The Trials and tribulations of producing “women’s theater”
By Jade Angelica
The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women plays at Arts Conservatory Theater & Studio, in Portland, Feb. 15 through March 2. Call (207) 761-2465.
“Because Betty, when you say, ‘[being a stagehand] is what I want to do,’ what you really mean is, ‘That’s what I’ve been conditioned to want to do.’ ” (Marie)
Gage indicts the “isms” of patriarchy.
On the first night of auditions, when Carolyn Gage, local playwright and director of The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women, asked Sheila Jackson what parts she would like to read, Jackson could have been delivering lines from the play — perfectly on cue.
“No, really. I don’t want to audition at all. I don’t want any of the parts. I’m not an actor. I’m a stagehand.” At that moment, Gage knew the “Theater Magic” had begun.
Gage adopted her definition of “magic” — the ability to change consciousness at will — from women’s spirituality leader Starhawk, and believes this “magic” is the purpose of live theater. She is convinced that theater is capable of changing people like no other art form.
Jackson came to the auditions to dip her toe in the theater pond by volunteering as a stagehand and eventually — maybe — to take on a small acting role. Before ending the auditions, Gage again asked Jackson if she would like to read, suggesting she try out for the part of Betty — coincidentally a stagehand who does not want to act because being in the spotlight makes her “uncomfortable.” She agreed to read, and her natural comedic talent sparkled on the stage. When offered the part of Betty, Jackson hesitated, but ultimately accepted the challenge, deciding to step outside of her comfort zone and try something she felt scared to do.
Sheila Jackson’s experience exemplifies Carolyn Gage’s vision of “women’s theater.” Gage deliberately invited women not typically chosen for acting roles in mainstream theater — women of all ages, sizes, races, classes, sexual orientation, and levels of experience — to join her newly forming company, Cauldron & Labrys. This is why Jackson, who has little acting experience; other cast members Rachel Welch, Nicole Carter, and Parks McKinney, who are “taking stage” for the first time; and I, novice assistant director, found the courage to venture as strangers into this strange land.
“Diane did not found this theater to forward her career, believe me. If that was her aim, she’d be working in the mainstream instead of some small, political women’s theater.” (Marie)
An internationally known, award-winning, radical, lesbian-feminist playwright, Gage is no stranger in theater-land. She is the author of more than 40 plays and has written four books on theater. Her collection of plays, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc & Other Plays, was named national finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in drama, and Gage travels the country performing the title work, The Second Coming of Joan of Arc, in her one-woman show. Gage’s one-act play, Harriet Tubman Visits a Therapist, which was presented at Actors Theater of Louisville in the Juneteenth Festival of African American Plays in 2001, was also a winner of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival. In December, 2001, her musical, Leading Ladies, was read on Broadway by Music in a Box, as a first step toward an Off-Broadway production.
Cauldron and Labrys is the fourth women’s theater company Gage has founded during her 20-year theater career. The closing of her last company over 10 years ago was the inspiration for The Anastasia Trials. She struggled to make sense of her visionary, idealistic dream of “perfect equality” gone wrong. As many artists do, Gage took her struggle to her art.
Producing this play about her former company has invited Gage to deeply engage with her decade-old struggle. A week into rehearsals, the woman cast as Diane, the idealistic founder of The Emma Goldman Theater Brigade, dropped out due to illness. Instead of finding another actor, Gage stepped into the role herself . . . not because she had a desire to act in this production, but because playing Diane felt like closure. Perhaps more “Theater Magic” was at work, since Gage had fashioned this character in her own likeness, and now — by a twist of fate rather than intention — she has the opportunity to explore and re-envision the idealism of her past.
“And you’ll notice there isn’t any place for the judge to sit, which is on purpose, because there isn’t any judge. The playwright told us that was because in the Court of Women, every woman is the judge.” (Betty)
Based on historical content, The Anastasia Trials is an audience-interactive, courtroom drama about the five women who betrayed Anastasia Romanov, the last surviving daughter of the Tsar of Russia, by failing to identify her. The female members of the audience are cast as judge and jury. Via the play’s dialogue, Gage-as-playwright argues her case for feminism “against the pragmatism of women’s lives as we live them under patriarchy.” Along with the defendants who betrayed Anastasia, Gage seeks also to indict the “isms” of patriarchy which betray all women (classism, sexism, capitalism), as well as indicting all abusers and dominators of girls and women.
Depending on the shifts in her self-identity and in her personal and political environments, Gage says her own verdict changes regarding women who betray women as a result of patriarchal oppression. Therefore, she leaves the verdict in the play up to the audience.
Gage describes The Anastasia Trials as “comedy.” The audience will also have to judge this interpretation for themselves. The play-within-a-play about the massacre of the Tsar of Russia and his family; the abuse and post-traumatic stress of the surviving daughter, Anastasia; and the failure of those who recognized her to identify her, is not comedy. However, the antics and efforts of The Emma Goldman Theater Brigade — who perform this play about Anastasia while trying to balance their collective ideals with their own identities — provide comic relief in the midst of the serious subject of victimization. The play is simply a mirror of life itself: part comedy, part tragedy, part success, part failure, part righteousness, part discovery of new truths.
