Yearly Archives: 2007

Revisiting Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer

I’ve been watching The Closer again, which brightened up the summer television season considerably. This year, Brenda Leigh Johnson (the inestimable Kyra Segwick) got some press for sharpening her wardrobe. True, she no longer looks like she shops for clothes at Walmart, but I enjoy that her clothes are still loud and flashy, way off the mark for a professional Deputy Chief (I would suppose). That is, while the men suit up in neutral ties and dress shirts and pants—and even Daniels, the only other woman on the squad, tends to wear dark, somber colors—Brenda Leigh flounces into the office in bold black and white stripes or flowery prints, often wearing the sombrero-style white straw hat that’s become a nearly permanent part of her ensemble. Yet for all her outré fashion choices, Brenda’s not terribly concerned with how she looks, and her outfits don’t get in the way of the professional respect she easily commands in her job.

Brenda’s also been eating a little less candy this season, although when her doctor recently suggested she’d feel better if she gave up sugar, Brenda’s face was a study in panic and defiance. Early onset menopause is her current idiosyncrasy, a condition that could have provided grist for plenty of low comedy, but instead has prompted Brenda’s humanization and a new performance of intimacy and respect between her and the crew.

Sergeant Daniels was conveniently out of the office, training for Homeland Security detail, when Brenda’s hot flashes began, leaving her male co-workers to scratch their heads over Brenda’s instantaneous mood swings, her irritability, and her prodigious sweating. Even Brenda has been flummoxed and outraged by her frequent spells of apparent heat stroke.

Accepting this story-line requires just a little leap of faith—who wouldn’t assume that a woman in her 40s (even her early 40s) might be feeling hormonal changes, especially given Brenda’s symptoms? But holding off on her doctor’s diagnosis allowed the writers to play out the huge effect her body has on her comportment (and her company), if never her on-the-job performance. She might snap at her squad and complain when information doesn’t come at her fast enough, but she solves her cases as efficiently and effectively as ever.

Brenda’s physical suffering illustrates how attuned the men are to her moods and maneuvers. Although they’re respectful of her power and bewildered by her swirling emotional currents, it’s clear they care about her. In a recent episode, Brenda and Lieutenant (I think that’s his rank) Gabriel drive a news crew through a deserted neighborhood and find themselves shot at by unseen, unsuspected snipers. As bullets riddle the car, the frenetic camera cuts again and again to Gabriel, throwing himself over the floundering Brenda to protect her. At the station, when Brenda finally confronts the sniping suspect, alone with him in a stopped elevator, she bawls him out, furious that he almost killed not just her, but her friend, Gabriel.

Gabriel hears her protestations through the technology that allows the show’s characters to snoop frequently on one another and the people they interrogate. In the sniper case, a video hook up to the squad’s audio/visual room shows Brenda and the perp on the elevator’s camera. Her crew gathers round the monitor to watch Brenda chew him out, exchanging murmurs and glances of admiration at the confession she extracts. When Gabriel hears Brenda call him her “friend,” he’s embarrassed but also proud. Declaring her affection for a co-worker doesn’t diminish the command she continues to maintain over her position and her staff.

In fact, the male detectives (and Daniels) often listen in and watch as Sedgwick grills a suspect, either sitting beside her at the table or from the technological remove of the a/v room where “Buzz” works the monitors, capturing images and speech. The constant watching establishes the men as Brenda’s spectators, as well as her colleagues; that they so often watch her on television monitors makes palpable the direction and intensity of what once might have been called their “male gaze.”

But in The Closer, these male spectators gaze, always impressed, always a little jealously, always with great generosity and even pride, at Brenda’s agency, at her ability to articulate her accusations and deftly manipulate a suspect’s emotions to pry out the confession they all expect is forthcoming. Brenda makes people talk not by employing empathetic feminine wiles but by challenging her suspects, shrewdly invading their psychology, and composing sharp, unassailable narratives of their own guilt. How could the men not be in awe? No objectification going on here.

