Reclaiming “Whatever!”: Half Straddle as Exemplar of Contemporary Feminist Theatre

Gwendolyn Alker

In 1998, as a freshly “All But Dissertated” graduate student, I began to teach Feminism & Theatre (F&T) in the Department of Drama at New York University. Since that time, I have moved through the academy, but have continued to teach that same undergraduate seminar, usually once per academic school year, almost every year. Such longevity has allowed me to notice a recent (if pressed, I would say in the early 2010s) increase in interest, both among my students and in pockets of U.S. culture at large, in feminist theory and the complex notions of identity therein. After two decades of convincing the student body that they were, indeed, feminists, this argument seems no longer necessary.

A few years ago I also came into deeper engagement with the theatre company Half Straddle and its artistic director and playwright, Tina Satter.1 Half Straddle as a company has been visible since its somewhat chaotic performance of The Knockout Blow at the Ontological Hysteric Theater in 2008. I will admit a personal connection with the company up front: a number of the company members are former students, and viewing their work gives me that precious feeling as a teacher that her students have taken the tools that she offered and moved into realms she could never imagine. So, let’s be honest, while what follows is a critique of their aesthetic via the lens of contemporary feminism, I am also a fan. They had me at Steve Winwood’s “The Finer Things” pounding out as the house music while exiting their most recent show, Ghost Rings.

(L-R) Erin Markey, Kristen Sieh, Chris Giarmo in Half Straddle, Ghost Rings (2016). Photo: Maria Baranova.

Half Straddle is a gloriously queer company. Queer as in the somewhat alienated child of the feminist movement that still manifests some angst towards its “mom”. Queer as in yes, there is gender bending among the cast and the roles. Queer as in the movement away from “straight” plays and towards the fusion of theatre and other art forms as “performance.” For me, what is most important is how Satter queers the supposed import and weightiness of things. As all feminist theatre post Trifles (Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play) must do, there is a reckoning with minute emotional interactions with such a fierce attention to detail that plot becomes subservient to characters’ interactions along the way.

When one talks about Satter and her company, one is also talking about a community of artists—and this is in the best tradition of feminist art and criticism. One need only think of the communities such as the WOW Café and the early feminist performance critics who wrote and edited seminal texts in the late 1980s into the 1990s such as Acting Out, or Performing Feminisms, or The Feminist Spectator as Critic.2 These were individuals who were editors, lovers, and participants in each other’s work. So it goes for Half Straddle, which, as Satter tells it, began with Satter’s meeting Jess Barbagallo in their MFA playwriting seminar with Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College. Jess introduced Tina to her college roommate, Chris Giarmo, who became the Music Designer of the company. (Note the imminent switching of gender pronouns here as Jess has transitioned his gender identity over the years I have known him; I will attempt to use the appropriate pronoun according to the moment in our story.) As this trio expanded, many others were brought in: Eliza Bent, Julia Sirna-Frest, Emily Davis, Erin Markey, Becca Blackwell and others. The connections spiral outwards and back in—many of these individuals are important creators in their own right, and Satter chooses all of them for their ability to let their personalities slide into their character work in captivating ways. With this community, Satter has won an Obie for best emerging theatre company in 2013, and has completed eight full-length shows: Family (2009), Nurses in New England (2010), In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL (2011), Away Uniform (2012), Seagull (Thinking of you) (2013), House of Dance (2013), Ancient Lives (2015), and Ghost Rings (2016), to which I took a recent incarnation of my F&T class in the spring of 2016.

At that show and in the ensuing class discussions with students, my understanding of Half Straddle has continued to come into focus. And notably, as Barbagallo noted in his introduction to Satter’s first published collection of plays, Seagull (Thinking of you),3 one can have an extremely robust knowledge of the work and still not fully understand it. But the more I engage with this company, the more I am convinced that their work is emblematic of a new type of feminist performance practice that is indicative of the larger shifts that I have seen with my students. Half Straddle could perhaps be placed within a late third wave movement in a post Riot Grrrl, post Carrie Browstein’s spin-off into Portlandia sense that some of us late-second-wave feminists struggle to understand. With that in mind, here is a list describing what I see as an emergent feminist aesthetic, crystallized and clarified through my encounters with Satter and Half Straddle.

Judith Butler is so 1990

A few nights after we attended Ghost Rings, I went to a talk-back with members of the cast and production team, hosted and moderated by Kate Valk. Valk, supposedly a big fan of Satter’s work, proceeded to interrupt most of the women on stage. At one fabulous moment, Chris Giarmo actually managed to get in a sentence or two, dropping Judith Butler’s name into a larger discussion of how all of Half Straddle is, to a certain extent, always in drag. Valk shot back: Who’s Judith Butler? Giarmo: Only the preeminent gender theorist of our time! Yes, I was proud—Chris is a former student, although I don’t think Chris read Butler with me. But in this moment I also realized the irrelevance of the source. For Giarmo, and increasingly for the rest of my former or current students, Butler is implied, a passing reference that is expected to be known, either overtly or intuitively. There is no longer a debate about whether gender, or even life, is performative. It’s more about having already accepted that life is a performance and then deciding on the commercial viability, or (in the case of Giarmo’s drag alter-ego “Kimberly Clark”), anti-commercial viability of one’s personas.

