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‘A Theatre of Her Own’: Working in Theatre as a Woman by Carolyn Gage

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On December 13, 2014, Venus Theatre in Laurel, Maryland, celebrated production of their 50th play with a gala special event at which they gave out their first ever “Lifetime Achievement Award” to the prolific lesbian feminist playwright Carolyn Gage. 

Carolyn Gage and The Statue of Venus.

Carolyn Gage and The Statue of Venus.

Her acceptance speech, which she spoke off-the-cuff from notes, had a profound effect on the audience, because in it she described real and raw truths about what it means to work in theater as a woman-John Stoltenberg.

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I began by telling the folks at Venus that I was going to tell three stories, and that the first was about the actress Eva Le Gallienne.  She was twenty-three years old and starring in her first Broadway role. She was the lead in Liliom, which was the play from which the musical Carousel was adapted. This play—which you know, if you know Carousel—is a sentimentalizing of domestic violence. It has lines like “When some men hit you, it feels like a kiss.” The role that Eva was playing was that of the victim. During this run, she was battered and raped backstage by an actor who was in the show. She left the theatre and checked herself into a private sanatorium. She never named the rapist, aware that this would be the end of her career. And in case people are thinking that this was because it was 1923, I say look at all the actresses only coming forward now about the Bill Cosby drug rapes they suffered decades ago… and the dozens who are still afraid to come forward.

Eva Le Gallienne.

Eva Le Gallienne.

Anyway, she stayed in the sanatorium for three days and then returned to the show. It ran for another year. After that, she had a breakdown. And then she came back and founded her own professional theatre. She founded it away from Broadway, figuratively and literally. She produced plays of her own choosing… plays with powerful roles for women. She produced the work of women playwrights. Her theatre was run by lesbians… a lesbian artistic director (herself) and a lesbian administrator. She hired lesbian actors, lesbian set designers, lesbian costumers. And after shows, the cast and crew would go over to the lesbian nightclub, the Cosmo, where Spivey, the lesbian proprietor, would cook them all scrambled eggs. And she did plays in repertory, which is tougher than long runs and more expensive, but better for the actor who gets to play all kinds of different roles. This was the Civic Repertory Theatre, and it was one of the legendary theatres in American history.

And then the Depression hit and Eva and everyone else lost their funding. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was in a lesbian relationship and in networks of power lesbians, approached Eva about heading up the Federal Theatre Project that was just being set up under the New Deal. This would enable Eva to keep the doors of the Civic Rep open. But Eva was very well aware that government and art are a bad mix. She was also very aware of her vulnerability as a lesbian. She turned it down and closed her theatre.

As a footnote, Hallie Flanagan took over the Federal Theatre Project, and sure enough, it was the first program to be witch-hunted by political enemies of the New Deal. She was called to testify before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. At the end of her life Hallie developed dementia, and sadly, she would relive this nightmare over and over, wandering the halls of the nursing home and still defending herself against hallucinatory interrogators from these hearings.

Deb Randall.

Deb Randall.

Deb Randall, following in the footsteps of Eva Le Gallienne, makes the connection between the cultural narratives about women and the victimization of women in real life. Like Eva, she privileges the work of women playwrights and chooses the roles and stories that tell the truth, that unmask the perpetrators and the institutions that oppress women, and that offer radically different roles and scripts for women and for girls.

Henrietta Vinton Davis.

Henrietta Vinton Davis.

The second woman that I talked about was the African American actor Henrietta Vinton Davis, who was born, actually, in Baltimore. [Note: Venus Theatre is located just outside of Baltimore, in Laurel, Maryland.] Davis was born in 1860, during the last days of legal enslavement. She actually worked for former captive Frederick Douglass, and, under his encouragement, she realized her vision and calling to perform. At this time, African American theatre took the form of minstrel shows and, later, what were called “plantation musicals,” which were post-war sentimental and nostalgic white fantasies about the lives of enslaved people in the South.

Henrietta did not want to participate in these forms. Instead, she went out on the road solo, performing monologues from Shakespeare and poems by Paul Lawrence DunbarThe last African American Shakespeare theatre in New York had been burned to the ground by racists, and the actors who founded it had fled to London. There were no African American companies performing serious work.

