For those of you wondering: is this going to be a personal blog now? Here’s the answer: No, note entirely. But also yes. Yes and.
In order to write about writing, theater, and the arts in general, I need to show where I’ve come from. The past couple years of my life have drastically changed me as a person (somehow simultaneously bringing me back to a more authentic self, more connected to who I was when I was growing up and also someone different – a little less afraid, a little stronger, a little more scarred and accepting of my scars.
I’ve changed greatly as a writer too – I used to have this sense of blockage that kept me from writing frequently. Post-heartbreak, post-world turned upside down, I don’t have this same struggle. Finding time to write is a continual issue but, after a lot of work soul-searching, and writing when I didn’t feel like it (especially when I didn’t feel like it), I have more ideas than I can handle. Not that I was short on ideas before but wasn’t like this. Have I exorcised what was blocking me or am I possessed by something new?
Everything in my writing goes back to current events and my personal philosophy that is growing and evolving with me as I evolve and grow. This is also why it’s important to know the background of where I’m coming from, why current politics have greatly effected my writing, and why it makes writing all the more important. Many of my friends who are artists and I sit around wondering how and what we create in a world where every day is like a fight to survive. The world has always been this way for many of us, of course, more so for some than others. It’s wound tighter now and it’s more visible than before and many of us who have privilege are experiencing this struggle for the first time. Some of us are more likely to take risks and say things we were afraid to say before – because if not now, when?
So – yes, this is a personal blog. This is a theater blog. This is a writing blog. This is a blog for me to rant and hope and fight for change. This is me to talk about fighting against mental health stigma, against ableism, against homophobia and biphobia and transphobia. This is a place to reckon with white privilege, to denounce racism and white supremacy, and to recognize how it continues to work on me – and resist it. This is a place to support femme and nonbinary voices, resist the patriarchy, and fight against toxic masculinity. These things have become clearer than ever for me and I expect they will become more clearly expressed on my blog. And so away we go.
I am obsessed with Frankenstein. This is not new. I first read the book in middle school and, though I didn’t understand a lot of it, I fell deep into the rabbit hole of loving Victor Frankenstein’s tragic story and the Creature’s isolation and outsider view. I watched the Universal film from 1931 and its sequel (though both films are nothing like the book). I read a series of books for teens based off the Universal films. I watched Young Frankenstein most Halloweens (and saw the musical adaptation when it toured here). I kept rereading the book. I wrote my own modern adaptation that I self-published as an e-book (please don’t find it; it’s terrible). I grew jealous of everyone who was able to see the Benedict Cumberbatch/ Johnny Lee Miller adaption in the UK (directed by Danny Boyle – I’m finally seeing this November when a live taping is encored by the MSP Film Society at St Anthony Main theater). I’ve read about Mary Shelley and her famous mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the book Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. Some of my favorite creative types also love Frankenstein (notably, Guillermo Del Toro, who I am likewise obsessed with).
In short, I am a huge Frankenstein nerd and I am very vocal about this. So when the Guthrie announced that they would be doing a production of Frankenstein: Playing with Fire in their 2018-2019 season, I was intrigued and a little worried. I love the story but I’ve seen bad adaptations that haunt me (looking at you, Fringe). But I love the production at the Guthrie, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the play being written and the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication itself. In fact, it’s probably my favorite show that I’ve seen at the G (and by this weekend, will hold the record of the most times I’ve seen the same production of a show). Because (for all transparent reasons) I work in the Guthrie box office, I won’t review the show. But I have been thinking about the story a great deal and, after rereading the book and spending some time with Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the importance of Shelley’s writing that I wanted to share. Without further ado:
An (Incomplete) List of Themes and Issues in “Frankenstein”
playing with fire/ myth of Prometheus/ playing God
pseudoscience versus real science
environmentalism/ respect for the forces of nature and scientific laws
nature versus nurture in the raising of children
healthcare (why does Victor leap to the conclusion that the answer to avoiding death is to avoid birthing humans and create life from the dead rather than working to better healthcare? Especially central to the way the play adapts the book where Victor’s mother dies in childbirth)
ways in which the Creature reflects what living with mental illness is like (anxiety and depression makes those who live with it feel monstrous, like outsiders, etc.)
who really is a monster – what is actually horrific in this story
skepticism versus wonder and how they get convoluted
overlooking objective truth in order something you want to be true possible
having more questions than answers in life
education and how we learn/who we teach
our lack of understanding around what makes us human/sentient/ personality/ the belief in a soul
desire/hunger for knowledge
technology and how its advancement is outpacing in our ability to deal with and grapple with it
consequences of actions/shame/guilt
questions around morality and what is moral
All in all, I really love this story. If you get the chance to see the Guthrie production or the Danny Boyle screening at St Anthony Main, due. And why not pick up the book over Halloween? (I want to get my hands on the 1818 edition myself – I hear it’s better than the more populous 1833 edition.)