Jess Barbagallo as Dara in In The Pony Palace/FOOTBALL (2011). Photo credit: Hunter Canning.

Half Straddle’s drag isn’t only girls playing boys and boys playing girls; it’s playing on the smart-yet-gleefully-hilarious trespassing between gender, sexuality and age. Girls are women and women are girls, trans and cisgender actors play ambiguously gendered or cisgender characters. Satter creates a very specific cacophony of the gender spectrum, always mediated through adolescence—but more on that below. And we are asked to question the impossible feat of playing one’s gender identification “correctly.” Eventually, some of the characters—often Jess Barbagallo with his droll yet endearing rendering of many of the “male characters”—reveal the pain that accompanies these roles that are forced upon us (here I am thinking of the quarterback Dara in Pony Palace, and also of Morris the “witch warlock” in Ancient Lives, or the young dance student, Lee, in House of Dance). Anyone who has read Butler, on page or via osmosis, will get how that makes her relevant and passé at the same time.

Jess Barbagallo as Lee in Half Straddle, House of Dance (2013). Photo Credit: THEY bklyn.

“Some Kind of Weird Adolescent Girl Magic”

This quote comes from Jeffrey M. Jones’ forward to Satter’s triptych of plays;4 of course, he is also quoting Satter. For those of you who have not attended any of Half Straddle’s productions, Satter is, quite radically, suggesting that the language of the adolescent girl could be reclaimed and empowered as a theatrical voice. In what Time Out New York critic Helen Shaw calls Satter’s masterpiece, Family, we see the verbal battle of two young women as they push against their Grey Gardens-on-speed mom again and again. “Mum. It’s like whatever. She doesn’t care. Are we having chips?”5 And by the end of Seagull (Thinking of you), we realize that maybe those young girls are speaking with a subtextual acumen worthy of Chekhov. They do not strive to re-label themselves as women, as many young second-wave feminists did throughout most of their Women’s Studies coursework in the 1990s (myself included).

SEAGULL (Thinking of You) with Susie Sokol as Arkadina and Jess Barbagallo as Treplov.

This gives me pause as I think about how we, as late second-wave feminists, communicate with and, most importantly, listen to self-identified third-wave feminists and perhaps “post-wave” feminists (in Jessica Del Vecchio’s parlance, which she uses in her analysis of Half Straddle in this month’s CTR). Yes, I have shrugged inwardly when a student in my class (much like a character in a Satter play) mixed an insightful remark about the sexism inherent in casting practices with a dismissive adjective, or three, diluting a clear and cohesive point. Yet put on stage and thus under some type of critical telescope (turning that phallic tool around to delight in the tiny images seen through the other side), maybe these dangling modifiers give space for a more complex, multilayered response. Maybe that “girl” is demonstrating layers of emotional intricacies as she enters into that casting call with a desire for power in a location that gives her very little. Critical race theorists, most obviously Henry Louis Gates, have asked us to think about how speech reflects culture and the potential for subversive acts in community-specific dialects. But I would argue that this is one of the remaining areas of feminist scholarship that remains unfinished. Why have we not had the same robust conversation among theorists of feminist performance? Why have we spent so much time analyzing the silences caused by the patriarchy, and yet missed the “um” and “whatever!” at the dinner table? In this way, Satter is finally unpacking a deeper exploration initiated by Third Wave feminists such as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards in Manifesta, their manifesto/a of the third wave movement that acknowledges the vitality of girliness and her language.6 I’m coming around to the fact that Satter, and her mix of pop/punk/camp/girl aesthetic, may be ahead of where we all are on this issue.

What is Water?

In a snippet of a review of Ancient Lives, ArtForum’s Jennifer Krasinski invokes the “goldfish joke” that is generally told thus: two young fish are swimming along and come across an older fish.7 The older fish says, “How’s the water?” and keeps swimming. The younger fish continue on for a moment, silent, then one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?” What was interesting to Krasinski as a critic, and to me as her reader, was the way that this parable moves us not towards critique, but towards inspiring rigorous ways of seeing what is so common that it disappears itself (also clarified by stepping outside of a generational divide). I see it in Satter’s themes, as well as the staging of her plays with the framing of her backdrops, or through the eyes of bored cast members who are not in the scene, but nonetheless sit filing their nails on stage.

Jess Barbagallo as Morris and Emily Davis as Margo in Half Straddle, Ancient Lives (2015). Photo Credit: Paula Court.

This is a central lesson that feminism-via-Satter can still teach us. Whether it be discussions regarding white privilege, or the way that class is present in racial inequality, feminism reorients us towards seeing how power maintains itself through invisibility. Yes, I studied with Peggy Phelan back in the day—but I think this lesson is currently emerging in all of its complexity with the representational subtleties of the Black Lives Matter movement, the way Donald Trump attempts to turn gaslighting into federal policy, and most recently, the #MeToo movement. We’re finally starting to figure out how to describe the wetness of the water itself as a larger community, particularly in the United States. And to get the other fish to get that.

