Supporting creative work by women
Mari Brown is one-half of the dynamic team behind Word on the Street Productions, a documentary theater company known for creating moving plays about complex issues: gentrification (There Goes the Neighborhood) and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (23 Feet in 12 Minutes). The latter, a powerful one-woman show, premiered at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival, where it garnered an Excellence in Performance award for Deanna Pacelli, Mari’s collaborator.
Mari and Deanna traveled to New Orleans many times between 2006 and 2010 to interview residents about the effects of Hurricane Katrina as well as their hopes for the future. Mari wove eight stories together to create an immensely moving and humane portrait, performed by Deanna.
23 Feet in 12 Minutes will premiere New Orleans next week, thanks to support from Credit Suisse/Team Fun. The four-night run, scheduled May 18 – 21 at St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, will feature talkbacks with many of the people whose stories are presented in the play.
Mari spoke to Works by Women about her excitement to return to New Orleans with the play, what’s on the horizon for her and why every woman should know about The Bechdel Test.
1) What inspired you to create 23 FEET IN 12 MINUTES?
Deanna [Pacelli] called me from New Orleans while she was on a volunteering trip, working to rebuild houses. “This is our next show!” she said. “The stories here are incredible, the people are incredible.” “I don’t think so,” I said. “This isn’t our story–we’re not from New Orleans. And surely, people from New Orleans are going to start creating plays about this.” “Trust me,” she said, “you have to come down and experience it for yourself.” We agreed to book a flight and we met a lot of the people she had interviewed. She was right. They were amazing. I waited for stories to start appearing, and nothing did (this was a year before Spike Lee’s documentary and a few years before “Trouble the Water”), so we started to interview people. After we started the process, plays about Katrina started appearing, but I’ve always been surprised at how little has been created about it–it just felt like there was a void and a need to tell this story. And once we heard peoples’ stories, we couldn’t NOT create the piece.
2) What was the most challenging aspect of creating 23 FEET IN 12 MINUTES?
I wanted to make a piece that was about BOTH the storm stories AND the recovery, and one that really told a politically complex story–more than just “FEMA sucks, the government let us down.” I mean, FEMA did suck, and the government did let people down, but there were more subtle dimensions to the politics of Louisiana and New Orleans that contributed to it–and I wanted those elements to be in the play. But it proved hard to include. Any time we put something up against the powerful stories of surviving Katrina, people tuned out. And doing the politics justice would have required more interviews, and we didn’t want to delay the process any longer. I am hoping that with this next incarnation of the piece (after the Cape Cod workshop), we will be able to tackle more of what is missing. But I get it. As an audience member, I want to hear about the storm and the people who went through it.
3) What are you most excited about in taking the show to New Orleans?
FINALLY bringing this piece to the people who gave it to us. New Orleanians are amazing–passionate, emotional, engaged–and it will be so interesting to get their reaction to this piece. It’s going to be emotional to see Robert Green’s reaction, in particular.
4) You’re a new mom. What’s it like balancing motherhood with theatermaking?
It’s not easy. I used to have more hours in the day for creative work, and that time has shrunk. That’s the challenge–utilizing the diminished time I have effectively.
5) What’s next on the horizon for you?
Taking the show to the Cape Cod Theater Project in July with Deanna and workshopping it.
6) What do you think is the greatest challenge facing female theater artists?
I think it’s harder for female actors than it is for playwrights. Playwrights get to be a little “gender-less,” because they’re invisible–it’s their words on the page, not their faces up onstage. Female actresses have to tend with the desire that casting agents and producers have for eternally young and sexy–god forbid we see an intelligent, less-than-attractive woman onstage. I think the challenge for female playwrights is to think about the female characters they’ve seen onstage, and think about how they want to broaden the spectrum. Also, I read an amazing piece about gender bias in movies–EVERY WOMAN WORKING IN ARTS THAT HAS DIALOGUE needs to read about The Bechdel Test — a movie has gender bias if it does not meet these three criteria: 1) there are two women in the movie; 2) they talk to each other; 3) about something other than a man. i.e., The 40-Year-Old Virgin…
7) What gives you hope for women in American theater?
Women in American theater have it easier than women in American film. Women in American film have to climb a slippery slope. I think there are a lot of amazing female actresses working in New York. People who do great work give me hope: Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks…
23 Feet in 12 Minutes will perform at St. Anna’s Episcopal Church (1313 Esplanade Ave.) in New Orleans May 18 – 21, 2011, Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 pm. Tickets are only $5 at Brown Paper Tickets.