My only hesitation with The Closer this season is Brenda and Fritz’s inevitable march toward marriage. Seeing them cautiously commit to their relationship has been a pleasure, as their choices provide a domestic counterpart to Brenda’s life in the police department that emphasizes her refusal to distinguish the personal from the professional (in fact, Fritz, her fiancé, is an FBI agent who works closely with the squad).

Where other women television characters relax into what too often seem to be “given” roles as mothers or wives, Brenda’s scattershot approach to home-making leaves Fritz to pick up the slack. She’s always relieved when her cell phone rings to fetch her to a crime scene, always eager to put her work above everything else, despite her obvious feelings for Fritz. The yoke of marriage, then, comes as a bit of a surprise and a bit out of character. Likewise, mourning her female fertility, when she thinks she’s suffering early-onset menopause, treads a bit too closely to stereotype.

On the other hand, when’s the last time a popular, critically acclaimed television series followed a story arc about a menopausal woman? And even though her wedding will most certainly end the season (as weddings always do, in television, theatre, and film), Brenda still seems pragmatic, rather than romantic, about the whole thing. When her visiting mother slips and shares Brenda and Fritz’s wedding news with the squad, Provenza gives Brenda a big, back-slapping hug. But instead of happily showing off her ring, Brenda grits her teeth, eager to get back to the problem at hand.

That’s my kind of woman.

Happily hot flashing,
The Feminist Spectator

Feminism Redux: Attacked, Again

Shortly after my post on The Bourne Ultimatum, I received the following comment. I moderate incoming comments, to avoid spam, and usually post everything that comes through. This one, however, I mused over for almost two weeks, debating whether to post it and respond, or to just reject it and move on.

Finally, given my recent post about reconsidering feminism, I decided to share this in the blog proper:

8/8/07 Carol Smithers has left a new comment on your post “The Bourne Ultimatum”: My god you’re a pompous thing. Your editorials are so biased at their core that reading them makes me angry. The only problem with men is women like you who alienate and destroy them. As a self-proclaimed superior force on this planet your writings are tainted. I’m all for feminism if it is coupled with hominism, or better yet, let’s just call true search for equality and fairplay as humanism and forget the splinter self-interest groups of neuroses and damaged psyches that pro-female or pro-male groups promote. The editorial disseminates an unbalanced view of the world under the veil of being sophisticated, enlightened, and thus “politically acceptable,” all the while it is just so much dribble.

I receive a fair number of letters like these, occasionally on the blog, frequently when I write letters to the editors of various publications, and of course more subtly in the classroom. (At UT, a colleague who’s since left the department once wrote me an angry email in which he called me a “feminazi” simply because I’d circulated an email announcement citing dismal statistics about women in professional theatre that asked people to take action.)

I know my skin should be thick enough to slough off these comments. I know I should have just rejected this comment on the blog and forgotten about it. But somehow, each of these attacks, so inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, winds up smarting. I’m always surprised to receive these communications, nearly all from strangers, nearly all worded like the one here: mean-spirited, ad hominem, not terribly thoughtful or reasonable, but vicious and self-righteous, from people who are clearly mad enough to take the time to write.

Partly what’s hard is that people forget they’re writing to someone, to a person with feelings. I am a “critic,” but I do try to write in a spirit of critical generosity in the hopes that real dialogue might come from respect and caring. Calling someone “pompous” and their writing “dribble” is just so haughty and mean–I’m always, literally, physically and emotionally shocked to read these comments.

Carol Smithers misreads my Bourne post (if that’s the one she read; she implies that she’s read others). I don’t believe I’ve ever suggested that women are a “superior force on this planet,” nor have I suggested that men are the problem. But for writers like these, it most likely doesn’t matter what I really write. They see “feminism,” and bring to what they read their own prior assumptions, then damn a perspective they conjure, rather than one that really exists.

As a writer, I’ve long accepted that people understand what they will about what they read. Part of writing is being misread. We speak knowing that what we say may or may not be truly understood; that’s part of the contract, I think, of public exchange and commerce. I wouldn’t maintain a blog if I wanted every reader to agree with me, and in fact I relish debate and disagreement.