“I made it better! Do you hear? This is a better play!” (Lisa)
Lisa, the playwright for the Emma Goldman Theater Brigade, played by Amy Roche, appears at the theater on opening night with rewrites to the script. Similarly, Gage has refined her script at every rehearsal, creating a better play. Taking on the role of Diane provided opportunity and crisis for Gage. When the character had a crisis, Gage lived it, and made sure it felt real. As a result, the script, the resolution of the crisis, and the ending of the play are transformed. This type of dynamic, creative energy does not happen when a company produces another playwright’s work. But having Gage direct and act in her own play is an open invitation for “Theater Magic” to emerge.
“It is the goal of the Emma Goldman Theater Brigade to break down artificially imposed barriers between women, and liberate the spirit which transcends class and race and age and physical ability!” (Marie)
The nine-woman cast is a beautiful assemblage of the diversity, depth of character, and wisdom Gage hoped to attract. A vibrant group, they are not afraid to show their realness: their scars, their courage, their anger, their vulnerability, their joy. Rachel Welch, who knows the bitter sting of prejudice against large women, joined the company feeling welcomed because of her size. Cast against type, this powerful, assertive corrections officer plays Melissa, who Welch interprets as “ditzy.”
Amy Roche, a theater major from Smith College and former professional actor, currently works in business. Healing from a recent loss, she joined the company to reclaim a part of herself that previously filled her life with passion and joy.
Paula Easton, mother, wife, sister, and health food store manager, seeks to define herself based on internal qualities rather than these external factors. Cast as Athena, Diane’s adversary, she feels right at home performing in a play about the question of identity.
Papier-mâché artist Jen Gilmore, who tours with Gage in her one-act play Louisa May Incest joined the company because she believes “the show must go on.” Commuting from Starks for rehearsals, Gilmore stepped into the part of disgruntled Donna, vacated by another actor three weeks before opening night.
Freelance fiber artist Parks McKinney joined the company for an adventure; and earthy, grounded, reliable Parks finds herself exploring the characteristics of sexy ingénue, Amy.
“In the Women’s Court, however, we are concerned with the rights of the victims, the survivors, the women who are silenced, censored, invisible, erased.” (Diane)
Gage keeps returning to women’s theater companies because her true passion lies in giving women the opportunity to speak their truths while performing plays that reflect their real-life stories. In an interview for Off Our Backs, Gage says, “Mainstream theater is brutally excluding the very women who have the most important statements to make with our presence and through narratives of our experiences.” She knows from experience that fat women, old women, women of color, lesbians, and girls who are unwilling to flirt will have a hard time finding work with dignity or integrity in traditional theater companies.
Moving forward, Cauldron & Labrys’s productions will deal with personal, relationship, and social concerns specific to women, and will provide solid acting roles and responsible technical positions for women — only women. Teenager Nicole Carter, who plays Jenny the transforming victim, and most senior cast member Muriel Kenderdine, who plays the idealistic feminist Marie, both believe a women’s theater company will be valuable to the community. They feel “a stage of our own” will bring attention to women’s issues, and will help girls and women who have experienced abuse and discrimination know they are not alone. The similarity of their feelings is striking, showing that these issues and concerns span multi-generations.
The Portland theater community is already showing receptivity to addressing women’s issues. In October, 2000, Paula Vogel’s play about incest, How I Learned to Drive, was produced by the Theater Project in Brunswick. The Calling, Clay Graybeal’s play on domestic violence was presented by the UNE School of Social Work in January, 2001. In October of last year, Graybeal and UNE School of Social Work then produced Gage’s Portland premier in The Second Coming of Joan of Arc. Gage is currently planning Cauldron & Labrys’s next 2002 production, The Spindle, a revisionary presentation of Sleeping Beauty which addresses incest.
“The play has power over the actors, and the actors have power over the play.” (Diane)
The set for The Anastasia Trials consists of eight folding chairs and a stool. The costumes epitomize minimalism. In an autobiographical piece published by The Michigan Quarterly Review, Gage says, “The bare stage has always been, in my opinion, the best setting for a play, because it permits the audience to conspire with the playwright.” On the surface, The Anastasia Trials is entertaining and historically informative. Beneath the surface, however, it conveys a message that is complex, challenging, and potentially life-changing. The bare stage entices the audience to engage intensely with the complex dialogue and underlying messages by removing visual distractions.
While actors are pretending and audiences are weeping or laughing or holding their breath in suspense, their thinking, their attitudes, their belief systems can change deeply and profoundly. The play does indeed have power over the audience.
Audiences attending the Portland premier of The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women can expect to laugh and weep and hold their breath in suspense. They can also expect an enlightening and challenging theater experience. “Theater Magic” at its best.
Jade Angelica can be reached at email@example.com. She is the assistant director of the production.