Monday, June 23, 2014

Woman as image, man as bearer of the look...A History of Women in Theatre Part 3 of 3

At Odds:  Negotiating with the internalized oppressor:
Representing women on stage clearly creates a particular dilemma regarding exposure and identity, and not only because female performers have been objectified.  While our perceptions of male and female roles (figurative and literal) are ever metamorphosing, distant echoes of the 19th century underpin our framing of male and female behavior.  A recent study aired on PBS Radio, in which MBA students were given histories of entrepreneurs whose start-ups had failed, and asked to evaluate the entrepreneur's actions and choices. [1]  Each business history was printed twice, one copy citing a man as the entrepreneur and the other copy naming a woman.

The results found that women and men were evaluated differently for the same actions.  When it was believed that the entrepreneur was male, adjectives such as ‘persistent’, ‘focused’, ‘optimistic’ were used.  When it was believed that the entrepreneur was a woman, the entrepreneur was described as ‘aggressive’, ‘ruthless’, ‘unrealistic’. Protagonists 'drive' the plot in much the way entrepreneurs must 'drive' a business. 

The Sands study on gender bias in theatre found that female protagonists written by women were seen as unlikable by female artistic directors and agents.  In a dismissive attack on the Sands study, Thomas Garvey writes, "It's no secret, after all, that minority audiences unconsciously view characters as social emblems - and thus a negatively-drawn female character written by a woman could stir up greater feelings of unconscious betrayal in women than in men."[2]  While he misnames women as a minority and draws different conclusions than I do as to the significance of this, he touches on one of the reasons women may struggle to write and portray themselves. 

During the California workshops of Today I Live, Director Jessa Brie Moreno and I struggled with our judgment of the character Niaz.  Was she too strident in argument?   Was she unreasonable?  Why should she be reasonable? Was she unlikable?  Male or female, flawed characters are more interesting. We are all sometimes unlikeable, (why can’t we ‘cut Niaz a little slack’)?  Men have not been primarily valued in our society for their likeability, nor seen as strident when they are active.

Practice as Research: Obfuscation/Revelation
“[She, the writer] played the pivotal role…in the first production of the play; this enabled her to further explore issues of authorship and identity, through performance, and this…provides further evidence between her biography – her life and work – and her attitudes towards authorship and performance.”[3]

Playing the role of "Niaz" for the first time, I felt hugely exposed.  Herein is best exemplified the desire to reveal and to hide as it manifests specifically for women performers when they find themselves in the realm of ‘taboo’: revealing their desires or their rage.  Watching intimate scenes enacted by others in anything I’ve written always causes me to blush, burst into laughter, or make self-deprecating quips to the actors .  While most English playwrights I have met are quiet, thoughtful introverts, I appear to approach my role as playwright as another type of performance, a tendency of which I feel obscurely ashamed.  I believe that I should be more enigmatic, more dignified.  But isn’t this expectation in itself a little pretentious?

How much more intense is the internal conundrum when I play a role I’ve written.  Enacting my own scenes in front of others, I cannot say, “Darling, the playwright made me do it,” without underlining my own culpability.  Character feels like scant refuge, under these circumstances, for:  “ – the ‘character’ which ‘even though a version of the writer, is a created identity, a representative figure of the author’s idea of self’”.[4]

The "three in a bed" scene in TodayI Live is particularly problematic for the actor-writer:
  Niaz and Farhad (lately estranged) have been drinking.  They lie on the bed together, embracing. Unbeknownst to anyone, Michael (a man living in 1821 in the flat) is also in the bed.  Niaz kisses Michael, who is hidden in the bedclothes, thinking he is her husband Farhad.  She comes to sitting, continuing to kiss Michael who is now seen by the audience.  The audience reaction was enormous, a wave, a shout of laughter breaking over the stage.  I too laughed, partly because I wanted to join the audience in their enjoyment and partly perhaps because I was embarrassed that I had written something like this!  A highly inappropriate perspective to take while onstage; I am acting in front of an audience and my character isn't laughing.[5]

Why did I write this and why did I enact it?  And herein a female actor-writer’s dilemma suggests itself: the desire to be viewed as we are and in so doing reclaim an empowered sexuality, coupled with an urge to hide engendered by our perception that this is an act of indecent self-exposure.   Particularly problematic when haunted by the ghost of ‘the actress as whore.’  An actor wants to be seen and protected by the mask of character; a playwright wants to be heard, yet protected by invisibility, like the voice of Oz behind the curtain[6].  As the actor-writer playing Niaz, I had fewer 'obfuscations' at my disposal.

