[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.]
I was asked to do this interview because these three shows focus on the theme of female empowerment, so I’d like to know – to you, what is female empowerment? How are you addressing this theme throughout your play?
DANI: Well, for one thing my story is essentially a love story where the white knight is a girl. There’s a guy there from the beginning and he’s not able to solve the problem, well-meaning as he is. That was sort of fun for me. The main character is supposed to be in her mid-40s and she’s kind of getting a new start. I’ve known a lot of people in my life where once they got to a certain age, they seemed to think, “Well, this is who I am now” – well, not people, but women specifically. “This is who I am now in terms of love or in terms of looks or in terms of career.” And I really wanted it to be about in any point in your life – I can try new things, I want to be better, I want to move forward, because I think a lot of women think, “Oh I’ve reached a certain point and I’m not going past it, or I’m not allowed to go past it.”
MICHELLE: It’s interesting because Nancy is really the trailblazer in the story and she’s constantly challenging herself and the time by moving forward in her career and you really see that she has freedom with that. She gives herself permission to keep searching even when she’s rejected, even when she’s told that the secretary position has been filled when she goes for a lithography/graphic designer position. There’s a scene where they come back from a party and it’s all of Nancy’s lesbian friends, and at the time, they were hiding, of course, because they couldn’t be visible, and she realizes this for the first time that that is where she is holding herself back. She doesn’t allow herself to of course be affectionate with June even in this situation where she can be, and I think for her it’s the first time where she realizes, “I’m bound by my own internal fears and obstacles.” So, we see a change in her after that. With June, it’s more obvious – limitations that are imposed on her of the time, and of these roles that men and women sort of fulfill at the time, and she sees through Nancy that she doesn’t have to live this way, and then it becomes a question of, “Does she break free and follow?” W really see to start her assert her own desires and wants and needs with her relationship with Marty in the play, and she changes even in the way she holds herself, even in the way she speaks, and it’s very subtle, but she’s definitely influenced by watching Nancy. They give each other something totally different. June, she’s not comfortable calling herself a lesbian – that’s not even an idea for her yet – but she is comfortable with being affectionate, so she’s able to give that gift to Nancy.
ALICE: I think for us, the creation of the play itself was an act of self-empowerment because it came from a place of feeling so frustrated and without the tools to deal with that frustration. Before we even knew we were writing a play, we all sat down at this coffee shop in Providence and for whatever reason, we made a list of everything we wanted to do or see onstage. That was the genesis of the play – we came out with this six-page list of everything we could possibly want, and then out of that, wrote this play including as many of these things as possible. I think at the time, it felt like the only thing we could do. This moment of taking our art and our lives and powers of creation into our own hands, in a way that that’s, empowerment. Making something is empowering.
You mentioned the list – I was looking at your web series beforehand, and I noticed that on the list of enemies, you had both George W. Bush AND Whole Foods, so I was really amused by the variety there.
ALICE: That’s part of the running joke of the show, that there’s complete hypocrisy within the tenants of whatever this revolution is. For example, we could hate Bush because of the Iraq war, and we can hate Whole Foods because they charge too much for Parmesan.
Dani, why did you make archaeology a subject of your play? Since you said you weren’t a big science person before this, how did this idea come to you?
DANI: Well, I don’t know a lot about science, but I love science, and always thought it was really sexy. [laughs] Come see the play! So I started with a list of things I wanted to see and wanted the play to be about, thematically. I eventually realized that the play had a lot to do with time – the passage of time. I was trying to find the science that most closely aligned with that thematically, so that’s why I picked archaeology. I think I also thought about paleontology because I really love dinosaurs, but then I just thought…I wanted to have a dinosaur in the play, but I thought, “There’s not going to be a way to write an elegant play about that.”
[Laughter all around.]
Although my director and I just found out the other night that Jurassic Park is BOTH of our favorite movie. I got to the point where I read every book I could find on archaeology. I was even reading Agatha Christie books only because she was married to an archaeologist.
Michelle, since you mentioned that in some ways we’ve come so far and there are other ways we haven’t, so I’m interested in knowing your choice to set your play in the 1950s instead of in the present day. What made you want to set the play in the past?
MICHELLE: I don’t even know if it was a conscious choice – I think I said this before, we’ve progressed in a lot of ways but we’re still very much the same. When I was writing part of the play that was set in the current, present time, I was really struggling and I felt like I was writing myself and my girlfriend’s relationship, and I think it was partly fueled by my frustration of the time, of what was happening, of our inability to get married, and it sort of started to become a public service announcement for same-sex marriage. It was no longer this interesting piece of art that people would want to go see – it was just “Michelle’s rant about what was happening in the world.” So I was creating this big albatross for myself where I was not able to get the story finished. Somebody suggested, “These characters in the 50s, they’re becoming very interesting. Why don’t you focus on them?” I thought, “I can’t do that, the piece is everything!” and I think that was part of the problem – I wanted to place all of my opinions about the world into this play, have it be the end all and be all instead. A lot of stuff didn’t get in the final draft. In terms of the idea of being a mother – does that define us as being women? I think that still – I mean, I know for myself that I’m at the age where most of my friends have had children or they’re pregnant now, and I get asked a lot, “So do you want to have kids?” And this guilt and shame wells within me – “Well, it’s not a driving motivation in my life, and does that mean I’m less of a woman because I don’t really know?” Maybe I don’t want to have kids. All of this other stuff that didn’t even accidentally come to that part of the play. So, in my decision to not place everything into this play and have it be this huge story of the past and the present, it – I don’t want to say accidentally, but it found its way in there. I didn’t have to work it in, it found its way into the story.
