Pictured: GENDER BREAKDOWN Off Menu Potluck. Photo by Jenny Lynn Christofferson.
Gender parity in theater is hardly a new conversation, but the creation of Not In Our House and the Chicago Reader exposé on Profiles Theatre brought the issue to the forefront of the Chicago community last year. Today, in the wake of women’s marches across the world, Collaboraction’s GENDER BREAKDOWN couldn’t be more relevant if it tried.
Upon entering the Flatiron Arts Building, Collaboraction’s home base, I note that this maze of artistic spaces seems like the perfect place to host a devised, collective process. From one unseen rehearsal room drifts out-of-season Christmas carols; laughter rumbles down the hall during an improv performance; an infinite trail of flyers tacked to the labyrinthine walls reference sculpture, photography, spoken word, even art therapy.
Dani Bryant, the creator of GENDER BREAKDOWN, guides me through this vivid, noisy warren to the third floor. There I meet director Erica Vannon, who sports a “Pits Against Patriarchy” tank top. I spy another team member rocking a Slytherin hat and a feminist power fist T-shirt. I’m clearly in the right place for bold, brave, female-driven theater.
Before rehearsal starts, Vannon and Bryant take me through the origins of the show whose creation I will soon observe in real time.
“We believe the best conversation happens around food,” Bryant begins, as Vannon nods. According to Bryant, the “seeds” for GENDER BREAKDOWN came from an invited dinner for cast and crew members involved in the 2016 One-Minute Play Festival (which was written and directed solely by female-identified artists).
“We did one of the plays in the final SKETCHBOOK [for Collaboraction] called SPANX YOU VERY MUCH,” says Bryant. “That, I think, honored the spirit of what we like to do, which is female-focused but funny and joyful and also has some weight —”
“A little message, a little feminist message,” Vannon interjects playfully.
After the success of SPANX, Collaboraction tapped Vannon and Bryant to develop a full-length piece for production. When the facilitators of the One Minute Play Festival reached out to the duo to host one of their social practice dinners, Vannon and Bryant saw a chance to begin a dialogue about a subject that seemed to keep popping up around them: gender parity.
“We wanted to just hear about theater artists from a female-identified perspective and what it’s like for them, what’s going on,” Bryant says. “Not necessarily performers, we wanted all sort of voices.”
She was spurred not only by the emergence of Not In Our House and the Profiles outrage, but also by Facebook conversations she frequently observed in which actors, technicians, designers, and administrators shared their experiences. In contemplating a new devised piece, she wondered, “What happens if we actually try to take this collectively and put it all together?”
At the One Minute Play Festival potluck, plenty of theater artists showed up — and spoke up as well.
One bold claim from that evening that shocked Vannon was the observation that the Chicago model of ensemble-based theater companies was inherently not inclusive. “At its root, it excludes people because it only includes the people that started it … so our entire city is based around this proud ensemble that doesn’t actually include a lot of voices,” Vannon summarizes. “That was like” — she gasps — “Can we say that?”
At its root, it [the Chicago endemble model] excludes people because it only includes the people that started it … so our entire city is based around this proud ensemble that doesn’t actually include a lot of voices.
More potlucks followed, where the team continued collecting information and anecdotes.
“I put up whiteboard paper, and I had two questions: what’s working for you in Chicago theater, and what’s not working for you in Chicago theater?” Bryant explains. “The ‘what’s working for you’ they filled up 1 page, ‘what’s not working for you’ filled up 4 or 5 pages. And from that is where the first themes came.”
One early subject that sprang up was collegiate theater education.
“A lot of peoples’ formative experience, in not necessarily a positive way, was our undergrad experience,” Bryant reflects. “How gender plays into your experience as a woman in an acting program, or the only female sound designer … a lot of the stories that people were telling came from that.”
In addition to hosting dinners, the team also began gathering data by distributing surveys and conducting interviews. I got a firsthand look at this process when, after I asked Bryant my questions, she took a turn interviewing me. We got cozy with sound designer Karli Blalock in a narrow closet, where I bent over a microphone to share stories from my years as a female acting student and playwright.
