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My writing habit began when I was informed that I could write letters to Santa as a little girl. Each year I’d compose a detailed summation of the ups and downs and why I deserved special treats to keep me going. It was a profit and loss report of my childhood penned with crayons actually and intented to strike a zero balance with hopes of new beginninge, delicious cookies, refreshing milk (which I was sure would kill him by not being refridgerated for so many hours) and carrot sticks for the reindeer.

This habit grew into more than a seasonal pattern and by pre-adolescence I was fighting battles with my raging narcissitic Mother not with my fists or my tongue, but with my pen. I once wrote something that leveled her so completely she flat out called me a writer. This pissed me off and I took an immediate adolescent vow to never be such a thing.

But, here I am again. With words. Words. The ultimate weapons of deception and crushing rule. The slobbering bowling alley beer belch of what should have be a field of flowers childhood. Words. The truth levelers.

I kept writing words for some reason.

I wrote plays. I wrote solo plays. I found that inventing worlds and people to dwell in them actually gave me a reason to live. And so words became my lifeline. Literally.

Then, I trained to be an actor. I also started directing when I was 17. And by the time the 90’s hit I was touring my words and the words of others in the form of various solo shows. One included a parrot from my youth named Sam who sat atop a ladder wearing a sweatshirt backwards like a straight jacking, cocking head to and fro saying “hello!” “gonna get your tail!” and then laughing manically. This confused the musical theatre goers of Annie. I was invited to Gunston as part of their Innovators Series. This is a theme for me, sometimes viewed as innovator, sometimes freak outsider. They essentially called me a freak in talk back sessions. Although they would never use that kind of vernacular. Daddy Warbucks and exploitative orphanages are family entertainment but an innocent childhood pet relived is outrageous!  They just attempted to condescend with a corrective tone about what theatre was supposed to be and how I wasn’t that and glued eyelids on me with a general sense of disgust just this side of apathy. Outrage in the form of a dusty statuate that sat at home on their shelves and somehow tried to speak of love and devotion and supremacy. It all came with its own smell.

In 1999 I finished this solo show called “Til It Hurts”. It was a tough one and I performed it everywhere. In the corners of womens bookstores as I faced a wall of butt plugs and vibrators. In the backs of bars with a window behind so the audience could watch people taking out their trash. Generally in spaces that could be easily mistaken initiall as the door to the restroom.

I saw a post after I closed that show on my birthday (Oct 10) in 1999 that there would be a symposium at the Naitonal Museum for Women in the Arts. It was to be a panel of DC’s female directors. Joy Zinnomen, Molly Smith, and about three others. I can’t remember if I had to scrape together money to go but I most definitely got myself there.

I listened in that grand space that was way too proscenium for me. I listened with great intent. They talked. They said theatres were not made of bricks and mortar. They said theatres were made of people. Joy and Molly joked about their early days together in DC and how no one in the industry would talk to them or take them seriously.

At the end, they asked if anyone had any questions. So, I raised my hand and I stood up. I said that I’d finished touring four different solo shows, two I’d written myself. And, that I was really starting to understand that theatre was inteded to be a collaborative form. I missed ensemble. I missed table discussions. But, my experience was that the roles out there for me were not challenging at all. I’d already been an anorexic ingenue and played masked grotesque creature for a woman hating director in college, and toured as a padded up mockery of womanhood. I even had a political satire gig that left me sometimes impersonating the first lady Hilary at the National Press Club and sometimes with balloons in my bra on the steps of the capital. Balloons that various tourists would sometimes touch or put stickers on as nipples.

This was not what I’d trained to do.

I was thinking of starting my own theatre. I was thinking of finding roles for women that went beyond the Mother/Whore/Saint. But, this was all new to me and quite frankily I’d come out to get expert advice.

I remember the room applauded me. And that was unexpected. The woman on the panel spoke to me with words of encouragement.

It was blurry though. And, I was still unclear. I bent down to pick up my bag from the floor and when I looked up about 12 women formed a semi-circle around me. I was not going anywhere. They are the ones who encouraged me most. I have no idea who they were.

Except, a woman named Liana. I found myself taking the elevator down with her and discovered she was on mass transit so decided to drive her home and we talked the whole way.

She said that she’d been reading in the Post about these Irish men called the Molly Maguires. That there was more and more information coming out about the men, but nothing mentioned about the women.

So, in that one night, a ten year Molly Maguire project was launched (I’ve written four plays now on the topic. The final is published and the editor, Philip Mosley, presented a paper on my process to a panel of professors in Austria). I started Venus Theatre in 2000 with the first production being Daughters of Molly Maguire and Liana being on the board.

In that one night all of this launched from that one place.

Tonight, I am called back to that grand structure. Molly Smith and six male artistic directors who each make more in one year than I will likely see in a lifetime decided to launch a Woman’s Voices Festival over brunch three years ago. Tonight is the launch party.

