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When/Should feminist theatre have to define itself?

August 7, 2010

Photo via Summerworks Festival (Aug 5-15 in Toronto, ON!)

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through the extensive Toronto Fringe Festival catalogue in search of some plays I might consider checking out. In the middle of my search, I remember coming across a particular review, which I unfortunately cannot find to reference, that made a remark on the inclusion of ‘feminist descriptions’ in the show’s blurb. Now, this got me thinking.

When I’m looking for shows to see, whether at a theatre or film festival, I’m normally the worst person when it comes to picking blindly from a list (I always seem to choose the dud). Hence, I rely on best-of-festival picks or good reviews to aid in the decision making process. Am I drawn to plays that use the word feminism (or similar) in the show description? Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not.

If I were looking for something to review for GAB though, a feminist mention in the description would certainly prod my attention. And this brings me to our titular question—should a theatre production that can said to strive to be a feminist production hint at this in the program (or other forms of promotion)? Or should it just be inherent?

The answer might seem obvious but I’ll give you an example. A while back I spoke with Kirsten Brandt, an award-winning playwright and director, who told me about an experience she once had while working in theatre.

I have done some very misogynistic things on stage but because I’m a girl I can get away with it. It’s really strange. I actually did a show, and I did it to make a point, actually a feminist statement but it was very misogynistic. And people were like ‘wow, that’s so cool’. But I was making a point about misogyny and the fact that we accept it even when it’s done by a woman and you guys are accepting this.

It was in a show (like ten years ago) and there were a whole series of factors that culminated in the men winning and we were trying to make this statement that there’s no way to beat down the patriarchy. And I guess because I’m a woman doing it, it ended up being a feminist take but it was the end of the play and we had the men sort of win and all the women, who were fierce and powerful, went ‘I want to be pretty!’ and started prancing around like runway models and I think if a man had directed that he would’ve gotten slammed by the female critics. But because I directed that, and it’s directed by a woman they went ‘oh she’s making a feminist statement’.

And yeah okay, I was making a feminist statement but I did something incredibly misogynistic on stage. And if you didn’t know it was directed by a woman, which was what I was hoping, they’d be (gasps) horrified that here the god Apollo kind of took the Furies and made them his hoes basically… that they would be appalled. But it kind of backfired in that they went ‘oh, Kirsten’s making a statement about women being able to be powerful even when they’re beautiful’ and I’m like no, I’m making a statement that you can’t combat patriarchy and if this had been directed by my predecessor, you would have been like ‘oh my god, that’s awful!’. – Kirsten Brandt, director and playwright

In Kirsten’s example, a feminist label (albeit, an assumed one) had a significant impact on the way the audience perceived the play. The audience thought she was making a feminist point because she was a woman when she was really trying to show how she could get away with misogyny on stage. But that’s simply one example in a culture where escaping definition is virtually unthinkable; labels, contexts and genre (these latter two are probably just synonyms for ‘label’) are basically staples when it comes to most kinds of performance arts. This is why defining ‘feminist theatre’ without the label is slightly tricky.

Play Nice! is a great script. Its about fantasy vs. reality, sisters with an abusive mother, and methods of coping with tragedy. It is not like the Vagina Monologues or Women’s Minyan or any other real message play of the feminist movement. So is it feminist?

My problem is that I think your average play should already have these things. Why is it so hard to find a play that just simply deals with women honestly, as people? – Aviva Pressman on the definition of a feminist play in Play Nice!

It is definitely woman-friendly, and I personally would argue that yes, it is feminist. It depicts women and girls as whole creatures without focusing on their bodies or confining them to the virgin/whore categories. It deals with abuse which is an issue that many women face and has a relationship between two young women as a central focus of the play.

Is Play Nice! a feminist production or is it (or should it be, as per Aviva) just a regular play that would make feminists happy? I believe that theatre should leave questions like these open-ended because you don’t want to spoon-feed the exact meaning of your piece to your audience (which is what Guerrilla Girls on Tour! also said when I recently spoke to them) as one of the treasures of modern theatre is the wide spectrum of interpretations one can walk away with. And for the record, I would rather go into a play as blindly as possible and make up my mind for myself.

But I still wonder if it is somehow self-reductive to not make mention of the themes explored if said production is trying to make a point. Not to slight the intelligence of audiences, but sometimes a little push in the direction of the creators’ vision can change a lot. I suppose the real question is, if feminism wants to be the norm and blend in, are there still times when it needs the label to be effective?

  1. David L permalink
    August 7, 2010 1:54 pm

    I’m always touchy about anyone who pins themes to themselves in a product description. It always seems to be better coming from a third party.

    I recently saw a play at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre where in the playwright’s bio they listed some credits with the tag “which explore his ongoing theme of exclusion from the mainstream.” I thought this was pretty forced. I think it would’ve been better if he could communicate his theme through the characters and story of the work we were about the watch rather than just put it right there in their bio.

    YET, on the other hand, on the back of the published edition of Theresa Rebeck’s “Spike Heels” is a quote from Time Magazine that says the play is “full of tart wit and feminist insight.” This didn’t seem as forced because SOMEONE ELSE said it. Yes, it was labeling a theme, but it was a THIRD PARTY labeling the theme rather than the play’s publisher/producer or Rebeck herself.

    Yet, I know how tough it is to get a 3rd party to weigh in when you aren’t a big name playwright like Rebeck and you are having your work performed at a fringe festival. So sometimes I imagine a BIT of spoon feeding could help as long as it super overt.

    -David (NYC)

    • August 7, 2010 9:45 pm

      Yes, I agree that there is nothing wrong, or can really be done about, 3rd party labelling (though in an ideal world, the media wouldn’t try to categorize every play they saw). Also, you make a good point about the size of the production and how bigger plays can afford to rely on just being 3rd party labelled. I wonder if there is anything smaller productions can do to avoid self-labelling… probably not much, unless they themselves created their own 3rd party to reflect on the play–though that’s likely cheating.

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