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Danger: Women at Play
Celebrating 10 Years of Theatrical Hard Work and Play
By Kaizaad Kotwal
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The theatre is a tough world in which to survive, especially in an age saturated with a dizzying proliferation of competing entertainment from film and television to cable and other digital technologies. In a city like Columbus, audiences flock to Buckeye football and Bluejacket ice-hockey games, while theatre companies struggle to keep attracting audiences. And in times of economic uncertainty such as these, the arts hemorrhage even further.
In such a world, within such climes, it is particularly thrilling to see a theater company about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Women At Play, a Columbus-based theatrical troupe, knows better than most, perhaps, what it takes to survive. And contrary to their name, they know that doing theatre can be a lot more work than play much of the time.
Katherine Burkman, one of the founding members of this unique and lively group, finds it hard to believe that Women At Play has been around for almost a decade now. "It shocks me," she says, "that ten years has almost gone by." The original members of Women At Play included Burkman, Jane Cottrell, Martha Lovely, Cecily O'Neil, Ann Roth, Molly Davis, Carol Dietrich, Linda Sheppard, and Cathy Ryan. Since then other members include Lindsey Alexander, Anne Marie Brethauer, Linda Meadows, Marilyn Rofsky and Elizabeth Nash.
The current season, which begins on November 7 with a double bill of Pinter's one-act plays, is planned as a celebration of these ten fabulous and fast-fleeing years. In fact, this season, Women At Play has planned a series of events that reflect not only new directions, but also favorites from the past.
For instance, one of the productions for Women at Play was of an original piece titled Homescape in which a limited audience of ten to twenty participants was taken on a site-specific theatrical voyage in a Bexley home. In May 2003, Women At Play will do a similar piece of environmental theatre titled Open House at a home in Columbus. In Open House, the audience will move through a more modern home (than the one in Bexley) as an actor playing a realtor tries to sell an odd assortment of characters the property. Burkman jokes that the audience has to be limited in numbers because of the rather small balcony upstairs.
In the past ten years, Women At Play has focused on such original works (many of them written collaboratively), as well as plays by established writers, in particular those by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Hence, their production of Open House this year in addition to the afore-mentioned double-bill of Pinter's The Room and Celebration.
The original seed for Women at Play was sown in a playwright's workshop started by Ann Hall at CATCO in 1990. The only participants to respond to that workshop invitation just happened to be women, and thus a women's playwriting group began almost by happy accident.
That group, which never really had a name, disbanded one year after it started. They worked on one collaborative piece called Women Who Kill. But Burkman was intrigued by the idea of continuing such work and in 1994, Women At Play was officially incorporated as a not-for-profit performing arts entity. Burkman and the other founding members of the group were initially only interested in creating a space for women playwrights, where new works could be developed, collaborated upon and workshopped. Eventually, Burkman realized that the written word needed space within which to grow into performance. Playwrighting is, after all, an endeavor whose ultimate goal is to be incarnated and reincarnated as live performance -the word become flesh, so to speak.
Steadily the company grew from performance of new works by budding playwrights to productions from the larger repertoire of theatrical literature. Over the years they have performed an intriguing menagerie of works, always focused on the process of bringing the written word into performance in compelling and nuanced ways.
In 1994, Women At Play did A Challenge to Hippolytus, a collage of scenes from dramatic literature challenging the overt misogyny of the Greek Hippolytus. This work was given its performative incarnation in the old space of the Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater Studio in the Short North on Russell Street.
In She Forgot Her Purse (1995), the group explored the realm of dreams in an original work about an angel who forgets her purse, wedding dresses that are imbued with a life of their own, and women who are lucky enough to know everything.
A journey into the self, (a common theme in their works) was explored in the site-specific Talking to Glass (1995), which was performed at the Riley-Hawk Gallery and Colatruglio's Salon in the Short North.
The group has also performed Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (about a woman who lives in a mound of earth) and a series of his one-acts, including Play, Not I, and Come and Go.
Harold Pinter, one of Burkman's theatrical and scholarly muses, has also received his share of performances via Women At Play. As part of their 1999-2000 season they mounted his Ashes to Ashes, a play about a contemporary couple going through a crisis as reflected through the lens of the Holocaust. The play, originally performed at the Hillel Foundation at The Ohio State University, eventually went on to perform at Pinter In London, an international congress of The Pinter Society in England.
Burkman has had a love affair with Pinter (literarily speaking) for most of her career, both as an academic and as a theatrical practitioner. She devoted much of her scholarly endeavors to examining his prolific oeuvre and has found herself drawn to him as a director too. Burkman taught in the English department at The Ohio State University for 30 years before retiring in 1995. Her specialty was modern drama and Shakespeare.
Burkman says that her admiration for playwrights like Pinter and Beckett comes from the fact that, "they don't make it easy for the audience." These writers challenge their audiences into examinations of the human condition that are often dark and disturbing. Nevertheless, Burkman feels that they infuse their existential musings, this "looking into the darkness," with a "profoundly deep humor." Their tragi-comedy and black humor are what Burkman finds herself drawn to time after time, and she classifies Beckett and Pinter as poets in the same league as Shakespeare.
