"You've come a long way, baby." This congratulatory advertising slogan from 1968 endeavored to sell gender-tailored cigarettes to young professional women, capitalizing on their expanding roles in the non-menial workforce and enhanced personal and sexual freedoms due to The Pill, revealing attire and popularity of women's lib. Aside from wondering how truly far today's women have progressed from that pinnacle of marketing claim, consider from what long way "baby" had come by 1968.
"She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions." Jane Austen (1775-1817), Sense and Sensibility
Six leading women actors in the DFW theater scene embark shortly on revealing journeys that portray both the inner and outer struggles for actualization of intelligent, strong-willed, self-aware women in the 18th and 19th centuries. One role is historically based; two are beloved cultural icons; the others arise from the annals of great literature or drama (penned by both men and women). One is of the Regency era; the others are Victorian era, in England, continental Europe and America. All characters leap forth vividly to the stage for modern audiences to contemplate, question and reflect upon—providing contextual perspective about women's lives and roles today and what the future may promise.
"And when a woman's will is as strong as the man's who wants to govern her, half her strength must be concealment." George Eliot (Marian Evans) (1819-1880)
I asked each actor to share some of her creative process in stepping back 100 years or so. What challenges did creating a restrictive social reality present? How much could her character act as catalyst for the play's action? What could the character's dreams, struggles and transformations offer modern audiences?
What follows are the names of the actors, their roles, the play titles and authors, first publication/ performance dates and/or era, plus current production information. Their honest commentary provides a heartfelt, insider view few play bios can ever offer. And BTW, this piece relates to our fall arts planner, which has a list of September, October and November theater productions you should catch.
"What men do not perceive because their intellect prevents them from seeing would fill a book." Sarah Ruhl, in In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play
- Emily Scott Banks, as novelist George Eliot (Marian Evans) in A Most Dangerous Woman by Cathy Tempelsman. Written 2010. Set in 1858. Running Sept. 8-24, presented by Echo Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas. Directed by David Meglino.
- Martha Harms, Mrs. Givings in In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl. Written 2009. Set circa 1882. Running Sept. 9-Oct. 8 at Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas. Directed by Jonathan Taylor.
- Erica Harte, Wendla in Spring Awakening, a rock musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (opened 2006), based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 play of the same name. Sept. 30-Oct. 23 at WaterTower Theatre, Addison. Directed by Terry Martin.
- Lulu Ward, playing several women, including Frau Bergmann and Frau Gabor, also in Spring Awakening.
- Nancy Sherrard, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. First performed Feb. 14, 1895. Running Oct. 6-22 by WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas. Directed by Susan Sargeant.
- Truett Adams, Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Adaptation by Jon Jory. Novel by Jane Austen, published 1811 under pseudonym "A Lady." Oct. 14-23 at Stolen Shakespeare Guild at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Directed by Amber Devlin. This production also coincides with Jane Austen Society of North America’s convention in Fort Worth in October.
TheaterJones: What challenges does the woman you portray face—in the play, in the era, in her strata of society? Is she a catalyst in the play? Or does she mostly react to the actions of others?
Nancy: In the era, it seems to me the challenge to Lady Bracknell is maintaining and advancing her social status. She has managed to elevate herself to her current status through her own efforts. She has learned the lessons of how to behave in high society, if only the superficial affectations. She is smart enough to know she must ensure her beautiful daughter marries well. She is negotiating power with the assets she has in the only way she knows how, under the guise of being a defender of the propriety and morality of Victorian society.
Lady Bracknell is very much a catalyst—she sets the escapade in motion with her refusal to allow Gwendolyn's engagement to Earnest and has a surprise to reveal that is used to resolve the story at the end.
Martha: Catherine Givings is a new mother and a young wife. Her body is teeming with hormones, she's producing milk for her baby, and she's fully realizing herself as a woman. And she's expected to confine herself to a corset and pull her hair back into a tight bun and take lots of naps, and generally be a well-mannered, quiet, dry person. Her body is fighting this convention, and she can't find anyone to share this season of her life with. She is trying to express herself in healthy ways in a time when convention doesn't encourage it. People were to cover themselves up, to hold their resolve when faced with difficult situations. Catherine is going through a sort of post partum depression. She doesn't know what's wrong. She can't identify that she needs a particular kind of love to get her through this time.
It's not that Catherine doesn't know the answers to how to be happy…it's that from the beginning of the play, she doesn't even know what the questions are. Catherine is a catalyst. She is the driving force behind the change in this play. I think the play's conflict lies in Catherine not doing what she's expected to do… Catherine has a very palpable energy. I'm playing with the elements of water and fire. There is so much brewing inside her and it often bubbles up and pours out. She often puts her foot in her mouth. She's a live wire, an electrical current. "I have so much energy I do not know what to do with it…" The play is set in winter but she's often hot. Her desire for human connection burns a hole inside her.
