Supporting creative work by women
Works by Women continues its interview series with women of the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival. Today we speak with playwright Mariah MacCarthy, who has creating some of the most challenging, fun shows in indie theatre the past two seasons. In fact, Mariah just received a New York Innovative Theatre Awards nomination for Outstanding Original Full-Length Script for The Foreplay Play. The production was also nominated for Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play.
Last year, Mariah’s play Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story wowed audiences at the New York International Fringe Festival. She returns this year with Magic Trick, which is described as a “love story with burlesque.” Mariah raves about her favorite burlesque performers, teases apart the issues for indie theatre moms and the indie theatre women who inspire her.
WORKS BY WOMEN: How did you get involved with theater? Where/when was the first seed planted that you would be a playwright?
MARIAH MACCARTHY: I was extremely lucky in that my parents made sure I grew up being creative from the beginning (as an infant, I was the baby Jesus in a Christmas pageant). My dad’s a writer who made sure his kids wrote, and my siblings and I went to a VERY small performing arts school up until high school. It was not a fancy place. It was painted a nasty shade of sea foam green, and the same bathrooms that were broken when I was six were still broken when I was twelve, and a lot of the teachers were the kids’ parents (including, horrifyingly at the time, my own father). But that place was magical. Through the seventh grade, my curriculum included singing, every kind of dancing, acting, and creative writing. I wrote my first play when I was ten. It was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol with a bratty little girl as Scrooge–I stole the idea from The Baby-Sitters Club. I also benefited from the AMAZING program that is Playwrights Project (They are so fantastic. Karen Hartman is also an alum). One summer at Playwrights Project, I wrote a play with a sort of Job-like story where Lucifer was a cross-dresser who went by Lucy. I guess I started with the genderfuckery early. The lesson here is that arts education MATTERS, y’all. It shaped the rest of my life.
WBW: As a FringeNYC veteran, why Fringe? What’s the draw to this festival in particular?
MARIAH: It’s so many things: it’s the exposure, it’s the community, it’s the fact that they’ve been doing this long enough to be insanely efficient in a lot of ways. It’s (FringeNYC Co-Founder and Artistic Director) Elena Holy‘s loveliness and thoroughness. It’s the fact that I get to be at venues like the Ellen Stewart at La MaMa or HERE in exchange for the relatively piddly participation fee. I love the quick-and-dirty aspect, and for playwright/producers like me, I think it’s an amazing opportunity to learn a lot about your play in front of an audience without the financial risk of a full, month-long production–or the sometimes-stultifying nature of a workshop. Fringe is vibrant. People get so excited about it, and that energy is contagious. People who DON’T KNOW YOU, or anyone in your show, will come to your Fringe show, and that doesn’t always happen with indie theater.
WBW: Your play Magic Trick is described as “a love story with burlesque.” What inspires you about burlesque? Any favorite performers?
MARIAH: Before I really knew what burlesque was, I’d been making up burlesque routines in my head for years. As a kid and teenager, I was obsessed with Bob Fosse. I fantasized about dancing sexually before I ever fantasized about sex. So I’d imagine these dance numbers that told a story but where sometimes people took their clothes off — growing up dancing means that I can’t listen to music without dancing to it in my head — and then my first year in New York, at Vicious Vaudeville, I saw that happen onstage for the first time. And it was this amazing moment of, “Oh my God! This is a THING??” One girl did a serial-killer-with-a-chainsaw routine, another girl did an ode-to-my-vibrator-tap-dance routine, and so on. And I’ve grown more and more obsessed ever since.
I’ve only performed burlesque a handful of times, but every one of those times has been tremendous and beautiful for me. Burlesque is one of the few places you can be simultaneously respected as an artist AND as a sexual creature – one of the few places where those two things go hand-in-hand. I feel like I often have to choose between those sides of myself. Like I won’t be taken seriously artistically/professionally if I’m too sexual.