But Smithers’ attack is an entirely different thing. Hers are words that those of us who teach feminist subjects or methods often hear—the knee-jerk, willful misreading, drenched in stereotypes of feminism propagated by the media and fearful conservative politicians. The pain in receiving posts like these comes from the writer’s unwillingness to engage in real dialogue, and her eagerness to damn a stranger based on something she already thought about feminism.

The comment reminded me of the conference panel on feminism about which I recently wrote. This kind of angry, self-righteous presumption is what feminist teachers regularly confront in their classrooms. I think about the young women who organized the panel and spoke so eloquently about their commitments, and it pains me to know that they, too, will suffer these attacks for trying to consider theatre and performance from a gendered, activist perspective.

This is why our pedagogy and our writing and our thinking, spectating, and reading is so important.

In sad solidarity,
The Feminist Spectator

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The Bourne Ultimatum

For an action-hero fantasy flick, The Bourne Ultimatum offers head-spinning editing and thorny plot complications along with a savvy political parable about the outrageous arrogance of our present administration. Bourne, as we know from the first two installments in the trilogy (The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy) is a killer-for-hire out to retrieve his real identity, which has so far lead him right back to the government protection agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA that here look as nefarious as they probably are but much more efficient and effective. Bourne is on the run—although through much of the film, he actually walks remarkably slowly, for a man with killers breathing down his neck—from the “assets” of these agencies, hired guns charged with obliterating Bourne before he uncovers the secret operation through which he was trained and set loose by a loose-cannon organization as a US-backed agent of terror in his own right.

Our man Bourne walks/runs through the film riddled with regret for his occupation, suffering frequent and debilitating flashbacks that hint at the brutality of the training that turned him into an assassination machine. Across Matt Damon’s face run subtle hints of regret, from a man haunted by the ethics of a person he doesn’t even really know he is. Because of Damon’s nuanced, always interesting performance, the film becomes less about state-sponsored terrorism and more about a man intent on avenging the obliteration of his own soul. Every fight Bourne engages brings him a step closer to his own morality, to the ethics of being truly human.

The film’s villains represent government agents who take power way too far into their own hands. Much as our current president, who just succeeded in muscling through legislation (however temporary) that increases his powers of warrantless surveillance, these CIA spooks are outfitted with computers connected to listening and covert spying devices that cancel the presumption of privacy. They harness surveillance video cameras trained on street corners, in stores, and in stairways to instantly create ever more precise and clear pictures of Bourne and his allies trying to escape their gaze and their control.

Nearly on demand, director Paul Greengrass (director of United 93, about which I blogged last year, and The Bourne Supremacy) implies, the CIA and FBI can track a subject’s intimate movements in public or private places, and access cell phone records whether or not a subject’s placed a call (in fact, a powered down cell phone leads them to the source who leaked information about Bourne’s true past to a British journalist). This micro-access to a man’s movements, the film argues, robs him of his soul, but because Bourne’s super-intelligence (honed by those he now defies) outwits his handlers, he’s able to preserve not only his physical but his psychic integrity.

Psychology, too, falls into the wrong hands in Ultimatum. A villainous psychologist (his PhD from Stanford highlighted in one shot) originally conceives the training that breaks Bourne down into a lethal, remorseless assassin. The psychologist in the service of evil, like most men who break the ethical rules of scientific inquiry, gets back some of his own when Bourne retraces his past and arrives where he began, in the doctor’s oily, imperious presence.

One of the pleasures of Ultimatum is watching Bourne outmaneuver his enemies with little more than his hands and his head. For a contemporary action film, this hero carries very few toys. His hands, of course, are weapons enough, but he accomplishes most of his escapes with quick, creative thinking (and a cell phone or two) instead of violence, simply outsmarting his competitors. The fight scenes, though, are choreographed with a balletic style (apparently, Greengrass meant them to look dancerly) that makes them seem much more about skill and precision than about violence.

In a scene close to the film’s end, the man sent to kill Bourne has apparently been badly hurt in a car accident. Bourne, who (miraculously) wiggles free of his own wrecked vehicle, limps to the assassin’s car window, stares at him with something that might be compassion, and walks away. When, of course, the killer revives and returns for one final face-to-face confrontation with Bourne, he asks why Bourne didn’t kill him. Instead of answering, the hero asks, facing the muzzle of the killer’s gun, “Do you even know why you’re killing me?”

