Last night was my first visit to In the Heart of the Beast Theatre to see their new production, Queen. Hours laters, I’m still pouring over this incredible production, trying to savor all of its magical, wondrous, and heartbreaking moments. Queen follows the journey of a grandmother who has lost her grandson at the hands of gun violence. Through her despair and her loss, a story of grief, passion, and a need for change unfolds.
I’m unaccustomed to seeing theater that makes uses of masks and puppetry and this show does absolutely incredible things. From actual puppets used across props and bodies onstage, masks, and objects used to make other puppets (such as paper, which is artfully folded and molded by the actors on stage), a vivid, raw world is created that is forever shifting and changing as the grandmother’s journey changes. Accompanied by beautiful music and highly poetic words, a magical sort of world is created that is not quite ours but feels familiar none the less. It reminded me greatly of Beasts of the Southern Wild and creates a similar affect of bringing the audience into a fantastical world to make a strong statement about current affairs. There is a lot packed into a short show, but the piece flows wonderfully, allowing us to relish in moments of beauty and moments of confusion. One element that I loved deeply about this form of storytelling were the metaphors and symbols that called to mind certain ideas and thoughts but didn’t make the audience choose only one to focus one. The use of Ursa Major, for example, draws many associations: the constellation (tied with the use of stars throughout the show), the Greek myth connected to the constellation (which is about a woman and her son), the idea of bears being strong and how they relate to women. This open-ended affect is mesmerizing and powerful, allowing for certain moments – the shooting itself, the grandmother being locked in a cage and burned (is it an abstract interrogation? Is it a mental institution? Is it her own grief trapping her in?) to become stronger and poignant.
I loved seeing all the different uses of bodies and objects, as well as projections and sounds that were incorporated in this piece and it’s a show I’d love to see more than once, to let the poetry wash over me, though the story was heartbreaking and I found myself weeping more than once. While the news is continually filled with gun violence (especially police shootings) and protests such as the ones in Charlotte in response to this violence, a show like this captures a tense, cultural power for its timeliness and honesty that cannot be described by a mere review. However, it can be seen by the passion and engagement of the actors onstage. “May my anger remain real and smaller than my love,” the grandmother states at the end of the show. It is a struggle to do so in our current world, but this production gives hope, as well and working to make the grandmother’s wish for her story a reality: “I have come to set the world on fire. I wish it was already burning.”
Queen is written by Erik Ehn and Junauda Petrus and directed by Alison Heimstead. It is playing now through October 2nd at In the Heart of the Beast. Show and ticket information can be found at In the Heart of the Beast’s website.
Once a year, the Twin Cities theater community gathers together to celebrate the last year of theater and hand out awards for exemplary performances (ala the Tonys). This year was only my second year attending and I’m still in that stage of being a little star-struck and take aback by everything. I’m not really sure that I’ll grow out of this stage. I hope I don’t. Approaching the Iveys with excitement and awe makes it a little easier, I think, than if I’d let the ennui of sitting through an awards ceremony and collecting all the complaints I have about theater to brew in my mind. Not that I have ever done that during any kind of theater function).
Honestly, it’s hard not to be excited about the Iveys. After a year of reviewing and working on shows, it’s really wonderful to see them honored. And last night was a great night for theaters I work with – Guthrie Theater won for Trouble in Mind, a production that I was utterly blown away by (I still think about it. Good work, guys). History Theatre won for Glensheen, a show I saw twice and am still thoroughly impressed with for its wicked combination of humor and horror. Because I’ve worked with the History Theatre both in the box office and as a dramaturg, it’s nice to see them win. Theater Latte Da won for their scenic designer on Sweeney Todd, which was a very memorable, complex set (spoilers: I’m working box office there now so that’s a great way to kick off a new job). And it was wonderful to see snippets of Nina Simone (a show I love very, very dearly) as well as shows I’m still kicking myself for missing: Yellow Tree Theater’s Violet, Savage Umbrella’s June, Penumbra’s Sunset Baby, among others.
And then there’s the people. I loved seeing Warren Bowles and Trevor Bowen win Iveys, seeing Joe Haj and Sarah Rasmussen have their theaters win being new artistic directors in town, having dinner with the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers and Christina Ham, and seeing those I know posting about their experiences online. I loved running into friends and people from past shows I’ve worked on. I loved being surrounded by people I’ve just met or have never met and seeing how alive and vibrant our theater community is. And on days when I feel a little less enthused about theater – in times of writer’s block, during long days in the box office, during tough rehearsals and tough moments in the theater world, it’s nice to know that theater can fill the joyful and friendly and interconnected. After attending last year and hardly knowing anyone and feeling a bit like a fish out of water, it’s incredible for me, a year later, to feel instead like it’s a little slice of home. So, see you next year and I look forward to all the new shows ahead we have to celebrate!
