According to Christine Lahti, who’s currently playing the title role in “Gloria: A Life” at the Daryl Roth Theatre, Gloria Steinem doesn’t want people to be alone in their rage. In fact, she encourages people to have talking circles in their own lives — a space in which people can be with others who are supportive and open to engaging in positive dialogue. “That’s the thing that’s so scary to a lot of people is that we are spending so much time in front of our screens,” Lahti said, “and that’s so not helpful in this time of hopelessness.”
These 5 activists fought alongside Gloria Steinem and haven't gotten the recognition they deserve. Now, Gloria the Play, starring Christine Lahti, is paying tribute to underappreciated feminist heroes: https://bit.ly/2qDW4Je
Posted by ALL ARTS on Friday, November 9, 2018
This concept of a talking circle — employed by Native Americans as a forum for solving problems, as well as by consciousness raising feminists, Occupy Wall Street members and others — takes the place of an act 2 in Emily Mann’s “Gloria: A Life,” under the direction of Diane Paulus. In act 1, Lahti and a small cast of women take audiences through, as the show’s title makes clear, Gloria Steinem’s life, as well as aspects of the lives of the people who fought with her, including under-recognized activists like Wilma Mankiller (DeLanna Studi) and Florynce Kennedy (Patrena Murray). Without breaking for an intermission, the cast transitions between acts by grabbing microphones and inviting a special guest to share something personal in response to what the audience just witnessed.
“Gloria: A Life” isn’t the only off-Broadway theater event this season to employ this dual structure of a performance immediately followed by an audience discussion. Under the direction of its co-founder and artistic director Bryan Doerries, Theater of War Productions has been creating events since 2009 that have a similar shape: the first act is a staged reading of a translated ancient Greek tragedy, and the second act is essentially a guided talking circle. In an interview about the recent production of Theater of War’s “Antigone in Ferguson” at Harlem Stage, Doerries explained that as soon as the performance ends, “members of the community come up and respond from their hearts and their guts to what they heard and saw in the play that touched them. And then we open it up for a kind of town hall style audience discussion.” Very different from the common event of a performance followed by a talk-back in which the audience asks questions of the actors, with “Antigone in Ferguson” “there is one thing, not two things — and they’re deeply interrelated,” said Doerries. “The discussion lasts longer than the performance, because the discussion is the main event. It’s the real performance.”
For many people, theater and other art forms are a way to process and reflect upon our own lives and the society in which we live. With “Gloria: A Life” and “Antigone in Ferguson,” that processing and reflection are intentionally built into the experience. “That was all Gloria,” said Lahti. “She didn’t want to do the play unless the play could also be about other people’s stories.” According to Lahti, Steinem believed “that her story, if told honestly and in all its complexity, would inspire others to tell their true story. That talking circle is the essence of social justice and how people can feel that they’re not crazy. The system is crazy. And they’re not alone.”
Lahti believes that “you really take back your power when you tell your story.” For her, this holds true even if the telling of your story doesn’t yield the results you hoped to achieve. She recalled the recent confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in which a high school classmate of Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford, testified under oath and told her story of being sexually assaulted. “Like Dr. Ford’s situation— she inspired so many women to stand up and tell their personal truth.” She added, “Her courage was an extraordinary moment in our history.”
What does the audience experience in a post-show conversation like the one at “Antigone in Ferguson”? It’s when the magic really happens, according to Doerries. “It doesn’t happen always immediately. Sometimes it happens three quarters of the way through a discussion. But that’s what makes it exciting every night. And sort of electric for all of us as we’re participating.”
Lahti has many shares from the audience that have stuck with her. “There was an older man I guess last week, and he got the mic and he couldn’t stop crying. He said, ‘I know I’ve been struggling with this masculine role that I’ve been supposed to be fulfilling my whole long life. And I’m not supposed to cry. But I have to, and I’m so moved by this.’” By the end of his share, in which he talked about his personal struggles with the limitations of his gender role, Lahti and many of the others were also moved to tears. “This man’s tears were about that he wanted so bad to be a full human being and be a feminist, and he was claiming that, finally, at age 90 or something.”
Doerries recognizes that performers take risks every time they step on stage, “but the real risk is when someone gets up and shares something they’ve never shared in private, let alone in public, about some harrowing personal story — usually a trauma or loss that somehow relates to the play in a very direct way — that almost every time exemplifies why we believe the audience knows more than we do.”
Doerries believes that the goal of the performance is to empower people to speak. “If we’ve done our work, if the performance really touched people, then the person who least expected to be speaking or felt least empowered to be the one who might be speaking, all of a sudden stands up.”
Top Image: (L-R) Christine Lahti and Fedna Jacquet in "Gloria: A Life" by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus, at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Photo © Joan Marcus.