It’s a poignant, rather than cheap, moment, partly because Damon asks with just enough irony and intelligence, and partly because this assassin-for-hire is man with swarthy skin and a perpetual shadow of a beard, which makes him look vaguely Middle Eastern. As he and the white hero confront each other on a rooftop, perched at an edge ten stories above the East River, the man is unable to answer Bourne’s question, and slowly lowers his gun. Although the exchange provides a necessary plot point, it also inevitably refers to US involvement in the Middle East, in which so many men have no idea why they’re killing each other, except that they’ve been sent to do the dirty work by other men with more power. When they stop being cogs in someone else’s wheel, they recover their humanity and their empathy.

There’s something almost feminine in Bourne’s woundedness and perpetual grief (his girlfriend, another agent, was murdered in the first film), despite the thoughtful virility with which he eludes those who would kill or capture him. His real name, in fact, turns out to be David Webb, not a bad choice for an individual who single-handedly confronts the Goliath of the US intelligence community. Jason Bourne (named perhaps for Jason, the Greek god whose mother saved his life as an infant by pretending he was dead, who grows up to retrieve the Golden Fleece) is consigned to history, the once new-born progeny of an evil machine intent on winning at all costs. Webb prefers the connectedness of history to the eternal present of psycho-military techno-industry that created Bourne.

If Damon/Webb proves strangely feminine, the film forces its actual women to demonstrate their masculinity or be killed themselves. Joan Allen, playing a capable high-level officer from another agency, finds herself set up by those she’s come to assist, so that if their effort to stop Bourne fails, she’ll take the fall. Striding through her scenes in sensible slacks and sweaters, Allen’s perpetually pinched expression keeps her thinking but also makes her look rather comical. She’s obviously the ethical center of the film, but she’s given nothing to do but wait for Bourne to deliver the goods she needs to uncover the agency’s misdeeds and get the villains arrested. That she finally testifies before a panel of senators in an empty legislative chamber underlines that she can’t truly be visible and powerful in this eternally male world, even though she’s succeeded in rooting out corruption.

Likewise, Julia Stiles walks (and runs) smartly through a throw-away part as Bourne’s temporary helpmate, turning against the agency that employs her to help him move. The couple narrowly escapes death and soon part ways. Stiles’s only effective action seems to be cutting and dying her hair over a stained and rusty bathroom sink, finishing with a surprisingly chic new cut in which to board her train for elsewhere.

But then, as all the excessively patriotic, masculine, testosterone-driven trailers before Ultimatum emphasized, these action hero movies really aren’t about the women, and at least here, the film forces neither Stiles nor Allen to bear the indignity of being Bourne’s romantic interlude or simply eye candy.

So I’ll take the flick for what it is, and be happy to embrace its brilliant photography and kinetic editing along with its refreshingly pointed allegory about the imminent downfall of powerful, headstrong men who think they can get away with anything. Would that it were true.

Bourne again,
The Feminist Spectator

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Feminism Reconsidered

Do excuse the long silence for the month of July. During my absence from this site, I attended, among other things, two different theatre conferences. I spent a week at the International Federation for Theatre Research Conference, held this year in Stellenbosch, a small town in the wine country outside of Cape Town, South Africa. At the month’s end, I spent 24 hours at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s annual conference, held this year in New Orleans.

The IFTR feminist working group focuses on diverse performance practices, histories, and theories of international feminist theatre-makers and academics. While the constituency varies yearly, depending on the meeting’s location, the group tends to attract women from countries around the globe. This year’s group was small, but participants hailed from the US, the UK, Korea, South Africa, and Sweden.

Papers addressed various topics, from plays about immigrant women performed in Germany, to African-American/Jewish relations represented in the musicals Caroline, or Change and Parade, from representations of feminism in Eve Ensler’s The Good Body as performed by a new generation of feminist women in Seoul, to reconsidering American playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s contributions to feminist thought in the mainstream, Broadway forum—and much more.

