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Extending the Frame for Women Playwrights

Necessary Exposure 2014
Jody Christopherson, performer and photographer, has been raising the visibility of female playwrights through headshots, production photography, and two recent exhibits called “Necessary Exposure” at the Dixon Place bar and performance venue in New York City’s Chinatown. Her first steps into photography were classes several years at the School of Visual Arts between administrative duties. When she submitted images of a short-haired queer-identifying female playwright to a staff exhibition, she was surprised and intrigued by the audience response. “If it’s a playwright, what gender is this playwright and what does that mean, and what does she write about,” they asked. Christopherson set about crafting an exhibit in response.

Christopherson pitched the idea for the first “Necessary Exposure” exhibit in 2014 as an extended exploration of female-identifying playwright images as her own artistic and political response to national conversations about who was writing, designing, and creating theatre. That year, Arena Stage hosted The Summit , and the first list of female playwrights and subsequent press was generated by The Kilroys, feeding into energized conversations about creating a new pipeline for plays by women to season-building decisions makers. Christopherson believed faces were a necessary starting point in this intellectual and social context of creating new places for and conversations around accessing the work of women writers. “Photographs are a natural way to make things visible. We’re drawn to images in our culture and an image seemed to be a very powerful way to also bring awareness to a text.”

Photographs are a natural way to make things visible. We’re drawn to images in our culture and an image seemed to be a very powerful way to also bring awareness to a text.

The six-week run of the 2014 Necessary Exposure installation was a purely visual and tactile creation featuring headshots of nine playwrights (Caridad Svich, Jessica Dickey, Crystal Skillman, Normandy Sherwood, Mariah MacCarthy, Sarah Shaefer, Charlotte Miller, Gina Femia, Ms. Minty Newport/Kim Gainer) with frames adorned by Christopherson with materials from fabric to lace to playscripts. “I wanted to use collage, mixed media, and different materials. The frame of a photograph is where the photograph ends, and I wanted to frame the writers with their work.” Flea market frames were selected for their low cost and outsized dimensions, and their dinged up condition provided an artistic opportunity. “We were repurposing them. If we could cover the frame with something lovely, something that represents the playwright and the mission of the piece, we could also afford these large frames and make the whole thing work.” For example, the Crystal Skillman headshot was framed with graphics from the printed versions of her plays. And Normandy Sherwood’s play about a shepardess inspired a deconstruction of archetypes and the use of wool and cotton and a monologue adorned her display.

Sound Inspires New Dimensions: Necessary Exposure 2015
A working relationship and new inspirations led to a second installation. Sound designer Natalie Johnsonius Neubert directed Christopherson’s 2013 multi-media production The Skype Show—part rock concert, and part play about visa regulations.

collage of four women playwrights
 2015 exhibit invitation featuring exhbit playwrights. Photos by Jody Christopherson.

Necessary Exposure The Female Playwright Project: Portraits of Playwrights Who Identify as Female,” which closes October 11, 2015, adds the dimension of two-to-six minute audio plays created by each of seventeen featured playwrights to the visibility and exposure project. Images of exhibit playwrights (Jessica Almasy, Susan Bernfield, Saviana Stanescu, Penny Jackson, Cecilia Copeland, Diana Oh, Laura Noni Rohrman, Kari Bentley-Quinn, Amy E. Witting, Winter Miller, Maria Alexandria Beech, Micheline Auger, Karen Cellini, Angela Santillo, Abby Rosebrock, Kara Lee Corthron, and Maybe Burke) hang in a hallway near the box office.  As in a curated museum tour, audio is tied to individual images. But beyond that, each piece is unique, a downloadable audio file.

You can download a podcast and go see the portrait and listen to the words read by the playwright or the playwright’s chosen actors. It’s all about their voice. I wanted to give the playwrights agency. So they select their material, come with their actors, or they come in by themselves, and we record it and mix it.

Christopher refers to herself as the photographer and conceptual artist; the concept is hers, but Neubert directed and recorded the sound plays.

