InterviewsFemale Empowerment at the Fringe Festival: Roundtable Interview With Playwrights Michelle Ramoni, Dani Vetere, and Alice Winslow (Part 1)

[On Tuesday, August 7, I had the privilege of speaking with three female playwrights who have shows premiering at the New York International Fringe Festival. Michelle Ramoni is the writer of June and Nancy and also plays June in the show. Dani Vetere is the playwright of Hadrian’s Wall. Alice Winslow is a writer and actor of I <3 Revolution. This interview will be presented in three parts.]

Let’s start with the basics. What are your shows about?

ALICE: Our show [I <3 Revolution] is about three girls who want to completely do away with the current world order and try to start a new world, to create a new day. The problem is that they’re pretty disorganized and there’s a lot of internal conflict. They can’t quite figure out who the enemies are or how to target the enemies. They’re so concerned with being liked – both by the audience and by each other – that it makes it hard to get anywhere. It’s a comedy, but we’re not suggesting that change is impossible, just difficult.

MICHELLE: My play [June and Nancy] is about this woman June living in 1958. She’s in a marriage where they both love each other, but they’re two very different people. June is an artist who’s unsatisfied in her life – she’s not doing what she loves, not pursuing her passions. Then comes along Nancy, who’s a trailblazer, so cutting-edge for the time – she knows she’s a lesbian, so she’s out to herself, but not to the world. They meet, both coming from very different worlds, and they connect on this spiritual and emotional level. They have a love affair, and June has to make a decision whether or not to stay with her husband or leave him for this woman that she loves.

DANI: My play [Hadrian’s Wall] is about an archaeologist who was accused of stealing something from a site and has been a recluse for fifteen years. She has a former boyfriend from that time who’s a lawyer and trying to help her clear her name in the context of an academic trial, and she’s just sort of stuck in her apartment and her life. She’s not working. She operates in this little tiny kingdom, and a new girl enters the picture. She’s an archaeology student and thinks that the archaeologist is amazing and should be working. The two women fall in love, and a mystery begins to unfold about whether she committed this crime or not, and why.

Is this your first time at the Fringe Festival? If so, how did you decide that the Fringe Festival was the best platform for your work?

MICHELLE: This is not my first Fringe show; my first was in 2003. I was an actor in a show called Civil Liberties. I was able to touch on the experience of the Fringe – the excitement and frenetic energy and opportunity – and I’ve had friends before me become part of the Fringe Festival. Gabrielle Maisels, an actress in my show, had two shows in previous Fringe Festivals, and just watching their experience and what it was like for them to have an opportunity to get their work seen out there, and their excitement – I think there’s this community and camaraderie in the people who are participating in the excitement of new works being shown for the first time, and that’s what drew me into the Fringe Festival in particular.

DANI: This is my first time at Fringe, and my first theatrical production, period. I work mostly in TV. I needed something where my not having done it before would be an asset, or at least not a detriment. With any other avenue I chose, I thought, “How do I get this done?” and “I don’t know what I’m doing.” [laughs] I actually did it the way you apply to dream things – I did it, forgot about it, and moved on, and the acceptance letter was actually sent to my spam folder.

ALICE: I was involved in another show in the Fringe a few years ago that I auditioned for. My friend Tara [Schuster], one of the writers, had a show in 2008 in the Fringe that she’d written. We wrote [I <3 Revolution] in our senior year of college in 2008, performed it in Tara’s basement, and invited people to see it. That was our first round of the show and it’s been on our minds ever since. It was this incredible, rewarding production. It was outside the system of student theater, something we felt passionately about and wanted to bring to our friends, so it’s been on our minds ever since and we’ve been chewing it over. We applied and completely forgot about it. We got the acceptance letter and were like “oh, oh, we have to do this!” But yeah, it was kind of the perfect venue for the show, I would say.

Were any of your shows inspired by real life events? If so, how did they shape the development of these plays?

DANI: I think when I first started writing the play, I thought, “For once, I want to not write about myself and make this show have nothing to do with me.” So I started doing all this research about archaeology and science and I spent a lot of time on that. When I finally got ready to write the play, I just started writing the characters. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the draft that I realized, oh yeah, these are all people I know. They’re talking about things I don’t really understand, but the characters are all from my life, as usual. So, the play wasn’t necessarily based on events, but certainly inspired by people I’ve met or known or been in relationships with.

