Making experimental feminist multimedia multidisciplinary theater is not the most lucrative career choice. Even among the performing arts my work ranks somewhere around the modern dance region on the scale of likeliness to get a broad audience. But you know there’s Twyla Tharp and Cirque du Soleil and Julie Taymor and Mark Morris and tens of others who have gone mainstream and their vision seems intact, so it is not impossible for this to be my life and my livelihood.
What is my reason for even hazarding an attempt to make this type of theater especially given its tendencies to be horribly tedious? I want to make theater that reflects my experience. I am willing to risk making a piece which when described might make me groan with dread if I can just get something out on a stage that reflects even a moment of familiarity to my own life.
The experimental and multimedia aspirations for my work are with each piece to get closer and closer to reflecting how I experience the world. I’m walking along thinking about 10,000 things – how do I move my career forward, will I ever make money, that person in front of me is a douchebag, could I live in Jersey if it was near the PATH train, what special present will I give my wife for Valentine’s Day, when will I fit in time to meditate and make lunch in the mornings, GOD I’m so pretentious and then I hear a snippet of a love song, a snippet of a conversation, someone emails me a kitten video, there is a weird moment of synchronicity when something I have been thinking about is then spoken back to me on a show on the travel channel, and so on like that. My hope for my work is to emulate some of that mish-mash in the performances I create because even though on the page it may look chaotic or nonsensical, I think for many that it is actually a pretty familiar way of processing information. I try to translate this to theater by making one’s own agenda/personal stream of consciousness into the “narrative” and then these other elements from outside which surround us and other times just swirl independently nearby are represented by the multimedia collage elements present in my pieces.
I label myself feminist to be transparent about my politics and to let everyone know that I am a proud feminist. Though, I’m really not a good feminist since I’m less of an actual feminist who believes straightforwardly in equal rights for the sexes. I’m more of the outraged, castrating, women are superior version of feminism that just makes all other normal feminists look bad and crazy.
Aside from my own disproportionate outrage at the barrage of media telling Stories of Men by men for men, I make theater that stars women and tells Stories of Women because that is, obviously, my experience. Also, there just aren’t enough theater pieces about women. I am so exhausted by reading the synopses of whatever is currently playing and it is almost always 75-100% men on stage, 85% male directed, 65% male written. To be fair, I totally made up those percentages, they are based on nothing except my perception. This is barely related, but I do note that the premise of one of the best reviewed, most recommended plays in New York at the moment is about a successful career woman who slowly loses all of her senses due to a fictional disease and her husband has to take care of her and this makes their marriage better. Seriously. I guess technically it’s about a woman, but she is basically half a woman at the end, not sure if that counts.
This serves as one of the reasons I have found myself passionately defending the Twilight series because it is a story about a teenage virgin girl who gets to be an awesome super-heroine fighting evil vampires in books written by a devout Mormon woman – regardless of your opinion of the content, these are not typical voices being heard in popular culture. I may not agree with much of the agenda of the book, but I’m so thrilled that a girl virgin fighting big challenges for true love has become a huge media phenomenon.
Of course, sometimes my passionate debate surfaces as opposition. What I mean to say is that I have also found myself in passionate debate with friends over the implausibility of the plot of a popular novel which depicts an anorexic rape victim private detective in her 20’s finding a 50 year old misogynistic journalist attractive and going to a remote cabin during Swedish winter months to help him solve a crime and sleep with him. Also that book graphically depicted 13 rape scenes, 11 of the rape victims were women I find it so depressing that that book is flying off the shelves and not one, but TWO films are being made of it, and Hollywood actresses are fighting over who gets to portray Miss Super Skinny Detective.
I now work with only female performers, some original text is by me and some is created collaboratively with the performers and the found text is taken from female sources. It may seem overly purist, but I believe in working not just from a philosophy but from action – there is a huge difference between just making theater that is “about women” in some abstract way and making theater by women starring women.
And finally, multimedia and multidisciplinary, because in my everyday life I am surrounded by music, video and song and dance. Also a friend of mine said once, when explaining why she liked musical theater, that sometimes the emotion of a moment can’t go any further with words, it has to become song. I agree, and I would add that sometimes it has to become song and/or dance. Now I always try to have at least one song and one dance in each piece that I do.
So those are my reasons for generally liking and including those aspects in my theater-making.
Even though it is not part of my official label about the type of theater I make, I also believe that having a sense of humor is very important. Having a sense of things not being as big of a deal as they may first seem is important. I want my audience to relax into the experience and trust that they are not going to be assaulted too violently with my strident world view. Also, if they happen not to agree with my world view at least I have tried to make them laugh so they can get that from the performance if nothing else.
