Though playwrights often rely heavily on a team of friends, editors, directors, actors, and audience members to help bring their work to life, it is less common to see a work with two playwrights attached. How do two separate souls collaborate on a creation as personal as a full-length play? We asked ensemble member Barbara Lhota to give some insight on the process of collaborating with the late M.E.H. Lewis on our upcoming world premiere 180 Degree Rule. What follows is the first in a series of posts that not only illuminate the process of collaborating on a piece for the stage, but serve as a fitting memorial for a great artist and friend of the company.
We always had “The Babes” in mind for this work, and both of us loved the idea of telling women’s stories, particularly those of female characters that we don’t frequently get to see dramatized: tough women, inventors, artists, scientists, archaeologists, coders, film directors.
I always say that each play I write has a different process. Some emerge quite easily without much pushing. Some are coaxed gently with offers of popcorn and drink to get them on the page. Still others require the big mental clamp and a couple of epidurals. Delivery-style does not necessarily predict outcome or success. Having worked with Margaret on two full-lengths and the outlining of a third, my sense is that she did a lot of pre-thinking work. She did a lot of “letting the soup stew till it’s ready,” as our dramaturg Heather Meyers likes to say. Once it had been on the heat awhile, Margaret wrote effortlessly. I don’t imagine her computer’s backspace key is nearly as worn as mine.
I admire one thing very much in myself, and that is that I tend to choose genuine souls: witty, talented people with fabulous vocabularies, sharp minds, who know when to tell people to “f-off” at the right time and place. I consider Margaret a perfect example of that, and I consider her one of the best yings to my yang. I miss her daily, weekly – particularly on Fridays because that was the day we’d meet to work. We’d work at cafes, diners, and each others’ houses.
You are more than friends when you write together – it’s sort of like finding a soul mate. Your collaborator is someone who shares your values and who is also willing to share the characters in your brain. It’s a rarity. And yet both of us had done it several times before because I think we were/are both collaborators at heart. In this case, the time and place was right for both of us. We were on the same wavelength, same page, and we were very close in age, so we shared the same timeline. We got each other’s jokes and references. We understood each other.
When we started outlining 180 Degree Rule, she had recently finished her play Freshly Fallen Snow, which was produced with Chicago Dramatists. I was in the midst of Leapfest with Stage Left Theatre with Warped. Both plays used memory and perspective in different ways, so these thoughts were ever-present.
Having those ideas in mind, I expect I can only present this collaboration of 180 through my eyes. I wish she could tell you her perspective, too, but this is only possible now through our emails.
Pre-180 – Destined to Work Together
Margaret and I formally met back in 2010 or 2011. Both of us had several mutual friends and artistic cohorts in common: Amy Harmon, Leigh Barrett, Kate Black-Spence, Joe and Lila Stromer, to name only a few. I always admired Margaret’s work. When Babes With Blades Theatre Company had an opportunity to apply for Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep using the concept of women and war, I suggested we reach out to talented playwright friends. At the top of the list was M.E.H. Lewis. I asked Amy if Margaret would be willing to write a short piece using the concept of women and war through history to see if we could gather an interesting collection for an evening. We playwrights started to develop our work individually because there was preliminary interest. But, we didn’t have a full script completed (we had very little time) and who knows who else applied…they turned us down for one reason or another.
Our BWBTC Artistic Director, Leigh, and (at the time) Managing Director, Amy, asked if anyone still wanted to work on these play ideas. Both Margaret and I said, “Yes, we would! AND we’d like to work together.” Happy me!
…to be continued
**Be sure to see 180 Degree Rule come to life in our World Premiere Production Opening April 25th!**
Blog Post contributed by Barbara Lhota
Amy E. Harmon
Where are you from?
An exceptionally small town in SW Michigan, with a one-year detour to Aberdeen, Scotland. College in Evanston, IL. Chicago after that.
What’s something people would never guess about you from looking at you?
I’m a life-long potential carrier for mad cow disease.