But on a burlesque stage, it’s a given that you’re both. You own the stage, the crowd is here to see you, and they’re not just there to see you take your clothes off — they’re there to see HOW you take your clothes off. People can go online and see porn anytime, but they’ve gotten off their ass to come see you perform because burlesque is so much more fun and creative and alive than just a naked body.
I also feel like burlesque is one of the most empowering art forms there is. It’s proof that women of any size, shape, color, etc, are sexy — and at its best, it’s immediate gratification. If the crowd doesn’t cheer loud enough, you can just give them a pouty look or gesture to your recently-exposed boobs and they’ll come through for you and go nuts. Almost no one goes to a burlesque show with their arms crossed and an attitude of, “OK, impress me.” The crowds are more game, less judgmental, more generous.
That’s not to imply that burlesque is easy by any means. Burlesque performers are passionate about what they do, because you have to be. It’s not like a strip club, where you’re presumably there to make a paycheck. Depending on the venue, your average burlesque dancer probably spent a LOT of time crafting her costume, probably paid for the materials herself, spent a lot of time on her routine, and is paid in drink tickets — so she’s there because she REALLY REALLY wants to be there! It’s like indie theater that way. And she’s decided exactly what she wants her routine to be, exactly how much skin she wants to show you, she’s totally in control. It’s the opposite of objectification — she’s the subject, not the object.
I love Jenny Rocha and Her Painted Ladies — there should be more group burlesque out there. Madame Rosebud is phenomenal — she did one routine at Floating Kabarette where I would not have been surprised if something caught fire with the energy of her performance. Bea B Heart is clever and sexy as hell. Cheekie Lane‘s pig puppet number remains one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen on a stage.
My two actresses in Magic Trick, Kim Gainer and Diana Oh, are newcomers to burlesque, but they’re both naturals. They both intuitively understand that it’s about attitude, that so much of burlesque is in your eyes. And DAMN is that sexy!
WBW: You’ve also explored love in your previous work based on Romeo & Juliet, Ampersand. What’s your take on the emotion that’s launched thousands of ships?
MARIAH: I dunno, what’s your take on breathing?
I kid, I kid. In all seriousness, I don’t know if there’s a play of mine where I HAVEN’T explored love. The lessons about love that seem to have surfaced in The All-America Genderf*ck Cabaret, Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story, The Foreplay Play and Magic Trick are…
-Love is the best.
-Love is the worst.
-You can love someone and still be selfish.
-You can love someone and still be an asshole.
-You can love someone and still leave them, and be right to leave.
-Confusing lust and love is alarmingly easy.
-So is sabotaging other people’s love for you.
-Love is not enough.
-Truly giving in to love requires either innocence or bravery.
That all sounds very bleak and pessimistic, but I love love! And I think my plays are very hopeful, and full of learning-to-love-oneself (but hopefully not in a cheesy, self-help book kind of way). Discovering love of self and discovering what it takes to take care of yourself is a HUGE part of Magic Trick–which is also a love story between Bana and burlesque.
Magic Trick is my smallest cast to date, which allowed me to zero in on a single relationship in a way I haven’t done before. So these characters’ idiosyncrasies and flaws are exploded, the intensity is more concentrated, and I think that’s why this play hurts my heart more than any other play of mine. Because the laser-focus makes the love in this play feel so real.
WBW: What other shows are you excited to see at this year’s FringeNYC?
MARIAH: FullStop Collective’s Cause of Failure, Nat Cassidy’s Songs of Love: A Theatrical Mixtape, State of Play’s Snow White Zombie, Project Girl Performance Collective’s Girl’s Liberation Front, Ticket to Eternity…and I doubt I will make it to see many others besides that because I will be insane. Last year I didn’t see a single Fringe show besides my own because I was too exhausted. I’m determined not to let that happen this year, even though this time around I will be eight months pregnant and likely still exhausted.
WBW: What challenges do women in American theater face?
