Photos Alexander Berg
After a very well-received workshop presentation of Take What Is Yours at the New Ohio Theatre in October of last year, Erica Fae and Jill A. Samuels have now brought the show to 59E59. This multi-disciplinary performance work focuses on the imprisonment of Alice Paul, a leading suffragist in the early 1900s. During her time in prison Paul undertook a hunger strike, to which prison officials reacted by placing her in solitary confinement, and force-feeding and interrogating her. At a time when politics seem bent on marching us backwards, it seems worthwhile to reflect on the hard-won and bitterly long fights that others endured in the past and which continue today.
In late April I stopped by the Gowanus rehearsal studio where Fae and Samuels were putting the final touches on the show before packing everything up before moving into Theater B at 59E59 (the show runs through May 27). I was interested to speak to them about the process of creating the show, their first collaboration; and about how they’ve blended historical texts with elements of contemporary performance. Fae and I began the discussion, with Samuels joining us later.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about the show—what is it about, what happens on the stage?
Erica Fae, co-writer and performer: We wanted to make sure that we were true to the history in the piece, at the same time that we didn’t want to stay there. So, there’s a balance of historically accurate things in the design or in the way that the piece feels or even in the way that the performers are behaving, but it’s always balanced with contemporary elements—like the sound score and visual field. The text is all historical text.
What kind of historical text—journals or speeches?
EF: A lot of it comes from a publication called The Suffragist, which was a weekly publication that the National Women’s Party made at that time. Then there are transcripts from court trials, hearings before the Judiciary Committee, some newspaper articles, some interviews, and some of her speeches and other women who were suffragists at the time, whose speeches were put into print. And we’ve edited it quite extensively, both in terms of selecting which pieces we want to use, but then also in some of the dialogue scenes. There are two main characters—there’s Alice Paul and this character called The Man, and we’ve really woven source material together to create those scenes.
The visual design is really Jill’s—she designed the set and has created a field that is visually edited in a way that we feel partners with the way the text is edited. So there’s something quite cinematic about how the piece renders itself visually—that things are moving on the stage and we don’t know how they’re moving. The stage space is sort of the image of Alice’s cell walls opening and closing depending on what she’s going through, and that creates a kind of visual editing. I would say the tone of the piece enters a realm that has a very subtle magic realism, in a way, and sometimes it’s hard, cold realness.
When we were balancing the history, we were careful to not present just a historical story. I think about it that we’ve placed the personal over the political or historical—we’re really looking at this as an event that happened to this one woman. Though we use the name Alice Paul, and Alice Paul definitely was a real person, we’re also not in the business of trying to do a bio-play.
So, it’s loosely based on facts that are part of her life, but it’s not wedded to those facts?
EF: The facts are there, we don’t invent any romances. The main thing that we’ve done is we’ve given Alice some speeches that other suffragists spoke. Our Alice is, in a way, a symbol of the women of that movement. And again, in acting her, I’m allowing myself that room. I could go, wow, I really want to figure out certain things about her life and what she was really like and do all of that, but I thought, you know what, actually, we want to tell a moving story and so in certain instances I’ve allowed myself to look into the personalities of other key women in that movement and draw inspiration from their personas. Namely, Lucy Burns and Rose Winslow and Inez Milholland, who are three others who I’ve really looked at in composing this character of Alice.
She’s a kind of composite, then?
EF: Yeah, we talk about her as a composite character, absolutely. And also The Man is also a composite character. He plays a man who comes to interview her, which happened many times to Alice in jail. What could be said about his role is that he’s representing a male viewpoint of these women at that time, and he has a real arc—he has a transformation in the play, he doesn’t end the play with the same opinion that he begins with.
We have three other actors involved in the piece and they do a lot of physical movement in the show, to kind of make Alice’s cell come alive.
Are they actual human characters, or are they metaphorical?
EF: They play the guards and the nurse in the cell, but they also are often unseen—sometimes we only hear their voices.
Kind of like a Greek chorus, in a way?
EF: Yes. Sometimes I refer to them as Company. The other thing that play is doing is it cross-fades, in a way, between these conversations with The Man and Alice re-inhabiting key moments in the suffrage movement. The frame of the piece is that it’s set in jail, she’s on a hunger strike, and from that structure we’re really allowed to watch her fray a bit and to relive things in a way that is not naturalistic, per se.
