Songs for the Struggling Artist


Another Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

Previously, I wrote about a show that inspired me to make a list of stories I never want to see onstage again. I have now seen another show and discovered another story I have had my definitive fill of. Can we please call a moratorium on the fallen woman plot?

You get a pass if your name is Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and you were writing social commentary about this shit in the 1800s but if you are a writer in 2017, do us all a favor and leave this tired old horse alone.

I mean, I know a lot of you loved this Great Comet situation. And I agree that the design was very cool and there’s some accomplished performances in it. I give it a lot of points for its hodge-podge red curtain, fishnet, Russian tchotcke from any old period, aesthetic. But goddamn it, please, my dear writers and creators, please never ever again make me watch a story about a girl who wants to kill herself because she felt desire one time. I mean – sure, I get it, 19th Century source material and all that but can someone please explain to me why a story that hinges on the purity of some ingénue is worth adapting in 2017? (Actually, don’t. I don’t want to hear it.) If you like the old dusty classics (and I do, too! Lots!) you’d better give us something besides the old patterns of the patriarchy to grapple with. And making this story cool doesn’t do it. By making it cool, you’re reinforcing that shit. You’re saying, “Isn’t the patriarchy cool? Look how fun the patriarchy can be! It’s like 19th century patriarchy dressed up with twentieth century fishnets. This story is Dusty and Sexy!”

Now, all over goddamn America, little theatre girls are going to be singing about how they should take poison because they fell in love with the wrong guy for a minute. All over America, little theatre boys will be singing about how ennobling loving a fallen woman can be. This goddamn story. I can’t.

Updating the classics is dodgy business, y’all, because the classics are full of stuff that tells women that our only value is our beauty and if we sell beauty to the wrong bidder, we are lost forever. If you update the classics and you don’t update the gender politics, you are essentially putting a 21st century stamp of approval on 19th century ideas.

If you’re simply staging the classics maybe you can get away with telling these stories. I would happily watch a production of Sense and Sensibility onstage. But I’d need some Regency costumes and some damn harpsichords or something to make that okay. If you set Sense and Sensibility in a disco, with your own contemporary dialogue, I’m gonna be skipping that shit. And I love me some Jane Austen but I’m pretty sure that if Jane Austen were alive today, she would not write this kind of story. She was a social satirist. She showed us what was ticking away under the Regency veneer. I think she would show us something true and cutting about ourselves now if she were still kicking. If Tolstoy were alive, I don’t think he’d be writing this marriage plot shit either. Given that he was essentially writing about rich Russians who owned people, I’m gonna guess he’d have a lot to say about the current moment. I don’t think he’d be wasting his time with more fallen women.

I mean, we don’t know, obviously, what our old writers would do. But romanticizing these old stories is doing women in 2017 no favors. I don’t want to see one more woman punished for having desire. Not one more time. I’m hungry for stories about woman’s desire, about embracing it, about celebrating it. (See also the awesomeness of Indecent. Or a stage production of I Love Dick? Could we have that? Can Jill Soloway start a theatre wing of Topple?) I declare a personal moratorium on any story that celebrates a dude for transcending a sullied woman. I henceforth will avoid any and all shows that hinge on the purity of some beautiful girl. Fuck purity. Fuck congratulating men for being able to get over the “obstacle” of an “impure” woman. I am done with this story for now and forever.

Again, unless your name is Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Then, I’m good. Do what you got to do.

 

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Single Gender on a Train

On the Politically Reactive podcast, the guest, Michael Skolnik, described being on the train coming home from the Women’s March in DC. He said he’d never been on a train “where there’s such a disproportionate amount of one gender.” And I said, out loud, in response, “I’m sure that’s not true.” That is, I’m sure he’s been on the train with a single gender before, it just wasn’t women and so he didn’t notice.

Why do I feel so sure he’s been on a train or in public somewhere with only men? Because most public space is male space. Because I have been the only woman on a train more times than I can even begin to count. Any woman who spends time in public has had this experience – and when it happens to us – we get very alert, very quickly. Being the only woman on a train full of men is normal – especially after a game or late at night and most of us will do a fairly quick complex assessment of the danger levels of being in a car full of men. We know we’re surrounded in just the same way Skolnik felt very attuned to being surrounded by women. The thing is – that happens very rarely. And there are a lot of good (and by good, I mean legitimate and clear, not good) reasons for that.

