Theater is everywhere. It goes on every day in countless spaces around us, big and small. If we're lucky, we stumble upon a show that surprises us with a fresh perspective; one that enriches our understanding of the roles that theater can play in our lives. This is just such a show:
Performance. Art Exhibit. Dialogue.
A diverse cast explores female sexuality. The truthful, the awkward, the poignant and humorous.
I'm convinced that if every show had a Maggie Keenan-Bolger and a Rachel Sullivan, every show would also have a full house every night! These two makers of theater have seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm, creativity and commitment to making life work better for all of us. And they've made us a show about being sexual beings, especially women (and those who so identify), that is designed to entertain, educate and elevate. It's called "The Birds and The Bees Unabridged," and the show, and accompanying art exhibit, runs for five performances at Speyer Hall in NYC from March 27-30 '13 (see end of post for more details).
I had the privilege of sitting down with Maggie and Rachel to find out more about the motivations and inspirations that gave rise to The Birds and The Bees Unabridged, and couldn't help but be swept up in their excitement for the process that birthed this show. The two met while working on their graduate degrees in Applied Theater (the use of theater to effect social change), and each is committed to the belief that there needs to be significant change in how women view themselves as sexual beings, and therefore how we experience sex in our lives. More openness and acceptance of ourselves and our sexual reality, in their opinions, will naturally flow from stepping away from a notion of a single "normal" and towards a plurality of "normals" that are the truths for each of us. To that end, they prepared a survey to start the discussion, and crossed their fingers for 500 responses. They needn't have worried...2000 responses came in; some of the returned surveys running as many as 50 pages. Looks as if they were right that we have a need to talk about sex!
From these responses, they selected the topics that respondents ranked as most important to a show about female sexuality (#1 was partner communication, #2 was reproductive rights, #3 sexual violence, and so on) and those that had the unifying theme of communication. Then they gathered a group of twenty actors that spans ages 20-70, a range of professions (teachers, lawyers, real estate agents), includes a mother and daughter and a transgender actor who self-identifies as someone with a female body but "man identified." Read about the cast members here.
The key to casting, Rachel said, was that, as well as being at least somewhat stage-experienced, the group be made up of "nice" people; people who could form a community of trust and productive conversation. Together, Maggie, Rachel and their creative team and actors set about evolving the ideas into a stage work. There has been no set script from which to work, making the process fully collaborative and responsive. Everyone has had a voice in what is working and what's not as successful. That's part of the fun, said Maggie; i.e., some of the actors read the survey responses and then, during the development process, the actors would remember specific survey comments they'd read that felt "powerful" to them and that they felt should be included; while other actors would describe a personal issue they felt should be addressed in the show, but not one they wanted to be part of addressing.
Both described the show as a "quilt," made up of separate stories that, when stitched together, form a beautiful whole. The show is expected to run around 90 minutes, and when asked what the audience can expect to see, M & R shared that there'll be a series of vignettes/scenes that stand on their own and may include dialogue, music and/or designed movement relating to experiences in the realm of female sexuality. There is no nudity, and the show does not have an age limit. Instead, the women feel that individually appropriate decisions must be made. What about men, you might ask? Well, this is a work of theater performance, designed to entertain, and there is a universality to our human existence that makes theater a unifying medium. Personally, I welcome shows that expand my insight into those around me! So the show may be about women, but it's for everyone.
A discussion of the "birds and bees" seems one without a definitive end, so I was particularly interested in what might come next for the show, as well as for its creators. As Rachel said with a laugh, "the most interesting, intoxicating and difficult thing about theater is that it is never finished!" Specifically I asked if there would be any interaction with the audience post-show (such as exit surveys or talk backs) and both expressed the intent for some form of further communication of that sort. They feel that, although they can't really take the current incarnation with this cast on tour, that the show would be a great fit for college communities, among others. And we all agreed that there was an embarrassment of riches in the way of ideas, topics and personal stories that deserve to be told, to provide plenty of material going forward!
The biggest surprise, the two said, has been the amount of support they've received since they first started the project. From a healthy survey response rate to the successful Kickstarter campaign that funded this initial production, the willingness of people to become involved convinced them that they are on the right track. So if you can make it to the show during this, its original run, go... don't miss the opportunity to see this unique theater work, created by two women from whom I know we'll hear much more in years to come! And along with being entertained, you may find yourself changed "for good," to quote another show that involves women getting to know themselves (heck, even Glinda and Elphaba could use a bit of Maggie and Rachel in their lives I suspect!).
The Birds and the Bees Unabridged
Wednesday, March 27th- 8pm
Thursday, March 28th- 8pm
Friday, March 29th- 8pm
Saturday, March 30th- 2pm and 8pm
Buy tickets here / suggested donation $10/$15/$25* (based on interest and economic ability)
Speyer Hall at University Settlement (see map below)
184 Eldridge St.
New York, NY. 10002
(photos of Maggie & Rachel at work and of the cast are from the show website)
Sometimes, there's not a great deal to say about something that means a great deal....but what there is, is worth saying.
So, this is just a short ode to those moments when I'm in an audience watching a live performance, and I'm captivated and enthralled, and transported...and I realize I'm not even breathing, because I don't want to miss a second, or make a sound that would break the spell. But the best part? It's not just me...everyone is transfixed...no coughs, no rustles, no whispers, not even any audible breathing. That collective breath is magic. It is the power of the actors and the story and the setting to make us one for an instant. One of the many gifts of live theatre is the give and take between the actors and the audience. And it can happen even in a show that isn't a hit, or one you don't love...because it's really about the human experience of having someone tell you a story. Remember when you'd hold your breath as you listened to a bedtime tale? Waiting to say "good night, moon," or hear "happily ever after," or "and then Harold dropped off to sleep." One of my fondest memories is of being read aloud to, and I love reading aloud to this day. I'll look up from the page, and see my niece still, but somewhere else...in the story with Harry, Hermione and Ron. And we're there together. Just like at the theatre, but there, we're with strangers, strangers with whom we've gone on a journey without leaving our seats. We may never know their names, but we breathed together for a moment; and it was magic.
The next time you're in a theatre, and you find yourself completely in the moment, listen to the audience and you might hear...absolutely nothing.