Thank you for entertaining my passion surrounding Frankenstein. I’ll be here all October with all of your gothic horror story needs.
I know this is not your real name, but hello. I read the article that was posted about you on Babe.net in which you discuss a situation that happened with Aziz Ansari. I would like to first say I believe you. There are plenty of reporters right now from CNN, the New York Times, and especially the Atlantic* who would rather complain about how you are making mountains out of molehills or accusing Ansari of not being able to read minds or any possible rhetorical strategy they can find to belittle your story. Do not let them belittle you. Your struggle is real. I understand it well. Because #metoo.
I admit that I was shocked when I initially heard about the allegations against Ansari. I enjoyed his book Modern Love and like his work. However, at this point, I’m finding that a lot of people I admire have done less than admirable things and, while no one is perfect, there is a difference between making mistakes and owning up to them, and hiding them and pretending to be a perfect of example and using your power to do so. I work in theater and I hear about how all too often someone’s success is used to protect them. It is part of the reason I am so afraid to discuss incidents that have happened to me. I am also afraid because of the responses to your stories, in which people blame you for being too ignorant, of not saying “no” clearly enough, of not facing the issue head on and feeling upset about it later and using it as “revenge porn” (clearly the reporter from the Atlantic who uses this phrase has absolutely no idea what revenge porn actually is). As a person who has felt upset about an incident and later was unsure how to handle it, I feel these are unfair attacks. I have been in situations where I could have more clearly communicated how I felt but I was so surprised that I was never asked or it was assumed that I wanted something a certain way that I wasn’t sure how to proceed from there. The point of your story is that men do not ask – they take – and that we live in a culture that socializes them to be this way. They assume if we are sexually active that, even if we are drunk, our mumbled yes is consent. They assume that if we say yes to one thing, we are okay with anything they do. They think that the moment they are done with us, we should be done with them and they do not care about our emotional well-being afterwards. They think that we can read their minds and we can completely understand what they want and that their needs come first. They think because they talk about feminism and post about feminism, it makes them a feminist and it some how absolves them of the sexist things they do in their personal lives because they present themselves as a feminist generally but fail to practice those things in their personal life. I of course am using “they” broadly here to talk about issues I have seen in my experiences. For those who would call me out, I don’t mean “all men” but several I have had encounters with. The fact that I still have to say “not all men” is an issue of how I’ve been socialized to excuse and avoid and pardon the flaws of men while women are constantly being reprimanded and people of other genders are kept invisible in most of these discussions. People of other genders are affected too. The patriarchy is not good for anyone. Why we perpetuate it and continue to give it power is beyond me.
Here is one of the many reasons why this matters: of the partners I have had (a statistic I will not disclose because that’s no one’s business), I have had exactly one who has asked me what I wanted, who has checked in with me, who has made sure that I am comfortable. He has taught himself to do this – I have not had to ask him to listen. We are working to listen more to each other but the fact that he started by asking, that he started by listening is something I have never experienced before. He is my current partner and we’ve been together for many months and still I am surprised when he checks in with me, when he wants to know what I want, when he asks questions. This should not surprise me. Having a male partner like this who is like some rare unicorn in the midst of everyone else is not the way things should be. But I’m afraid that the desires of women are terribly misunderstood and misrepresented. These reporters are not helping but reinforcing what has already been built against us. We are like birds, throwing ourselves against the bars of a cage and hoping the bars will break. I believe that one day the bars will break, or that someone will open up the cage. But it is going to take time. Until, stay strong, and I will keep fighting for women like you, like me, for all women. I hear you. I believe you. And #metoo.
*I am not linking to these articles because I do not want to be sending readers directly to them. They are poor excuses for reporting and opinion and the Atlantic piece is especially badly written.
Before I begin this post, I’d like to provide a frame of reference for where I was mentally when I saw this show (I think it’s important, as a reviewer, to be honest about what you’re entering the theater with, as it’s different for everyone). I’d had a long day, starting with helping out at a student matinee at the theater I work at, as well as a full hectic day of work, and exhaustion from anxiety struggles earlier in the week. I’m sad to say that I entered this show already feeling fatigued and not very energized. I was hoping the show would lift my spirits. It didn’t.