The working group meetings addressed the status of feminism as a practice and a theory around the world, as represented through theatre and performance. Since my current work addresses Wasserstein’s oeuvre, I’m interested in rethinking the tools of feminist criticism of the 1980s and 1990s. The “feminisms,” which parsed the ideological and practical differences among liberal, cultural, and materialist feminists, now seem to me limiting, and in retrospect, steered feminist critical thought away from more “popular” playwrights toward more subaltern, avant-garde, subcultural performance artists and collectives.

Thanks to the group’s internationalist perspective, I was lead to expand my thinking about these binaries. In Korea, for example, the mainstream/alternative dichotomy doesn’t hold, and in the EU, it’s difficult to single out gender without considering how immigration, race, and ethnicity influence funding decisions that determine a production’s fate. Participants also pointed to Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Elfriede Jelinek, and Timberlake Wertenbaker as non-American playwrights who’ve achieved a certain prominence outside of the hegemonic American distinction between mainstream and alternative.

The South African theatre-makers present at the meetings—from Themba Interactive Theatre and from Mother Tongue, the only registered women’s theatre collective in South Africa—suggested that there’s little distinction between applied theatre, community-based theatre, and professional theatre in their country. Mother Tongue, in fact, sees their work on a continuum between mainstream and applied theatre, although both groups suggested that their primary goal is not to entertain people but to bring to the forefront stories that aren’t visible in the cultural mainstream.

HIV/AIDS persists as a health and social crisis in South Africa. The one conference-wide performance presented at IFTR, in fact, was a Forum Theatre piece about the pandemic performed by a national company. Although the group didn’t usefully frame the event for international theatre educators—sticking instead to a structure they use to present the issues to school children—watching them use Boal’s methods to address the social stigma around HIV/AIDS was compelling and important.

During my short stay at the ATHE conference, I caught a Women and Theatre Program-sponsored panel called “The Future of Feminist Scholarship.” Chaired by J. Ellen Gainor (Cornell), the roundtable discussion featured seven graduate students—Gwen Alker (NYU), Lisa Hall (UC-Boulder), Diana Looser (Cornell), Adrienne Macki (Boston College), Jennifer Popple (UC-Boulder), and Meghan Brodie and Megan Shea (both Cornell), who organized the panel, which proved a provocative, thoughtful conversation about the status of feminism in theatre and performance studies.

I’m surprised that in this and in other venues (such as Elaine Aston and Gerry Harris’s edited volume Feminist Futures? out recently from Palgrave) so much time is spent contemplating the definition of feminism. While I agree that its meaning has and should change, some of this debating seems to stall, rather than advance, the discourse. As Deb Margolin told her students, in an inspirational class on feminist theatre I watched her teach at Yale this spring, if you think that women deserve to be equal in every way, then you’re a feminist. On some level, simplicity serves us best.

Nonetheless, the ATHE roundtable’s discussion advanced some important points about feminist theatre and performance scholarship. The foundational texts of the field are still those that were published in the mid-80s and the 1990s. And while, as the discussion stressed repeatedly, feminist concerns have now been woven inextricably into the larger field, explicit feminist projects seem to be on the wane. At the American Society for Theatre Research conferences, for one example given, only one working group is called “Feminist Historiography.” Many other groups and seminars address theatre and social change or politics and performance, but without doing so under a specifically feminist rubric.

Gwen Alker pointed out that the effects of feminist scholarship have been “omnipresent and subterranean,” and that the institutionalization of the field (witnessed most recently by Routledge’s decision to adopt Women & Performance Journal, the journal of feminist performance theory that I actually helped to found at NYU in 1981) means that it has “solidified” as a method and “infiltrated” the field as a viable approach. I wonder, though, what the pros and cons of such institutionalized status might be. Meghan Brodie pointed out that feminism is being subsumed by its own interdisciplinarity, which I find a very valid point. What does this mean for the future of the field? Why do we feel the need to name feminism explicitly in our work? On the other hand, why don’t we? How and why might we bring feminism back to the surface of critical thought in performance?