On a personal level, the actor Johnny Moreno (Farhad), is the director's husband, and we are all friends of long-standing.  Being directed by Jessa in a love scene with her husband was a bizarre experience.   Of the three of us, only Jessa appeared entirely relaxed and content.  I imagine that Johnny and I were ‘watching’ her watching us, the inner mantra of both possibly being:  “This is not me, this is the character, these are not us, these are our characters…” And yet, the use of the self is central to my acting practice.  I need to be present to my own momentary impulses.  Telling myself “I am not me” is to disengage, rather than be alive to impulse.

In this split experience, one is thus experiencing playing the role, while watching oneself through the eyes of the audience in ‘Lacanic’ mirror fashion.[7] Here is the “interplay of acting and staging within a dialogic text,” the text emerging from the inner dialogue of actor and writer within the artist.  [8]  This experience suggests that writing without staging may not work theatrically, although of course you need not be an actor to write a successful play.  Rather, playwrights must be conscious of staging as they write.  Thus seeing the action onstage from the point of view of audience while being onstage is undeniably useful to the writer.  By playing the role oneself, the writer becomes “acutely aware of both the audience” and “that the spectator is a force somehow allowing or driving the action, the unfolding of character, the revelation of meaning.”[9] Like the playwright-actor Susan Glaspell, after a day of rehearsing my play as an actor, I return home and cross things out; I make changes based on the actor’s experience of the role on stage.

Although this method satisfies the needs of the writer, it is problematic to performing the role, in a truly present and spontaneous fashion. As an actor I want to immerse myself in the part, remain in the moment with other actors – not transport myself out of body into a form of ‘tri-consciousness’.
"Woman as image, man as bearer of the look
 ...The presence of woman is an indispensable normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation..."  As Budd Boeticher has put it:
            What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents.  She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does.  In herself the woman has not the slightest importance."[11]

I think that this passage illustrates why the character of Niaz has troubled me as a writer and taken me longer to develop into a successful protagonist.  I am unaccustomed to seeing female protagonists: towards creating one, few reference points exist.[12]  In my experience, women are highly active in aspects of their life, but frequently receptive in aspects of the male/female engagement.  Towards myself as writer, there is always the interrogation:  Is this right?  Is this how it is?  Is she active enough?  Is she too active?  What am I saying here - about women, about myself? 

The structure of Today I Live is unconventional, partly due to Niaz being an unconscious protagonist.   While she is determined to be the executor of her own artistic life, and struggles forward on her path as a visual artist, she is unconscious that her actions impact and even dictate the life of a man living within the flat in another time.  Michael is Niaz's 'invisible' model, and becomes her muse.  In her mind's eye she views him and paints him.  His visual presence freezes moments, and yet rather than working against the action, these moments create space for the audience to enter the world of the play.  All in all, this is not an exact role reversal, but a struggle for new ground.[13]

Only in playing Niaz myself, did I become aware of this ambivalence around ‘action’, which lay at the heart of my internal dialogue between the actor playing Niaz and the playwright (me and myself).[14]  The elliptical relationship between actor/writer thus serves to illuminate choices the writer initially made unconsciously.  A conscious writer can choose to use this information to become more ‘muscular’ and active in her writing.