I have never left at the intermission of a show before, but I did this night. I hesitate to call this an actual review since I didn’t see the whole show but it did provoke me quite a bit and I have thoughts I feel are important to share about the production. My issues are not with the quality of the production, the acting, or the theater itself (all of which are wonderful) but rather the script and the show’s story,
The writing was lacking for me. While I haven’t seen the previous play this one is a sequel to, I didn’t feel that seeing it would have helped me understand the characters or situation better. Henry and Alice are camping to save money instead of staying at an expensive hotel. It was all pretty simple – and that was the beginning of the problem for me. While there was conflict and some sense of urgency, I could find Henry or Alice likable or interesting. Diana I liked and could relate to in some ways, but she was supposed to be an annoying bother, and I couldn’t understand why. Her entrance made me interested, for a while, until she became a stereotypical hippie, “too wild” for Henry and Alice” (if too wild is a “carpe diem” tattoo, I hate to think what my eight tattoos reads as in this world).
I also didn’t appreciate some of the jokes – the swingers misconception had potential, but I felt like it was still dismissive or stigmatizing to actual swingers (as a supporter of polyamory and other nontraditional lifestyles, this could have been an educating or embracing moment and it didn’t read that way). I’m over the “breathing into a paper bag because I’m hysterical” gag. Panic attacks are real. I have them. Please don’t trivialize them (or at least make it a larger part of the character, ala Leo Bloom in The Producers). I’m also pretty sure that g*psy is a slur now, so I don’t know why this was used at all.
I’m just being prescriptive now, which is against everything I’ve been taught in playwriting. But I’m disappointed in this play. Really disappointed. It’s by a female playwright, it’s a new show. It’s everything I want to support in theater. But while sitting and listening to Alice and Henry bicker and not being very interested, I realized a large part of the problem for me. I don’t live in Henry and Alice’s economic world. I don’t live in a place where people retire early or where being laid off means you need to formulate a budget and you can’t shop at Pottery Barn any more. I live in a world where people work until they day they die and a world where, if you’re laid off, your house gets foreclosed. I am not upper middle class. I’m not middle class. I’m lower middle class at best, and most of the time I’m working class. Theater is not a wealthy industry to work in, despite what Broadway might like to depict it as. I make minimum wage, I’ve spent a lot of money for my degrees that has not left me with debt (yet) but has for most of my generation. As a millennial watching this show, I was stunned by the presentation of wealth and money. It made no sense to me that in order to save money, Henry and Alice went camping. If you haven’t been to an REI or a Cabella’s recently, go and check out camping gear – it’s not cheap. At all. Saving money for my family when I was growing up wasn’t changing our vacation – it was not going on vacation at all (it was the same for both of my parents growing up as well). It made no sense that Alice, who clearly worked hard for what she had, wouldn’t understand why her husband was concerned about her spending habits or why her horror story became having to live on a budget instead of, well, maybe being homeless. The fact of the matter is that Alice and I live in completely different worlds. And it’s something I think we need to start talking about.
We are living in the most economically disparate time since the 1920s (or so I learned my first year in my MFA program). Never before has there been such a large difference between the wealthiest of people and the poorest in our country. In the world of theater, we of course need money (especially donors) to fund our work and make things happen (there are of course arguments agains that, but I won’t tackle those here). But we also want to open our doors to most diverse audience, especially those who can’t often afford to attend theaters. I couldn’t help but think about the students I saw at the student matinee I helped at, who were awed at the expensive look of the building they were entering, and started thinking about how they might feel about Alice complaining about not being able to buy stuff. Perhaps how it was how I was raised, perhaps it was my college education, hell, maybe it’s my fondness for Brecht – regardless, classism is never far from my mind. It’s not that I don’t think shows can’t just be entertaining or have wealthy characters – they certainly can, but it’s important in how you talk about it and discuss it in the show. It’s also about creating more diverse work about diverse people. But in this case, it was how money was discussed. I didn’t stay around for the second act and maybe it’s resolved and Alice learns materialism isn’t so important and Henry learns not to be so uptight. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that I don’t ever believe there’s that much to lose. It all felt hollow to me because in the world around me, the stakes are much different. If all Alice is going to do is not get her trip to Europe, I don’t feel a connection with that. I would love to go to Europe – but right now I’m worried about paying my rent that’s going up in December because Minneapolis is being filled with expensive luxury apartments that cost as much as half a semester of my grad school tuition per month and everything is getting more expensive. Alice can’t buy her Pottery Barn furniture? I know people who can’t afford medication they need, who don’t have health insurance, and if they do have insurance, they are or are afraid they will lose coverage.