I am called. I am challenged.

If I could crayon up a profit and loss of these past 16 years I’d have a lot to say. The first thing I’d want to say is that through my research and reading I’ve discovered that we all stand on grand shoulders. Anyone who claims to represent theatre for women should have certain words dangling from their lips at all times. Names. Sappho. Lady Gregory, Charlotte Cushman, The Women’s Franchise League. The texts and works of these women should be understood and their lives should be known.

This, to my mind, is basic education akin to understanding adding and subtracting before attempting to multipy.

So, to boast of launching without basic education could actually be counterproductive and go to serve the tokenism and head patting of women instead of to level a field of equality. Much as the anti-suffrage argument so often stated, “look what we’ve done for you, you don’t need your own voice”.

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Secondly, in those 16 years, I’ve produced 53 plays, with the 54th beginning in two weeks. Five of the works premiered at my company are getthing published this year alone. Some of the scripts I’ve produced have been 20 years old. Sititng in drawers. Collecting dust.

So, the perception that we have to CREATE female writers because they simply have not yet existed is both false and incredibly ignorant.

Just thinking about the works that will never be discovered and the names that will never be spoken sends me into a downward spiral of despair.

Add to that the nature of new works. A new play needs three full productions before it even knows itself. The trend of the ten minute play, the trend of reading plays until the read well, the trend of workshopping plays until they workshop well all work against building plays that play well. The extreme focus on literature over performance is a giagantic problem these days. The theories and concepts trump the experiences and practical application. It’s a recipe for disaster.

So we need education. We need advocacy. But mostly, we need equity.

I recieved the email three years ago and it read, “I know it’s a lot to ask, but do you think in three years time you could produce a play by a woman?” ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!?!?!?! I fired back and got no response.

I went to a meeting at the Shakespeare Theatre where they were promoting a reading of a grandmother of our contemporaries and the room was told we should be producing her. REALLY!?!?!?! With what besides cell tisuue? WHY AREN’T YOU PRODUCING HER?

With three years and half a million dollars in budget the website rolled out two months late and the only promotion goes back to The Big Seven. The Big Seven dwell on a kind of Mount Olympus and are indeed the demigods of our theatre world. By merely mentioning any of the opinions above I risk the wrathe of TBS.

The thing is, I could give a shit.

Why? Because I’m poor. I’m really fucking poor. I’ve been waiting three months to get my shower fixed and paying my people modest stipends as they turn out first rate work. I’ve been having to defend WHY I pay less than union rates even as the TBS run millions of dollars in the red..

The box office numbers at Venus have actually dropped dramatically on our current show. How is that possible with three years and half a million dollars? Especially if the only accountability for the dollars is marketing? We’ve been asked to offer discounts and workshops for free. Not one person came to the workshop they promoted outside of Venus. Not one. There are no endowments. No incentives or awards to the companies who have been holding the line from this pop up organization that claims to OWN the line.

So, what is the benefit for those of us who have been out here on the front lines living in poverty, taking risks, and spinning gold out of the straw left in the landfills of elite theatres?

WHAT. IS. THE. BENEFIT?

I’m not that confused girl asking questions from my percieved demigods anymore. I am a woman and I know what I’m doing. and the truth is I could step away from it now and feel more accomplished in my life than I ever expected. Truly.

But, the problem is we have come to represent something. Venus represents small business. Venus is among the longest running women’s theatres in the world. The only nonprofit female run women’s theatre in my state. And like Wal-Mart and the other breadboxes, these gigantic business structures have the power to crush us if they so choose. I hope this festival isn not  that. A deceptive thought, becuase it is operating under the guise of liberation.

Where is the advocacy? Where is the equity? Where is the education?

I was told that yes, what I was doing was nice and all…by a woman who carries the mantle of representing all minorites. She told me that they needed the big houses to do it because that’s what matters. The Big Seven.

I suddenly wanted to go back in time and visit the Cotton Club. I could see the brilliance rising up out of the sweat. The notes reverberataing the wood in the walls and changing the shape of the world. The ice keeping the drinks colder than possible because the room was full of sheer talent and moxy and a powerful truth resonated up through the sacrifice in every moment.

I could see the country club on the other of the the tracks. Polished and pristine, deciding it was time they heard the blues but not wanting to offend their existing audiences yet needing the newer crowd. Instead of honoring where the work was really happening, they bought a bunch of tar and launched the black face movement and called it success.

It is very difficult not to have emotions around all of this.

I will go to this grand room tonight and revisit the location of the incepion of my business dream. What an incredible ride. What an amazing opportunity. My gratitude is too grand for language. Honestly.

Inside of that, I await the profit and loss, the annual report, the story that the accountability of their money will tell. I await the zero balance which will allow us all to move forward on level ground.

I will stand on shoulders. I will listen.

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