -5.  A total no, right?

Well obviously (Awesomely) not. I loved this project. I talk about it all the time. It is still super meaningful to me as a female creator, even if some part of me saw that it took time away from all those other things. At the moment I did it, advancing the Awesome Lady cause was front and center in my mind. I was doing a lot of writing. I was feeling really frustrated. I felt a strong need to make a dent in the artistic world for Awesome Ladies.

ALS 07.21Clearly there’s something else bumping my equation into strongly positive territory.

And what about companies where the people are nice, the money and professional advancement is good, and the shows have lots of artistic merit in most respects but you just can’t help noticing that all the folks running things and all the writers being produced are male, most of the designers and actors are guys and the voice of women in the artistic process feels shut out? Clearly, even though there’s lots going right in a situation like that, there’s something else that needs to weigh in to reflect this complicated picture.

How do we rate such a thing?

By using the Awesome Lady Coefficient!

Without it, a max score for an opportunity is 20. This is a project where everything is perfect. So let’s say you are in a theoretical world where you rate the project a 20 in the money, professional development, artistic merit, and interpersonal categories, but the project is undeniably misogynist. If you could shut your eyes to that one aspect, you’d love doing this, but the message, the gender makeup of the cast/crew/production team, the way that females are paid compared to men, and/or all the little ways we subtly make female creators feel less than their male counterparts is glaring to the maximal degree.

The way we’ve defined the Awesome Lady Coefficient (ALC) is to say that at its maximal level, a project at a perfect 20 when confronted with the maximal frustration of gender inequity and discrimination becomes neutral. In other words, the max of the ALC is 20. And you can rate a given project or opportunity on that same 1 to -1 scale. When you add it into the equation it looks like this:

(P * P’) + (F * F’) + (A * A’) + (I * I’) + (ALC * ALC’) = Overall Project rating including assessment of project’s gender equity ideals.

Knowing how to factor in your desire to make that ALC value something specific and as quantifiable as money is important. It allows you a chance to look clearly at the hidden cost of projects that make you feel like you’re compromising your ethics. You may not rate the coefficient at 20. For a lot of people they might want to but find that doing so is just too tough right now. We’re not here to judge, but we do think it’s useful to note that if a project doesn’t come up positive unless that coefficient comes down near 0, there’s some thinking to do. And if you are consistently in a place where you never raise that ALC number into positive territory but say that you’re an Awesome Lady ally then there’s some thinking to do there as well…

It also means that if you REALLY want to say yes for the other reasons, maybe you might have a conversation that shifts the project or your role in it in a way that helps raise up the ALC factor so it’s more agreeable. That might be requiring conversations around problematic stereotypes in rehearsals or with audiences, asking to audition for a part that doesn’t include a rape scene, requiring a female AD or dramaturg to be a part of the show’s development so there are non-performer female perspectives in the room.

And maybe, sometimes, it’s a way to help justify the saying no to something that seems so logical but for the fact that it really messes with your internal sense of ethics. It’s a way to validate that inner voice that often gets sidelined with other people’s “rational” choices.

It’s a way to help yourself clean off that bucket of suck and grab back your own agency.

Even in the face of powerful forces like Muppets.

Or Shakespeare.

Or artistically stellar companies that overwhelmingly produce male playwrights.

It’s a way for you to own your own values and figure out what part of these complicated legacies you want to be a part of.

Just another day’s work for the Awesome Lady Squad…

– A
PS – We’re thinking about expanding this into an interactive app that will let people adjust these numbers and calculate the math automatically. If you know of someone that might be interested in designing such a thing, hit us up at swimponypa@gmail.com

Freewheeling thoughts on “Row After Row” at People’s Light and Renée Zellweger’s face

There’s this moment in the production of Jessica Dickey’s Row After Row I saw last night at People’s Light and Theatre Company that almost makes me cry.

It is a moment near-ish to the end of the play in which the character Leah, carefully and conscientiously played by Teri Lamm, tells a story of how her body is like the war that her two fellow characters, Tom and Cal, re-enact on the battlefield of Gettysburg. She tells a story about an attack on a subway train. Of being groped and choked. Of the resulting shock and surprise and disbelief leading eventually to rage and explosion in screams that erupt from instinct.

This moment of the show is so carefully thought, so well crafted, so agile in its depiction of a feeling, and this care is the reason I feel so much that I want to weep.

I have never been attacked in this way but the monologue makes me feel as if I might, through seeing it, understand just a little bit about such a terrible thing. It also articulates a feeling I know so very much about, a feeling that comes as a result of being a women who lives in a world akin to that of this character. It bespeaks an understanding of the heaviness that living in a female-gendered body sometimes carries, of all the outside signifiers and shorthand “understandings” that such a body must sometimes undo and undercut if it wishes to appear other than as this surface glimpse would offer. It bespeaks the work of such a task. It bespeaks the way in which it slowly wears down the task’s undertaker and the way that we sometimes crack at our weakest moments and places, not because the weight is so onerously heavy but because sometimes we are just simply tired of holding it up. It is a beautiful moment of art that carries the power to potentially open up the minds of the viewer to understanding just a little bit about such a terrible thing.

There is another moment in this play that also almost makes me cry.

It is a moment, near-ish this time to the start, when this same Leah is arguing with this same Cal about the propriety of women in Civil War re-enactments, about the supposed opposition of historical accuracy with a need for inclusivity. She is talking, as best as I can remember, about how she sees Cal’s anger as a symptom of a dominant status slowly dying, its indignation as a signal that such status is truly under threat. She makes some decent points and her logic clearly stings her opponent. Cal regroups and then asserts back even more harshly in his arguments. The fight escalates in raised voices and wild gesticulations to a pitch that almost makes one fearful of the outcome.