First, it’s historical. There have been any number of diatribes against women ever showing their faces in public. In some places, if you were “public women” you were prostitutes. That is, any woman in public is suspect.

As soon as women start gathering, the wheels of patriarchy start really grinding. It’s how we get witch trials and hysteria epidemics and such. Oppressive movements almost always rely on the idea of women staying out of the public eye, being at home, where she “belongs.” From Rousseau to Phyllis Schlafly, the retiring, natural home-maker is encouraged to remain by the hearth, to never gather with other women in public places, to never venture forth without her husband or father. Soraya Chemaly’s talk on space illuminates the sense that the world is designed by and for men, even women’s restrooms.

And there is another factor, there’s the safety factor – that women in public face harassment, or worse, when they venture forth. Danielle Muscato recently asked women what they’d do if men had a 9 o’clock curfew and the answers revealed how unsafe many women feel in public and how much the world would change if men were safely home in bed by 9. It’s an interesting thought experiment.

For myself, my life wouldn’t change too dramatically if men had a curfew. A lot of the things woman said they’d do I do already. But – I live in a city and cities have always provided a safer haven for women, especially in public. (see Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies) I notice, when I travel, that I am a lot more unusual as a woman traveling on my own. In smaller cities and towns, when I go to coffee shops, I often find myself the only woman. That almost never happens in New York. I wonder if one of the major divides between urban and rural is actually how much space women can occupy in public. I wonder if some of the hatred of Hillary Clinton was related to folks coming from places where women are more rarely seen in public. For me, I feel a very stark contrast when I travel from cities, where I am completely inconspicuous as a woman in public, to places where I am suddenly required to have a heightened sense of my femininity. There are endless public spaces that are de facto male only.

So, yes, it is powerful to see only a single gender on a train – but it is a very different experience for a man to be on a train car full of women than it would be for a woman to be on a train in a car full of men. Part of the power of things like the Women’s March is that it brings women into public space and it makes it possible for the world to be re-imagined as a place where women really can do anything, like ride on a train without any fear at all.

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Sticky Benevolent Sexism

It happened weeks ago, after the Women’s March. Since then there have been many more marches and many more protests but I can’t stop thinking about this experience I had right after participating in that first one.

I was at a conference. We were wrapping it up with a reflection session – talking about what had been successful and possibilities for the future. Towards the end, a man stood up to say he’d been to the Women’s March and that he’d been inspired and now wanted to recognize all the women in the room. He asked us all to stand and receive applause and appreciation from the men. We stood, as requested and received the applause. And don’t get me wrong, I love applause. But this felt so so bad.

Why? I wondered. Why was I upset by this nice man wanting to honor the ladies in the room? He was just being nice. Why did it make my skin crawl? For weeks, I’ve tried to unpack this moment. And then on International Women’s Day, I felt the same feelings upon reading multiple posts and tweets and tributes.

And still, I struggled to understand. So I talked about it with my partner. I told him about the request to stand and be recognized and he seemed to instantly know what I was reacting to. “It’s like Secretary’s Day,” he said. And I said, “Yes! Exactly! Exactly that! But what is that?”

And it comes down to power, folks. We have a secretary’s day because bosses have power and they express that benevolently (if also patronizingly) via things like Secretaries Day. A man who steps forward and asks for everyone to recognize the women in the room is asserting a similar kind of power. It is claiming an authority over women. He takes on a boss role and thanks the helpers. The fact that it is outwardly benevolent is what makes it confusing. This is called benevolent sexism and it is a bear, y’all.

Benevolent sexism is super confusing for a lot of dudes. It’s why the Orange Man in Chief thinks he’s great for women. Women are also confused by it. It’s men being nice, right? But so many studies show us how not nice it can be. It can be very dark and very dangerous.

My moment of benevolent sexism was confusing for me because I like to be appreciated and recognized. But I would like to have all of those things happen due to my accomplishments and artistry. Being applauded for just being a woman suggests being applauded for my service to the real art, the men’s art. I’m getting accolades for being a good helpmeet, not being an artist, or an achiever – because that’s what we ladies do, right? We help! We make the coffee and mop the men’s brows from doing the real work. Golly, we need a day to thank those ladies!