Much of the roundtable addressed teaching feminist theatre and performance. Many participants worried about their students’ refusal to proclaim themselves “feminists” despite their obvious commitment to gender equity. But what does such naming do to advance our inquiry? Is it necessary to cajole students into calling themselves feminists? What does such identifying achieve? Isn’t it more important to stress feminism as a critical practice rather than an identity, as bell hooks challenged us to do a decade or more ago?

The damage done to feminism by the mainstream media can be felt and observed most keenly perhaps in our classrooms, when students think they know something about us when they can attach us to a feminist label. How our identities as teachers are seen remains something of a knee-jerk reaction from our students, one in which identity is always suspect as political advocacy. For instance, in our large (400-student) Introduction to Theatre class here at UT, a gay/lesbian theatre unit is regularly offered by the graduate students who teach the course. But the instructors who are heterosexual receive much less grief for this content than those perceived or self-admitted to be lesbian, gay, or queer. As much as we try to unloosen identity from essentialism, our students still equate our choice of plays as advocacy if we appear to be teaching “about ourselves.”

The roundtable drew a healthy audience at the ATHE conference (mostly of women, but also a few committed men, including the esteemed theatre scholar Marvin Carlson, who has always been a promoter of the subfield). Spectators offered their own cautions and concerns. Sara Warner (Cornell), the president of the Women and Theatre Program (WTP) of ATHE, reminded us that feminism as the panel articulated it is a western notion, and urged us to reconsider feminism as a transnational and post-colonial project, as the WTP has done so deftly in its recent pre-conferences.

Ann Elizabeth Armstrong (Miami University of Ohio) offered that feminism tends to be a liability in community-based theatre work and “engaged” scholarship, which I find fascinating. Why wouldn’t a method that should illuminate these endeavors be found suspect to them? Is it because feminism implies a specificity of inquiry that CBT theatre and “progressive” scholarship wants to belie? On the other hand, is “feminist” explicitly or implicitly activist, as many roundtable participants seemed to imply? Or is it a method among others, without an activist social corollary?

Gay Gibson Cima (Georgetown) reminded us of the establishment of “feminisms” as a critical discourse, which was one of the most important contributions of the 1980s and 90s, as it allowed us to make distinctions between various feminist ideologies and practices. And yet in my own recent critical thinking, it’s seemed to me that those feminisms at the same time installed a hierarchy of value against which feminist work was measured that perhaps hasn’t served us over time. For instance, “liberal feminism”—defined as an ideology that seeks equity for women within existing social and government structures—was derided as accommodationist, which left many women playwrights writing for mainstream forums outside the “rightful” purview of more incisive feminist thought.

Likewise, as another roundtable participant suggested, the critique of essentialism, which derogated the achievements of “radical” or “cultural” feminism, left many women dazed, confused, and alienated from the feminist critique. While social constructionist theories of gender, race, and sexuality offer trenchant, necessary analyses of identity and its ideological operations, how might we reopen the discussion of specifically women’s work in theatre without denying the importance of how even the term “women” is historically and socially contextual, paving the way for considering globalization’s effects on feminist work transnationally?

I found myself quite cheered by the ATHE roundtable, mostly because I worry that feminism is passé in the academy and in progressive social movements. Listening to smart, committed young academic women try to tease out the necessary complications of doing this work, and hearing them parse out the themes feminism has forwarded and how they’re being taken up across fields, gave me great hope for the future of the field.

The academy is, of course, a place of commodification, in which scholars continually seek out the next cutting edge on which to make their reputations and their contributions to contemporary thought. Feminism, some might say, had its moment. But if we truly believe in the importance of a critique that seriously considers gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, class, and other identity markers as viable sites of cultural generation and critique, feminism needs to be continually reinvigorated as a method and a movement.

Yours, in sisterhood, still,
The Feminist Spectator

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A Reminder of Why We Do Theatre

A number of television shows and films beckon me lately, and once I’ve seen them, I hope to write about them. There’s the blockbuster Knocked Up, about which I’m entirely suspicious, given its pedigree and given what I’ve heard about the choices—or non-choices—Katherine Heigl’s character makes around her unexpected pregnancy. And then there’s the recently opened Evening, based on the book by Susan Minot, which I read years ago and found very moving. With a cast so full of talented women, that film must be worth seeing, regardless of how well they adapt Minot’s non-chronological, elegiac story.