As the BREAKDOWN team continued listening to artists’ accounts, Vannon reflects, “To be in a room with all female-identifying artists, and for everyone to be talking about education, sexuality, race, and gender…you can NOT just have a conversation about gender. You can’t.”
To be in a room with all female-identifying artists, and for everyone to be talking about education, sexuality, race, and gender…you can NOT just have a conversation about gender. You can’t.
“It’s about so much more, right?” Bryant agrees. “It’s about our race, our power, it’s about our sexuality, it’s about everything beyond that, so also it’s something the show quickly moves beyond.”
“As we got into casting and everything, that started to color and inform who needed to whose voices we needed to have in the room,” Vannon adds. “We were reaching out to communities to try to have more representation and intersectionality.”
After a period of data-gathering and general workshopping, Bryant and Vannon recognized the need to cast the show in order to proceed with developing a narrative specific to their performers.
In the absence of a definitive script, auditioning actors worked with content from previous workshops and participated in group exercises to demonstrate their devising style and how they might fit into an ensemble.
“How they can lead, how they can follow, how they contribute ideas, how they work well with others is something that we look at to build the show,” Bryant explains.
“Also, it turns out we were looking for activist actors,” Vannon says. “The people who were comfortable talking about things that are uncomfortable — who often become the activists in the community, who will raise their voices about those things — were the ones who we cast.”
“And who asked us questions of us that kind of made us go, ‘Yeah, we didn’t think about that!’” Bryant owns. “Talking about intersectional feminism, we recognize we’re two white women who are spearheading this piece.”
Now weeks into the rehearsal process, Bryant and Vannon stress their continued focus on telling a variety of stories. They’ve interviewed, surveyed, or dined with over 220 Chicago theater artists. The cast of BREAKDOWN will perform other actors’ stories as well as their own, and voice-over recordings interspersed throughout the show will share anecdotes from female designers, technicians, and administrators. Yet, Vannon and Bryant still acknowledge that there may be gaps in the show’s representation.
“As many voices as we were fortunate enough to have in voice-over, in survey form, at the dinners, the amount of people who have touched this project — we can’t tell all those stories,” Vannon concedes. “We want to, but we can’t.”
“This is a play that doesn’t follow a narrative, so we’re allowed to call attention to those missing pieces,” Bryant says.
“Which is the goal of intersectional feminism too, right?” Vannon asks. “Is to call it out! And say, ‘Good job trying, guys, here’s what’s missing.’ So hopefully the play feels like that, and is self-reflective, and acknowledges what we missed.”
“You just made me even have a light bulb moment!” Bryant responds. “What we’re asking for Chicago’s theater community is to be like, ‘No, there’s a lot of great things we’re doing, but actually here’s how you could do better.’ That’s the exact same lens that should be placed on our own process for the show, right? So, at the end, we should feel proud of what we’ve done but also be like, “So now what? And where could we have shifted, or what could we do better next time?’”
Once GENDER BREAKDOWN had its cast, the ensemble began workshopping together and shaping their individual arcs. “I would help them identify the story they really wanted to tell,” Bryant says, by setting up various stations for actors to rotate through — for example, one corner of a room might be dedicated to a freewrite, while another would prompt the actor to record a story as a voice memo on Bryant’s phone. From this personal communication came each performers’ “spotlight moment,” in which she plays herself.
As Bryant, Vannon, and the ensemble began weaving personal stories into the information they had already gathered, the show began to take on a more definitive shape.
“Thematic buckets arose,” says Bryant, from which she built “frameworks” for the many scenes and monologues. “We’ve been calling them tracks. So, track one will be about auditions, and then when you get to the piece about education, they should be like two completely different plays.”
By the night I arrive to watch rehearsal, the cast has read through a paper version of the script three times, and Bryant is on her 10th draft, but the official rehearsal process has only just begun.