Last night I saw the Guthrie’s performance of Sense and Sensibility. Since I’m a staff member at the theater, I can’t review the show. But I am going to share some thoughts with you that the show and program notes provoked as well as some issues I’ve been juggling around in my mind for some time. This may have little to do with the show, but it served as a good jumping off point.
In the program, there’s a piece written by Kate Hamill, discussing what it’s like to be a female playwright, especially a playwright to adapts novels into plays. Hamill gives us statistics from the Dramatist Guild that state in 2015, over three-quarters of all plays produced on American stages were written by men. As a playwright myself, this isn’t new information, but seeing just how large the gap is between male and female writers is shocking. It’s even more disconcerting given the quandary I find myself in at the moment.
I’m worried that I’m having a crisis about feminism. After discussing with friends how much feminism has changed from the 1960s and how millennial feminists are dealing with issues that are different than what second wave feminists dealt with but still feel threatening, I struggle with knowing how I to approach certain issues. The example I’ll be using is male feminists.
Let me break this down for you. I did some research, trying to find a really good article about how it’s hard to talk about feminism with your male friends, even when they consider themselves feminists, because – well, the patriarchy is still alive and well and their views aren’t mine and communication is hard. I mean, it’s hard to talk about feminism with female friends (feminism is downright hard. But more on that in a moment). I was really hoping for some pithy article to actually got the nuances and the difficult emotional issues involved – something with a nice does of both skepticism and empathy. Instead, I found articles like these. In New York Magazine, the writer cuts down male feminists and simply states that men will always be the enemy and that’s that. They can try being feminists, but it’s ingrained in them not to be. This is valid, but a bit harsh. And a bit narrow-minded, I think. But then on the other end there’s this article from the Washington Post that calls feminists out for being misandrists and making mountains out of molehills over issues like mansplaining and friendzoning. So, yes, sometimes feminists get really negative. Sometimes this hurts more than it helps. But our anger is valid. And while clearly mansplaining is not comparable to, you know, getting the right to vote, it’s also not fair to brush it off as a non-issue. Then I hoped for some kind of sense to be found in this post from Medium, which seems more calmly concerned with male feminists rather than hating on them. Except that it seems to assume that men are only feminists because it can benefit them and doesn’t pause to consider things like women also watch porn, women can also be guilty for only caring about issues that relate to themselves, and, good God, why are mainstream articles so petty? There were other posts too, but they gave terribly obvious advice like “Don’t rape.” Really? You have to put that in an article on how to be a feminist?
So after seeing Sense and Sensibility last night and being inspired by seeing women take the stage in a story that (more or less) is about relationships between sisters, being incredibly happy to see a cast that had so many women in the artistic and creative side, and seeing audience members warmly respond to it (despite having heard people complain about it being “too conservative” for the Guthrie’s new season or uninteresting because it’s all about women), I decided to take some advice from Marianne Dashwood to heart. “Leave me, hate me, forget me. But do not ask me not to feel,” she cries. So, I’ve decided to write the article I wish I could have found. And I’m going to unleash a lot of feminist feelings on you.
Remember when I said previously that feminism is hard? Yeah, it’s hard. The basic premise is very simple – people of all genders should be equal. But the practicing of it is much more difficult. Feminism is no longer focused on getting voting rights or fighting for a woman’s right to marry when she chooses or proving that women are the intellectual equals of men (though we still have continue to argue these things from time to time, which is frightening). Feminists want a lot of different things because lots of different terrible things have happened to women and it takes a lot of arguing to point that out. And that’s the tough part – one doesn’t just decide “women are equal” and you’re done. It’s an all-day, every day, 365 days a year argument against cultural norms that have built up social injustices (aka: the patriarchy) and it takes a lot of work. It’s exhausting to resist a culture that is so focused on certain standards of femininity, body image, behavior, sexuality, and so on. Especially that not only are men taught inequality towards women, women are taught it to each other. We’re taught to critique each other’s appearances and bodies and general state of being. And it’s more exhausting when you’re not only arguing with people who aren’t feminists, but people who think they’re feminists but maybe don’t have the whole picture, as well as arguing with yourself.