Plot is Patriarchal

Satter’s plays have been frequently critiqued for not having mature “plot lines”; see Ben Brantley’s somewhat condescending review of Seagull as exemplary of this point (and of the larger point I am making here).8 Quite frankly, I don’t think she’s all that interested in plot. Satter—like many of today’s feminist performers, I would argue—is comfortable enough with the earlier deconstruction of plot offered by feminist performance artists from Ntozake Shange onwards. While some may see this as a stretch, I see the movements away from strict plot as a nod towards both towards the avant-garde (think Wooster Group, and Richard Foreman), and feminist performance (in both the more low-budget performance art scene, as well as more prominent playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Naomi Wallace). Interestingly, this marks Satter an inheritor of both feminist performance art, feminist playwrights in the U.S. and U.K., and the downtown avant-garde movement that has been critiqued for its masculinist leanings.

(L-R) Elizabeth DeMent, Jess Barbagallo, Paul Pontrelli, Jim Fletcher in Half Straddle, House of Dance (2013). Photo Credit: THEY bklyn.

What has trumped (are we still using this word?) plot in Satter’s work is context—the way that a place can hold the memories of myriad personal connections. I think of many of her plays are fundamentally about a location and the small intimacies that this place holds—House of Dance most obviously, but also In the Pony Palace, Nurse of New England, Ancient Lives, and, most profoundly, I think, Away Uniform, which begins with a description of “the Plains: It is simple, vast, small, and beautiful.”9 These locations and the characters that inhabit them become more important than any grand narrative that we might impose upon them. We must recognize our desire for plot or even for coherent sequencing as a vestigial remnant of patriarchal conditioning.

Citationality; or, Whatever She Said!

To see Satter discuss the influence of Maria Irene Fornés on her work, see “Women Directors on Fornés as Director”, available at Howlround.

Satter is a playwright who is cognizant of wielding many influences: the overly personal intimacies of Chris Kraus, the sparse delivery of Richard Maxwell (who produced one of her more recent shows), or a painterly attention to staging a la Irene Fornés, to name a few. On top of these wider references, each show gathers together a specific group of themes and intertexts of that moment. Seagull (Thinking of you), for example, mixes Chekhov with Shakespeare, with the private lives of the cast members as actors in the play, and as actors in the play within the play. This citational layering, which I feel is both Satter’s strength and potential weakness, is indicative of the strengths and weaknesses of this contemporary feminist moment. Increasingly, my students have the wherewithal to hunt and gather for information. A lot of information. Satter is widely read and has a wide net of cultural inspirations, and she deploys these with somewhat dizzying results. Sometimes the citational madness works, but sometimes, for both my students and for Satter, they can lose the forest for the trees and forget the larger political themes that these citations coalesce into. This is perhaps why I think Seagull works better on the page than on stage.

(L-R) Eliza Bent, Susie Sokol, Becca Blackwell, Emily Davis in Half Straddle, Seagull (Thinking of you) (2013).

With regards to contemporary practices of citational layering, we must remember feminists’ more complex lessons regarding recovering histories. It’s not just what information one can find—it’s how we engage with a politics of continual disappearance. We need to remember that some kinds of information are actually more viable than others, and that it matters how the information is deployed. We must also remember that some informational tidbits are more important than others—and I think Satter gets this. And we also have to remember that just referencing is not enough. It’s hard to put footnotes into a staged play. Perhaps this is why a well-informed audience is Satter’s best friend. Without knowledge of the various interlocutors to all of her plays, the work just seems a bit less powerful. This will be indicative for contemporary feminists going forward: keeping the movement fresh and interesting for a new generation, but not forgetting that there is an ocean of political action, scholarship and artwork that has come before. Words and actions must be linked in politically efficacious ways. Otherwise we’ve pulled the political teeth out of a currently reviving feminist movement.

Erin Markey and Kristina Satter in Half Straddle, Ghost Rings (2006). Photo: Maria Baranova.

 

Gwendolyn Alker is currently the Director of Theatre studies and a Distinguished Teacher in the Drama Department at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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Notes:

  1. I would also like to acknowledge the work of Jessica Del Vecchio as someone with whom I have discussed the work of Half Straddle over the last few years. Please see her more in-depth article on this company in the print version of this special issue. This essay can be seen as a (hopefully humorous) companion piece to her more in-depth description of the company, its aesthetic, and its political function.
  2. Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan, eds., Acting Out: Feminist Performances (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993); Sue-Ellen Case, ed., Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990); Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).
  3. Tina Satter, Seagull (Thinking of You), with Away Uniform and Family (Brooklyn, NY: 53rd State, 2013).
  4. Satter, 8.
  5. Satter, 122.
  6. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).
  7. Jennifer Krasinski, “Mortal COIL,” Artforum, January 31, 2015, https://www.artforum.com/slant/id=50017.
  8. Ben Brantley, “Scent of Chekhov May Confuse the Senses: ‘Seagull (Thinking of You),’ at New Ohio Theater,” The New York Times, January 16, 2013, sec. Theater Review, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/theater/reviews/seagull-thinking-of-you-at-new-ohio-theater.html.
  9. Satter, Seagull (Thinking of You), 76.

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