Theater doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. And for me it’s impossible not to see what’s happening in the world around me when I attend a show. I can’t just sit back and relax and shut off everything else – I wish I could, But the play I’m attending is always in dialogue with the world around me. And I think that’s a really important function of theater. A show can be really entertaining and make you forget your troubles but also teach you something really important or make you realize something. And what bothers me is that this play does touch on some really wonderful stuff – Alice’s hard unappreciated work as a stay at home mother, trying to care for an aging parent, and the affect the economy and lay offs have on personal relationships. But I just don’t understand why it used story to work with those issues.
I also have to ask what kind of audience was this for. I was one of the youngest members of the audience on a relatively full weeknight and, yes, it was a mostly older, white, seemingly middle class audience. This is not a critique of Park Square alone but a theater-wide issue. There’s a contention between the subscriber base and the urging to bring in younger and more diverse audiences. I feel bad criticizing this show because I really love the cast – John Middleton, Carolyn Pool, and Melanie Wehrmacher are absolutely wonderful. Mary M. Finnerty is a fine director. And I’m looking very forward to the season ahead, especially to Hamlet. I could simply admit I’m not the intended audience for this show. It’s not about my world. But I also want to know what happens when not the intended audience enters the room and what happens then. How do we deal with that? How do we recognize their feelings without brushing it off as a overreaction? I admit that I’m emotional about this, but I hope it shows it’s because I care. I love theater too much to let it continue to be overwhelmed by classism, I’m tired, so tired of this fight on many levels – there’s a great intersectionality with economic status that affects age, gender, race, sexuality, etc and it too often gets overlooked. I want to challenge theaters to consider classism more when discussing seasons, marketing, access to patrons, etc. We need our wealthy patrons who are willing and able to support our shows, but we also need patrons of different economic levels to enjoy what is produced, to feel inspired, and see their stories shared onstage.
I want to end this (very) long post with a final thought on why I am so passionate about this. The first theater show I ever attended was “The Wizard of Oz” at Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw, Indiana. I never in a hundred years thought that one day, after seeing that show with my grandmother, I might one day write a play myself. While they were community theater actors, I saw them in a professional light – partly because I was six and anyone who was an adult was cool and partly because theater lighting has the power to make anyone look incredible and magical. Seeing someone onstage puts them in a privileged position – in Western theater, we’re sitting the dark focused on them, while they have the floor to speak and we’re quiet (well, different levels of quiet depending where you’re attending theater). Regardless, they literally have the mic – and what they say matters and resonates. I think it’s too easy to think theater is just another art form that people consume and shrug off. It’s like any other – some of it we always we remember, others not so much. But unlike other art forms, it’s happening in real time. And it has the capability to speak to us immediately, presently, as a collective of different people with different experiences. It is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever been privy to. I’ll always remember seeing “The Wizard of Oz” in the theater and not the first time I saw the film, because seeing it with a group of people who also were afraid of the flying monkeys and were mesmerized by Glinda and gasped at the Wicked Witch’s wickedness is downright incredible. What we make matters. We know that. I just hope that we continue to broaden our idea of who it matters to.
It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.
I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.
It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:
To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.
And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.
I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it.
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways
Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages
Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told
She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice
Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on
I find it important to be honest in my reviews, even if I risk being unpopular. While most everything I’ve read about the Ordway’s White Christmas is full of positivity, remarking on its charm and holiday cheer, I had a far different experience with this show. I feel almost embarrassed, like the Grinch about to run off with Whoville’s Christmas decorations. But I believe overlooking the issues I have will do more harm than good and I believe it important to our theater community to consider the issues I have with this production, even if I end up being the only one who sees them.
Don’t get me wrong. This theatrical elements of this production are incredible. The costuming, set construction, lighting and effects are wonderful. The cast is fantastic, with some of the Twin Cities best – Brian Sostek, Dieter Bierbrauer, Ann Michels, Jenny Piersol, James Detmar, Gary Briggle, and Thomasina Petrus. But I’m not happy about the story told. I know it takes place in the 1950s and that “times were different.” I know that the source is a movie that can only be updates so much without completely leaving the story that so many know and love behind. Yet I’m still astonished how sexist the show was. From Phil Davis’ comments and smug flirting with Judy, to the portrayal of the twins Rita and Rhoda as unintelligent sex objects, to the moment a girl stretching at the piano freezes with her leg up in the air as General Waverly enters during rehearsal and ogles at her leg, making her body the punch line of a joke – all of this added up to make a very uncomfortable experience for me and my friend who accompanied me.