MICHELLE: I was in a relationship. I fell in love and was in a really beautiful relationship. This woman was sort of my muse, and I started writing these love monologues and love letters. This is how the play first started, and it was really interesting because this voice of this woman in her 50s, this 50s housewife, kept coming through the writing. At the time, I was doing a showcase for Stage Left Studio called Forbidden Kiss and I thought, “Write a sexy monologue about love,” and that’s how it started. Then I started developing actual different scenes and… [to Dani] it’s kind of what you were saying, I didn’t really know where these characters were coming from. They’re all either me, or people I know. In fact, Nancy is hugely based on my aunt and her experiences at that time. Originally, the play was set in both the present and the past, and the inability of my girlfriend and I to get married was certainly a motivating factor to get this play out there – a “see how far we’ve gone, and how we haven’t changed at all” kind of thing. That had changed here in New York, which made me think – are we bound by external obstacles or our internal obstacles? That started to shape the play, and I decided to really focus on the story in the 50s and keep it there for now, for this version of the play. So yeah, what was happening externally and politically was informing the writing, certainly.

ALICE: Our show – when we first started writing it, we were about to graduate, we were feeling incredibly frustrated and disenfranchised politically, and I think it sprung a lot out of feeling the first time that we were picking up on – maybe not for the first time – but picking up on the subtle misogyny, and latent misogyny on campus, particularly in campus theater. We went to Brown, and part of the thing is, in an environment like that where it’s such a progressive student body, you sort of assume that you’re all on the same page and then you realize the more subtle ways that power dynamic is operating, just in the way that men – it was easier for them to speak up because they’ve been listened to their whole lives, and I’ve been told to give people the floor my whole life. The play is a response to feeling frustrated by that, by our political climate, by not knowing what we were going to do when we graduated, so in that way, it was very much of the moment of our lives and in response to that, and this new version is almost more…about these three girls trying to start a revolution but can’t totally figure out how to work outside the system, or out of the roles and examples and models of power they have or see. So with Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring and everything that’s happened since the first version of the play, it seemed even more relevant and of the moment, and it speaks to the impossibility – maybe not impossibility – but difficulty of finding and making real change within the complicated dynamics of personal relationships and culture at large.

It’s funny, something you said reminded me of another question so I guess I’ll just jump into that – but are there any particular struggles that you face in being female playwrights and actors? Are the challenges different for actors than they are for playwrights? 

MICHELLE: It’s so interesting because the thing that came to my mind when you were speaking was my own internal struggles with this. I’ve heard my whole life that men are funnier. I hear people ask, “Who are your favorite directors and playwrights?” Often, most of the answers are men. So it’s like this subconscious message that I’ve either taken from what I’ve heard and what I’ve been exposed to. I’ve even done that to myself, almost disqualifying myself as a playwright, and that’s something I’m still struggling with. I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing, like, “Because I’m a woman, I don’t know if I’m as good,” but I think there’s that piece that has been in the back of my mind, you know, in working through that, and it’s certainly come out in the struggles with these characters. You know, the play asks the question, “What it is to be a woman?” and the two different characters show that in different ways. As an actor, well, I’ll just give an example: I was in an on-camera acting class and when all the women went to do their thing on camera, we were sort of picked apart – I was told I had a lot of wrinkles on my face, and somebody else was told that if they held their eyes a certain way, they looked crazy, and what I noticed was that nothing was said to the men about their physicality. It was all about their work and their craft. That showed me in 2010, “Wow, how much has changed?” You know? This is my sort of response to that, creating my own work, and if you’re asking me to put Scotch tape between my eyebrows so that I won’t show my wrinkles and practice in the mirror – yes, that was said – then I think that I’m going to create an avenue for myself, for something satisfying beyond worrying about my physicality. And again, all of that I’ve experienced in my life certainly comes through in the play.

DANI: I think that I have more anxiety or concern about the fact that I only write about women. Obviously I hope my work applies and relates to everyone, but I don’t ever really write male protagonists, so I worry, “Is there enough interest for this?” I always feel like I’m writing in this niche, and I’m only really writing about fifty percent of the population. I’m writing for this tiny audience, because so much more of what you see out there is about men. I remember when someone recommended my director to me…I was in L.A., and I had to speak to him for the first time on the phone, and thought, “Why does he even want to do my play? Why is he interested in this?” I automatically assumed, “Why would a man want to even do something with two female protagonists?” He was really interested in it, and I think a lot of this worry is in my own self-consciousness about it, not necessarily coming from the people I’m working with. The fact that it was about women was the thing he was MOST interested in. He loves women and he thinks they’re interesting.

ALICE: It’s funny, though – theater in a lot of way is considered gendered female, and yet so many of the power positions, so many artistic directors, so many best-known directors are all male, so there’s definitely still a problem in terms of inclusion and diversity of work.

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