When that guy asked us to stand, I stood. And I cried. I thought, briefly, that I cried because I was moved, because I was touched by the gesture. I know now that I cried because I felt utterly undermined and defeated. After a day of women asserting our voices and our power, we were suddenly reduced to secretaries, to helpful wives – rather than the peers and colleagues we are. Now, I think I was crying due to how quickly that feeling of empowerment can be ripped away. BUT. But…

The good news is that now I’m wise. And I won’t fall for this trick again. Next time, I will not stand. Maybe I’ll even ask the men to stand and let them see how it feels.

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My Hagification has Begun
January 5, 2017, 1:18 am
Filed under: Gender politics, resistance | Tags: , , , , , , ,

The patriarchy won big time on November 8th, 2016. Enough voters and enough Russian hackers wanted the patriarchy to win. Enough people were like – “Yeah, the primal expression of the patriarchy is for us!” and voted for it. It’s pretty fucking awful but the patriarchy won. And I hate it. It made me cry big sloppy tears. And I was paralyzed and horrified and ready to hide in a basement for as long as was necessary.

But then a switch got flipped. And I realized that just by existing, I am a middle finger to the patriarchy. The guy who won the contest is the straight up Id of the patriarchy and he has a lot of opinions about how women should look. As does the culture, in general. I do not fit most of his criteria and am therefore, like his opponent in the election, nasty. And like many of my sisters in the fight, I am embracing my nastiness. Because when the Patriarch Elect called Clinton a nasty woman we all knew what he meant. And we all knew that for him, nasty woman was redundant because “woman” means nasty to him, just by itself. We know he means women are gross, with body fat and hair and blood coming out of our where-evers. He’s offended by any woman who isn’t aesthetically pleasing to him. He is on record on this point going back decades.

All my life, I’ve struggled with the feeling that my body wasn’t culturally acceptable – that I was not pleasing to look at in one way or another and therefore failing at being a woman. That’s what the patriarchy wanted me to feel. That feeling is, in fact, what entire industries are devoted to invoking. The patriarchy wants me to spend all my time shaping my body –with Spanx, with diets, with razors, with creams, with make-up – in order to make it the most palatable for the patriarchs. It wants me to spend all my money on clothes, on weight-loss products, on cosmetics. It wants me in heels. It wants me in hair and make-up for a couple of hours every day.

So now my body becomes a signal. My body, my body hair, my clothes, are all a signal that I do not comply. Now more than ever. I’m thinking of going full-on hag to really magnify the effect. I want to develop 12 warts and some super gnarled fingers. Maybe I’ll start wearing a pointy black hat. I will no longer be aesthetically pleasing for the patriarchy. I am interested in full-on hag-i-fication.

All my life, some part of me was still struggling to please the patriarchy. Will the patriarchy still like me with this haircut? Am I shaving my legs correctly for the Man? Is this the right dress for the patriarchy?

(Side bar: I am going to start adding “for the patriarchy” to my fortune cookies – replacing the standard “in bed” – so I’ll see such fortunes as “You will soon go on a great journey. For the Patriarchy.” You can play, too! It’ll be fun!)

This new regime is a Shit Show but its extreme patriarchal nonsense is such that it has finally liberated me from some of the last bits of the Patriarchal Pleaser in my subconscious. I don’t care if the patriarchy likes me. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t. I would take it as a point of pride at this point to be dismissed by the patriarchy. I am done cultivating my image. I am done worrying if I’m pretty enough, if I’m fitting in, if I am aesthetically pleasing. I had decades of that and now…I am embracing my inner hag. And she is pissed. And NASTY.

And I am not alone in this feeling, I have recently discovered. After I wrote the first draft of this post, I read an article by Madeline Davies in Jezebel, essentially pointing to the same impulse. Women on the street, the sorts of whom have never given me a second look, are suddenly smiling at me and nodding. I think we recognize each other now – the dissidents – the patriarchal warriors. When I go out into the world now, I strap on my beat-up boots (Snaps Missing; 4, Fucks Given: 0) and feel like I’m gearing up for battle. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never wear lipstick again or that I’ll never wear that sexy black dress. But it does mean that I’m only putting that stuff on for me. The patriarchy can go fuck itself.