[1] As heard on PBS station KQED, San Francisco, CA
[2] Thomas Garvey, Opening the Curtain on Emily Glassberg Sands, Part III, The Hub Review, August 20, 2009 (
[3]Nicola Shaughnessy, The Disappearing Subject in Susan Glaspell’s Auto/biographial Theatre Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004) p. 44
[4] Mary Jean Corbett cited by Viv Garder, The Three Nobodies: Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004) p. 12
[5] See photos REFERENCE p.55-59
[6] L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (New York, NY: Harper Collins 2001)
[7] ‘The Mirror Stage” is the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan in which an infant recognizes itself in a mirror, or the symbolic ‘mirror’ of a parent etc., which induces the infant to view self through the perspective of the mirror as an object.
[8] Nicola Shaughnessy, The Disappearing Subject in Susan Glaspell’s Auto/biographial Theatre Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004) p. 42
[9] Ibid.
[10] Referring to dual-consciousness as interpreted by Stanislavsky: Sharon Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus, 2nd Edition: An Acting Master for the 21st Century (Abingdon, Oxon UK: Routledge, 2009)
[11] Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema: (Screen 16/3, Autumn, 1975) pp.6-18
[12] Recently successful on British television: "Call the Midwife" and "The Hour" (among others) have strong female protagonists and are written by women; I am energized signs of a sea change in the right direction
[13] See photo REFERENCE p.59
[14] Which touches on just feedback received from male mentors desiring more high-powered ‘events’

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Actress/Actor, Past and Present... A History of Women in Theatre Part 2 of 3

Actress/Actor, Past & Present:
 "At particular historical moments, the body of the actress (assumed to be an object onto which male desires were projected) and the body of the prostitute (assumed to be an object onto which male desires were enacted) slipped discursively into one: whore/actress."[1]

In Possession, the Actor stands in a queue for a cattle call audition for Les Miserables:
ACTOR: An assistant to the assistant director got me a ‘special’ audition.  Special as in stand in a queue round the corner…. I met him at the Ivy.  Pretending to be up and coming.  Me.  Maybe him as well... They never do something for nothing.

In performing the role of Actor in Possession, there were times when I felt that a one-night stand had occurred (in her fictional life), on the night alluded to in the text, when character when actor and assistant director met at The Ivy.  At other times, the character of Actor realized in the moment of telling, that she had now compromised herself by accepting the audition.  It is interesting that sexual activities are often said to be: ‘performed.’  They are also considered ‘acts’.

One of the most interesting aspects of my research, were found in the accounts of three 'ordinary' actresses ('nobodies') from the 19th century, all of whom obscured their identities under pseudonyms. [2]  There is a persistent irony in the desire of actors who disguise themselves as others, longing to be seen for who they truly are. "[I am] content if what I wrote....may help to remove an unjust prejudice from the minds of those who think only of an actress as an...irresponsible being, without conscience, principle or self-respect, and incapable of understanding the serious duties and responsibilities of life." [3]

These three 'nobodies' recount the difficulties faced by women desirous of working with certain London theatres and touring companies, who were not 'kept' by a rich man, nor willing to exchange sexual favors for work.

I recognise in my younger self a definite naïveté regarding the business of theatre at large. My survival as an actor appeared to depend on choosing to ignore the way I was treated by many male directors.  How would I work if I allowed my discomfort to intrude?   My desire to act was great. 

Using my own experiences as a template, a female actor beginning her career in the late 20th century might experience the following:

  • The director sends away the stage manager and the leading male actor so that he may enact the scene with you himself and physically assault you.
  • On hearing that you used to ride horses, your director waxes lyrical about your muscled thighs pressing against said equine beasts.
  • You are pursued by male audience members outside of the theatre, who appear to confuse you with the character you are playing; it becomes frightening.
  • Yourself and other women in a production are expected to wear revealing clothing/expose your breasts although it is thought by all members of the cast that this is an extremely odd design/character choice.
  • Your fellow actor believes that he can only 'connect' with his leading ladies if he sleeps with them; You use emotional reserve as a way to keep him at a distance.  Discussing the production years later with the director of the production, you find that he the director holds you responsible for the resulting lack of emotional grasp, voicing that you should have 'humored' the other actor, at least emotionally...

