Dallas — New work is popping up all over Dallas/Fort Worth this summer from established companies to newer, emerging groups. Smaller groups led by recent college graduates are rising steadily, offering fresh perspectives on young adulthood. The Tribe, led by a cohort of rising theater artists, is one of many companies promoting the work of local writers. They operate by adopting one artist a month, with workshops or readings. This month, they are producing their first full production, Ophelia Underwater by Janielle Kastner.
This play is a special endeavor for both Kastner and The Tribe; and it has been in development for many years. The seed of the play was planted in Kastner’s mind in college as she worked on the character of Ophelia in class work and scenes. After college, she wrote some monologues about the character on an airplane, connecting the Shakespearean character to a sense of “guilt that I am responsible for the emotions of the men around me.”
Then, Kastner was accepted into the Dallas Playwright’s Workshop at Dallas Theater Center, under the mentorship of Will Power. As the group met on a weekly basis, Kastner developed the structure of the play with the supportive and critical eyes of the group members. Kastner says, “Will encouraged us to do workshops of all of our pieces afterwards.” But like many new plays, the script’s only life was on Kastner’s desktop. She reached the end point of developing the play on her own, now it was in purgatory for months. What’s the next step? You need people, you need a group to support your work. Even though Ophelia Underwater is a one-woman show, a work of theater needs collaborators to get it on its feet. The Tribe formed and adopted Ophelia as the group’s first workshop project; and now a year later it is getting a full production at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park.
Kastner’s play explores a fairly unexamined topic: the inner life of a teenage girl. Kastner notes, “I think teenage girls are one of the most ridiculed and parodied demographics. If you want to communicate that something is worthless of your time and energy you associate it with something a teenage girl would be into. I think they are the most underutilized demographic in the United States.”
I’d certainly agree with that. Look at any high school football team, where the boys tend to be raised to mythic proportions while the girls are on the sidelines cheering for their success. If the boys stumble, the girls become their emotional support. But who takes the girls seriously? Why are their needs made fun of? Why are they taught to be a “good girl”? What is the cost of that?
While the title of the play invokes Shakespeare’s work, Kastner’s play is not a feminist retelling of Hamlet. Rather, it explores the identity of a girl who “you knew would pick up the emotional slack for (her guy), and I just picked the most famous one.” Kastner developed a philosophy for Ophelia in college, believing that this character was prepared more for a comedy rather than a tragedy. “She’s a woman of stature, of beauty, she’s dating the guy, she has the dress, she has the wits. She should have something bad happen to her and then be sent into the woods and cross dresses.” She approached Ophelia with the same resilience and sense of worth as a Rosalind or Viola; until Ophelia finds no way out of the “good girl” expectations pressed upon her by all of the other characters. While the contextual foundation lies in the play, Kastner’s fascination with this type of role crosses into the contemporary expectations and perceptions of young adult women. “I’m thinking a lot about the way I was raised and the cost of being a good girl, that they are bred and not born. And what is the cost of that?”
In 2016, we may believe that this kind of emotional weight carried by women no longer exists. After all, we have come so far with rights for women and balancing the scales for gender parity. However, the social structures reinforcing a submissive gender have been threaded tightly into the fabric of our society—many adult women are still trying to find their place of agency, particularly in relationships with men. It is easy to describe misogyny as “as a group of older white men in a room somewhere,” but these declarations of how women should behave are something that society as a whole reinforces. We’re all complicit in the act of imposing behaviors upon women, or judging their every action. In the play, you don’t only see Ophelia’s boyfriend interacting with her, but all of the other voices telling her how to act and navigate through the world—including voices from the media. In this way, the internal mind of a teenage girl is more dangerous and confusing because of the inconsistent messages.
Kastner observes, “I’m seeing that my female colleagues have been consistently heads and shoulders above their male colleagues. I’m growing up in a moment where I’m getting better grades and there’s nothing I can’t do. Only to find in my late teens and early 20s, that men can do less and get recognized more. And as emerging adults, my female colleagues accept nothing less in their life except in their relationships with men."
What kind of agency does a good girl (or good wife) have? We all know what happens to Hamlet’s Ophelia. She goes mad. She drowns. That’s what happens.
And we accept it so easily. Of course the young girl goes crazy, that’s what a hormonal teenage girl does. She’s not strong enough.
Or is she finally making her own choice?
Kastner’s play allows Ophelia to examine her place in the world, but the conclusion she makes is a sobering one for young women. Ophelia realizes “there is no place for her to have agency for her above the water, that she has no space. She has a choice to play the game in the good girl role, but she abdicates that. And in that way, she also abdicates her own life. I want to haunt people with that.”
As you watch the one woman on stage examine Ophelia’s options, Kastner hopes to open a new point of view for the audience, that you will empathize with this young woman. Very much attached to this character, Kastner says “The fact that we lose her is a great loss to society.”
Hopefully, someone will listen to Ophelia’s voice this time, and not dismiss it as nonsense.
» Click the info button in the floating menu at bottom left of your screen for details about Ophelia Underwater; the Saturday, May 14 performance is at 7 p.m., and is followed by a new one-man work from John Michael called Dementia Me.
» You can see a snippet from Ophelia Underwater at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 11 at the Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff, along with Shelby-Allison Hibbs previewing her solo work DemiRepubliCan’t; and Hannah Weir has a piece exploring Snow White. More info in our listing.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her new bi-monthly Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- 365 Women a Year Festival, readings of new works by women playwrights across the nation, at Rover Dramawerks in Plano, through May 14 OUR LISTING
- Deferred Action, by David Lozano and Lee Trull, at Dallas Theater Center, through May 15 OUR REVIEW
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- De Troya, developmental readings of a new play by Caridad Svich, presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth, May 15-16 OUR LISTING
- Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, featuring the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres of Steve Yockey's The Thrush and the Woodpecker and Blackberry Winter, which will run in repertory, plus readings of new plays and PUP Fest with Junior Players, at Undermain Theatre, May 20-June 25 OUR LISTING
- The third annual Dallas Solo Fest, which features several premieres, presented by Audacity Theatre Lab at the Margo Jones Theatre, June 2-12 OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE LINEUP
- Finding Myself in Bed, a new play by Stefany Cambra, presented by Proper Hijinx Productions in the basement of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, June 3-12 OUR LISTING
- House of Bard's, a Shakespeare/political piece from Fun House Theatre & Film at Plano Children's Theatre, June 16-20 OUR LISTING
- The Festival of Independent Theatres, featuring several premieres, July 8-30 at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE LINEUP
- The Distant Echo of Ancient Youth, a new work from Johnny Simons at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, July 8-31 OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF HIP POCKET'S 40TH SEASON
- The Incident, a new work from The Drama Club, opens July 16; info TBA
- Don Quixote, a new physical theater adaptation by Lake Simons and John Dyer at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, Aug. 12-Sept. 4 OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF HIP POCKET'S 40TH SEASON