What made you decide to pursue theatre?
Mad cow disease.
Also: I’ve always loved books for the way they open the door to entirely different perspectives, lives, worlds… it’s possible to come away from each book with new information, a more robust sense of empathy, a wilder pick-bag of daydreams. At its best, theatre is like that too – with the added terror/wonder of collaborating with other people on the experience.
Also: I was supposed to be an academic. It was fun to put a spoke in people’s wheels.
What drew you to stage combat?
As an undergrad at NU – in I think spring 1994? – I was seriously disgruntled with college theatre and looking for an outlet. I picked a fencing class because a) it took place on the other end of campus from the theatre school and b) I figured once I wasn’t disgruntled anymore, maybe I could use some of the fencing moves onstage. I took the class; then one of my roommates, who was already a fencer, brought me to a couple team practices. It turned out that right about then women’s collegiate fencing was expanding from one weapon (foil) to two (foil and epee) and the team, like Mars, needed women. So, I joined on a whim and ended up looooooving it. I fenced varsity epee my junior and senior years. Once I’d graduated, though, it was too expensive a hobby to maintain on my own and I missed the workout and the team camaraderie. I started dabbling in stage combat as a reasonable substitute in about 1998, and took my first actual classes in about 1999/2000. (I also knew a lot of folks who’d taken stage combat in college or picked some up here and there, and many of them were interested in working together on fight-heavy shows. In order to play with them, I had to acquire their skill set – or else I got stuck being the rescuee every time, and who wants that?)
My first stage combat classes were super frustrating. As a fencer, I relied on a combination of basic (increasing as I went along, but definitely still basic) skills and a few dirty tricks. Plus, being left-handed was a huge advantage because most of my opponents didn’t know how to deal with me. Stage combat, ironically, was a more controlled discipline for me than fencing, and I had to start by learning that control; also, many of my initial instructors tried to “make me over as a righty” because they didn’t want to teach a lefty, and that didn’t help my control at all. Also, I made the mistake of starting with broadsword, which you don’t use at all the way you would an epee. The one thing that was always easy for me was footwork – we spent at least an hour per practice on footwork while I was fencing, and it’s in my body forever.
I actually dropped stage combat for about a year after my first couple classes, then tried it again and liked it better. I began liking it more and more as I went along, in part because I put my foot down and trained left-handed (actually, I think that augmented the experience for me, because not only was I learning moves and technique, but I was learning to adapt them on the fly so as not to inconvenience my partners), and in part because I started with some classes with light, point-driven weapons that allowed me to use my fencing skills much more than, say, a broadsword would.
What’s your favorite weapon?
I love smallsword – it’s such a formal, constrained style, so rooted in precision and pointwork. Channeling the kind of passion that would cause you to PULL a sword into the rigidity of smallsword technique is a glorious challenge – the poetic equivalent of focusing your overwhelming emotional outpouring into a sonnet form, I’d imagine – and gives you so much delicious tension to play with. And finding those moments in the story of the fight when you simply cannot control yourself, and break form, for better or for worse, is a joy.
What drew you to Babes With Blades?
I heard about BWBTC for quite some time before considering working with them, mostly through Stephanie Repin, who did her first show with the Babes in 1998. Stephanie knew I was dabbling in stage combat, and invited me to work out with the group in about 2001 – but I was coming off kind of a major depression at that point, and while I was getting better, it was just too many new people all at once for me to handle. I kept them on my radar, though, and started regularly attending workouts, and occasionally subbing in for gigs, in 2002. I was invited to join the company in 2003, and took part in the re-organization that transitioned us from a “benevolent dictatorship” under Dawn “Sam” Alden (Sammie’s words, not mine) to an ensemble in 2004-5. Holy moly have I been here a long time.