The accounts of 19th century female actors whose autobiography is “threaded through with stories of sexual exploitation of women in theatre”, affirm the universality of this experience.  By “recognizing the centrality of sisterhood to personal achievement,” I become the witness of myself through them; empowerment through contextualization.  Possession is a concrete manifestation of a newfound desire to contextualize myself as female actor-writer.[1]

[1] Viv Garder, The Three Nobodies: Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004) p.27

[1] Kristen Pullen, Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, February 2005) p. 2
[2] Viv Garder, The Three Nobodies: Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004)
[3] Ascribed to Alma Ellerslie, Ibid., p.13

Friday, June 20, 2014

Developing my Own Voice: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Part 2

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman:
My training at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art[2] had a profound impact on my attitudes to work and learning.   Promoting a process-oriented approach to a wide variety of actor’s tools, the training was rigorous and diverse.[3]  We were admonished not to ‘end-gain’, but rather to lean into each moment of an exercise without worrying about getting it right.  An excellent methodology and easier said than done.  Such attitudes to work and learning I imperfectly strive to maintain.  

One of my most life changing classes at RADA proved to be Contemporary Text taught by Lloyd Trott. [4] Lloyd assigned us plays, requiring that we write a monologue for a character within the play. Appropriating the style of the writer became a ticket to each writer's unique world. I was required to observe, intuit, react and expand on the playwright's emergent themes. Lloyd’s arranged marriage between actor-writer had potency: a solid practice which released our ability as actors to deeply engage in performance of these texts, resulting in some of our best work.

Developing my own voice was not something I thought about in conscious terms.   Looking backwards I can see that this has been central to my work since the beginning.  I can best understand the themes I am writing about by looking sideways at them after the fact.  During the initial brainstorming for Possession[5], the character of a shadowy woman emerged, a mistress of William Shakespeare, she told her stories to him in bed.  Appropriating her tales, Shakespeare put them in his plays.  Possession chose to manifest in a radically different way, and the idea was shelved.  But the idea of a woman who gives her words away, unable to speak them in the public arena as herself, reveals my preoccupation with ‘voice’ with all it’s layers of meaning. The need to be heard was held close to the surface.

"Welcome to a parallel universe…":[6]
 Having completed RADA, and out of acting work, I began writing my first play Alaska.   By happy coincidence, I ran into my former instructor Lloyd Trott at the party of our mutual friend, Cambridge Jones.  Lloyd encouraged me to write Alaska for radio and enter it in BBC Radio 4’s First Bite, Young Writer’s Contest, deadline imminent.  I submitted the play with no expectations.  I couldn’t have been more surprised to win, resulting in a substantial writer’s fee and production of the play on BBC Radio 4 with then rising actor Michael Sheen in the lead role.

Alaska is relevant to these articles thematically, the genre reminiscent of 1950’s science fiction.  In an icy world peopled entirely by men, two young men genetically engineer a woman, feeding her cultural information gleaned from women’s magazines.  The experiment is initially successful and Frank (Michael Sheen) falls in love with his creation, Winona (Nancy Crane).  When Winona, (biologically unstable from the accelerated growth process of her gestation) returns his love, the contradictory information she has assimilated (via the likes of Cosmopolitan Magazine), leads to her death.[7]

What struck me forcibly in my first experience in the role of playwright, was the respect I was accorded by everyone in the production process.  To an actor or director, bent on trying to crack open a play, the playwright is the mysterious keeper of secrets, arguably one of the main reasons for everyone else’s presence in the room. All actors on the other hand, have experienced feeling like a rich man’s fading mistress:  easily replaced. My status as a writer is enviable when contrasted to the way I have sometimes been made to feel as an actor. 

Turning playwright was like going over to the other side in an unacknowledged theatrical class divide.   Tentatively on the path of playwriting, I ricocheted schizophrenically between these two roles, returning to the US as an actor in the role of Kyra in David Hare’s Skylight at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.   I was never quite ready to say, “I am no longer and actor.”  In the UK, I had felt pressure to choose.  I found in California an environment in which duality thrives and is sometimes encouraged.  Once I had children, playwriting became the easier choice.  However:  "We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I'm not sure we deserve such big A-pluses for all that."[8] 

Beginning the MFA at UC Davis opened a door to revisit and improve my acting craft as a student for the first time in years.  I am humbled to admit that I had no idea how much I still had to learn.[9]  I was on the artistic fence, skirt hiked up over a small divide, and soon to redefine myself through hyphenation.