Henrietta’s career was spent touring to cities where she could not stay in the hotels or eat in the restaurants. She had to endure reviewers who never failed to make mention of the shade of her skin color, the lightness of it being considered an endorsement as important as her acting talent.

She was well aware that the classical canon was by and about white people and she embraced the work of contemporary Black playwrights attempting to write new epic plays. She produced and performed in plays about the successful slave rebellion in Haiti, and she co-wrote a musical called “My Old Kentucky Home.” Unlike other plantation shows, Henrietta’s play included the war, and the entire second act portrayed formerly enslaved people taking over the plantation of their former captors. Not surprisingly, her theatre company ended up broke and stranded in Denver, but good for her. Henrietta was so far ahead of her time, she has largely been written out of the history of Black theatre.

Deb Randall, like Henrietta and Eva, has turned away from the popular theatre of her time, because it supports a dominant culture that degrades people of color and women. She cultivates the artists who are working to subvert that dominant narrative… and she pays the price of marginalization and isolation. Like Henrietta, Deb and her work are considered an anomaly. Women of the 21st century, like African Americans in the late 19th century, have not achieved enough financial or cultural autonomy to demand and create our own narratives and forms. It was enough for Blacks in the 1880’s to perform in the minstrel shows that were so reassuring to and so well-remunerated by their oppressors. And for many women today, it is enough to perform the princess/whore stereotyped roles that are so reassuring to and so well-remunerated by the patriarchy. It takes a room of one’s own, a theatre of one’s own, an audience of one’s own, to decolonize the imagination, and Eva, Henrietta, and Deb understood this.

Minnie Maddern Fiske.

Minnie Maddern Fiske.

The third woman I want to talk about is Minnie Maddern Fiske. She is one of the greatest actresses of the American stage, and yet she spent many of her prime years performing in church basements and grange halls around the country. This is because a group of men who called themselves the Theatrical Syndicate, had taken control of all the major theatres in New York and on the touring circuit across the country. They specialized in highly commercial “girlie” shows. Minnie Fiske was interested in serious work with strong roles for outspoken women. She was producing Ibsen. She was producing an adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a play about a woman who had been raped. One by one, professional producers and actors sold out to the Syndicate, but Minnie never did. She paid a very high price for her art and her resistance. But one of my favorite quotations is something that a theatre critic wrote about Minnie during this period of her career. He said, “Wherever Mrs. Fiske sits, that’s the head of the table.”

Carolyn  Gage and Deb Randall and Venus. Photo courtesy of Venus Theatre.

Carolyn Gage and Deb Randall and Venus. Photo courtesy of Venus Theatre.

And I want to say to you tonight, wherever Deb Randall sits, that’s the head of the table. In this storefront, on C Street, in Laurel, Maryland. That’s the head of the table for women’s theatre.

Deb Randall and Venus Theatre are in a long and proud tradition of feminist pioneers who refused to compromise themselves or their art. And the price we pay for this integrity is tremendous.

I am so proud to have received Venus Theatre’s first Lifelong Achievement Award, and I am very proud to have had thirteen of my plays read or produced by Venus. Gertrude Stein was once asked what artists need most, and she answered “appreciation.” We don’t need criticism. Subsidy is nice, but it’s not essential. What we need is appreciation, and this is what Venus Theatre offers. Appreciation.  And it is mutual: Thank you, Deb, and thank you, Venus!

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Carolyn Gage. Photo by Heather Alexander.

Carolyn Gage. Photo by Heather Alexander.

Carolyn Gage is a playwright, performer, director, and activist. The author of nine books on lesbian theatre and sixty-five plays, musicals, and one-woman shows, she specializes in non-traditional roles for women, especially those reclaiming famous lesbians whose stories have been distorted or erased from history. This year she was one of six featured playwrights at UNESCO’s World Theater Day in Rome. Gage has taught at Bates College and the University of Southern Maine. She has won the Oregon Playwrights Award from the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts as well as the Maine Literary Award.  A collection of her plays was a national winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Drama. Her catalog is online.

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