A key thing for me about that piece, actor-wise, is that I do play more characters than just Alice. A really important distinction, I feel, is that it’s not just Erica the actor playing Alice and then playing so-and-so and so-and-so—all of the characters are processed through Alice’s perspective. So it’s really Alice playing all of them. I view it that I’m playing her the whole time and that she fractures into these other memories or visions because of the state of being she’s in.
I want to ask you a question about the notion of hybrid theater. This has been a fad in the arts for awhile now—people wanting performance in particular to a hybrid form that incorporates elements from dance, music, media, etc. My take on it is that theater is a hybrid form by nature, that’s it’s always incorporated a variety of artistic forms, as well as technology. Given that application of terms like hybrid or multi-disciplinary to Take What Is Yours, what is your take on that idea as an artist?
EF: We have video that’s happening in the piece, but we have no intention to do anything new or ground-breaking in terms of how we’re working with video. It’s more that there were a few moments in the play, just dramaturgically, that really wanted the story to be carried by moving imagery. Mostly because there’s a lot of historical footage.
What kind of footage?
EF: Not film footage. There were a lot of stills that we’ve put into film. We felt really dedicated to bringing that content into the play because it’s so moving, to see women being arrested, being manhandled, while they’re wearing dresses that to our eye look very prim, but then to see these women actually being quite badass, it’s an interesting contradiction, for our contemporary eye.
Can you talk a little about how the idea took shape and also roughly how long ago that was?
EF: I would say it’s about four years ago, and this is me individually, that I thought I was ready to make a new piece. I’ve had a recurring theme where I like to make work out of historical people—I like to tell stories that actually occurred and feel like they need fresh air. So I was just basically doing research, as I tend to do—looking through history and interesting women.
And that research involved what for you—reading books, watching movies?
EF: Yeah, and lots of internet, and checking out different women. So I was looking at the suffrage movement and when that started, with Susan B. Anthony, and then there was this second wave of women who were working and I stumbled upon Alice Paul. I had never heard of her and I did not know at that time that women had worked to get the vote for 75 years, I didn’t know that women were put in jail, that they hunger-struck, that they were force fed. I didn’t know any of that.
[Jill arrives at the studio, as if on cue, and joins the conversation.]
And how did you know of each other? Had you worked together before?
EF: And we had both seen each other perform, so we knew that we had similar circles…
JAS: And a similar ethos.
EF: Exactly. So at that point we got a residency at IRT Theater. And at the end of that we were presenting about twenty or thirty minutes of the piece and it was still in a solo form at that time. It was okay, but it still didn’t quite pop. And so then when Jill came on I thought, what would happen if I had a real collaborator—like an actual partner in writing the piece and conceiving the piece.
JAS: I hadn’t really had time to delve into the research and so I spent intensive amounts of time that summer really reading everything I could get my hands on. I felt like we had come up with compelling performance material, but we wanted it to be more than a story of a woman in prison or a woman under a given set of circumstances or a woman in conflict with a system. We wanted it really to be about the National Women’s Party and their leader Alice Paul, and this little known civil rights movement, which was so monumental in this country and really introduced into common vernacular so many visual and rhetorical devices for protest movements ever since.
The National Women’s Party was such an innovator in grassroots organizing and political strategizing and community-based strategizing—galvanizing women from across the aisle. That’s what I find so compelling, when Erica, or Alice, rather, is in a Congressional hearing and she says: “We are an absolutely nonpartisan organization made up of women who are strong Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, Socialists—every kind of woman. We are all united on this one thing, putting suffrage above all other concerns, irrespective of how they may help or hurt our own political party…”
EF: “We work for suffrage…”
JAS: “…and neither for men or against men…”
EF: “…according to their position taken on this one amendment.”
[They both laugh.]
JAS: It’s such a powerful idea. [To Jill.] What did you say about it, you said such a powerful thing about it when we were talking—something about it being a universal agenda.
EF: Right, an agenda that benefits everybody, irrespective of what their political situation is.
But I want to go back to something about process. When we finally realized that it was a two-person piece and the other person needed to be a man, I remember we were sitting in my apartment, this is after that IRT residency, we were done and we were looking ahead to this performance and we were thinking, can we do that?