The good news is that I can fight the patriarchy just by existing, just by walking around in my body. And for every “fat bitch” that gets shouted at me, just for taking up space in the world, I am now receiving nods and solidarity from my fellow warriors in equal measure. It’s a fight out there, for sure – but I am hagged up, geared up and ready to go. The patriarchy may have won this round but the fight’s not over.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Discomfort of Being Different Part Two

Occasionally, right after I push PUBLISH on my blog, I get a flood of additional ideas on the topic. I start to think of ways I should edit it or concepts I want to add. Sometimes I’ll go back in and edit or add – other times I’ll just let it lie. And sometimes I need to continue the thought in an entirely new blog post. That’s what happened when I opened up the floodgates on sexism in theatre. Thoughts just kept rushing in and I had to write follow-up-post after follow up. Some of those were based on the feedback I was getting and some of it was the swirl of it all marinating in my brain.

This post is of the marination variety. In thinking about being different – from the social science around non-conformity to my own history, I realized there was an additional factor that I didn’t factor in to my initial thoughts on the subject. That factor, in my case, was gender.

Because, in theatre (as in almost everywhere else,) the best way to be the Same – to conform, is to be a middle class white man. The numbers mean that nine times out of ten when I’m in a theatre doing someone else’s show, I’m in the minority. I am already different, just by being born a woman. And because of that, there is an added pressure to fit in, to do things the way they’ve always been done. Working female directors (all 22% of them!) mostly make their names directing plays about men. Women playwrights get more productions if their plays are about men. In order to assimilate, one has to take on the dominant culture – and that culture is male and white. (This all applies to race, too, but I will save that post either for someone else or the moment after I push publish on this one.)

What this all adds up to for me is the sense that I’m already a foot behind in the FITTING IN GAME and it is tricky to be perceived as the Non Conformist I am, rather than the woman who doesn’t know the rules because she’s a woman. There is a presumption, right at the outset, that I don’t know what I’m doing, based on my gender. There are theatre companies who will baldly state that they don’t hire women. So if I’m DOING the job of directing, for example, I’m expected to be too feminine, to be doing things wrong. There’s a sense that I should be doubly aggressive to make up for my gender.

The fact that I refuse to do this has been a problem throughout my career. And I think it’s a problem throughout the culture, too. We lose so much potential by leaving out the female experience of leadership. Jill Soloway’s work on The Female Gaze is the FIRST TIME in my decades on the planet, that I have heard a woman in a position of prominence able to advocate for a female aesthetic and style of leadership. It is incredibly inspiring. And incredibly unusual. It requires a great deal of tolerance of that discomfort of doing things differently. Soloway asks her camera operators to feel with her subjects. She hires a crew that can cry. I can only begin to imagine how the established film crew guys react to that. What I don’t know is how she manages those confused and angry folks used to doing things the usual way. That is the trick I’d like to learn to master.

I think a lot of that finessing of the world around one comes with age. The older I get, the less I care what other people think – that is, the desire to fit in has begun to diminish dramatically. At the moment, I’m still straddling the line. I’m not yet able to wholly reject the dominant culture. Probably because I’m not really part of it.

Soloway, having already achieved traditional success in film and TV has the credentials to tell the patriarchy to go fuck itself. She can say something as radical as: men should just stop making movies and make space for women’s voices and while I’m sure that blowback is intense, she can perhaps, watch it roll by from the top of the heap. I’m still hoping to make a little mark and it is hard to do from the fringes. So – time, I hope will help me to tolerate more and more the feeling of my own differences. Every decade I live, I lose more of that people-pleasing shame that limits me now.

photo by Cassidy Kelley

 

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



We Almost Had It. 38 Years to go now.

Ever since I read Marge Piercy’s Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, I have been obsessed with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. I’ve read numerous biographies of her and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. Despite there being no shortage of plays, stories and movies written about them, I have been unable to resist writing my own version of their story. (It’s either called Public Women or Hamlet, Without the Ghost.)

When I read these histories, I see this extraordinary moment when women ALMOST got the vote, when Victoria Woodhull could advocate for “Free Love” and when women’s rights ALMOST happened in an expansive and profound way. And it didn’t happen. The backlash was forceful and intense and rather than ushering in a new age for women, it led to a more repressive age and women didn’t get the right to vote for another 38 years.

Victoria Woodhull was a very modern woman in the late 1800s. She was a fierce advocate for women being able to divorce their husbands, for women to have access to birth control and to be able to control their own lives. With their newspaper, she and her sister wrote about the cruelties many women were compelled to endure at the time. They told truths others were afraid to report. She insisted that she be allowed to speak to Congress. She and her sister were the first woman to run a stock brokerage, one specifically created to serve other women. (How many of those have there been since?)