I wanted to give them the floor completely, to be as hands off as possible, to allow them to do whatever they wanted. I just said to everyone: please choose three-to-five minutes that best represents what you’re about as a writer, something that you want to give voice to, or something that you want to explore. It can be a play that hasn’t been produced or a poem. It can be whatever you’re working on that means a lot to you. You can read it, actors can read it—whatever you think best serves your work.

Christopherson and colleague Neubert crafted an opening night theatrical soundscape event in one of Dixon Place’s subterranean theatre spaces, what Christopherson imagined as a “sensory deprivation sound installation” a few weeks before the event. “You come in in the dark,” she dreamed, “and you only hear voices, hopefully encouraging people to imagine what’s happening or to really want to see the work.”

Woman on stage in front of a projection that reads: "Necessary Exposure: the Female Project."
September 1, 2015 exhibit opening event at Dixon Place. Photo by Martha Wade Steketee.

Romanian poet Saviana Stanescu’s story provided drama and activism from Eastern Europe, as described by Christopherson.

Saviana Stanescu brought in a poem. She’s a Romanian playwright who started out as a dramatic poet. People would perform her long poems as dramatic plays. She submitted a piece under a male alias for a big award and won a competition in Romania with a big award ceremony, sort of like the Oscars in America. And she came up on stage to receive the award and created great controversy. She’s an activist and very adventurous and unapologetic in the way that she wants to get her work out there. The poem she selected was about being an artist who is trying to work in English, and how to create a precedent for getting an artist visa to do that. She wanted to read it because she has an accent that she thinks is important to speak with that voice.

Kara Lee Corthron speaks in her own voice through underscoring as well as her writing. Her piece Welcome to Fear City invokes the world of Billie Holiday and Birdland in the 1950s. Corthron performed her own monologue “about a woman who used to clean dressing rooms at Birdland. For her underscoring we had her sing a Holiday tune that’s in the public domain, so the monologue is slightly underscored by the haunting song.” Abby Rosebrock who recently completed a sold out run at The Brick of her O’Neill finalist play, Singles in Agriculture, brought in a scene called Dido in Idaho. “I like people that are able to do more than one thing and be really open about that,” reflected Christopherson. “I think that a lot of artists do that, but sometimes there seems to be a stigma about saying I am a writer and a performer, or I am a director and an actor, I am a producer and a director. I want to give more voice to that as well.”

Wall with framed photographs of women playwrights
2015 photo display, seven of the seventeen playwrights. Photo by Martha Wade Steketee.

You can call me whatever you want, if you want to present my work. I would prefer to just be called a playwright. I am a playwright. My voice is not different. I am my own person; it’s not about gender.

Considering the recording process and the process of self-identifying gender led to several revelations.

We asked the playwrights how they feel about the term playwright and the label female playwright and the answers were extremely varied and very interesting. We heard: you can call me whatever you want, if you want to present my work. And we also heard: I would prefer to just be called a playwright. I am a playwright. My voice is not different. I am my own person; it’s not about gender. It was interesting and inspiring.

Diana Oh’s {my lingerie play} is another example of nontraditional important work represented in the exhibit, according to Christopherson, a form of “artivist action” by “artists who are activists,” a term coined by 2014 exhibition playwright Caridad Svich.

Theatre is about change to me. . I think it’s really important to consider how this particular piece goes out into the world to actually affect the thing that we’re talking about changing. And Diana has these installations where women stand on soap boxes and talk about parity and being catcalled, being harassed, being sexually molested, being trafficked. It completely involves the community. There are ten parts to this play that happens over ten installations.

Being Counted
Christopherson has dreams for publications and paraphernalia and continued community building. “I would love this to be a coffee table book, with photographs and printed text as well as an audio CD. I’m looking for grants; I’m looking at publishing organizations. I would love to travel and create this in and with other communities.”

Shirt that says "this is what a playwright looks like"
Counting playwrights, one T-shirt at a time. Photo by Martha Wade Steketee.

In the short run, Christopherson wants everyone to be counted who wants to be counted. “We created a T-shirt as part of the project that says “This is what a playwright looks like.” Female, and female-identified, and male and male-identified, and those who identify with either, or neither can wear it. For Christopherson this is inclusion. And it starts with being counted.

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