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’

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