My most recent theater piece was performed on January 24, 2011. The title is Girl Adventure Part 1: Exile. It is Part 1 of 4, it runs 15 minutes and was performed in the Little Theatre series curated by Jeffrey Jones.
In Girl Adventure, I want to tell a story about the missing feminine in our culture, I think traits that are traditionally considered feminine, like compassion, nurture, compromise, softness, etc. have been totally devalued in our culture and their devaluation is causing a major psychic imbalance. I think this imbalance is contributing to serious and weird problems like shopping addiction and the housing bubble and pro-gun anti-choice women like Sarah Palin to name a few. I decided to base the structure on the 4 parts of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana: Exile, Kidnapping, Discovery, Reunion.
[Note: I have read a lot of different opinions on how many parts the Ramayana has, but I chose four because it works for my story.]
My narrative follows a woman’s search for a rare book that belonged to her grandmother. She believes that if she can find this book that her grandmother liked that she will somehow understand herself better. Her search brings her to a small seaside town library populated with three librarians and a very large thuggish girl gang who hangs around the library terrorizing its visitors. The girl gang turns into a pack of angry sea goddesses at night.
My work is very collaborative, dialog created during improv in rehearsal frequently finds its way into my writing. I also use a lot of found text which I define as a gently stolen, meaning if someone tells me a story and I put the story into the play as I remember it, it’s found. Overheard conversations can be found text. For this piece part of the dialog was from a friend’s facebook post about a nightmare and a bunch of comments to that post, and I took a friend’s story about using the South American Shamanistic healing drink Ayahuasca, and a line from the movie Lost in Translation and a line from a story my friend told me about hating herself when she was fourteen and slapping herself in the face for looking the way she did.
In addition to the text there was a 60s French song chosen and sung by one performer called “La Tendresse” (Tenderness). I hired a choreographer to create a dance for the section when the girl gang transforms into angry sea goddesses. I used a video clip from the Travel Channel’s Show “Samantha Brown’s Asia”. Throughout the rehearsal process the performers and I discuss the ideas of the piece and usually there is a lively email exchange with imagery and experiences that may relate and some end up included in the text (discussions which would sound painfully pretentious even if they were being held over a latte at the college coffee house, but which are incredibly helpful and insightful to the piece nonetheless). Then I mashed all this stuff together and that became the show.
The January 24th performance went extremely well. I felt I achieved my goals for the audience experience. In feedback I heard a lot about people feeling a big range of emotions in quick succession and I heard the word journey a lot, which I love and take as a huge compliment. I also loved that no one seemed disoriented, I didn’t get any questions about where the characters were supposed to be or what they were supposed to be which also made me feel successful in creating something that I believe reflects the way that not only I but many people experience the world.
I also loved that no one asked me why I didn’t have men in the show. I had one playwright friend tell me that she thought every woman in the audience recognized herself on stage and another playwright friend tell me that she loved to see women on stage “really doing the girl thing” because she didn’t feel like she was ever able to “pull that off”. Overall the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and no one seemed off put by any of the elements that I thought might be jarring, i.e. the lack of linear narrative, the non sequitur style use of the video, having no men on stage.
The day after the show I was offered the opportunity to put up the entire show, all four parts, at a downtown theater in the Spring. This is extremely encouraging for me. I do think there is interest in this kind of work generally, there are audiences and there is financial support once audiences and producers can experience it. There are the megahits like Blue Man Group, which I’m sure when it was first performed sounded totally insane and was expected to close in three days, but it has become one of the longest running shows in New York and in the world. There are a lot of shows like that: Avenue Q, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Fuerza Bruta, to name a few.
The financial support is always the hardest piece of the puzzle for any artist, but I know there are experimental theater artists who make their living doing their artistic work. Theaters and museums commission shows from them. Funds are raised, grants are received, residencies are offered, rehearsal space is donated, etc. The key seems to be the multiple sourcing, and I’m already good at that creatively, so… that’s good.
Nina Morrison lives in Brooklyn with her wife and their three cats. Nina's short piece, Girl Adventure Part 2, was performed in the HOT! Festival in July 2010 and was also featured in Little Theatre in April 2010, both presented by Dixon Place. Her play, Forest Maiden, was performed in the 2009 NY Fringe Festival. Nina was a 2008-2009 WORKSPACE Writer-in-Residence, a residency program of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. More info at www.ninamorrison.com