Hide and Seek: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Part 3

Becoming the Actor-Writer
In 2010 and 2011, I visited London to workshop a stage play I’d been writing, Today I Live, in collaboration with my mentor Lloyd Trott.   I was hot on the heels of this fruitful writing process when I was accepted to UC Davis, and though excited about the course, I was loath to put work on the play aside and turn my hand entirely to acting and teaching.  But the illusion that we must choose is often as false as the illusion that we must do it all:  During my second year at UC Davis, I received a Margrit Mondavi Fellowship for further development of Today I Live and contrary to my previous expectation, had the opportunity for further work on the play, within the University environment.

Hide & Seek:
“The notion of ‘presence and absence’ is a recurring trope among all ‘performed autobiographies’…”[10] 
Hanna Berrigan, director of the London workshops, was curious to know why I myself didn’t play the central role in my play, commenting that I reminded her of the actress whom I have spoken to about playing the role of Niaz in a potential London production.   I responded that although I was drawn to the idea of playing Niaz in theory, not only am I from a different ethnic background than Niaz, but I have been largely concerned with seeing the character and the play from the outside. ‘Seeing’ Niaz has been a recurrent theme in this creative process. 

In much the way that it is difficult to see oneself, close loved ones or family members with any sense of impartiality it has been hard for me to write this character.  Whether I play her or not, Niaz is my voice hidden within the text.  I as the writer ‘appear’ to be absent from my play: a story that does not ‘appear’ to be autobiographic, bearing scant resemblance to the facts of my own life.  This exemplifies the typical artist’s game of hide and seek.  Obscuring myself under a metaphorical layering of the vastly different cultures and circumstances of my characters in Today I Live, I felt free to explore my own preoccupations, with which the play is bursting.   The Mondavi Fellowship gave me an opportunity to ‘try out’ Niaz as an actor on ‘the inside’, reporting back to the external writer, like a journalist on field assignment.   I was unsatisfied with how I had previously written the character and jumped at the chance to view her through a different lens.

I didn’t quite know what I was getting into.  My internal experience of double exposure in playing a role I have written, triggered a desire to hide all the time.   I struggled to free myself within the role, under the gaze of the observing and editing writer.  Failing to put the writer entirely aside during this process affected my playing of the role.  Constantly preoccupied with what the writing was doing or needed to be doing, kept me at a slight remove.  As this was the first time I’d ever played a character I have written, I wasn’t familiar with the pit falls I faced or how to avoid them.  Yet the process proved successful for ‘the writer’, who benefitted from the actor’s ‘live feed’, about what wasn’t working in the role of Niaz.

The experience was energizing, and yet I felt that my workshop performance was flawed.  This provoked in me a desire to develop the process of actor/writer collaboration.  What circumstances are most conducive to letting go of the critical eye?  Can I successfully act in something I have written? Some of the answers are found in the nuts and bolts of artistic process.  But to understand the conflicted relations of female writer to actor to self, I would like to paint the backdrop of our scene: the wider social and historical context from which the two emerge.

(Continued here:  "Disguise Thou Art a Wickedness")

[1]  Rosalind, As You Like It by William Shakespeare

[2] Hereafter referred to as RADA
[3] Process-oriented approaches to learning place as much value on the experience of doing exercises rather than the outcome or endpoint of a given task, in the belief that the deepest learning occurs through moment to moment ‘experiencing’ of the exercise itself
[4] Current Head of Dramaturgy at RADA
[5] The title of the solo exploration, which forms the practical aspect of this thesis:
[6] Excerpt from the BBC tagline to Alaska which aired on BBC R4: September 21st, 1995
[8] Toni Morrison as cited in Newsweek Magazine, March 30th, 1981
[9] I continue to take classes in aspects of craft I wish to improve and intend to do so for the rest of my life
[10]Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner, Auto/biography and Identity: Women, Theatre and Performance  (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press 2004) p. 3