And I wrote this before I ever saw Mad Men, and someone said I should watch it, so I started watching it, and I was like, “Oh my god.” I think I’ve always been fascinated by this era. My mother was just such an interesting character, a very fascinating woman. She was this feminine flower on the outside but had this butchness within her that came through at times.
Did New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage have any impact on you as you were writing the play?
MICHELLE: Yeah, it definitely did. In fact, the night that it happened, my relationship at the time was sort of fizzling out. This wonderful, beautiful thing had happened, and it was the same night my girlfriend and I got in the biggest fight, so the irony of that – but also, without giving too much details, just to protect people in my life – there are people that, not only does this not affect the rest of the country, it’s a statewide thing until DOMA is eradicated. But there are people that are in relationships with people that are not from this country, and they can’t marry that person even today because immigration is federal and same-sex marriage is still on a state level, so while that was a huge triumph in many of our lives, it was – “It’s nice, but that’s not my reality.” The whole immigration thing – yeah, it is very, very true for a lot of people, and I don’t think a lot of people in the gay community even know that still not everyone can get married in New York.
Alice, why is it important to make fun of revolution while also celebrating it?
ALICE: One of our biggest fears is that we’re concerned about coming off as though we’re making fun of Occupy Wall Street in particular, which we’re not. We embrace and celebrate the impulse to take a stand, to work as activists, to lobby for change. I think the thing we’re making fun of is not specific to Occupy Wall Street, but just to human nature in general – self-righteousness, the assumption that any one person or system could create a world that would work for everyone. So I guess it’s an attack on extremism of any kind, or of any world view that presumes to have all the answers.
I remember reading about Occupy Wall Street, about sexism within the movement – from dangerous things like sexual assaults, to women in general feeling like they weren’t being heard. Did that have any influence on your writing?
ALICE: That has influence on everything in my life. But definitely, that’s something we took away. A lot of the early stages of the play – feeling like – coming into this realization that we’ve come so far, and yet, here I am, unable to command attention in a room the way a man can, and I don’t quite know why.
Dani, I was looking as your bio, I know you’re been writing for television. How did you find playwriting to be a new challenge?
DANI: Well, writing plays is not new for me, I went to school at Tisch – I studied playwriting, screenwriting, and TV writing equally. I wrote a lot of plays there. But I think because I was doing all three, when I approached theater, I thought, “It has to be very theatrical,’ and I was trying to do all these avant-garde things that I saw and loved in other people’s work, and they never quite worked. And I think finally with this play, I accepted that this is the way I write – a lot of it sounds like television and it’s very structured. I wrote the play in a similar matter that I would write anything else, and that’s what made it a lot better than any of my other plays.
One final question. It seems that there’s another common theme in your plays – female collaboration, whether it’s through same-sex relationships or through friends and fellow revolutionaries. What are you saying about female collaboration in your plays?
DANI: I think women are amazing at collaborating with each other, which isn’t to say that men aren’t –
MICHELLE: They aren’t.
DANI: They’re not, really. There’s a lot of competition. The women that I met when I started writing are still my best friends and I met my producer on the first day of writing school. There’s a lot more women involved in this play then there are men, and I haven’t had a single – for lack of a better word – “cockfight.” There hasn’t been a single moment of, “Whose ego are we protecting here?” It’s been really nice, but it’s also in the play.
ALICE: It’s been wonderful writing and working with the team. We’re fruitful and have very different writing styles and personal styles which all comes through in the writing, which is fun. I actually went to this party – I was talking to a man about the show, and I was saying, “Oh, there are these three revolutionaries but they can’t get organized.” And he was really into it, and then was excited, and then said, “So basically, if three women tried to start a revolution!” And I was like, “No, that’s not it!” Anyway, the artistic collaboration among the three of us has been incredibly productive and wonderful. The onstage collaboration between the characters is…less so.
DANI: The director, him being a man – it’s nice to see the way he defers to us, especially with the love scene. He’s like, “I’m a straight guy, I’ve seen this probably not in an accurate way, so you need to tell me what’s going on.” And there were a lot of moments like that, of “You guys know more about this,” and that was nice – but it was also probably because he was outnumbered.
MICHELLE: Ditto, to everything. Yeah, I also collaborated with Gabrielle [Maisels] as an actor throughout the period of developing this play. We worked on it, did excerpts in different festivals for Cheryl [King], for Stage Left, and there was never anyone saying, “No, it’s my way!” There hasn’t been a battle of egos, you know, and my director, I can’t say enough about her. It’s been an amazing experience with the women AND men, even though the women definitely outnumber the men. I think there’s this idea that women can’t work together, and that has never ever been my experience in any situation.
DANI: And I think some of these men actually want to work with us. The atmosphere is much more collaborative, and when you work in television comedy rooms, it’s all just men screaming at each other – it must be exhausting!
ALICE: I haven’t mentioned yet our incredible director – I wanted to give a shout-out to her, because she’s in the incredibly difficult position of directing the writers of the piece.
Lady T is the author of this blog and will be seeing and reviewing all three of these shows, and sincerely can’t wait to do it.