Why? Well, first, I love the team – and I love the way it changes as people come and go, but always STAYS a team. There’s always been the understanding that in order to do art, we have to also be able to do business. And there’s always been a real commitment to the belief that we don’t all have to be best friends, but we do all have to be able to work together. Both of these philosophies have informed all of the permutations of any Babes team I’ve been a part of. Then, I’m so proud of the work we do – the productions, sure, but particularly the more foundation-level stuff, like new play development. There are plays in the world, productions that happened, actors (female and male) who got a chance to play brand stinking new parts, because of the Babes and the people who believe in us. How amazing is that? Finally, I owe a huge part of who I am as an actor to the Babes. We’ve always worked to give women the chance to inhabit complex parts, epic parts, parts that explore the full range of emotional response, up to and including violence—that’s one of the reasons why we’re so active in new play development. And, lucky little badger that I am, I’ve been privileged to play some of those parts, which has been absolutely phenomenal, such a challenge, such a stretch. My theatrical toolkit is a zillion times better stocked for my association with the Babes.
Who is your role model (and why)?
I don’t really do role models – I’m all the time watching people and learning from them, but I don’t single particular people out. I’ve always collected quotes, though, and I love to read over those collections. They’re a time capsule of the advice that spoke to the many Amys I’ve been.
The story of my favorite quote ever: When I was maybe 10 or 11, my area high school was doing Oliver, and the call went out to the elementary and junior high schools that they were looking for kids to play orphans. I went home from school that day and said, “Mom, I want to audition for Oliver.” My mom knew how shy I was, so she said, “Amy, I’ll take you to auditions, but you’re going to have to stand up and sing and talk in front of a lot of people. You have to understand, if they can’t hear you, they won’t cast you. Can you be loud?” Well, it turned out I could. And “If they can’t hear you, they won’t cast you” is kind of still a personal philosophy….
2015’s Amy quote: “Which do you want: the pain of staying where you are, or the pain of growth?” –Judith Hanson Lasater
2016’s Amy quote:“The nearest way to glory – a shortcut, as it were – is to strive to be what you wish to be thought to be.” – Socrates, as quoted by Cicero
What women’s issue is most important to you?
It’s probably too free-form a feeling to really be an issue, but: it’s spine-deep in me that we should all begin on an even playing field, regardless of gender. My skills, my muscle, my work ethic, my connections, my background, pure random chance, all of the things that influence each of us every day; these factors will dictate what happens on that playing field… but I should walk on the field equal to everyone else out there. It is beyond me that this is even in question.
What is one small thing people can do to affect change in their community in regards to this issue?
Get their heads out of their asses? Sigh. I care too much to be rational, or even polite.
**Be sure to see Amy live in action as Ruth Alice Bennett in our upcoming production of 180 Degree Rule**
In the past year, Carol has single-handedly proven that Hollywood can produce a film centering around a romantic relationship between two women and cultivate an overwhelmingly positive response. The decadent 1950s setting of the film made me think of the kinds of movies being made during that era and of filmmakers like the fictional Ruth Alice Bennett. Ruth, a female director working in a highly censored time in film history, is one of the central characters in our upcoming production of 180 Degree Rule by Barbara Lhota and the late M.E.H. Lewis. Not only is she a woman paving a career as a successful artist in a male dominated profession, she is also a lesbian in a time where representation of alternative sexuality was against cinematic law.
From 1930 to 1968, major Hollywood film studios found their artistic freedoms stifled as they were forced to create content that adhered to a set of moral standards established by Will H. Hays (the then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America). Enforcement of The Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934 and required that films be reviewed and receive a seal of approval prior to release. One of the many items (including childbirth and drug trafficking) prohibited under the code, was “any inference of sex perversion”. However, the Production Code Administration was willing to make an exception to this rule if the perversion was depicted negatively. This led to a generation of films depicting homosexuals as criminals (Rope, 1948), divisive villains (Rebecca, 1940), mentally unstable (The Children’s Hour, 1961) and a myriad of other unsavory types deemed punishable.