Here’s my major concern – I’m worried about how the patriarchy works on feminism. I’m beginning to feel like there’s certain ways of being a feminist that more popular than others. After seeing friends mention those friends of theirs that will team up to destroy the patriarchy, I wonder: do I look like the kind of person who would do that? Why look; why do I have to look like that kind of person? And yet I wonder. I think some of my female friends would say yes, but I struggle think whether my male friends would say so. To be honest, I feel like either my friends – and usually this applies to male friends, but perhaps I’m more aware of it with them than I am others – are weary of my perspective or think it’s not edgy enough. Either my complaints are too commonplace or I’m making too much of an issue. I find myself seeing a new double bind, the double bind of a female feminist who has male feminist friends but doesn’t feel like she fits in with the female feminists they know or, at times, with feminism at all.
I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with my perspective. Not in way that white female feminists are criticized for not branching out into intersectionality; I make that as large of a focus, especially as I’m a bi anxiety-ridden woman in a city with fairly large diversity. What I’m concerned abut in my perspective is that maybe I’m great at discussing and talking about feminism but not so great at practicing it. But how do I practice it when things keep me in check? Little passing comments from people that cut off my arguments, lack acknowledgement of issues I see. Feeling like if I talk about feminism, no one cares, but if someone else says the same things I do, it’s more important. Am I not cool enough to be a feminist? Am I too uptight? Too angry? Too anxious? Too conservative? Too liberal? Too prudish? Too sexual?
And we’re back to the whole issue of being too much of something, an issue that feminism has grappled with forever.
I’m hopeful that most of this anxiety-driven and that I’m grappling with myself, not others. Because I don’t want feminism to become this water-downed fashionable thing that people find cool and hip to be and not really think about what it implies. Don’t get me wrong – I want people to be feminists, even though some find it scary to be part of a label that large and broad and you can’t control. But I don’t want it to become this sort of marketing “I’ve got a t-shirt that says feminist so I’m one but I go home and gaslight my girlfriend” or “I’m a feminist which means I as a woman can pass judgement on the choices of other women because equality means I can criticize them all I want.” The articles above worry me so much because the continue this sort of feminism that doesn’t really seem to understand how it applies to ourselves. It’s all fine and well to point out how other people are bad at feminism, but how about overcoming our own flaws? How about talking about how much work it takes to be a feminist, especially in regards to yourself, or your ex, or your boyfriend’s ex, or someone who’s choices look nothing like your own?
On the other hand, I don’t want feminism to feel like an exclusive club where you have to prove yourself to show you belong, which is where I feel like I am right now. I’m clearly really passionate about this and it largely fuels my writing. I want to keep talking about this because it’s important and it needs to be discussed. I know what it feels like to be ignored or silenced with these issues and I don’t want that feeling of not being taken seriously to perpetuate. But how can I include feminist perspectives in my writing without being called out for being the wrong kind of feminist? How can I write about any of this at all in a way that makes sense? What more can I do to avoid these feelings I have about not being good enough? That I’m too angry or too emotional, too sensitive or too fragile for what feminism wants me to be?
This is a problem, because feminism is not about being one kind of woman, or one kind of person that supports feminism. My views are valid because of my experiences and, while I certainly don’t know everything, I want to listen and learn about the perspectives of others. I used to believe that diverse perspective could bring us together around a common goal – a goal of equality – but I’m beginning to worry that’s not the case any more. I don’t feel a coming together. Especially when I still have to fight to understand where my own friends are coming in their perspectives of feminism, especially my male friends. Especially when I’m still fighting with myself to feel like I belong. There is never going to be one way to be a feminist, but it feels clouded by contradictions, double standards, and a push-pull feeling of trying to move forward towards new goals but still fighting to protect rights we’ve already gained but are still threatened to be taken away.
I know that change can’t happen overnight, that we can’t ask for instant remedies, and can’t look to feminists, especially women, to have all the answers or to fix it. But I’m curious to know if these feelings of not being on the same page as others, as feeling too radical, of being too much, too sensitive, are fears that other feminists have. I’m sure they are, but how do we deal with them? How do we acknowledge that our perspective is valid? How do I understand where my friends’ views are coming from and understand without invalidating them? How can I talk to my male friends about feminism without sounding preachy, how can I avoid giving them feminism 101 when they do understand it, how do I make them realize they don’t get it when they think they do? And before you think this is only about men, it’s not. I’m embarrassed by the number of times I’ve heard women say sexist things and I’m more embarrassed that I didn’t intervene in some way.
I don’t think there’s any easy answers to this. But I do feel that it’d be better if we talked about our flaws as feminists more frequently and acknowledged that it’s really difficult, regardless of gender. Same goes for acknowledging hidden racism, intolerance of the GLBTQA community, ableism, and so on. I’m tired of feeling angry and that I’m doing something wrong. I’m even more tired of getting angry at friends because I don’t know how to express how I feel about this issue or how I respond to certain things they say and post. I want to be a better feminist and I want feminism to do better in general. None of us are perfect, our ideals may never come true, but working towards them and not giving up, but acknowledging how much damn work it is feels like something, at least.
