Works by Women

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Interview: Janet Bentley

JanetJanet Bentley is a dramaturg and director. She is currently working on Jack Karp’s world premiere play, Incendiary Agents, which is loosely inspired by the Catonsville Nine. The play takes a searing look at a group of activists, led by a Catholic priest, as they prepare to raid a draft office during the Vietnam War. The production reunites Janet with director Peter Jensen for their second 1960s Catholic play. Last fall, they teamed up for the T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.

Janet spoke to Works by Women about her process as a dramaturg, her goal to challenge type casting and how Incendiary Agents look at the 1960s is still relevant today.

WORKS BY WOMEN: How have you researched the time period of Incendiary Agents?

JANET BENTLEY: My research always begins with these questions:  Why does this character do this? What motivates him/her? What leads this character to this moment and what are the implications? What are their stakes? I always clear my mind of context as much as possible before I sit down and read a play for the first time.  That way I can receive the play on its own terms and from that experience, the questions arise naturally to compel and drive my search for context. After reading Incendiary Agents, I was bowled over by the concept of Father Patrick:  a priest who boldly takes action by using napalm to burn draft records as a symbolic response to the burning of children in Vietnam. My first thought was:  Do such Catholics exist? I recently dramaturged Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, which was set in 1964 and it was the perfect prelude to Incendiary Agents (1969). When I read the play, it was as if I was seeing a later incarnation of Father Flynn from Doubt. I could easily see Father Patrick as a part of the post-Vatican II, next generation of young priests set free to conceive of their own methods of worship. I then located the stories of Daniel and Philip Berrigan of the Catonsville Nine and found my answer:  Yes, this kind of faith can fuel a political movement. I picked up Philip Berrigan’s autobiography called Fighting the Lamb’s War: Skirmishes With the American Empire and this book became central to our understanding of Father Patrick’s approach to faith and politics. Not being religious, but being quite political and spiritual, I’ve always loathed hypocrisy and my exposure to Christianity in many of its incarnations has not been characterized by huge displays of honesty and truth. But in my journey to conceive of a Catholic priest, a figure so often synonymous with deadened bureaucracy, as a true revolutionary whose radicalism is fueled by a firm adherence to the Christian ideal of mercy and non-violence (an ideal so often rationalized away by “rules” and “exceptions”), I did find living evidence in the story of the Berrigans.

Once my bedazzlement with the Berrigans went from illuminating motivations for Father Patrick and Sister Nancy to obscuring my vision of the play as a whole (namely the destructive result of the entire action), I realized that I needed to balance the scales. So I turned to this question:  When does a global injustice become so inescapably horrific and urgent that the individual must use violence, the boldest language of protest there is, in order to get the message out to the powers that be? This is when I found the documentary called “The Weather Underground” and located the inspiration to seek out Laura Whitehorn as a panelist for our talk-back event on March 5th at 7:00pm.

WORKS BY WOMEN: What is something that surprised you in your research?

JANET: As I watched “The Weather Underground”, filled with my searching questions about how planting bombs in buildings could possibly be a good idea, I was struck by Mark Rudd’s comments about how the war impacted nearly every moment of his existence between 1965 and 1975:  “Our country was murdering millions of people…actually somewhere between three and five million people. This revelation was more…than we could handle. We didn’t know what to do with it. It was too great…a fact. Every second of my life from 1965 and 1975, I was always aware that our country was attacking Vietnam. I could be in the mountains. I’d be thinking about the war in Vietnam. I could be taking an acid trip. And I’d be thinking about the war in Vietnam. It was this knowledge that we couldn’t handle. It was just too big. In a way, I still don’t know what to do with this knowledge.”

This acute awareness of a war happening across the world – this sense that it was inescapable – struck me because I don’t often see evidence of this level of awareness in our current culture. I don’t see it in myself and I feel guilty about it. And then, naturally, I question this guilt by saying to myself, “Why is it so easy to live with these endless horrors?” And this naturally leads back to media’s role in the theatre of war. Vietnam was the first televised war and though I knew that the reporting was boldly honest, I didn’t realize how much access war reporters had to actual military operations and how much was televised. This research has rekindled my deep resentment of the current media, especially when I hear archived interviews like this one between a corporal and a journalist:

We have certain areas in here that we have blocked off where we know there are friendly civilians and we aren’t going to take them under fire.

And the others?

The others?  If there’s somebody in there right now…they’re Charlie as far as we are concerned.

When would we ever hear such reporting from Iraq?

WORKS BY WOMEN: Did you find any similarities to the 60s and today?

JANET: Under the surface of every time, you will find the revolutionaries and I have found that these are usually represented by those who can’t turn a blind eye to injustice. It was there then and it does exist now. We just face more challenges now that we are systematically distanced by the dizzying nature of 21st century existence.

