This seems to be the season in DC Metro Theater for pugilistic women. Women who box claimed the stage in Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage (just closed at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company). A woman who fights back tooth and nail is the fierce protagonist of Jonelle Walker’s TAME. (about to open at Gunston Arts Center, produced by Avant Bard). Female boxing in the fifties will be featured in Mollye Maxner’s A Beautiful Thing (coming in June from Theater Alliance), and a woman in training for mixed martial arts fights her way out of her cage in Stephen Spotswood’s Girl in the Red Corner (about to open at Atlas Performing Arts Center produced by The Welders).
This quartet of world premieres might be said to comprise a successor to last year’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival in the form of a mini Women’s Fisticuffs Festival—except that one of these four plays was not written by a woman. And therein lies a fascinating tale.
John: I heard a portion of Girl in the Red Corner read during the recent Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage New Play Festival, and I remember being gobsmacked. The story, the main character, the point of view, the voice—it all just drew me in and seemed to be doing something very important, very original.
Stephen: Thanks for coming! I always love Page-to-Stage because the audiences are so excited and ready to test-drive new work.
If I were to make a Hollywood-type pitch about Girl in the Red Corner, I’d say it’s a powerfully emotional story of a young woman with inspiring moxie. Her name is Halo. She comes from a barely-scraping-by background. Her dead-end marriage ended in divorce. She quit her last job because she was being sexually harassed. She’s completely down and out. And then she finds self-confidence, independence, and strength by training for mixed martial arts (MMA) and fighting in “the cage.” It’s kind of a female Rocky except in addition to being challenged like Rocky by what it means to be poor, Halo confronts what it means to live in the world as a woman. Is that a fair summary?
That’s pretty accurate. I’ve been on a fight-movie kick recently (go figure) and just rewatched Rocky for the first time in years. I’d forgotten how little of that movie—and many of its sequels—take place inside the ring. Most of the conflict is in the dynamic between family, friends, and lovers. That’s where the real battle is.
It’s the same for Girl in the Red Corner—there’s no area of Halo’s life where she doesn’t have to fight. And the fact that she’s a woman—and one living in a world where everyone is subsisting paycheck-to-paycheck—makes those battles so much harder.
As I read the full play, I saw at least three worlds in it—a world of employment (Halo’s single mother and brother-in-law have jobs, and Halo is trying to get another one), a world of family (which also includes Halo’s niece and married sister), and the world of MMA fighting (where Halo forms a complex bond with a trainer named Gina). The work and family worlds are vividly drawn but it is the world of MMA that is (no pun intended) the real knockout dimension of the play. Would you talk about what drew you to that world, how you learned about it, and how it functions in your play?
Two years ago I was writing a different play—The Gantry Girls Come Home—about six sisters who return home to sit deathwatch for their mother. One of the sisters was an amateur MMA fighter. And while it wasn’t a significant plot point, she talks about it a bit and I wanted to get the details right. So I started down the rabbit hole of videos online, starting with [women’s bantamweight champion] Ronda Rousey and the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] and working my way out. I didn’t immediately turn into a hardcore fan, but it was a start. I also have a friend I’ve known since undergrad who began training in MMA a few years ago and I saw the immensely positive effect it had on her life. When I started writing Girl in the Red Corner, she was generous enough to answer a whole lot of very personal questions about her experience.
MMA serves a lot of functions in the play. On a dramaturgical level, it externalizes the emotional and economic struggles that everyone is going through. On a narrative level, it provides Halo with a place where she has power and control. There’s a moment in the play where Halo talks about all the rules when you’re in the cage—rules that apply to both fighters. Everywhere else in her life, there’s no such thing as a fair fight. The rules are always bent against her. But in the cage, she has a fighting chance. And on a purely visceral level it’s just pretty awesome to have women punching, kicking, and grappling three feet from the front row.
One of the things that so struck me about Girl in the Red Corner is that it seemed completely located in, and loyal to, a woman’s point of view—in a way I’ve seen few male playwrights do at all much less do well. It’s not just that the cast list is predominantly female (four women, one man); it’s that the whole play seems written from inside women’s experience of the world. If I had not known of the authorship, I would have thought this a play born of the momentum of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
I write almost exclusively for female protagonists, and there are a lot of reasons for that—most practical, some altruistic. I’ve always communicated better with women. Most of my closest friends are women. So I’ve always found it easier to write for them. Also, there’s the inescapable math of the male/female breakdown in theater. The majority of actors coming into the industry are women; the majority of roles on stage are for men. The result is a lot of really talented women who are tragically underutilized. I know when I write a play with four meaty roles for women, I will have no shortage of actors stepping forward. And since I’m benefiting from this inequity in the system, I try and make up for it by writing roles for women that actors can really get excited about.