While it is easy to say that we have moved past these conservative generalities in modern depictions of LGBTQ characters, I would argue that we continue to package queer slanting stories in a repetitive and bland way to appease today’s timid mainstream. The two prevailing plots adapted by larger studios involve either a coming out story (tinged with tragedy that comes exclusively from the character’s sexuality) or a biopic that martyrizes a homosexual figure in history (who likely suffered from painful or tragic death). Although the Code Era has long since past, the mainstream portrayal of life as a homosexual is still tinged with the implication that this “perversion” is still punishable.
This year, Todd Haynes’ instagram-filtered 1950s drama Carol has received critical acclaim for it’s depiction of a lesbian relationship between Carol (an Alto II Cate Blanchett whose nails are always on fleek) and Therese (Rooney Girl-with-the-Dragon-Tattoo-not-the-one-Kevin-Spacey-pushed-in-front-of-a-train Mara). Critics love it!
“Carol is gorgeous, gently groundbreaking, and might be the saddest thing you’ll ever see.” – The Telegraph
“…their courtship is sexy and sad and alluring” – Vanity Fair
*Spoilers ahead, jump to the next paragraph to avoid*
Many responses to the film laud Haynes’ bravery and subversiveness for allowing these characters to have a happy ending. Happy in that they decide to be together. In the 50s. And presumably deal with an extension of the homophobia, sexism and probably court enforced childlessness endured during the film that lasts long after the credits roll. But hooray for love! Upon personal viewing, Haynes sets up a film that could very easily end in suicide for either character. I was immediately reminded of the Code Era, and while I was pleasantly surprised by the ending, it rang hollow to me as a forced apology to a time period. However, some applaud the film and have taken to calling the character of Carol a heroine because she takes her repeated social mauling with grace and power and never decides to give into the option of heteronormativity.
Carol is simply the latest (and possibly most accessible) example of the continuing trend of telling homosexual stories through a lense of tragedy as it results from living an alternative lifestyle. A possible solution for this continued slant lies in the focus of conflict in gay cinema. From Desert Hearts (1985) to Imagine Me & You (2005), lesbian cinema has remained fixated on telling the story of a proclaimed heterosexual meeting an out lesbian AND SUDDENLY QUESTIONING EVERYTHING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED IN BED AND WHY THEY’VE BEEN SO SAD ALL THEIR LIVES. Enter internal conflict revolving around coming out, enter external conflict from society saying “Gross.” and voila, that’s all you need for 90 minutes. The story rarely places a character who happens to be gay against outside sources – the only example of this in recent memory being Bound (1996), where two women forge an intense relationship and decide to pull one over on the mob. It’s sexy, thrilling, and not sad.
If we are going to challenge the stagnant state of lesbians on film, we need a modern-day Ruth Alice Bennett, who dares to challenge the studio system in her attempts to show women in love on film. We can only imagine that if Ruth were making films today that her courageous auteurism would offer a refreshing perspective of lesbians in film by telling stories about complex homosexual women with bigger concerns than their sexuality.
Want to learn more about gay cinema and the code era? Check out the 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet.
Also watch this, just because:
blog post contributed by Elyse Dawson
I grew up playing team sports. I was on the baseball team, the softball team, flag football, volleyball, basketball, swimming and track. Teamwork appeals to me and was a source of learning about how to work together (even with people I didn’t necessarily like personally) and also how to have each other’s back. I’d also always wanted to be a dancer (music makes me super happy!) but with all the sports, I didn’t have the time. When I discovered stage combat in my late teens, and then was more immersed in it for my 1-year drama course in London, I was reminded of the sense of team-work I’d had doing sports and also got exposed to some fancy footwork that felt like dance choreography. Combine that with character work, and I find it to be the single most difficult, challenging, and fun thing to do on stage!