I’ve also recently started watching Rescue Me, Dennis Leary’s FX-broadcast dramedy, which I find I like despite the incessant boy-banter among him and his firefighter buddies. Too soon to discuss it here, but I’m getting hooked by original plot lines and characters (the gay son of Jerry, the stressed out fire chief; the beautiful, baby-faced young Mike, debating his sexuality and whether or not to kill his terminally ill mother; and Leary’s Tommy, with his fluid moral code and his 9/11-survivor’s guilt), by the confident and easy ensemble acting, and by the writing, which cuts way above network tv.

I’ve also tuned in to the new season of The Closer, which I’ve written about in this blog before. Brenda’s new style—less garish make-up and clothes, which I suppose means she’s assimilating to LA—and Kyra Sedgwick’s impeccably committed performance attracted me instantly, although a recent episode in which she worried about her father finding out that she and her FBI agent boyfriend were living together didn’t make sense to me. I might have missed some back-story, but I can’t imagine why a woman as tough as Brenda would be so concerned about parental approval. But maybe that’s one of her rich contradictions.

Sadly, because of other commitments—work, play, travel—I’m missing more theatre in Austin than I’m seeing. I was unable to catch Sharon Bridgforth’s Love Conjure/Blues, the next version of the performance novel that she continually reshapes and restages, much to the delight of Austin’s audiences. I utterly admire Sharon’s passion, and her luscious language, inflected with poetry and spinning into stories of love and betrayal and wily tricksterisms that please the ear and the imagination alike. I’ve heard that the most recent version was a video installation in which Sharon interacted with taped performers. The large-hearted generosity of Sharon’s vision, I’m sure, remained intact and inspiring throughout.

I’m also missing a production of Parallel Lives: The Kathy and Mo Show, which I’ve never seen performed by anyone but Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. Produced in Austin by the City Theatre Company, Breanna Stogner and Kathleen Fletcher take on these roles, which require them, I assume, to play Kathy and Mo, as well as all the characters they cycle through in their performance/play, which addresses, with affectionate humor, the travails of everyday life for women in the 20th (and now 21st) century. I’d be curious to see how local actors handle performing performers performing multiple roles.

An event I was lucky enough to attend at Zach Scott Theatre last Tuesday night, however, reminded me why I’m a theatre person in the first place. Ann Ciccolella, who served since 1999 as the Managing Director of the theatre, recently opted to end her tenure at Zach to pursue other local arts opportunities. During her eight years with Zach, Ann directed, among other things, a remarkable production of Cabaret, in which she cast singer Susanne Abbott as the emcee, a brilliant decision that opened up all sorts of new gender meanings in the musical. Abbott’s performance was as (if not more) sexy and sly and riveting as Alan Cumming’s on Broadway, and her gender brought with it new implications about the erotics of power when it circulates among women (even if those women are primarily the Kit Kat girls).

Ann also directed the best production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf I’ve ever seen, finding in the play more layers of menace and malice, vulnerability and veracity than I thought possible to retrieve. With the inimitable Fran Dorn (a nationally known actor who came to Austin from the Shakespeare Theatre in DC to head the MFA Acting Program at UT), as Martha, a full partner in the play’s movement and mood and style, the intricate, lengthy play was tragic, crystal clear, and awfully quick.

In addition to these two unforgettable productions, Ann directed The Vagina Monologues with rotating cast of local luminaries, including beloved local theatre doyenne Karen Kuykendall, the Austin City Manager Toby Futrell, and Fran Dorn. Adopting the casting scheme that kept the play running in New York for many years, Ann managed to invigorate the event and keep audiences coming for more lessons about what women call their female parts. With her cagey creative intelligence, Ann fashioned a sharp production of a play that’s been long overdone by college students celebrating Eve Ensler’s “V-Day,” her own canny anti-domestic violence activist/artistic creation.

