Direct And To The Point: Better Angels Of Our Nature

Last week I saw a production of a new musical. It had a female director and a team of young writers, half of which were also female. I could not have been more disappointed. If you were to look purely at the main story arc, this show could have been written in 1950.¬†As people who are creating and shaping cultural narratives, we need to take that responsibility seriously. One of the reasons I started directing was that I wanted to see women portrayed in a more three dimensional way on stage. I wanted to see more women represented on stage and I wanted to see them do something other than be a mother or a love interest. The world I experienced was much richer than the world I was continually seeing reflected back at me. In a previous post I talked about how theater can be valuable with regard to helping people their navigate emotional landscape in a healthier way. Another huge way that theater (and the other mediums for telling stories) can be hugely influential to the world around us is with regard to what they normalize. We’ve made tremendous progress since the 50’s but that progress needs to be reflected in the stories we tell. One of the ways we can help move that progress along to an even greater degree is by shifting the narrative. Here are some things that this production could have done differently in order to be more interesting and serve as a better model for what normal could (should) be.

change-quote-socrates

Women Shaming Women
Girl and boy break up. Girl is having a hard time getting over the break up and checks out boy’s Facebook page. She sees him smiling in a photo with another girl. Girl responds by calling the other girl “a slut”. I understand that girl is having an emotional outburst. I understand that her response is a laugh line. It’s not necessary (what we need know is that he’s moved on and she hasn’t) and it’s detrimental. Write a better joke. If anything she should be yelling at her ex-boyfriend for moving on. The new girl he’s with is not at fault for anything. Women shaming other women – for the way that they dress, for how sexual they are or aren’t – is something that just has to go. There’s enough pressure from fashion and media around how a woman should look and behave. It shouldn’t be reinforced in new works of theater. If her reaction has to go in that direction (and I maintain that it doesn’t since it doesn’t relate to her story line at all) I would rather that she called her “a bitch”. At least that word does not carry the same shaming connotations.

Beta Female
The Girl does exactly what she’s supposed to do and waits for her ship to come in. She bends over backward to please everyone around her. Finally, she lands a man. The Boy has been living the high life down on Wall St, but is fired after a corporate faux pas. He ultimately learns to follow his heart and do something meaningful. These characters are certainly still present in the modern world, but they are the low hanging fruit. They are the default, factory-setting positions for these characters.¬†Unless there’s something super unique about them or their worldview, it’s really difficult to make them interesting. If, at the very least, you just switch the genders (making her a career driven alpha female and him a people pleasing artist) you’re at least starting from a more interesting place. Additionally, the world needs more stories with powerful women and sensitive men. We are saturated with the reverse and it does not serve us as a society. We would do well do get to a point were a high powered executive is just as likely to be imagined female as male. Where the stay at home parent is just as likely to be portrayed male as female. If there are fewer societal stigmas separating genders, it allows everyone to find the lifestyle that best suits their skill set. Which in turn yields people who are happier and more fulfilled. Everybody wins!..But only if we shift the narrative around what’s “normal”.

Woman As Conquest
Boy is at a bar with some of his co-workers. His co-workers decide that he needs to “score” with a Girl and set about trying to help him “win” her. The co-workers know nothing about the Girl they think he should pursue. Boy also knows nothing about this Girl. (i.e. it’s not a scenario where he’s really gotten to know her and has just been too shy to ask her on a date). She has been seen and it is decided that she should be the evening’s prize. Then follows a whole song and dance number about how to get her to go out with him. At the end of which she is cornered into engaging with him. This narrative (in addition to being about as boring as they come) in the larger context of our society is harmful for both genders. It reduces women to being viewed as objects and reduces a man’s masculinity to his ability to “win” her. We would never believe a friendship or even a business partnership that was based on such a flimsy premise. We would expect the two parties to discover that they had something in common and something to gain from engaging with each other. But we would also expect both parties to opt in. You win the lottery, you win a game, you a court battle. You don’t win another human being. With regard to this particular scene and song in the production, it felt like this resulted because the writers felt like they needed a song featuring the Boy’s Friend. Which is completely valid. But in that case make it about how to appropriately and respectfully ask a girl out. Or how to put your best foot forward. Or how to build a relationship that lasts. Or any number of other relevant topics. There are numerous ways this concept could have been avoided and the effort needs to be made to do so. It’s one that is overdue for extinction.

Consent
Boy and Girl meet at a bar. Which then progresses to a date – they leave the bar (and their friends) to go out for hot dogs. At the end of said date, he kisses her. Why not instead have her kiss him. That at least makes her an active partner in their courtship. Best of all would be before anyone kisses anyone (that they only just MET a few hours before), they say, “May I kiss you?” and wait for the response. The issue of consent is a huge cultural shift that is long overdue. This adjustment costs us nothing with regard to the story. It doesn’t change the plot at all – what we need to understand is that they like each other, which we still get. It might add a line of dialogue, but it doesn’t even have to be a stopping point. They don’t have to have a whole conversation about consent. It’s probably better for the overall flow of this piece if they don’t. It’s just a tiny blip that says “asking for someone’s consent before you engage with their body is a normal thing to do.” We need to allow the idea that characters can engage with each other as active and willing participants to be romantic. And steer clear of glamorizing the notion that it’s somehow more meaningful if one character pushes themselves on another.

