by Lisa M. Scrivner
The Theories of Feminism and Lesbianism in Theatre:
Providing the Opportunities for Women to be Taken Seriously in their Art.
Feminist theatre is a direct result of the feminist movement. Just as there are various and multiple ways to be a woman, lesbian, or anything in general, there is no one set way to be a feminist. Feminist theatre not only provides women with opportunities to be taken seriously in theatre arts, it also helps to spread knowledge of past and present women's movements. It can be used as a tool to confront our society with issues that aren't only important to women, but are important in the evolution of society. In my opinion, the theatre should grasp the various ideas of feminism to create a true and complete feminist genre. By embracing all aspects of feminism, the feminist theatre of the future will generate a more diverse standpoint and cater to all women.
There are three main categories in feminism, as well as many subgroups. These differing ideals create controversy over which is the true feminism and also over the definition of a 'feminist.' Through my personal involvement with student organizations at Western Oregon University such as S.A.G.E. (student advocates for gender equality) as well as my interactions with members of the women's task force at Oregon State University and the Women's Resource Center at Portland State University, I have become familiar with the categories of feminism and their distinct traits. First there is the liberal feminist stance, with the idea being the promotion of equality of women to men. Next there are cultural feminists, who take the stage to say that women are superior to men. The third main category of feminism is the social/materialist feminism, in which gender is thought of only as a byproduct of society. There are many other groups that fit in between these categories as well. The main problem with wanting a true and pure form of feminism is that all the various subgroups are fighting for very different reasons. At this point in time every group feels theirs is the one true feminism. In order to create an open-minded and refreshing feminist theatre, pieces of all the subgroups need to be included. The end result will be a diverse atmosphere where many ideas, even opposite ideas, can be presented and understood at the same time.
In mapping the evolution of feminist theatre, it is important to remember how it started and the reasons why it has emerged. Charlotte Canning states in her book Feminist Theaters in the U.S.A.: Staging Women's Experience, that feminist theatre started as “explorations of the experience of women together”(10). Feminists use theatre and performance as a tool to both inform society about what they feel is important and for the purpose of feeling personal satisfaction from participating in and also viewing feminist performances. Feminist theatre is a cultural representation that is influenced by the perspectives of its producers, performers, audiences, and critics whose goal is a positive re-evaluation of women's roles. It is theatre made by women for women, ideally. Canning also states, “inspiration for creation is women's everyday lives, their dreams, feelings, and thoughts”(10). This exemplifies that the feminist theatre is very much a personal feat. On a similar note, Julie Malnig and Judy C. Rosenthal, identify that for W.E.T. (Women's Experimental Theatre), “Their primary concern was not to simply reflect women's experiences, but to explore the explicit ways in which gender roles are reinforced and embedded in cultural institutions”(202-203).
There are many strategies for going about performing feminist theatre; what to include and what not to include. It is important to look at issues women are facing today in relationship to what they have overcome in the past and also where we want to be in the future. In this way the ideas being presented should be something that the audience will relate to and feel empowered or moved by. Themes in feminist theatre help us to celebrate our diversities as women, but also recognize and embrace our similarities. One of the themes occurring in feminist drama is that of community. Community as women, community as feminists, community as mothers and daughters, as lesbians...there is an infinite amount of possibilities. The use of rituals among some theatre groups is a popular tactic of visually representing community and also actively involving the audience. Canning states, “Rituals served to dramatize the unique powers and experiences of women among women”(125). Singing and chanting as a group during performance is once such ritual.
Recently one of the most popular themes amidst feminist theatre is plays about violence against women. One example is The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. Plays of this type provide an opportunity for awareness of social problems and issues that are never talked about. On extraordinary thing about The Vagina Monologues is that through the V-day foundation it is put on annually across the globe to raise awareness and money for women's groups and charities. The V-day foundation foots the bill for the royalties and allows all profits to go to charities and relief funds. This has been the biggest and most well known feminist theatre production in the feminist movement. In my personal experiences with The Vagina Monologues, it has given women the ability to speak out on issues they feel strongly about and has allowed audiences of all kinds to hear the message that violence is not okay and it is still being ignored. The Vagina Monologues has been one of the most powerful and positive experiences of my life and I believe that more plays like it should exist.
Even though feminist theatre is a method to unify women, it is also about breaking down the stereotypes of women as well. Through my own experiences, the general consensus is that feminists and lesbians are one and the same. This is indeed a huge misconception. While the feminist theatre and lesbian theatres often work side by side, they are indeed quite different. Lesbian theatre developed from feminist theatre mainly because lesbians didn't necessarily relate to all the issues feminist theatre was concerned with. Canning's interpretation of the forming of the lesbian theatre from the feminist theatre is that “The spirit of tradition of feminist theater demanded that where material did not exist it be created by and for those who needed it”(117). So even though feminist theatre is the root for lesbian theatre, they are very different. Canning also states, “One of the strongest and most divisive conflicts within feminism has been the issues of differences among women, especially those of race, sexual orientation, and class”(77-78). Women needed theatre they could relate to and identify with, and the different communities of women also wanted something specific to them that they could take pride it. My goal in wanting to establish an eclectic feminist theatre is to cherish and embrace the diversity of our cultures and communities while also acknowledging our unity as women.
As far as my understanding of the main types of feminism and their relationship to theatre, each has their own unique focus. Liberal feminist theatre includes works by, for, and about women with emphasis on the equality of women and men. Cultural feminist theatre tries to find or create new forms that go against the traditional and male constructs of theatre. They want to create a separate female form of theatre. The social/materialist feminist theatre stresses material conditions, such as history, race, class, and gender. The present day feminist theatre movement is changing and growing at a rapid rate and in many different directions. It is still searching for a definition of its purpose and a goal for the future. There is no single answer to the quest for definition because, as I stated earlier, there is no single idea of womanhood. Individualism and diversity are the key factors in creating a feminist theatre experience. Embracing all aspects of feminism is essential to creating a feminist theatre that is inclusive, diverse, and successful in impacting the audience.
Women in theatre do not objectify it as a pretty plaything, and do not want to be objectified as merely objects either. The theatre we are in represents us and our lives as well. For some women, the theatre goes beyond our dreams and is our life and work, hence the reason we want to be -and deserve to be- taken seriously. We want the theatre we build to represent who we are, where we've come from, and where we are going. Each of us has a story and has a vision; I challenge our society to actually listen and to truly see us, as we need to be seen. The feminist theatre is evolving...we are here... and we aren't going away until we are heard!