Truett: Elinor is a young female, of 19. Many who read Sense and Sensibility forget her youth because she is such a mature woman. She thinks far ahead of the present moment and is shockingly aware of her surroundings. With this in mind, Elinor suffers from a constant state of holding in her true opinions and feelings, and although thought of as a good thing for a young woman to do she confides in few and keeps her secrets to herself, a lonely life.
Elinor is not necessarily a catalyst, but she is not simply reactionary either. She finds herself at the bottom rung of her social ladder and is unable to make defining moves within her life socially because it will draw negative attention to her and her family… but when Elinor tells Marianne of Edward's secret engagement and Lucy Steele and her true feelings for Edward spill out, she becomes a catalyst for herself and her sister to make suitable, beautiful, comfortable and passionate marriages.
Lulu: Although I am portraying more than one character, they face the same challenges of any woman in late 19th century provincial Germany…still a male-dominated society. Women were expected to yield to their husbands with regard to the specifics of childrearing. For example, the character Fannie Gabor is the most forward thinking and liberal of the women portrayed in Spring Awakening. She puts her trust in her son Melchior's instincts and is determined to let him find his own way, even if he becomes exposed to ideas and knowledge for which he is ill-prepared. Although Melchior's Father seems to agree with this philosophy, in the end they send their son away to what amounts to juvenile detention. Frau Gabor surely understood that in a free and intelligent atmosphere her son might develop into an original thinker, but women in her position did not make the final decision in such matters. None of the women are comfortable overstepping the boundaries their time and position have defined for them.
Erica: Lack of information is one of the biggest struggles for Wendla. As a young woman going through puberty she has all of these feelings and questions with no one to explain or answer them for her. Not only does she live in the 19th century, but also in a conservative, rural German community where specific weight is put on religion and what are "sinful" topics: the body, childbirth and boys are at the top of the list. Talk about complicated teen years!
Wendla is very much a catalyst. She is an envelope-pusher, always searching for explanations and answers, much to the chagrin of her mother.
Emily: I play the author Marian Evans, better known as George Eliot. Eliot faced tremendous challenges in her real life, as in our play. Because she was physically unattractive from her earliest years (a probable death-knell to marriage hopes for a Victorian woman), her father compensated by recognizing her passionate intelligence and affording her an education. She became even more marginalized as her intelligence led her to question the status quo, to a degree that caused breaks with those closest to her.
She faced tremendous self-esteem issues from this, and constantly searched for love. Once her father's will left her adequate financial independence, she was able to use her education in London, as a noted editor and translator. She was much admired for her mind, while simultaneously the subject of much judgment and ridicule for her appearance. It was not until she fell in love and landed in a very complicated relationship, that she found the unconditional love she was searching for…at the cost, for some years, of her reputation and social standing. Her partner, being a man, was still allowed into society; Marian was not. And while his love and encouragement led to her writing career as a brilliant novelist, she chose to take the pen name "George Eliot" so her work would not be shunned. As the title character, Eliot is most definitely a catalyst in this play; she also very much reacts to those around her. While many of the people in Eliot's actual life saw her as needing protection and direction, the wide echoes of her influence are fascinating. Virginia Woolf called her masterpiece Middlemarch, "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," and Emily Dickenson wrote, "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?"
What challenges do you face as a modern actress in "wearing her skin and life" in her era? How will costume aid or inhibit you in creating your character and in fulfilling the playwright's intent with the character? Do you, or will you, wear a "rehearsal costume" that puts you in the era?
Emily: I'm mindful of the levels of status, etiquette, and gender roles that were so ingrained in the Victorians, and that are almost foreign to us today. Strangely, perhaps, the other feelings Marian deals with are universal enough in their human experience, that it's only the external shell that shifts. The underneath is very recognizable to me. I've done lots of period pieces, but a true corset & petticoat piece has been a few years away. In fact, in the last one I only got as clothed as the undergarments, and in this one, I'll be about as trussed up as the period allows! So, for rehearsal I am making certain to always wear a rehearsal skirt and appropriate shoes, and my hair is up. Unfortunately, despite much hunting, we've had a problem acquiring a true rehearsal corset…those are apparently difficult to come by in Dallas! But I'm very much looking forward to getting into the corset this coming week, when we receive our rentals. I'm hoping I haven't misjudged my movement or breath capacity too much…
Truett: The interesting thing about the early 19th century is that it was an extremely sexual era but no one wanted to admit it. Passion was rampant in corridors but not one openly spoke about it with each other. I don't think anyone it today's age, with the access to social media we have, could be as guarded in their emotional life as Elinor is.