Woodhull wasn’t perfect but she was inspiring and a kicker open of doors. Part of my despair at the election results this year has been related to my sense of history. Hillary Clinton got much closer to being president than Woodhull ever did but I fear the blacklash will be the same or maybe worse because of it. History is full of these moments of women lifting their heads out of the fray and then being fiercely pushed back down.

For one short day in November, before the horror kicked in, I could imagine what life would be like if we had a woman as president. And not just any woman. A highly capable, intelligent woman. And on that day, I felt like my life might be valuable, that I might finally be able to make a contribution to the world in a meaningful way that there was hope for us. And then the hammer came down. And I am afraid that the repression that will follow will be a lot like what happened all those years ago. The same tropes have already emerged – punishing women for getting abortions, decriminalizing sexual assault, making birth control less available. It’s an old old strategy. And I am very afraid that the glorious freedom and future I imagined is now beyond the scope of my lifetime. That’s what history suggests. I hope it will be different this time. But….history is history.

In the end, Victoria Woodhull landed on her feet. She moved to England and had a jolly time of things with her third husband. But…but – what could have been for the rest of the country? That’s the heartbreaker.

The stories that have moved me the most in the aftermath of this election are all the little girls who watched their mothers devastated by the news and who will grow up to do something about it. I have heard numerous stories of tiny daughters proclaiming their candidacy for the future. This is gorgeous and encouraging and I have faith that those little girls will make a better world for us. But we’ll have to wait for them to grow up. I assume, given history’s likelihood to repeat itself, that we will have to shoulder the burden of the patriarchy another 38 years just as the women of the 1880s did. I hope it will be sooner. But given the circumstances —I doubt that it will.

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Theatre Was a Tool of the Patriarchy
February 16, 2016, 11:33 pm
Filed under: Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,

Visiting Greece inspired me profoundly. I was struck by the landscape, the stories, the history of the theatre. In a previous blog, I wrote about my sudden understanding of how intertwined Democracy and Theatre were. I was deeply moved to think of how important theatre was to the Ancients. I was also struck by the fact that women were included in the Ancient theatre audiences – even if they weren’t on stage. Apparently, they were expected to attend. It was all very exciting to imagine.

 

The same evening I learned about the history of theatre and democracy, I got to see a production of Orestes in the Theatre at Epidaurus. It was an interesting production that I was glad I saw. AND I couldn’t help but notice how chock full of misogyny it was. This made me remember how full of misogyny almost ALL the Greek plays were which made me think that maybe, just maybe, that’s what all those plays were for.

 

In a way, it feels like the ancient plays exist to tell women to shut up and not worry their pretty little heads about the choices men make. I was particularly struck by a passage from Orestes in which he was pleading for his life and argued that if the crowd listened to Menelaus they were all going to be forced to listen to their wives from now on and did they want THAT? Oh no.

 

I mean, Greek democracy has been the model for many a civilization. It emphasized everyone participating in civic questions – rich, poor and in between. It was, by all accounts, a vibrant, lively, civic experience. For men. Because women were not a part of this democracy and all kinds of decisions about war and whether or not their sons and lovers and families were going were made without their voices.

 

The production I saw at Epidaurus featured translated modern English surtitles. The titles used the word “bitch” with startling regularity and the effect served to really bring out how often women are disparaged in the play. The fact that there ARE women in these ancient plays is interesting (especially since they were played by men) but in so many ways it feels like they are there to be put under control. Every single woman in Orestes is threatened with death and/or rape and even the woman who is already dead at the top of the play is posthumously denigrated. I’m sure there are translations of various plays that feel less threatening. But I wonder if our modern translations soften the misogyny a bit to make them more palatable for us.

 

I am deeply inspired by the past. I think there are a great many things worth returning to our roots for: the democracy of the first theatres for example. But I think Western Theatre may have some misogyny built right in to our history. It’s Baked In. Like an ingredient in a pie, it is so ingrained we don’t see it and it has traveled through so many generations – the theatre just naturally reinforces the patriarchy. This would explain why theatre has been so far behind in achieving gender equality. Perhaps it began for the opposite reason.

 

But. I am a Theatre Maker. And if theatre began as a tool for the patriarchy, I still think we could use it to end it. If once theatre aimed to control women – now, perhaps, we can use it to liberate us. But with our eyes open.

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