JAS: I feel like for me it wasn’t so much that it needed to be a man, as being compelled by this discovery that Alice had been visited by someone who interviewed her for, I think the testimonial said three hours. And at the end of the three hours she realized that he hadn’t been interested in her campaign but was there for a completely other reason. So we started to think of that as the narrative structure—this visit and an interview with a hidden agenda. From there a lot of the research that we did, both academically and the vocal, physical research that we did…
EF: And visual research…
JAS: And the visual research really began to take shape into a narrative.
What does collaboration look like for the two of you?
JAS: It’s fiery and passionate… Proposal is a big word in our process. We think of everything as a proposal, meaning if either of us has an idea, we try it.
So, when it was just two of you puzzling it out and doing research and offering fiery proposals, which seems appropriate, given the subject matter, you eventually got to the opportunity at the New Ohio Theatre.
JAS: I think one of the exciting, sort of exquisite parts of composing—because we’re using their words, I call it composing a script—is that the narrative is composed not only from words. It’s not only textual, it’s poetic visuals, it’s movement-based, it’s vocal scores. It’s a wonderful way of envision playwriting—all the disciplines form a coherent language. It’s the difference between what is told and what is seen and what is heard.
EF: There’s definitely moments in the piece where the writing of the play has occurred in the space as opposed to with a pen and a paper and computer. There are moments where what’s happening physically and visually is carrying the storytelling in that moment.
So when we went to the Ohio we thought, okay, let’s dive in to the big pool and give it a go, and it was a wild frenzy in a way. A lot of work happening in five weeks time. We made the decision not to officially open it at that time, we really kept it as a workshop and at that time people started to see the work and then from there we started to have a different discussions about where would it go, to actually open.
One of the last questions I’ll wrap up with, because I know you two need to get to rehearsal, is what you’ve learned in the process of making this show—in terms of the subject, collaborating, design, any of that.
EF: For me my brain goes into shards because there’s there co-writer brain, and then there’s the performer brain, and there’s different things in each camp. In terms of pieces I’ve authored or co-authored, this has been the longest one in terms of finding where the text really lives. I found it endlessly fascinating, this process of letting the words talk to us—how did they want to be structured. I wouldn’t even necessarily say that it’s ever really done, in a way, because we always find new things. It’s really been a relationship with editing—what is it to edit content, the order of it, how much is said, how much is not, and what comes first, what comes second, third, and why.
Performer-wise, I wouldn’t even know where to begin and end, simply because it’s so intense to play Alice. With acting I learn something every single time I’m trying to get up and rehearse, every time. And the general theme of what I learn, again and again and again and again and again, has to do with present tense and the timelessness of the present tense. And that every time I slip into past or future, it’s potentially a pitfall. Jill?
JAS: I am completely enchanted with working with the set, I must say—it’s infinite in what it offers and how it dances with this particular text. And also just tapping into the concealment drama of what Alice underwent in prison, not knowing the truth about very much, all the misinformation that was given to her. And the role of the gaze and the sort of cinematic structure that the frames of the set create, sort of, I don’t want to say controlling, but framing the visual information.
And there’s no replacing time, actually spending the time in the room. The proposals, I find, are just so effective because you can talk an impulse right out of the room, right out of your own body. But if you just try it on its feet, and think on it—each person, in their own head—having time to think about how something worked on its feet, before we make a decision, before I as a director make a decision, it’s such a rich process to work that way. And you begin to develop, and I’ve heard people say this so much who have been in ensembles for years—you develop a language that is very intuitive. I know in the fall it was often remarked upon that Erica and I finish sentences with one another because there’s a sort of tacit agreement or ability to communicate. You can feel that, when it’s in the room, and it’s been very much in the room, and on this particular project, so I would say that’s something that I value so much.
Is this making of proposals in rehearsal a new way of working for the two of you?
JAS & EF: No.
JAS: Much of my training was split—on the one hand, you know, I learned a lot of theory and I certainly have felt a critical approach to art-making, but also, on the other hand, the practical training was really about training, hard—physical and vocal training. So, there’s a balance. Sometimes we sit and we have to go back and forth and talk things through and other times I think it’s best that we just get on our feet and not jump right to judgment, to let it sit.
I wonder if there’s a way to encourage audiences to do that?
JAS: You know, I studied anthropology and I always liked the idea of a participant-observer—that observe but they really engage.