With these memories of Ann and many more to chew on, the theatre hosted a send-off that itself proved memorable and moving. Although I’ve only been in Austin for eight years, I’ve found the theatre community warm and welcoming, taking care of long term denizens of the scene as well as us newbies. As some indication of the eclectic, ecumenical bent of the community, the crowd at Ann’s party boasted administrators from the Long Center (the new performing arts complex that’s slowly unfolding its stages just across Town Lake from downtown Austin); members of Zach’s board of directors and its staff (from front of house folks to techies, designers, and performers); local arts writers from the Austin American-Statesman and The Chronicle; fundraisers and philanthropists; other theatre-makers and performers; and numerous FOAs (Friends of Ann).

After a bit of circulating in Zach’s hot, increasingly loud lobby, we were ushered into the theatre for an hour of testimony and performance in Ann’s honor. The chair of Zach’s board talked about being a Jew in Texas and broke a glass under his foot, a ritual performed in Jewish weddings for luck. A board member told a story about meeting Ann for the first time during his interview, and wrapping up the hour feeling pleased with their conversation. When he stuck out his hand to shake, Ann said, “No-no-no-no-no, in the theatre, we hug,” and warmly embraced this more or less stranger.

Ann’s assistant, Barbara Chisholm, who also performs regularly at Zach and around Austin, spoke of what it’s like to work with someone who’s also a friend. Robert Faires, the arts editor of The Chronicle, honored Ann with his reminiscences. And Toby Futrell, the city manager whom Ann had cajoled into taking a role in The Vagina Monologues, related what it felt like to make her stage debut under Ann’s auspices. As Zach’s Artistic Director Dave Steakley remarked, the list invited speakers ranged from the theatre into the community, representing the reach of Ann’s influence across the city.

While these remarks were always amusing and apt, the performances interspersed with speeches moved me even more. Austin is the kind of theatre town where performers who work regularly become known to audiences, where you can see the extent of an actor’s range and the breadth of her creativity. Zach employs a stable of performers who I look forward to watching in every production, and four of them presented at Ann’s party. Jill Blackwood, who recently played Julie Jordan in a TexArts production of Carousel, and who performed as the prostitute living in Cliff and Sally’s boarding house in Cabaret, sang a Sondheim number from Into the Woods, which Ann directed for another theatre earlier in her career.

Meredith McCall, who played Sally Bowles in Ann’s Cabaret, sang “The Waters of March,” the poignant bossa nova written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. She sang with such warmth and affection and hope for Ann’s future, the catchy tune couldn’t help but be infectious and inspiring. Martin Burke, a Zach regular who played Prior in Steakley’s production of Angels in America, which Ann dramaturged after local playwright/critic/theatre professor David Mark Cohen died suddenly, performed Prior’s final monologue, the one in front of the fountain of Bethesda where he looks forward to the future with hunger and wonder.

Helen Merino, a local actor who moved to New York after playing Honey in Ann’s Virginia Woolf, Antigone in Ann’s adaptation of Sophocles, and many other parts, performed a monologue after surprising the audience (and Ann) by appearing live.

But here’s the thing about those four performances: The performers offered each of those speeches or songs as a trove of love and respect for Ann. Whatever their original context, they all took on new meaning in the performers’ address, and in the context of tribute, of memory, and of hope for Ann’s future. Through performance, Jill, Meredith, Martin, and Helen clarified how often and how intimately Ann touches people’s lives.

In a theatre, but without the typical mediations of text and character, set or direction, these four actors marshaled their craft and polished their emotions to deliver lyrics and melodies that struck just the right chord. Without a play or a musical to guide them, they used their art to deliver other art, wrapped with bows to Ann. What better way for an artist to receive the gift of people’s admiration but in art, as art, through art?

The evening shored up my faith in theatre’s power to rally us. Plied with deliciously plentiful food and bellinis, the audience flew high on Ann’s tribute. But the cocktails only enhanced an evening that was already magical, bringing together a hard-working, supportive, committed theatre community to toast one of its own and send her on her way to her next adventure in the arts. Moments like these provide milestones for people like Ann, who are moving on, and touchstones for the rest of us, who receive the gift of connection with the things that matter, and are moved and reminded of why we we’re people of the theatre.

Thank you, Zach,
The Feminist Spectator

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