“We did the reading, and then we went into table work over the weekend, and so the first week we just literally put it up on its feet,” Vannon says. “We’re taking the ideas that we had at the table and standing some of those up. And some of them are going to be great, and some of them we’re going to do tonight, and they’re not going to work at all, and we’re going to acknowledge it, and we’re going to try something new.”
Once I’ve gotten the details on BREAKDOWN’s concept, I join Bryant in the audience as Vannon assembles the cast for a warm-up. With the openness and ingenuity that devising requires, it makes sense for the ensemble to prep for the process together.
While observing Vannon’s direction, I get the sense that GENDER BREAKDOWN is a play of games or activities rather than established scenes. Vannon consults the cast about the “container” chosen for some scenes; in one instance, the ensemble considers how to create the feel of a cocktail party without literally setting one up. At the same time, Vannon encourages the actors to make individual choices and avoid uniformity of delivery, a wise way to avoid vagueness in a play that often incorporates rapid-fire lines delivered to the audience.
In one example of devising on the fly, each actor chooses her own pump-up routine to begin the “track” about auditioning. One shouts at the audience like a WWE star as another shadow boxes, and a third centers herself with yoga poses, each in an attempt to psyche themselves up to sit down and read through casting notices.
During the section that follows about the sexist language of casting calls, Vannon instructs the actors to break into pairs and gives each duo a segment of text from an absurd real-life audition posting. (The ensemble has dug through their email inboxes to find genuine—and genuinely horrifying—casting calls for Bryant to put in the script.) The duos get six minutes to create a “composition” around that segment that must incorporate movement and nonverbals. Then, Vannon reads the lines as the teams perform their pieces in order, stitching together potential blocking on the fly. Comic bits spring into being as the actors throw themselves whole-heartedly into minutes-old ideas.
The ensemble has dug through their email inboxes to find genuine—and genuinely horrifying—casting calls for Bryant to put in the script.
For another moment in the script, the cast lines up for a callback, headshots held up before their faces (everyone acknowledges the fond homage to A CHORUS LINE). Vannon and the actors play with pace and order: when does the headshot go up? When does it come down? When does the auditor speak? How long does she make the actors wait as she scribbles out whatever notes that auditors must inevitably scrawl when you’re just dying to start your monologue? Vannon notes an order of action in Bryant’s script, but with this show, everything’s up for debate; she and the actors tweak the timing while commiserating about the audition experience.
As the scene progresses, most of the actors step forward to receive swift dismissals for being too tall, not having accents, or wearing the wrong clothes. As someone who’s been to my fair share of ill-fated auditions, it feels funny, and true, and cumulatively troubling — fitting Bryant and Vannon’s stated goals for the piece.
“We’re trying to look at whatever the data is trying to show us,” says Vannon, “but then also balance that with a challenge, and a call to action, but also levity.”
According to Bryant, in shaping the action, the ensemble considers, “How can we give it the gut punch but still not feel like you’re just being punched the whole show?”
Towards the end of the evening, I get to see an example of this delicate balance. During one moment in the audition track, the ensemble members begin blurting advice all at the same time. This overlapping dialogue is quickly followed by a chorus of feminine “sorry”s as each actor tries to defer to the others. Eventually, they take turns sharing their words of wisdom. At first, it’s a funny parody of the conflicting advice often thrown at young actors:
“Don’t wear patterns. DO wear patterns. Be yourself! But not too much like yourself!”
I’m laughing along, recognizing all the contradictory guidance from my own training.
But then, one actor warns, “Don’t work there.”
Another chimes in, “Don’t be alone with him.”
There it is—the gut punch.
The ties between the play and Chicago issues are clear, but these dark moments ring true on the national level now, as well. During breaks throughout rehearsal, the cast and crew gather around a laptop to watch President Obama’s farewell address, savoring the end of an era.
In the wake of recent political changes, I’ve seen plenty of shows advertised as the ones we need “now more than ever,” but after spending an evening with the cast and crew, GENDER BREAKDOWN would be my first pick.