And then Leah kisses Cal.

This is the other moment that almost makes me cry and it does so because it is such a disappointment.

I cannot and do not, as a single representative of my gender, claim to speak definitively on behalf of all women, or even all feminist identified women, but I can say with great deal of certainty that it has never occurred to me when in the midst of an argument with a misogynist over issues of misogyny that it would be beneficial to make out with them as a means to win my argument.

Not even, as the character Leah asserts, to shut them up. Especially not, as she claims, because other more logic-based tactics are failing.

I see this moment onstage and I become sad.

I think, “Ugh… That’s… too bad. I was really liking this play.”

I see the actress valiantly fights her way through this action, through the moment of satisfaction the character takes in the surprised silence that follows the kiss, through the lines explaining that she did it to make him stop talking. And it’s possible that I am projecting, highly probably even, but at that moment I sense her backing off this piece of the script. To me, at least, it comes off so much less embodied than her other electrifyingly deep stage moments. And this distancing, in some measure made up of my reaction and perhaps some part the actress’s, means that even though the action of the kiss echoes later through the play, even though I understand its foreshadowing significance, I can’t help but do much more than hate the trope and the statement it makes about how this character’s intellectual beliefs are hopelessly feeble in comparison to a single sexualized act.

So it bespeaks the power of the words that follow that this early moment in the play does not end up tainting the latter one for me. It must say that on the whole this early moment is less the predominant case and more likely a blip on the judgment radar. It must be so because I walk away from the play truly wanting people to see it.

This same night I see Renée Zellweger’s apparently unrecognizable face everywhere on my Facebook feed.

And for some reason I can’t quite articulate, the play has made it such that I simply cannot stomach a million people’s discussion threads in which this human is reduced down to a question of cheekbones or botox. It magnifies the sadnesses from earlier in the night a thousand fold. It makes me want to yell that the answer to these questions are not the point, that the questions themselves are a war. That her intent in taking whatever action towards her outward appearance is beside the point. That by simply framing this conversation as one in which a famous woman is discussed as a series of pieces that should or should not have been modified, we have removed the agency from this person to be a person and in her place created a series of scrutinizable body parts that are something a bit less than human. That I do not think this is what any of these people intended but that it may still have this effect all the same.

And all this just feels sad and sad and sad and sadder because I do not think it is conscious and that is somehow saddest of all and this is what made me want to cry for a third time in a single evening.

Is it because of the earlier moment or the latter one from Row After Row that I cannot stop myself from responding to these posts?

Perhaps it is both.

Perhaps it is neither.

Perhaps it is everything that is pushing and the weight has finally found a tiny crack in me.

I think about writing something. Something long. Something thoughtful. Something that will explain why, just at this moment, this thing that is rather stupid matters to me in a way that is not stupid at all. But I have already wanted to cry thrice tonight and I do not think I have enough energy to figure out how to say it well enough. Instead I find a snarky article in which someone does it for me and post it to accounts of friends and former students to provoke a battle I am sure I do not have ample enough resources to win but which I still cannot stop myself from charging at.

In the morning, as I shower, I catalog all the ways my own past works contain such little failures. I think of the stereotypes that on reflection I must admit I too have put forward into the world. There are such plentiful numbers to choose from. And I think about how we are all such imperfect carriers of moral value, how it is such a struggle, such a desperate war, this way we wage to find and root out the darkness that we all carry.

I think about the genders of the bodies on that People’s Light stage and how even in this play about feminism and the equity of representation of voices that ever-present ratio of men to women persists like an echo of history into the present day. “2 to 1, 2 to 1, 2 to 1,” it calls to me…

I think about the idea of a war, of our own capacity to fight, and of the times in which giving up feels like such an easier choice. I think about how sometimes we look to those we think ourselves in lock step with and find ourselves wondering whether they are working in any way from the same strategy and plan.

I think of how strange it is that there are times when we all find ourselves kissing the enemy. I think about how potent such a foe is when such a thing can happen and we realize it with surprise and sadness and confusion only after the occurrence.

I think about the line from Row where Leah talks about being a kind of angel, of using her softness and love and desire for healing to kiss and pull the pain and anger out of those who fight. I think about what it would mean to be each others’ better angels, to try, as Tom says, to strive at making ourselves more perfect in our unity with each other.

I think of all these things as I open my computer and read the responses to my snarky article’s link. On my screen I see the glimmer of armor, of “Do Not Tread On Me,” and I picture this playing out in a hunkering down of camps, of defending of fortifications and attempts to keep one’s body whole and intact.

I think, this is so natural, this response, when one is on a field so wholly uneven and unsuitable for honorable struggle. When we are so far away that we cannot really see whom we fighting, when we are suddenly unsure of whether they are friend or foe.

I decide to treat them all as allies. I decide that they must all be my fellow fighters and I do my best to run towards them screaming not in rage but in concerted defense, trying to explain that I think I see something dark and trap-like ahead. That from my vantage on this field of battle I see a potential weakness in their advance. Not because they are weak but because sometimes we simply cannot see every angle of our opponent, especially when they are so dastardly. I hope they know as I run to them that I fully expect myself to be unknowingly walking toward a dark and trap-like thing some day and that I hope I too have a comrade willing to stop me before I fall. I hope they see that together our tactical awareness is stronger if we can trust and be tough enough to engage in such scrutiny.

Amazingly, they do see this.

Perhaps this is what truly composes bravery, I think.

Perhaps bravery is not simply plowing into the unknown but the ability to trust another’s sight. To take it in and contend with it. Perhaps bravery is also the ability find something troubling and not shy away from it. It is holding a person close and saying, I just want to say that this is what I see.

It is both the utterance and the listening.

– A