What’s the deal with one-woman shows? Does anyone really have that much to say? That much to reveal? A one woman show is daunting, to creator, to audience. There are alot of one woman shows around, I’ve even thought, in my drunker moments, of doing one myself. The only thing is, that seems like alot of pressure. To stand there, on stage, talking to people who have come to see you talk, looking into lights that act as a virtual wall between you and everything in front of you, is a daunting prospect. Would I have enough to say? Would people come? Would I be too terrified to even show up? Would I show up drunk and make an even bigger ass of myself?
Such is the premise of Jenn Dodd’s “No Show,” staged last month at Stage Left Studios, produced by the talented KL Thomas and Sharon Jamilkowski. As each character takes the stage, wondering aloud where Jenn went, why she’s not on stage, and discussing the basic merits and pitfalls of her one-woman show in the first place, we get a glimpse into Jenn Dodd, and we start to get a sense of what she’s capable of, which is quite alot.
In reality, of course, she is there. She’s just not playing herself, which is both refreshing, and requires a suspension of disbelief, because the whole show, everyone is saying “where’s Jenn?” and of course she’s right there. Each of the characters she plays has some connection to Jenn, and a different reason for being at the theater. Some are there to try to save the show, others are there to see it, while others are there because they’re involved in the show’s production, like the director, stage manager, or the tech guy.
For the most part, these characters do a great job of saving the show, and Jenn is funny and engaging as each of them. The most thought provoking character, however, is the director of the show. She’s the first character we see, and the penultimate, a womb-centric goth-hippie-earth mother type, who claims to have staged the whole presentation to show what really makes women’s comedy different from, well, men’s comedy. It’s refreshing to see a send-up of the contemporary, vagina obsessed womyn artist, who so often seems to take over the perspective contemporary culture has of artists and comedians who are women.
But there’s something more than comedy happening here. By giving us the extremely aware female artist, Jenn is asking us, for real, why it is that women’s comedy, and more broadly women’s artwork, is considered differently from that of their male counterparts.
What’s the deal already? I know we are human beings, and human beings don’t travel far, psychologically, spiritually, intellectually, or emotionally, from decade to decade, but are we really still thinking that women’s art is inferior to men’s art? That the former needs to be considered only in relief, in reflection to the latter?
Why? The genders are different, no doubt. I’ve met enough men and enough women to know that people of the same gender share certain biological similarities, even hormonal similarities, but the fact of difference does not necessitate a value judgement. But when you’re an artist who is a woman, that’s how you are referred to, how you are defined. That’s how people refer to you, as a woman artist, that’s how people talk about you, that’s the veil through which your work is considered. Looking out from the inside, we can see that we’re treated differently. Not by individuals necessarily, although in some cases yes, but by society at large. There’s different rules for women artists. Can a woman be an artist and mother? Both successfully? What does she give up by choosing one or the other? Does she do a disservice to her art? To her family? Is she good enough to justify the time spent? The resources put in? Once an artist is categorized as woman, there are other assumptions that are made, besides that she has breasts, and ovaries, and a vagina. It’s assumed that she is pro-abortion, anti-gun, pro-education, and has some strong perspective on what it means to be a woman, and a woman artist.
No one goes around asking man artists what it means to them to be a man, or what being a man artist is all about, or how they balance their drive to create art, with their drive to procreate, for example. Instead, they are asked about their art, about their political views, and the answers could be anything. Nothing is assumed about the man artist. A man artist can be whoever he wants. Or at least that’s how it looks from the other side of the cultural temple.
When I first started writing, I started writing as a woman, since that’s what I am, but there was no female intentionality behind it. Femaleness was never something I shied away from, but it was always something that bugged me, like why is Dave just a writer, but I’m something less? I’m a woman writer, why do I need some kind of qualifier? The way the terminology is framed, it’s woman first, and writer second. I always thought I’d like to have a career where I’m just a writer, too, just like the men who are my counterparts. I always thought there’s no difference between men and women that has any bearing on artistic product.
Then there’s that guy who says, with a sneer, that he can tell if something was written by a woman just by reading the text. Let’s say he’s right, and he can tell if something is written by a woman, doesn’t that mean that he can tell if something’s written by a man? Why don’t we sneer at that? Is it because women want to pass? Well, don’t we? We women sneer too, at the idea that our work could be gender identifiable. Female gender identifiability is typically frowned upon.
When I was a teenager I was reading Henry Miller. I loved Miller, the tone, the ethos, but there was an awful lot of cock and sticking said cock into things, like little girls. The pornography and basic misogyny of Under the Roofs of Paris stands out in memory. I’d bought all his books, but I refused to buy that one, on principle, without reading past page 12. That’s when I realized that I wanted to find the work from a woman’s perspective, from the perspective of being stuck into, perhaps, but not as a victim, as a willing participant. I wanted to read about growing up, finding out about the universe, first sexual experiences, and establishing a personal philosophy, without so much cock. What I found was good reading, no doubt. Nin, Miller’s natural counterpart, also Plath, Sexton, Walker, Jong. But there was something missing, and I think I know what it was. There was a kind of freedom missing, a freedom to be an artist first, and a woman second. There was a basic confidence missing, and in saying that I don’t mean to take anything away from these brilliant writers. The confidence that was missing was between them and their readership. They knew that in their readers’ minds, woman came before artist. Just ask Woolf.
Jenn Dodd knows it still does. And she makes sure to talk about it first, before showing us a bunch of women characters, who are exactly who they are: stage manager, understudy, theater critic, online daters, first, and women second. When she brings the director back, near the end of the show, it’s to show us a woman who’s been crushed by her own expectations, and society’s perceptions. A woman so anxious to be identify with that “woman first” perception that she turns being a woman into an art, and loses her self, and her art, in the process.
Someday, hopefully, we won’t have to point out that we are women, then ask people to discard it, and pay attention to the work. But until that’s possible, perhaps we should just start applying these same standards to men.