**Be sure to see Kimberly live in action as Hedwige Sourile in our upcoming production of 180 Degree Rule**
A few months ago I was minding my own business when I got an email from Dani Bryant, the co-founder of Knife & Fork, a “theatre company committed to transforming the way stories are told about food & body politics”. She was putting out a call for women of all shapes and sizes to be a part of a massive dance piece for Collaboraction‘s Final Sketchbook Fest. She and her partner (co-founder of K&F) Erica Barnes, were devising a piece called “Spanx You Very Much” and needed women who were willing to dance in their underwear. Specifically, forms of “shape wear”. The goal was to devise a dance piece about how women relate, love, hate, delight in their undergarments and bodies. One thing you should know about me: I’m fat, and I love my body. So, being an advocate for feeling good about the body you’re in, I jumped at the chance to be in it.
I won’t lie, at first I thought “well, I’m not a dancer, but this will be an easy commitment and sounds like it could be fun”. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Being a part of this project was so much more than fun. Not including Dani, Erica and Sheena Laird, the choreographer, 41 women signed up to be in this show. Forty-one women of various sizes and shapes. Forty-one women wanted to tell the same message about loving your body as I did. Forty-one women came together to uplift each other and anyone who would come to see the show. We rehearsed a couple times a week for a few months and every time I left rehearsal I left with a smile on my face.
I can’t honestly say I ever heard anyone complain about their bodies during rehearsals (aside from the occasional “Ugh, my knees are so sore from bouncing” and that was…mostly…me complaining. My knees are pretty creaky.). Since there were so many of us and we didn’t really know each other Erica and Dani had us do some get-to-know-each-other exercises to kick off each rehearsal. Some were to share common interests, some were to discuss what surprised us and challenged us about the whole process and one in particular was about perception and was by far, my favorite. After helping each other to tape a blank piece of paper to each other’s backs, we all grabbed markers and wandered the room. When we met someone new in the group we had to introduce ourselves and then write something positive about the other woman’s essence on their piece of paper. From the very beginning the rehearsal process was established as a positive, safe and fun space where we could express ourselves freely.
Our first and only preview rolled around and it was one of the most magical experiences of my professional career. The energy from the audience was so supportive and positive that I actually teared up a little during the final dance moves of the piece. For 6 minutes the Chopin Theatre down on Division belonged to the ladies of “Spanx You Very Much” and we didn’t apologize for owning it. On opening night we danced to a sold out audience, who on the last beat of our dance remix, stood and cheered and applauded and we shared in a mutual feeling of awesome.
I realize this blog post is very saccharine sweet and screams a stereotypical “Aww yeah, girl power!”, but ya know what? When women and men actually experience the energy behind “girl power”, when you are in the same room as 41 women of all shapes and sizes unapologetically feeling great about themselves, you cannot deny the delight of seeing women shamelessly enjoying their bodies without being overtly sexual. That feeling is genuinely fierce and spectacular and in no way saccharine sweet, darlin’.
blog post contributed by Morgan Manasa
**Be sure to see Lisa in action as “Margot Faber” in our upcoming production of 180 Degree Rule**
It seems like everywhere you look people are talking about gender parity – in the arts, in the professions, in life. The discussion is thriving, and those who create culture are paying attention. On both the big and small screens there are women lawyers, executives, superheroes, and of-course the ever-present post-apocalyptic scrappy female underdogs. But is all this pop-culture feminism breeding complacency?
When you go to the movies or watch TV, you see women achieving on a high level with men. And they certainly do in real life as well, but a look at the numbers show that the fight is far from over.
“In some cases, the numbers haven’t budged in decades,” says Martha Richards, executive director of WomenArts. “I think we are still in a precursor phase—we are moving towards the change, but it hasn’t happened yet. People are becoming more aware of gender discrimination in the arts, and there are some hopeful signs like the wonderful city-wide festival of women’s plays in Washington, DC and theatres announcing seasons with all women playwrights. But the field as a whole is still a long way off from 50/50.” This is true of other fields as well.
So how do we change it? Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm and producer of the newest Star Wars addition, believes in lifting other women up with her. Her executive staff and development team are both nearly gender-equal. Despite her reputation as a champion of talented women, however, not one woman contacted her about writing or directing The Force Awakens.