I really wanted to enjoy this show. I desperately wanted a moment of escapism for just a few hours to leave behind this rough year we’ve had, to embrace the holiday cheer that is meant to be at the heart of this story. Instead, I felt like I was walloped in the face by the very things that I struggle with every day – women being objectified, harmful jealousies caused by women seeing the men they want to possess in the company of other women, believing that women have to force a man to “settle down,” and benevolent sexism in its many forms. Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum and when current issues appear in a script, they’re amplified by the cultural moment I find them in. Maybe it’s bad luck that White Christmas happened to be staged in a year when sexism is at the forefront of many people’s minds. But it’s also important to me what decision were made in this staging and I’m disappointed that these concerns didn’t seem to be at the top of mind. Perhaps the actors and artistic team dealt with these experiences internally during rehearsals (and I hope for the sake of the actresses onstage that they did) but I certainly didn’t get the feeling that they had from the performance I saw. Instead, I felt uncomfortable for them, for myself, and for the other women in the audience.
I’m sure that 90% of people who see this show will enjoy it and I’m sure that people will day I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But representation matters. I’m one of the few people who had a negative experience with this show and I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t. I’m not going to write what I think people want to hear or shy away from criticism. I don’t want to overshadow the good work the Ordway does based off of one production, but I am disappointed by this show and expect better in a theater community that is usually very sensitive to issues such as these. I hope that by recognizing these issues in theater we can have better discussions about how to work around or change these issues in productions and recognize them, rather than ignoring them.
White Christmas is written by Irving Berlin, Dave Ives, and Paul Blake and is directed by Jame A. Rocco. It is playing now through December 31st at the Ordway. Ticket and show information can be found on the Ordway’s website.
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.
Today, for a moment, I’m going to deviate slightly from the realm of theater and focus on my relationship with music. This is kind of bio-post and a little odd to share, but it is very relevant to what I do as an artist and something that has been very relevant here recently with my work on shows such as Nina Simone and Complicated Fun, the loss of Prince, and my own realizations through my work and personal life. So, in reaction to the magic that was the Current’s 893 essential albums, please allow me to divulge into my relationship with music.
Back in high school, music was the thing that kept me caring. I found school boring and dull and kind of a terrible place for someone who had anxiety and social issues to be. Playing with the high school concert band gave me a place where I felt that I could fit in and be good at something, as well as developing better communication, finding true friends who would stick by my side and who I would stick up for, and also have the chance to create something amazing. Meanwhile, my own musical tastes were developing – with new technology such as iTunes and the iPod I got for my birthday, I was able to create my own music library and store tunes that influenced me in my childhood – Disney songs, various songs that resonated with me (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Brandy”), and my early Broadway show loves – as well as branching out into new music that would stick with me – Kansas, Green Day, Sara Bareilles, to name a few.
My relationship with music wasn’t easy – no matter how hard I practiced, I never felt good enough. No matter what music I liked, it wasn’t cool enough. By college, I would have a lot of tension with my relationship with music – I’d audition for the School of Music at the U for music education and was rejected, which came as a relief as I’d come to hate the structure of formal music education. I’d be called a hipster or have my musical tastes be criticized as being “bad” or “too pop” or “bizarre.” I would learn to associate songs with people and have a hard time breaking those associations and struggle to listen to songs without being emotionally tormented with the memories they held. I’d have people assume my feelings weren’t valid about music or that my experiences as a musician weren’t serious. I stopped thinking of myself as a musician and I put aside much of the importance that music held in my life.
This was a terrible mistake. Fortunately for myself, I ended up in theater and remembered how important music is to me, through both observing as an audience member and working on shows as a dramaturg. Working on Complicated Fun has reminded me how formative music was for me in my teen years. Listening to the Current and to other stations such as Jazz88 has helped me to connect with others who have broad musical interests, legitimize my preferences without feeling bizarre or hipster-y, and feel a stronger connection to my community. Watching others perform has encouraged me to get back into playing and even branch out to new musical experiences. Though Prince’s loss has been difficult, it has reminded me that, even when the worst happens, we always have music to hold us up. When people leave us and things get difficult, we always have music to support us. “Purple Rain” will never sound the way it once did, but it is eternal and forever powerful.