I don’t think any of these examples were decisions that were made in an attempt to perpetuate these older, not-so-helpful narratives. I think they weren’t decisions at all. I think they were defaults. The point is that if you are not conscious about what your work is saying, your work could be saying things that you wouldn’t intend to say.

Be aware – it is the first part of the process. Think from your highest intelligence – there are so many other solutions that can be found once we recognize we’re not going in the right direction. Take responsibility for what you create – the world is listening.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Ladies, All The Ladies

This post is a response to the production of Henry IV, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which was recently at St Ann’s Warehouse. Since this was my first time seeing a performance of Henry IV (and this production took the liberty of combining parts 1 and 2) I didn’t feel like it made sense to make this post about those texts. But I am interested in looking at one of the most notable things about this production – its all female cast. One of the things that I aspire to do as a director is to advocate for more and better roles for women. Shakespearean plays can be particularly uninspiring from this vantage point. Often, you’ll have 3 women’s roles to 15 men’s roles, and the size of those roles is significantly smaller in scope. And while Shakespearean plays are something of an open invitation for various conceptual ideas, it’s rare to see an all female production at this level. So, without further ado…Henry IV St Anns Warehouse

No apologies.

The single most striking element of this production was to see women in roles where there was no apologizing, no softness. In roles where they were initiating action, rather than just responding to what life threw at them. It was thrilling. An actress friend of mine had the opportunity to play Peer Gynt when she was in college. She summarized the difference of experience by saying that female roles are about being female, where male roles are about being human. Which sounds bold, but is actually very true especially with regard to females characters who are under the age of 40. Stories where there is a female protagonist are the minority. When they are the protagonist, their character arch typically revolves around love – falling in love, surviving love gone wrong, etc. And when they manage to avoid the love trap, they tend to be about responding to what’s happened to them – a parent has died, they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, a rebel droid won’t leave them alone. Female characters who pursue their own agenda are often portrayed as villains or deranged or both. I don’t find that to be an accurate representation of my life or the lives of the women I know. But when you hear all these stories and none of them reflect the reality you experience, you start to think it doesn’t really exist. So, it was refreshing on a really profound level to see these women have free reign to be fully human.

I forgot.

There were moments during this production where I forgot I was watching women, moments where I saw them as men. I find this fascinating, especially given that there was no attempt made by the production to disguise them as men. Because of the conceit of this production, that the story was taking place inside a women’s prison, all of the women playing male characters were dresses in grey sweats and t-shirts. But no effort was made to pass them off as men. Breasts were not taped down. If they had longer hair, it was simply pulled back in a pony tail. In an interview with Playbill, Lloyd mentioned that she had really encouraged the cast to use space the way men use space (ie. to take up more of it) and that shift felt very palpable. I love when you can do the heavy lifting of your story in an organic way rather than through special effects. If we want to impress people, special effects are great. But if we want people to be able to relate to us, it’s better to use our own facility.

The least interesting…

I found the two female characters of this production (Lady Percy and Mistress Quickly) to be the least interesting. I’m not entirely sure why that was. Certainly, they are among the smaller roles and are not intricately involved in the plot. But I wonder if having an all female cast contributed, in part, to that dynamic. In a production with traditional casting, these roles could display more masculine characteristics – Percy can be blunt in telling people exactly what she thinks, Quickly can crass and bawdy – without ever being in danger of confusing the issue of whether they are playing men or women. I don’t think these roles were intentionally pulled back, but they just didn’t standout. It’s worth thinking about how you distinguish your female roles from your male roles (and what function they serve) when your entire cast is female.

Still different.

I read an article recently that talked about the word “equal”. Its point was that we’ve begun using “equal” as a synonym for the word “same” and that we should strive to avoid that. Equal refers to a fixed quantity. Thus, men and women are not equal. They can have equal rights. They can be paid equal salaries. They can have equal intelligences. But they are not the same items. And when you replace one with the other, while many things will remain the same, there will be a shift in some things. One of the things my husband remarked on with regard to this production was that he missed the genuine affection and comradery between Hal and Falstaff that he had seen in more traditional productions. Which makes sense. The bulk of the interaction between these two revolves around Hal publicly humiliating Falstaff, a dynamic which is all in good fun among a group of guy friends. But among women, that dynamic doesn’t exist. Among women, that behavior is malicious and signals a major breach in the relationship. And since the women where not disguising themselves as men, this change of dynamic altered their relationship and significantly reduced the impact of Hal severing all ties with Falstaff in the final moments of the production.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.