Supporting creative work by women
Works by Women continues to shed the spotlight on the women artists in Women Center Stage, The Culture Project‘s month-long festival at the Living Theatre. We heard from producer Manda Martin and director Alex Mallory about their work on the festival. Next up is Dana Balicki, whose adaptation of Alice Walker’s essay Overcoming Speechlessness will have its first public reading on March 23rd.
After spending the better part of the last decade as a social activist, Balicki has fully immersed herself in the world of theater. She talks about the inherent challenges of adapting an essay for stage, the power of theater as a storytelling medium, and her hope for women in theater.
1) What was the inspiration for adapting Overcoming Speechlessness?
The idea began last year when I first read the essay—I was sitting at a bar and I could literally see it, hear it, smell it (the story coming alive, not the bar). I had been working with the women’s group CODEPINK Women for Peace for the past six years doing anti-war organizing. I was feeling drained. This essay, in which Alice [Walker] travels to Gaza with CODEPINK, reminded me why I loved my job, why the work for peace and justice is so necessary. I could see my own speechlessness through her and I wasn’t ashamed. I thought that this would be such a beautiful story to play out on stage and one day even be used by communities of women to talk about these huge issues as well as their very personal struggles with being speechlessness in today’s world. Also, the way Alice weaves together the different threads of our collective history on this planet with the issue of the Palestinian struggles for independence is really quite a game-changer, in my opinion.
2) What have been the challenges of adapting it thus far?
Well, I am an adaptation virgin. This is my first go at it and the learning curve is steep yet incredibly fruitful. The challenges have all been blessings and opportunities to stretch. The opportunity to weigh Alice’s prose and the conflict in Palestine/Israel against a measure of “what is theatrical” has been hard. In this work we are deeply examining the balance between the intensely personal and acutely political. I come from a very politically charged background, and we, as a team, have had to work together to find a balance that is still charged, while being engaging and theatrical.
What makes sense on the written page and what makes sense on a stage can be two very different things. This piece is an invitation to engage, listen and ultimately see where we are all connected. Those are lofty goals and making sure our end of the work keeps up with those goals keeps us all on our toes and in our best creative thinking. Not to mention the creative process leading us all over the place, following it down roads only to end up in a totally different place then we could have imagined. Ah, the creative process.
3) After the reading of the play as part of WCS, what are the next steps for the piece?
Right now the sky is the limit! We will bring this staging back to Alice and her team to see how they feel about the direction we’ve taken it. This first reading is really just to give folks a taste of what “could” be. We’ve only had about two months for development and rehearsals (whew!)
We would love to have Alice intimately involved in the project on the long term and be able to flesh out some of the characters and scenarios she introduces us to in the essay. Every word in the play is Alice’s. We’ve felt that keeping this work true to her keenly personal voice and odyssey is of the utmost importance. It would be thrilling to continue to unearth the causes and effects of speechlessness and even make the work more participatory—a space to explore our own stories.
4) You have worked extensively as a social activist, particularly championing women’s rights across the globe. What is your vision for theater aiding and supporting social justice?
Great question. So much of the work I did with CODEPINK focused on the power of the story, of the feminine-centered leadership that blossoms when we examine and express our own narratives. After being so immersed for so many years I felt like I had become more political agenda than personal story. I needed to find my balance again (I am a Libra.). For me this balance has come in the form of writing my own stories down and believing that their mere existence is a step toward social change. Grassroots activism and theater have so much in common that it has actually felt like a very natural transition. The thing that I’m loving about the theater is that you have a captive audience for hours at a time! You generally only have the timespan of a soundbyte in activism. Ok, that’s not really what I love so much about the wide world of theater (though it is a plus); rather, the opportunity for contemplation, digestion, new ideas shared, old ideas tossed away, inspiration, heart-swelling, all potentially happening simultaneously in the span of a show. The theater is an invitation. You don’t have to beat someone over the head with your opinion, that’s what mainstream news is for! We are compassionate beings and when we can strip away all the extra noise we can see that we really belong to each other. And when we know we belong to each other we will do anything to protect one another. The opportunity to create a space for justice to exist will come from that place.
5) What do you think is the greatest challenge facing female theater artists?
I remember reading this Women and Hollywood post back in 2009 just after I had been filled to the brim with creative, smart theater by emerging directors at the Women’s Project. I was thoroughly disgusted and obviously irate. I signed some online petition (don’t we all?) and spread the article around to my friends with a plug to go visit the Women’s Project. Run, don’t walk and tell your friends there is no dearth of talented women in the theater arts.
The same conversation is happening about women in media and journalism, film (zero lady directors up for Academy Awards this year, again), academic salaries and nearly every other subject. I would say a challenge is that women are not being invested in nearly enough. March, as women’s history month, is always a great month for theater—but why shouldn’t every month be March? Also, this being my first foray into the theater arts (street theater is a whole other ball o’ wax) I’ve noticed a lack of diversity in the women making theater and being recognized for it. I’ve met a whole lot of awesome women so far (see next question) and many of them look a lot like me.
6) What gives you hope for women in American theater?
There’s hope, so damn much of it—or so damn many of them, rather. I’ve met tons of creative women who are committed to infusing our voices into the national/international discourse through theater. I’m in awe of them. I’m working with one of them, the effervescent Ms. Tamilla Woodard, who has pushed me to stretch places I only had an inkling were there. Maybe it’s cliché to say that the hope lies in the women; Alice Walker says we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. I am pretty sure she is right.
Tickets to Overcoming Speechlessness range from $18 to $50 (Benefit Ticket with post-show artist reception). To purchase tickets, visit here. To learn more about Women Center Stage, visit www.womencenterstage.org. The festival continues through April 2nd at the Living Theatre (21 Clinton Street, Lower East Side, NYC).