I truly believe that Millennials have a unique relationship with music. With new technology, new music listening habits, new genres (and the loss of genres), and different relationships with the artists we listen to, I don’t know a single Millennial that doesn’t have a passionate relationship with music. I believe that for us, much like our Gen X counterparts, it is a way of dealing with a strange world and expressing ourselves, especially in counter to mainstream culture (this especially hit me yesterday when both Gen X-ers and Millennials rejoiced at Nirvana’s Nevermind being named the most essential album). And like other generations for since the 1950s, it’s a bedrock for how we identify and complicate ourselves. I’m still feeling the resonances of Kid Simple‘s focus on the importance of sound, and it’s important to take a moment to recognize that sound and music are two of the most important aspects in theater for me as an artist. Because, for me, it perfectly captures the heart of what we do.
This is the second in a series of posts I’ll be writing on the topic of theater criticism. In this selection, I’ll be looking at Oscar Wilde’s ideas of criticism and how it can become an art form of its own.
If you happened to see The Critic/The Real Inspector Hound at the Guthrie this March, you know how easily theater criticism can go awry and make it only too easy to poke fun at it. But put this behind for a moment and instead regard the critic differently – for instance, from the view of Oscar Wilde.
I am unabashedly an Oscar Wilde fan. One of my favorite works of his (aside from the brilliance that is The Importance of Being Earnest) is The Critic as an Artist, an essay written as a dialogue between two men. In it, Gilbert and Earnest discuss whether or not artists should pay any mind to critics and what the whole point of judging art is. Earnest argues that art was best when there were no critics, while Gilbert says there have always been critics, explaining how ancient Greece was a society of critics that recognized “the most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite variety.” Criticism from one’s self and others, in Gilbert’s view, allows for artists to find new ways to create and recreate while critics “record one’s own soul” by sharing their own impressions. Art becomes part of one’s personal experiences and can be enjoyed beyond what makes it technically great or meet’s someone else’s expectations.
Gilbert continues to describe the art of criticism, stating that “the actor is the critic of drama,” taking a writer’s work, studying and analyzing it and making it their own in their performance. Works of art are living things and, by interacting with them, we change them and allow ourselves opportunities to grow and complicate ourselves. For Gilbert, art is universal, not just for specialists. In fact, Gilbert argues that great artists cannot really judge their work or the work of others because of their vision. It is better then to be an outside observer who is passionate but not a part of the creation process. There’s a lot of truth to this and some fallacies – I personally think artists make great critics, though there are instances where they can get hung up on certain aspects because of the work they do. Likewise, misunderstandings from outside observers can occur because they don’t know the depth and work put into an artist process. However, in Gilbert’s world where art is universal, it seems there would be better communication about the creative process and the amount of effort put into artist endeavor would not be overlooked.
Then again, Oscar Wilde isn’t concerned about effort and work levels maintained by artists the way my Marxist (i.e.: class)-tuned brain is (which thanks to my undergraduate degree, it’s a frequency I’m always tuned to). Oscar Wilde was quite the dandy and a hedonist. He focused greatly on aestheticism and the beauty of things over the socio-political importance. Much of his ideas of criticism are contemplating the aesthetic qualities of art. However, his arguments work to support the importance of the ephemeral, so to speak, and the socio-political and deeper humanitarian qualities that make art great, whether he likes it or not. Wilde’s ideas still hold up, even for Marxist theory (“Art is for everyone!” especially). I rather hope that he’d appreciate me taking his ideas and creating new concepts with them, rather than being upset for re-appropriating his ideas to philosophies he had nothing to do with.
Of course the real question about Wilde is does he care so much about aesthetics because people think it’s frivolous and therefore unintelligent and unimportant and is arguing otherwise, or does he really only care about that because he’s a dandy? Or both, because people can be contradictory? I vote for both. Regardless, his writing allows us as artists and critics to reevaluate how we see and interact with the art that is so much a part of our lives. It speaks to the communication between artist and audiences that I strive for and breaks down the pinnacle we place both artists (in terms of perfection) and critics (in terms of being the ultimate source of opinion in art). Plus this piece is full of some of Wilde’s best quotes:
“Any idea that is not dangerous is not worthy of being called an idea at all.”
“What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”
“Yes, I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
So if you’re looking for a quick, clever read, I highly recommend this. It celebrates art, the creators of it, and the observers of it in the best of ways and allows for a lot of thought, discussion, disagreement, and growth.