Similarly, Richards has been posing a question to women at conferences around the country: what they would do if they had $10 million to improve the status of women in the arts? The reaction is surprising. “Most women say they have never considered having that much money or power,” she says. “Some women are hostile to even talking about it—’We will never have that much, so why think about it?'”
It seems that among the many factors that contribute to gender inequality, one that women themselves have control over stands out: taking initiative. Will there be “no”s? Often. But each time there’s a “yes,” each time a woman achieves a major milestone in the arts, in the professions, in life, it paves one more path for other women to follow in her stead. It will of course be harder for women than it is for men. But only by identifying our best chances for success and then demanding our worth can we change the landscape of gender politics.
What is your wild dream? What do you need to do to get it? And will you stand up and say, “I am right for this, and I deserve to be paid for it”? I hope you will, and open that door for the women coming up behind you.
blog post contributed by Patti Moore
blog post contributed by Barbara Lhota
When I was little, I was a huge fan of the silent clowns like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. For Halloween I said, “I am Charlie Chaplin!” My parents, who both who grew up in the 1940s, said, “Ohh-kay.” Impressive. Other girls my age would say they wanted to be Superman, Batman or Casper only to be told by their parents that they should be some female-version of that character or a bunny. One concrete way to dip your toe into traits (traditionally marked male) was to dress the part. I loved the way the silent clowns moved – so athletic, and so funny-tricky-rebellious. Socially in the 70s, girls were not to possess such qualities. To live that even for a day – very cool.
(Are you Charlie Chaplin?! Check out this great tutorial from Theatremania.com)
Post Script: Years later my young nephew, wanted to be a witch for Halloween. We said to him, “Warlock, you mean?” My sister, his mom corrected, “Witch. He wants to be a witch.”
We all agreed. Witch it is.
blog post contributed by Barbara Lhota
blog post contributed by Patti Moore
If you’re up on the latest Babes happenings, you’ll know that we’re currently participating in Stage 773’s The One Act Festival: Halloween Edition, with Barbara Lhotas’ Window Dressing. It’s a short horror piece that makes a statement about body image and the fashion industry. It got some other babes and I talking about that weird moment when you – a flawed, awkward actress who struggles with body image – get cast as “the hot girl.”
I remember the first time I had to play a role of this type, and how it sent me into a tailspin of self-doubt. I had always thought that it would feel amazing – for a girl like me who had been told I was “too pretty to play the fat friend” to finally get cast in a “hot chick” role would mean I had made it – nothing could stand between me and action heroine status!
What I really felt was something darker and more complicated. I knew I looked good enough for the role – they had cast me, after all, and with no suggestion that I needed to work on my physical appearance at all – but I was freaking out. I think, internally, I still saw myself as the chubby eight-year-old who was teased for being so slow, who was actually called “Fatty Patti.” And therefore I had a fear that I would be that one thing that would take the audience out of the world of the play. That they would be totally engaged until they heard other characters talking about how hot my character was, and think, “Really? That girl?” That they would think because I was playing this character that I must think pretty highly of myself.
I’m older and just a little bit wiser now. I’m stronger and fitter and care much less what people think of me. But being cast as the “skinny bitch” mannequin Window Dressing still gave me that knee-jerk reaction of “I better tone up,” along with an echo of the old fear: “People are never going to buy me as a mannequin.” Talking with other actresses about it, I realize it’s a common reaction. And while staying in shape for your job and being responsible about portraying the physical reality of your character is a very smart, professional move, there’s no call to invite self-doubt or even self-loathing to the party.
I’m always going to be that person who strives to be better, but it’s also important to remember: I am good enough. You are good enough. And if someone casts you in a role, either onstage or in life, it’s because they think you’re good enough for that role. Now it’s your turn to take their confidence in you and give them back something even better. That’s when you’ll know you’ve really made it.
blog post contributed by Patti Moore