People’s Light and Theatre

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

True Story

If you give me an ear, I will give you eyes with which to see.
– Kahlil Gibran

True story.

Two years ago, I took a shower. I had just purchased a house in south Philly, most of which needed some major rehab. As such I, and all of the stuff that went along with me (including my fiancée) was confined to one large front room in the house on the second floor. I slept there, ate there, did all my work there.  It was, in essence, a studio apartment in the middle of a three-story row home.

I say all of this to so that you can understand that though technically this space is now my living room, I was very comfortable there.  Unlike most living rooms, I did my most intimate things there. In other words, I was actually living in there.

Which is why I was walking around in it naked. That and it was summer and hot and I was still adjusting to a living space without air conditioning.

It was a Friday morning and as such, was trash day on our block. And I realized this with sudden vehemence as I, naked and sauntering through my living space, walked near to the windows to grab something and made direct eye (among other things) contact with a garbage man outside.

He smiled, nodded and gave me a thumbs up.

It took me a second. Probably a couple. I was a half second away from giving a thumbs up back. Like I said, I was comfortable and in my domestic space, I wasn’t thinking about myself in the subtly different way I do when I imagine myself being seen by others. So it took me that long to realize what had happened. And as best as I can construct the thought process went something like this:

“That guy can see me.”

“I’m naked.”

“I’m a girl.”

“There’s a guy outside looking at my boobs because I’m a girl.”

“I should back away from the window.”

“We really need to get some blinds in this room.”

The truth is, I don’t really care that the garbage man saw me naked. I mean, I guess in a world where I could go back and redo anything that ever bothered me, I might, at some point, go back and erase that event. But on the list of things that I regret or would change about my existence, this is on the very very low end of the list. It’s one that probably wouldn’t be worth the energy to undo.

I don’t usually think about this moment and when I do, I don’t reflect on it with a whole lot of shame or embarrassment. I’ve categorized it in my mind as a silly thing that happened a couple of years ago. But when I was trying to think of a way to introduce the second half of the post for today, it kept creeping back into my mind. Not because of how I see it now after processing it, but for the way I felt the very moment after it happened.

I kept remembering how in that moment before this guy looked at me and I looked back at him I was just “Adrienne”, wandering around my apartment thinking about the day and the stuff I had to do. And then in the moment right afterwards, I was not just Adrienne but “naked female Adrienne” who had been seen (ogled? admired? violated? made to feel beautiful?) by some sanitation worker because I got too close to the window. I kept thinking how aware I became of this one particular aspect of myself. And in thinking about it now, I remember how vividly in that moment I became so aware of the two sets of eyes through which I could view this event.

There was one part of me that looked at this situation in that moment right afterwards and saw no big deal: just a naked person walking past a window that someone sees and makes light of. And there was another part of me that felt different, uncertain, and weird and saw this as a potentially troubling incident: a woman alone in a house who is stared at and then evaluated (thumbs up!) and potentially left feeling sexualized in a way she didn’t agree to.

At moments like these I have a tough time knowing which set of eyes to use. And I’m using this moment as an illustrative point because it helps me try and quantify something that is really difficult to say with clarity or the depth with which I feel it:

It takes work to view the world with dual vision all the time. It is hard to know how and when to apply that second sight.

If somehow I could run this experiment again as a guy standing naked at the window would I think about the fact I was a naked dude or just that I was naked and too close to the window?  Would I interpret the thumbs up as a “hah hah, caught you naked, oh the things you see as a city employee” droll little interlude or would I get a creepy “I’m staring at you and personally up-voting your sexy nakedness” vibe?  Would it have gone down the same way or been different?  And above all – even if I could know that his reaction was in response in some amount to my gender – do I have to care?

Is this something that should bother me?

Sometimes it takes a new vision or angle on something very familiar to know that it is something that should bother people. Sometimes we normalize things we shouldn’t and it takes some one who takes a step back to say “Uh, what the hell? Why aren’t we all seeing this?” It’s awesome when those people do that for us who have the luxury not to notice.  But it’s a lot to ask of those second visioned people to do all that work alone.

Are there situations where people are legitimately undermining or diminishing someone based on their being a woman?  Yes.

Are there times when someone is undervaluing female perspective or representation without realizing it? Of course.

Are there times when choices are made that coincidentally result in unfair gender balance that have nothing to do with gender at all? Absolutely.

I can’t remove the lens that constantly evaluates the world this way. So when I, or anyone with an outsider lens that they view the world with, witnesses something that is potentially disturbing, it it is real mental work to try and suss out which of these scenarios is at its core. Sometimes you’re not sure which is happening. You don’t want alienate people that you care about. You want to believe they aren’t doing things that hurt you on purpose.  But you also don’t believe you can let them continue to make this mistake.

It’s a super tricky dance, deciding how to proceed. That takes effort.

And I’ve mentioned before that sometimes it’s tiring to try and figure it out alone. Sometimes, you just wish you could hand that lens off for a little, try and put it into a forum for debate, and try to ask the people that don’t usually bother to shoulder that task to take up the burden for a little bit.

This is an attempt to do that. It’s an attempt to make the problem of gender imbalance that I see in theater not just a “female” problem but a communal one.

You didn’t give me your ears, but I’m grabbing them anyway. It’s not meant to be an attack, but it is meant to try and give some people that may or may not being making choices intentionally the eyes with which I’m seeing things. And I’m doing it with numbers and graphs because it feels like it’s a little easier to get you to look with my eyes that way.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to roll out data on gender breakdowns over 6 seasons (12/13 through 07/08) of playwrights, directors, actors and designers in Philly theater productions. I think the numbers speak for themselves in many ways, but at some point, I think I will also add some thoughts about how we might interpret such data and what could be a productive set of actions that might result from it.

So here goes

I thought it might be illustrative to start with four of the largest and most visible non-profits. Below is the raw data with percentages and a graphical breakdown for The Arden, People’s Light, PTC and The Wilma. In all cases the graphs are totals of all 6 seasons of productions and blue in the pie chart indicates men and red indicates women.


arden stats

arden pie combined

people's light stats

people's light pie combined

Philadelphia Theatre Company

PTC stats

PTC pie combined

The Wilma

wilma stats

wilma pie combined

There’s an awful lot more blue.


PS – Some notes on methodology:

1) These numbers are based, when available, on information provided by companies on their websites.

2) For any info not listed online by the company itself I have searched online reviews to confirm missing information, ideally from more than one source when possible.

3) Many seasons (most especially the current one) have incomplete listings and are indicated as such in the raw season by season data (which anyone is welcome to request).

4) The raw numbers indicate a slot in which a male or female is chosen to fill a position and not total number of different individuals hired. In many cases the same person directs, acts, designs, etc multiple times at a venue.

5) In the case of adaptors, translators, and multiple authors I have evenly split writing credit across all names listed. While I recognize this may overvalue on creator’s input from the reality of a particular project, I believe that will balance out over the entire data set and removes me from making personal judgment calls. For example, in a translation of a classic work by a male author with a female translator I would give .5 playwright credits to each gender. For musicals I have similarly split credit among composers and lyricists.

6) For ensemble-generated works I have excluded playwright credits unless specifically listed.

7) Shows calculated are those that are listed as part of their regular season. Benefits, special events, and fundraisers are not included.

8) I have listed designers as a combined figure but also shown breakdowns by category which differ vastly in some cases.