At the heart of Girl in the Red Corner there’s an implicit endorsement of self-defense training for women. But it’s not just about physical empowerment (so women can take care of themselves in a world peopled with violent men). More profoundly it’s about psychic empowerment, something really at the core of selfhood. Halo’s trainer Gina says at one point:
“What’s important is that you can throw a kick without totally destroying your sense of self-worth or some shit.”
At another point Halo, talking about what it’s like for her to fight in the cage, says:
“I don’t need anyone’s permission. I don’t need anyone’s approval. In here, I can actually win.”
In other words Girl in the Red Corner goes way beyond “I am woman, hear me roar.” Was that your intention when you set out to write the play?
Oh, that was definitely the intention from the start. One of the first things I knew about this play—and something that has stayed true through all the rewrites—is that the entire play takes place inside the MMA octagon [a fenced area called a cage]. I knew that the story was about someone having to exist in a series of tightening cages—confinement created by circumstance, economics, by a world—and what happens when she decides to fight against those.
While previous drafts had plot points dealing with a self-defense class, those got left on the cutting room floor because they just didn’t touch the heart of the story. I found it much more interesting to show an audience a woman who’s coming to this sport for reasons that aren’t a reaction to something done to her by a man, but by a complex, internal need that she comes to embrace.
One of the most fascinating characters in your play is Halo’s young niece, Elle, who looks up to Halo and learns from her about being a self-possessed woman who takes no shit. It’s almost as if we see Halo passing on to Elle the capacity for self-affirmation and self-definition that Halo never got from her own mother. There are other insightful interrelationships in the play among the female characters, and they all seem to ring true. How did you do that? Or, to put it another way, how did you step outside your life in the world as a man to write this play?
Empathy and paying attention. It really boils down to that. In fact, I’m not even sure I have to boil it. That’s all it is. Because I write mostly for women, I get asked this question a lot, and I’ve tried to expand on the answer, but it always feels like gilding the lily. There’s no reason you can’t step outside your own life in your writing as long as you pay attention and listen to the people in your world, empathize with what they’re experiencing, and have the imagination to feel what it’s like in their skin.
Girl in the Red Corner is the first play to be produced by the second generation of the playwrights’ collective The Welders. How has that production context shaped the play?
The reason I chose this play as my contribution to The Welders is because I couldn’t imagine being able to create it otherwise. The Welders provides an immense amount of artistic control as well as the support of seven artists that had my back every step of the way. And Girl in the Red Corner was a play that really needed a bespoke workshopping method. During the rehearsal process Jay Ferrari, owner of Capital MMA in Takoma Park, became our MMA consultant. About once a week we’d rehearse in the gym, with Jay teaching the actors the real thing then fight choreographer Cliff Williams stepping in to make all of it safe and repeatable. That experience of physically being in the world of the play let me strengthen the script in ways I’d never imagined doing otherwise. And that’s not a process that could have happened if I’d just written this script and submitted it to theaters.
Behind every first production of a new play is often a very special collaboration between playwright and director. How has that collaboration influenced Girl in the Red Corner?
This is the second show of mine that Amber Paige McGinnis has directed, the first being last summer’s The Last Burlesque, produced by Pinky Swear Productions. Having her on board before I even finished the first draft of Girl in the Red Corner was fantastically liberating. I knew that when it came to creating this kind of highly physical, brutally honest but beautiful theater on stage, I was in good hands. That gave me the permission to take chances with those early drafts I never would have otherwise. And it also meant that, deep into the rehearsal process, I could dive into some terrifyingly extensive rewrites and know that Amber would have my back. We have a shared aesthetic but come at it using somewhat different theatrical languages. Which makes for a great collaborative process.
What do you hope will be audiences’ experience of your play? And what would you want them to take away?
A lot of this play is structured like a fight, emotionally and narratively. So if the audience is on the edge of their seats and cheering at some points, that’d be great. I like loud, sweaty, bright, and bold theater and I like my audiences to match.
As with most of my work, there’s some razors hidden in the candy. Yeah, they’re going to root for our heroine. But by the end, they’re going to be made to confront just how complicit they are in the cages she’s fighting to escape from.