'on the phone with my mother' asks: What is a woman?

Categories: Theater
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Photo by Melissa Hesse
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n the phone with my mother, a new theater work directed and conceived by Anna Kunin, begins by posing an impossible question: What is a woman?

While at the University of Minnesota, where she graduated last spring, Kunin delved into lots of theories about gender and sexuality through her courses in cultural studies and theater arts, especially in regards to how gender is socially constructed. But while the studies were immensely helpful in terms of deconstructing gender, she was haunted by the question: What exactly am I building?

She talked to her mother, who was a politically active hippie in L.A. during the 1960s, about this. Her mother told her about the conscious raising meetings she had gone to, sometimes with up to 50 women in one room. "I had never experienced anything remotely like that," she says.

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Photo by Melissa Hesse
So, she decided to get a group of women from her generation in the same room to "explore the question of what being a woman meant to us," she says. But rather than keeping it in the theoretical sphere, she wanted the group to explore that question tangibly in the form of artistic expression. 

Kunin began a search for collaborators a year ago, holding workshops to see who was potentially interested in the project. "Funnily enough, those who did commit were not at all who I expected," she says. Eventually, an ensemble was formed with Johanna Gorman-Baer and Nora Sachs -- two women who had graduated from the U of M with Kunin in the spring of 2011 -- as well as Angie Courchaine and Natalia Hokin, who are current students at the university. 

As director, Kunin takes a collaborative approach. "We built the show from scratch out of a lot of rigorous play," she says, "which required that we build a foundation of creative trust in each other." For every stage of the process, Kunin tried to incorporate the use of personal stories and how they related to how the women, and society at large, define womanhood. 

Kunin's use of personal stories, which are generated from the performers themselves, sets the piece apart from Eve Ensler's seminal work The Vagina Monologues, which explores similar themes. "I wanted to get away from The Vagina Monologues," Kunin says. "Far, far away. Personally, I am bored to death with theater that addresses social issues by way of a bunch of realistic monologues in direct address to the audience." 
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Photo by Melissa Hesse
So she pushed the stakes of storytelling higher by having actors tell stories from their actual lives. "I've been humbled at every stage of the process by the openness, honesty, and willingness to take risks -- both personal and artistic -- of all the actors," she says.

In addition to the core work of the ensemble, they also held two story-circles. One focused on "intergenerational dialogue between those who self-define as women," and the other focused on dialogue between people of different genders. 

During the meetings, Kunin asked the participants to tell personal stories about their lives. "To put it simply, the story-circles brought in the perspective of people who weren't in the ensemble," Kunin says. "We are all fairly similar by demographic standards -- young adult, white, middle-class, identify as straight, etc. -- so we wanted to give a chance for a diversity of voices to impact our process." In addition, the story circles extended the audience-performer relationship beyond the performance, "using the entire art-making process to generate public spaces of dialogue," she says.

The stories shared in the story-circles came from women in their 20s through their 60s. 
"We talked a lot about our mothers and grandmothers, and how societal norms of women have changed throughout time," she says. In the second story-circle, the conversations centered on the media, and how porn has impacted "expectations of women's bodies and sexual relationships in general."

As the core ensemble drew from what had been generated in the story-circles, they made a point never to "copy-paste" what they heard into the play as a kind of monologue, but rather tried to incorporate the "essence" of the stories. 

While creating the piece, they made a point to hold nothing sacred -- everyone and everything was deserving of satire. "I think laughing is one of the most subversive things you can do," she says. 

They eventually created clown characters out of four stereotypes: the earth mama, the femi-nazi, the Stepford wife, and the sex object. Once they started to work with these cliches, they "just exploded with complexity and subtlety," Kunin says. "A lot of the show veers towards the absurd and the surreal because of this, which to me is no less honest than the moments of personal storytelling. It's just a different way of embodying a subjective truth." 

Kunin says it was never important for her to find definitive answers. Indeed, she thinks there are none. "I'm much more interested in what happens during the exploration of questions."

IF YOU GO:

on the phone with my mother
9:30 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Sisters Camelot
2310 Snelling Ave., Minneapolis


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