Fair Maid of Philadelphia: Charlotte Northeast on Season Selection, Gender Equality, and The Curse of Childhood Nicknames
Well, there's no formal announcement or one Monday proclaiming its official start... but we are nearing the end of that special time in the Philadelphia arts scene where theatres announce their seasons.
It’s a magical and tense time of year. It’s the time when you, as an artist or a producer say: “Wow! That’s great they are tackling that.” Or: “Huh. Really?” Or: “Ummm…again?” Or: “Dammit, I wanted to do that one.” Or: “Godspeed. That’s a beast.”
That feeling of possibility: all those yet-to-cast shows (“Might they pick me?”), all those yet-to-be-designed shows (“How big will the fabric budget be?”) – all that POTENTIAL reminds me of that amazing knot of excitement I get walking into an office supply store. “Oh man – there is so much POSSIBILITY here.” All these new pens and notepads and highlighters. (Ok, I can’t be the only nerd about office supply stores here, can I?)
Because theatre is so ephemeral, so fleeting ... that time of year where it’s still YET TO BE DONE feels a tad more magical than even the most anticipated opening night.
But it’s also grueling to pick a season. So many things go into it. Texture, casting, budgets, the FEEL of the piece. How does it stack up to the other shows? Does it fit the mission? Will it excite our audience? Will it excite us and our artists? Why do this show, above all others?
I felt the same pressure when Damon and I named our son. No one tells you how big a deal that is. It’s his NAME for God’s sake (Julian Donato Bonetti, for those keeping score at home). He will identify himself by that. He will go into banks and schools and get annoying phone calls from telemarketers who will SAY THAT NAME. It has to be good. It has to look good on a towel or gym bag. The initials can’t spell something rude like Anthony Simon Smith (“ASS”) or Daisy Ingrid Kincaid (“DIK”). It can’t rhyme with something rude (believe me, kids will find a way) like my name growing up did (“Lotty, Lotty sitting on a potty…”)
And picking a season is like that. Despite its impermanency, the life of that show will live on -- in the hearts and minds of our artists, our audience and our glossy brochures. It has to feel right. There’s no guarantees that the shows will be transcendent or magical (although the PAC has a good streak going), but they have to live on in the canon we make for them. And as someone staring down the barrel of the biggest show I’ve ever directed, I’m plenty aware of this. (Come visit me in April of 2015 to see how Fair Maid of the West turns out). (Sick of parentheticals yet?)
This year, something has become apparent to me. Something that validates and strengthens the PAC in ways I didn’t quite realize until I stepped back a bit. Theatres in Philly are choosing to do classics this year. Theatres that don’t normally do such classics. We’re talking the Bard at the Arden and the Wilma, Virginia Woolf at Exile, Glass Menagerie at Act II. Classics coming to different audience bases. Classics coming to people who might not see them otherwise but who now have the added incentive of a season subscription to check them out. I like this. I applaud this. It raises the bar and creates a thread that connects us even more.
And it forces the PAC to get even more creative. What further dusty, lonesome nuggets can we dig out from history’s vaults? What sad forgotten playwright can we glorify?
And perhaps the hardest question of them all: How do we find more opportunities for women?
This topic isn’t new, but it has especially come to the fore lately in the social media sphere and in theatre talking circles within the past few months. Equality for women in the workplace, in relationships, and in artistic job opportunities have been on my radar quite a bit lately.
The PAC is run by 6 awesome people. 2 are dudes. 4 are ladies. That’s pretty great, ya? And I’m not going to sugar-coat it: the classics are full of roles for dudes. We didn’t pick something that was easy to accomplish. We are fully aware of that. In looking back over our past few seasons, I’d say we’ve made strides. The women in our plays are strong, opinionated, visible and vital. And we’ve gender-bent and will continue to do so.
However, at a recent talking-heads session I attended on “Shakespeare’s Canon and Women,” a new question emerged: “Where are the plays that reflect OUR idea of what women should be?” Not women defined by their dowries, their virginity, their heritage as it pertains to their fathers or brothers. Our idea of what women should be.
And I can’t pretend to have an answer or even the sketch of an answer.
I sometimes think we don’t need an answer: we are here to tell stories and these particular stories are couched with these ideals. Other times I think: “Look – look at these women and see how far we’ve come!” And still other times: “This story is being told from a certain point of view, as imagined by this director and these actors; the underlying message of the play when it was written has a different meaning in this production.” After all, plays are subject to interpretation. While being true to the text, there’s always layers of meaning to be mined and examined that can change how we perceive these human beings on stage.
I don’t pretend these are satisfactory answers, but at least the questions are being asked. And being asked by people who make theatre We are on the front lines of changing, in increments big and small, how we approach the arts (both classical and non).
Case in point: I’m directing a show this coming spring (Fair Maid of the West – but I know you already knew that because you’ve been paying attention) that is about a woman whose virtue is one of the central plots in the show. How do I reconcile that with the questions I just asked? Because the Fair Maid I’m going to direct is about a woman who betters those around her by her actions, by her intelligence, her cunning, and her awareness that the world she inhabits can be changed.
I may not succeed. But change comes from within, and it comes in small doses. I’m also not such a hard-liner myself that I can’t see where a show that has pirates, stupid accents, general ridiculousness and a strong, amazing heroine at the center of it all would be a sin. We live in a world of varying textures and colors. There is no black and white. I hope, through the humor, the love story and the silliness, all that shines about the classics and the women in them will come through.
Here’s to Spring in Philadelphia!
Philadelphia Artists' Collective
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