Songs for the Struggling Artist

“Aren’t they beautiful?”
April 5, 2014, 1:30 pm
Filed under: art, education, feminism, theatre | Tags: , ,

After a school performance and a vibrant Q&A about the story and the rehearsal process and the work behind the work, our host took the stage and said to the kids, “Look at these beautiful girls. Aren’t they beautiful?” He then added, “Did you ever think such beautiful girls could play all those characters?” and finally to us, “Do you have to be beautiful to be an actress?” Our answers? In unison, a firm and un-amused, “No.”

Now, first of all, let me say that I appreciate that this guy (who generously raised money to bring us in to this school) wanted to give us some compliments. I even appreciate that he thought we were beautiful. (I am not immune to praise!) But the words were shockingly at odds with the piece we had just performed. It was a little difficult to recover from. To me, the message underneath it felt like, “Do whatever you like, ladies. Challenge social norms all you like. Experiment all you like. But in the end, all that will ever matter is what you look like.”

These questions of beauty also point directly at one of the reasons we need to keep doing the piece. To so many people, like this guy, our primary value is our physical appearance, as objects of desire. We have done a good job as long as we have fulfilled our feminine obligation to be beautiful. I have seen so much theatre in which I can tell the women’s jobs are, essentially, to be beautiful. That is, it’s enough for them to stand around in pretty dresses looking attractive and occasionally saying something.

And we’re playing with that a bit, I confess, if only to subvert it. We are ultra-feminized at the top of this show. We have an extensive hair and make-up regimen and wear debutante gowns with all the trimmings. We start with the image of what we think we’re supposed to be. But then we do a whole lot of things outside that norm. Our hair usually gets messed up when we wrestle and our make-up smudges when we cry because we are busy DOING things. We are pushing on the door of what it means to be a woman on-stage.

There have been times when I’ve thought, “Oh maybe this isn’t so radical, maybe we’re experimental with the text, but our feminist underpinnings are maybe not so obvious. Maybe it’s not a big deal to play a wrestler in a ballgown.”
This guy’s comments reminded me of one of the key points of inspiration for this piece. As we conceived what we were doing, it was important to us to have “gender neutral” be feminine, that we could play male characters, as well as female, in dresses, to remind our audiences that womanhood could be complex, that we could have male and female qualities simultaneously. What I hadn’t thought through before now is how fully our characters are expressing the qualities the culture demands of us at the beginning. I don’t think of us as just expressing beauty but, to some, we are only as valuable as we are beautiful there at the top of the show. But as the play goes on, hopefully more value and possibility grows as the piece continues.

Also? I was floored by the question of “Do you have to be beautiful to be an actress?”
Because I have been fighting with that idea my entire life. Because you don’t have to be but it really helps. A lot. And that’s something I’d like to see change. Beauty can be so boring. Particularly since we seem to have a very narrow idea of what feminine beauty is supposed to look like.

For the sake of the children in the audience I, of course, wish that we hadn’t been reduced to our physical appearance at the end of the piece. But I hope we provided the students with some alternate views within the piece itself. It was odd – what this guy said – but also a great reminder about how much work there is still to do.

photo by Kacey Anisa


2 Comments so far
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Well done!

Comment by nymuse88

I am really wowed that this was the man’s response. In a hopeful kind of way, maybe the piece made him genuinely confused about the topic of beauty, and blew his mind about the incredible range you demonstrated as actresses, and he just hadn’t sorted that topic out yet in his brain….maybe it was the beginning of a genuine question? I think the piece could make that happen. On the other hand, I do think the dresses are in some ways so in your face, such a statement that one has to think about why you are wearing them…and I also think plenty of people probably just don’t think about it.

Comment by zimmesa

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