MARIAH: Well, speaking of pregnancy, let’s talk about women who want to be both playwrights and moms. I’m planning to give up the child currently growing in my stomach for adoption. I’ve chosen an absolutely wonderful couple to take him, it will be an open adoption, and it’s an ideal situation in a lot of ways. But, let’s suppose things were a little different. Let’s suppose I decided, yes, I’m ready to be a mom right now, but I want to keep writing plays. What would that entail?
First I’d seek out the advice of other single moms who are playwrights. Except that I don’t know of any. I mean ANY. Yes, I know women in theater who have kids, and they are ALL married (or, occasionally, divorced). Part of this has nothing to do with theater: mom discrimination is definitely a thing, as evidenced by the lack of state-mandated paid maternity leave, and the fact that the wage gap is way bigger between women and men who have kids than between women and men who don’t. But, these non-theater-specific factors mean it’s pretty difficult to accept the poverty of a playwright’s life while raising a kid. I’ve heard several female playwrights and directors very casually admit, “Oh yeah, if my husband weren’t (insert well-paying occupation here) there’s no way I could do theater.”
So since I have no real-life examples to base this on, let’s imagine: what would my life as a playwright/mommy look like? Without a partner, if I got into one of the writers’ groups I’m applying to, I’d have to pay for a baby sitter for every meeting. Every time I’d see a play, I’d be paying for a sitter. Anything that takes me out of the house to which I can’t bring a baby, I’m paying for a sitter. I’m still working full-time, and there’s no one at home to take the baby off my hands, so I’m not sure when exactly I’m writing in this scenario.
So how exactly is a single mom in New York supposed to be a playwright unless she’s loaded? I’m sure it’s possible. But I don’t know of anyone who’s doing it. I’m not saying that having a partner automatically makes it easy (I’ve definitely observed successful woman playwrights whose careers took a breather in the year or two after they gave birth), but with a partner, you have an extra set of hands, you have two incomes, and that changes a LOT.
I haven’t even TOUCHED on the logistics of continuing to self-produce in this scenario. I truly don’t know how that would work. Being a mom is a full-time job. Producing is a full-time job. Having a full-time job is a full-time job. I already have two full-time jobs. I don’t know how I would survive three. My body, at some point, would give out.
There are a number of other challenges facing women in American theater, but this is one I don’t hear talked about very much, and to which I hadn’t given much thought until I got knocked up.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
MARIAH: Women who are getting off their asses and making things happen, glass ceiling or no. It gives me hope that 11 of the 13P members were women, and it gives me hope that almost no one seemed to comment on it. Tenacious-as-hell women give me hope, women like Cecilia Copeland and Judith Leora who run New York Madness (and still always manage to have ten other things going on), Anna Van Valin who just wrote and produced her first short film, Young Jean Lee, Kari Bentley-Quinn who’s starting a Queens-based writers collective, Leah Nanako Winkler whose Flying Snakes in 3D sparked an incredibly important conversation about class and theater, Micheline Auger who pulls off crazy happenings like 72 playwrights writing in the window of the Drama Book Shop. The other thing that unites these women, besides their tenaciousness, is the way they support their communities. Generosity and an unstoppable nature will serve you well.
On a personal note, it gives me hope that I’ve been so warmly embraced by the indie theater community in the past year, and that both men and women champion my work and seemingly expect nothing in return. It gives me hope when actors passionately want to play the roles I write. All three of the actors in the Magic Trick cast made a point of telling me, “I love this role, I will go out of my way to play this role.” And that makes me think, well, as long as I can keep finding people to be in them (not to mention sickeningly talented performers like Kim Gainer, Nic Grelli and Diana Oh), I guess my plays will keep happening. And that gives me hope.
Performances of Magic Trick are Saturday, August 18th at 12 noon; Sunday, August 19th at 4:00 pm; Tuesday, August 21st at 4:00 pm; Thursday, August 23rd at 8:00 pm and Saturday, August 25th at 7:00 pm at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue, enter on Dominick Street).