What has it been like working with playwright Jack Karp?

JANET: Jack is very present and generous as a collaborator. He has shared insights, research, and support for all aspects of the production while also allowing an open flow of creativity for all collaborators involved. I have worked with many playwrights and have seen a wide range of approaches and personalities:  from the highly micromanaging to the extremely flexible. I can honestly say that Jack has a solid balance between fighting for what he wants and openly considering different views/approaches. A smart craftsman as well as an intuitive theatre artist, Jack always values what serves the play, even if he finds that one of his own choices isn’t working. He is open to trying new things and always willing to discard what doesn’t work.  There was one speech that he brought in to fill out Patrick’s character and it was pure poetry. Some strictly structure-oriented writers would have doubts as to whether such a speech had a place. Was it too indulgent? This was something that Jack wondered at first. But instead of giving in to doubt, he worked on the speech in subtle ways that shaped and integrated the new text into the fabric of the play as a whole and now I can’t imagine the play without it.

WORKS BY WOMEN: Post-show talkbacks are planned. Tell me about them.

JANET: I am so excited to have Laura Whitehorn of the Weather Underground and Joanne Sheehan of the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives with us for the March 5th event, “Incendiary Symbols: From Vietnam to Occupy”. Since Incendiary Agents evokes both the story of the Berrigan brothers as well as the more militant side of the antiwar movement in the 60s and 70s, this collection of panelists that consists of Laura Whitehorn, Joanne Sheehan, Jack Karp, and Alexei Bondar (actor playing Father Patrick) should generate deeply insightful commentary on the nature of protest, what it was like then, and what we’re up against now.

Here are their bios from our Facebook press release:

As a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s Laura Whitehorn promoted and employed the use of violence towards political ends; later her membership in the May 19th Coalition resulted in her serving 14 years in Federal prison for her role in a series of bombings that targeted the United States Senate and military installations. She has devoted her subsequent life to social activism on behalf of causes ranging from AIDS to feminism and radical   education. She was an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Weathermen, and organized or took part in many protest actions throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Joanne Sheehan was a member of the East Coast Conspiracy to Save Lives and other groups like the Catholic Peace Fellowship devoted to the legal defense of people who destroyed draft records and “occupied” draft boards in the 1960s and 70s. She was heavily involved in the Catonsville 9 legal case, in which Catholic priests Phil and Dan Berrigan, and others, were tried   for the draft board raid they carried out in 1968.

WORKS BY WOMEN: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?

JANET: The challenges that face women in American theatre seem to mirror the challenges women face in the world in general:  Internalized hierarchical power-structures, binary thinking, objectification. The residue of the past still seems to linger in that most directors are assumed to be male and just like movies and advertising:  “sex sells.” There is always a call to question the status quo from within the art form itself.  That is where the hope lies. However, since an innately revolutionary art form as theatre exists within a product-oriented culture bound by the dictates of the market, this questioning process is often on a small scale. So while we think ahead to a world of fairness and equality, we must still slog through the slow and murky development of everyday life.

That’s the macrocosmic view. On a more personal level:  I started out as an actor and found that I was limited by my height. I was too tall to be appropriately matched with a “leading man”. My bone structure was too commanding for the love interest and this led to getting roles that far exceeded my actual age. When I was Juliet’s age, I could never play her except for an audio Shakespeare series. So now my goal as a director and dramaturg is to cast against type – to give a tall girl a break – to portray a short man with a tall woman and not have it be a zany comedy. But I guess all political awareness is somehow rooted in personal suffering. Hopefully I can use this to help advance things for females as well as males working within the theatre.

WORKS BY WOMEN: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?

JANET: Theatre is, in many ways, an act of living analysis and the more students who branch out and form their own theatres, the more such out-dated power-structures and crises of perception will (hopefully) dissolve. And I believe it comes from what you might call “both sides”: the obvious Brechtian method of re-seeing what is assumed as “everyday” behaviors as well as the deeply exploratory nature of the American Method descended from Stanislavski, which disallows all generalization and falseness. My experience being raised by a Method actress and acting teacher as well as my most recent involvement with the T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre has shown me that if one is to find the truth of their character, she must work to uncover the inner tensions and honestly uncover her identity (physically as well as psychologically). After expensive study of Brecht and some workshops at the Brecht Forum, I have seen another kind of exploration that “interrogates” stereotypes and internalized oppression using very physical and politically-charged performance.  So between these two methods, particularly when these methods merge in various ways (which I have seen and am looking forward to seeing now that I have made the bold move to New York), I am able to feel that there is hope for women in American theatre.

Nylon Fusion Collective presents the world premiere of Incendiary Agents March 1 – 24, 2013 at the New Ohio Theatre in New York City.

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This entry was posted on February 26, 2013 by in Interview, Theater, Women and tagged , , , .

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