Martha: I've found the biggest challenge in creating the necessary divide between sex and intimacy…These people live in a time when most couples don't even kiss before they sign a contract that binds them together for life. Sex was for reproduction, not necessarily for pleasure….These characters have no preconceived notions of sexual intimacy. So when Catherine begins to understand that there's something missing from her relationship with her husband, she doesn't even have to words to express that hole in her heart.
The hardest part for us has been isolating and many times removing the intimacy throughout the rising action of the play, because the discovery of that closeness between these two people has to be real and breathtaking and monumental at the end. Usually, we start working in our shoes and corsets pretty much right off the bat, and that's great to get us standing up straight and on two feet. But being fully dressed is supplying me with so much more material. I can't just walk across the stage in a full skirt and bustle—the costume creates a more of a sweeping motion across the space—or I can make it a choice to switch from more of a legato movement to a staccato rhythm, and it can easily create a comedic effect in the costume. I quickly found that I couldn't put my hands behind my back because my poofy dress is in the way. I've found that I can only hold the baby with one arm when I walk up and down a staircase because it's safest to hold my skirt with my other hand, and I can't sit down on the step with my legs crossed because when I stand, I'll trip on my skirt and fall down. These are things I wouldn't even think of if I was rehearsing in street clothes.
Nancy: All of the trappings of Victorian manners, dress and settings will aid in developing Lady Bracknell. The challenge will be finding the real woman amid the corsets and petticoats not a stereotype of what is thought a Victorian matron should be.
Lulu: Have you ever tried to wear a dress or skirt and heels all day—even at home? It is stifling, confining and comfort is impossible! It changes the way we walk, sit and can also affect one's demeanor. Who isn't cranky when their feet hurt? So physically they simply had to be miserable in the confining garments of the late 19th century! I find it a challenge when portraying a different education level than my own. I always create a character by using what is given and expounding upon it in a character biography, including the era, society and culture in which they lived.
Erica: In this day and age there is an abundance of resources available to women, more specifically young women, about their bodies and the changes they go through during early adolescence. Wendla doesn't have the luxury of that knowledge...how young Wendla is, both in mind and age…there's a certain lightness and modesty in her movement quality; it's difficult to find that in a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
How difficult do you think it will be for modern audiences to understand your character's context and motivations? What do you hope today's audience will take home from seeing your performance?
Emily: I think all the experiences of George Eliot will be instantly recognizable to a modern audience—the desire for love, acceptance, meaningful work and a voice in the world? Things we can all relate to!
Erica: I think that it depends on the audience member, for some I think it might be difficult to understand Wendla's behavior and yet I hope there will be a greater number who see themselves or a loved one in her curiosity. I think I'd be most happy if the audience leaves with a new desire to talk. Talk with your children, or your parents; even when it's difficult or uncomfortable because usually those are the most important conversations. It's the questions we never ask that we'll never have the answers to.
Lulu: I don't think that it will be at all difficult for modern audiences to understand the motivations…of the characters I will portray. Even though some of these women (and men) may seem ignorant and prudish by modern measures, some of their behaviors and ideologies still exist today. For a large portion of our population there still exists a certain amount of shame attached to human sexuality... While Spring Awakening doesn't offer answers to the questions it raises, I feel that as a chronicle of the damages done, it might just inspire people to divorce shame from sexuality. And yes, I have always been a cockeyed optimist! But I really do believe in the power of theater.
Nancy: I think the genius of Oscar Wilde is that anyone in any society would recognize or know a Lady Bracknell. Variations of her can be seen on some of today's reality shows. I hope today's audience sees and enjoys Wilde's wit in skewering the affectations and the vanity of wealth and status through her, and that "earnestness" is indeed important.
Martha: This is a period piece but it's clearly a contemporary play. Leo (played by Austin Tindle) has a line in the play that very succinctly sums up Catherine's situation: "I don't understand your loneliness, Mrs. Givings. You have a child, a husband—a home!" It's a very modern idea to have all the parts our society values and still not feel whole…. I think they'll leave our theater with a sense of wonder, curiosity, and hope…and maybe just a little bit turned on.
Truett: I hope that if I do my job well enough, the audience won't have any trouble understanding my character's context and motivations. Jane Austen is so unique in her writing because she has written books that are set her present but the struggles of the characters are timeless. The women in her stories struggle romantically, spiritually and emotionally in ways that the modern woman of today can completely and wholly identify with. I hope that the audiences that see the performance find a renewed strength in the simplicity of trust, the beauty of romantic love, and the importance of speaking up for themselves.
◊ You can also see this interview on Alexandra Bonfield's blog, CriticalRant, where she has additional resources and information. CriticalRant is a media partner with TheaterJones.
◊ The photos were shot by Robert Hart at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary on Sept. 2, 2011. The contraption that Martha holds is one of the first electric vibrators. Special thanks to Tina Parker and Kitchen Dog Theater for providing the space, and to all of the directors, producers and actors who helped with props and costume tidbits.