This previous weekend, I had the utter pleasure of joining Jill of Cherry and Spoon and Carol and Julie from Minnesota Theater Love for a little theater road trip to Duluth. Along with lots of delicious food, local brews, and local tunes, we attended Renegade Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in the lovely Zeitgeist Arts Space.
Full disclosure – I have wanted to see Assassins for years. It’s come up in a number of ways and might be the one thing that links all the different hats I wear in the theater world. It’s a dramaturg’s dream and incredibly inspiring as a playwright and I was elated to see it being done in Minnesota (with the added benefit of it being in Duluth. Because who doesn’t love an excuse to spend a weekend in Duluth?).
I was not disappointed. This dark, fierce, and wildly funny show traverses a strange territory – a carnival outside of time where eight successful and would-be presidential assassins meet in a shooting gallery to share their stories – often through the eyes of a character known only as the Balladeer – and questions what it means to win and lose, succeed and fail, and strive for the American Dream in a world of myths. At the heart of this is a dark, frightening root that doesn’t waver from the violence and cruelty of the assassins’ acts. But with Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s skill, this musical unfolds to be a very different beast than one that just focuses on how the killing occurred or trying to understand why the killing happened, ala a few History Channel documentaries I’ve tried to sit through (you know the one. Where they try and tell you John Wilkes Booth didn’t really die and he spent the rest of his life on a plantation in the South. Tell me one of you knows what I’m talking about). This doesn’t try to understand or empathize. It doesn’t try to forgive or explain away their actions. At the end of the show, they are still killers. But they are killers that look an awful lot like us.
Renegade did marvelous work with a very difficult show. There’s a lot of moving parts and only 90 minutes to reveal them all in. Andy Bennett is wonderfully compelling and persuasive as John Wiles Booth, Joe Cramer is a beautifully moving Czolgosz (especially in a moment in which Czolgosz describes his work making bottles in a factory), Nathan Payne is equally funny and frightening in his portrayal of Charles Guiteau, and Emily Bengston and Mary Foxy share a wonderful show-stealing scene with their interactions as Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (respectively). Jack Starr (Proprietor), Abe Curran (Balladeer), Alec Schroeder (Giuseppe Zangara), Matais Valero (John Hinckley), and Matt Smith (Sam Byck) are also great, leading us on the uncomfortable, down the rabbit hole-like path where things no longer look as clear and certain as they did at the start. Ensemble members Ole Dack, Kendra Carlson, Tonya Porter, and Kyle McMillan are also fantastic. With a strong band that dives into the unusual harmonies and shifting tempos led by Patrick Colvin, this performance did a marvelous job capturing the nuances and complexities in this script (however, I have to admit, I was not a fan of the intermission. I love the drive through to a climatic end and the 10 minute break threw me off).
Unless you’re a fanatic like me (or really, really well-versed in your presidential history), there’s a lot of assassins you won’t have heard of before in this performance. Most of us only know Booth and Oswald and, until I took a class in college that introduced me to this show and Sam Byck, I only knew those two as well. One reason I love this musical is because it presents to us history we all think we know – and shows us how much more there is to it, not just what we think we know, but what we don’t know and what cannot be known. And if you’re looking to learn more about the assassins (as I was after I first heard about the show) then there’s some really great books out there to help you out such as American Assassins by James W. Clarke, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard (on the assassination of Garfield), and The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller (on the assassination of McKinley). (These are just a few I’ve read. I’m continually looking for more, especially since I’d love to dramaturg this show. Hell, I’d love to direct it too.)
As a playwright, I’ve been thinking about what makes theater different and what can be done onstage that can’t be done in a book or a poem. Setting the story in a shooting gallery is something that works best visually and audibly, with the flashing lights, the targets with images of presidents on them, and sounds of gunshots. Theater can play with time and space and allow this upside-down place where assassins come together from all different times and make an argument for their perspective. This show takes on an added weight in the midst of a discussion on gun violence (especially in “The Gun Song”) and argue that guns don’t right wrongs – but there’s still a belief that that can and will.
I’m so happy to have seen Renegade’s work and I look forward to seeing their performances in the future (I see from their webpage that I missed Murder Ballad and [title of show] which kind of breaks my heart). I’m excited to see what their next season might bring – and possibly another theater road trip.
Assassins is written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman and directed by Katy Kelbacka. It is playing now through September 17th at Duluth’s Teatro Zuccone in the Zeitgeist Arts Space. Ticket and show information can be found at Renegade Theater’s website.