Burkman has met Pinter and describes him as "charming, affable and just a little scary." She says that in person he exudes the same "power and combustibility" that are palpable in his writings, particularly his more mature works. Burkman feels that as Pinter has matured he has become increasingly obsessed with an examination of the idea that "the fate of the world hangs in the balance."
In recent years, Pinter has, according to Burkman, started to focus more and more on global polemics and activism. "He always speaks out for the underdog," she says, "and he is vocally anti-Thatcher, anti-Bush, and anti-Blair." "He is very angry at the injustices going on in the world," she continues, "and he seems to want to make a difference." Even though Pinter is Jewish, he has sometimes made arguments that are sympathetic to the Palestinians.
What is interesting about a playwright like Pinter, and even more so with Beckett, is that while they are political beings, their works are rarely, if ever, overtly political. Burkman strongly believes that great playwrights "never tell you what to think."
Women At Play, which has strongly focused on women's concerns, is a group which Burkman classifies as having feminist proclivities. But Burkman doesn't believe in the efficacy of "issue" plays. "We have made a conscious decision," she says of the Women At Play writers, "to not be polemical, to not be issue oriented." For her, such efforts lead to "poor playwriting."
Burkman believes that the pressures to be issue-oriented and polemic are one of the reasons why we don't have more successful women playwrights.
"Feminist, yet not militant" is how Burkman classifies the raison d'être of Women At Play. Many of their works, both original and otherwise, have addressed concerns of women. From the need and struggle for independence, to mother-daughter relationships, and from separation issues to power conflicts with men. However, she acknowledges that Women At Play works very closely with men (both as collaborators and audience members), and "we wish to not be threatening to men" she says.
"The real crux of the matter," she explains, "is that we want to explore human relationships and not necessarily from a woman versus man point of view."
However, Burkman is very open about the fact that having a women's-only writing group is very beneficial. "This may be stereotypical," she says, "but we find that with women alone, we tend to be more nurturing and non-competitive."
Burkman participates regularly in a chat forum (via the internet) with the International Center for Women Playwrights. "It's still very much a man's theatre world," she concludes.
And yet, who can deny the glorious genius, the dazzling brilliance, and the literary chutzpah of men like Beckett and Pinter?
This month, Burkman will direct two of Pinter's one-act plays. The Room (1957) is his first one-act and Celebration (2000) is his last one. While both pieces are different, thematically, and in terms of their content, there are echoes which reverberate over the 43 years between their writing.
In The Room, a play Burkman classifies as "a comedy of menace" (a term she borrows from the critic Martin Esslin), we witness a couple living in a boarding house that are struggling with their feelings about displacement. A common theme in Pinter's work, displacement seems particularly relevant and poignant today in our post-9-11 world where even the most secure societies in the world feel insecure and out of sorts with their familiar environments.
In Celebration, we go from a dowdy tenant's room to an elegant restaurant where a bunch of vacuous people are celebrating in their uniquely inane and empty ways. Burkman, in coining her own term, classifies Celebration as a "comedy of desperation." Burkman says that this is "a very angry play, a very adult piece" in which the mature Pinter explores his most recent attitudes about the ways in which the insane seem to be running the asylum that is our world.
Once again, without being explicit, a piece like Celebration speaks very much to our times, rife with corporate corruption, governmental megalomania, and an abdication of social involvement by many of the regular citizens of the world's societies.
Burkman is clearly very enthusiastic about this double billing of Pinter's one-acts, which she had the privilege of seeing in New York. This particular combination has only been done in London, New York, and San Francisco. And Burkman believes that it is quite a theatrical coup for Columbus to have received the rights to do this unique duo of Pinter plays.
Burkman also exudes enthusiasm when speaking about what Iranian designer Fereshteh Hough (a long-time collaborator with Women At Play) is doing for the mise-en-scène of the two contrasting pieces. In particular, Hough is working with a Columbus glass gallery to use a Christopher Ries piece also called Celebration, as inspiration for her design for the show.
Theatrical survival, like Ries' sculpture, is fragile. Burkman has seen, not only how Women At Play has grown and taken root in the Columbus art scene, but she has seen the burgeoning of theatre here in general. "Theatre has grown enormously in Columbus," she states, "and there has been a proliferation of smaller groups in addition to CATCO, which has truly established itself by now."
Burkman would like to see these new companies make it, because as the scene grows with the support it receives, every-one in the arts benefits. However, she is also realistic about Columbus audiences who often prefer hockey and football over theatre "which is always struggling for its life."
"We have survived for ten years," Burkman proclaims, "and it has taken a lot of hard work and a lot of creative thinking to make it."
Women At Play has managed to keep overhead costs low by not having a permanent space, although this brings with it unique challenges as well. They pay all their actors and technical collaborators, yet for all involved it is, as Burkman puts it, "a true labor of love." But unlike Shakespeare's pessimism, Women At Play and Burkman have proven this love's labor is not lost!
"Two By Pinter" An Evening of One-Acts, Davis Discovery Center in the Van Fleet Theatre, 549 Franklin Avenue
November 7, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, and 17, 2002. Thurs.: 7:30 pm; Fri. and Sat.: 8:00 pm; Sun: 2:00 pm
Tickets: $15; Senior/Student: $8; High Five tickets
For reservations and information about this performance and Women At Play's endeavors, please call (614)-457-6580 or visit www.womenatplaysite.com
© 2002 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.