The Whistleblower Series: Feminism, Empathy, and the Female Anti-Hero
By Lauren Johnson
This spring, The Seeing Place Theater will end its eighth season with a bang by putting on The Whistleblower Series, a triple-header production under the theater group’s Empathy Initiative project. The People VS. Antigone, Brandon Walker’s world-premiere adaption of the classic, I Am My Own Wife, the Tony Award-winning play by Doug Wright, and My Name is Rachel Corrie, written by Katharine Viner and Alan Rickman from the writings of Rachel Corrie, will run from April 21-May 13 at The Paradise Factory, an underground theater space in the East Village.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the The Seeing Place’s Founder, Producer, and Managing Director Erin Cronican to discuss The Whistleblower Series and her experience as a female producer over a cappuccino in Hell’s Kitchen.
Q: Hi Erin! Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with Hedonist/Shedonist about The Whistleblower Series. Can you explain what inspired this fascinating and topical production?
A: In our theater company we try to make sure that we always reflect what’s going on in society. The Whistleblower Series falls under our season-long empathy initiative, which explores oppression in all forms. When it came time to figure out what the rest of our season was going to be, we noticed that we were drawn to a lot of political plays, ones that are about a government entity and what happens to the people who are underneath that government. When we got the rights to these shows, we realized that a common theme in each one was a central character who not only fought against that regime, but who was also vilified for it. From there we started thinking about this idea of a whistleblower, which is someone that we respect and admire – on paper; however, given that society as a whole does not like change, there are a lot of people who come out and fight against the whistleblowers. I think we see that in all of the different movements that have happened even just recently with the kids in Parkland, and the people who are fighting back. I even have a friend of mine who just finished doing a production of the Diary of Anne Frank, and there were Holocaust deniers at her production. You would thank that since it’s 2018, we would have somehow progressed past this. There’s a lot of division in the community on every side of any given issue, which is what we really wanted to explore in these three plays.
Q: Why did you choose these three plays, out of all the ones that you were studying, to explore this theme?
A: Well the truth is, these were the ones that we got the rights to, because as a small theater company, it’s very difficult to have a playwright say “yes, I want this company to do my work.” They were three among a sea of things that we could’ve done, and we just got very lucky that these happened to be what we did. One of the plays we didn’t have to apply for the rights for, we adapted from a classic – The People VS. Antigone.
Q: When you say you and co-director Brandon Walker adapted it, does that mean that you converted it into the modern interpretation that it is? So this will be the first time audience members will see this version of the play?
A: Yes, this will be the first time that Antigone will be seen. It’s completely new language, so it just takes the same story and updates it to highlight some of the modern themes. In that particular play, we’re really exploring how young women are often quieted, they’re not seen as being powerful, their voice is not heard. There’s a lot of sexism, especially in the classics, and we explored that a lot in this play as we analyzed the misogyny that she experienced as a young woman trying to say “no, this isn’t right” to a group of men. One of the things we did in our rehearsal process was talk about the ways in which we, as individuals, buy into misogyny, even without realizing it. Little examples like if there’s a bug that needs to be killed, do the women ask the men to do it? Do the women ask the men to carry bags? The chivalry that we talk about, and the little things like that; we say that we want to be equal, but do we play into it a little bit? It was really interesting to see what kind of culpability we all have, and that helped us to have a little bit of empathy for those that maybe we don’t agree with.
Q: Speaking of empathy, in what ways did you empathize with the main characters of the three plays – in particular Rachel Corrie, given that you are also portraying her in this production?
A: I find myself empathizing with everybody, and part of that is because working on the marketing for everything requires you to kind of get inside the pieces. I think that ultimately what these three plays are about (and this is particularly pronounced in Rachel Corrie) is the fact that we’re all human beings, so we’re all the same. She even says in the play that the only thing that makes us different are the circumstances we grow up with. But beyond that, we aren’t very different! In the play, she quotes the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by the famous existentialist Milan Kundera, and she uses it to talk about how we’re just a shrug away from being someone else – a shrug between life and death, between being alive and being dead. So if you can realize that, then there is a possibility of having peace in our lifetime; but if we don’t recognize that we’re all the same person except for our circumstances, then we have no hope.
Q: Earlier, you discussed how the anti-hero often emerges from political regimes – did the emphasis on the female anti-hero in The Whistleblower Series stem from the #MeToo movement?
A: I think The Whistleblower Series is influenced by what led up to the #MeToo movement, because #MeToo has been around forever. It’s been around since the ERA was trying to be passed. And I think that it comes from me as a female producer trying to make sure that female voices are being heard. Two of the three plays pass what is called the Bechdel test – it’s a figurative test, and the idea is “can you get women talking about anything other than men?” Can your book, can your film, can your play pass the “Bechdel Test?” And ideally, it’s two women talking about anything other than their relationships with men. There is an element of relationships in Antigone, but it’s highlighting the fact that there’s a real problem, and the whole play does not revolve around whether she’s gonna get her man or not, none of the plays are like that. Now, in I Am My Own Wife, it is about a trans woman, and she is all sex, all the time, but with that there’s a lot of freedom there, and the story doesn’t necessarily revolve around that in and of itself. That was really important for me as well – can we provide an opportunity for women to be on our stage without being the “arm candy” of someone else?
Q: You touched on your experience as a female producer in the industry; can you describe any challenges that you face in your role?
A: I think that just generally as a female, you run into issues of if you’re too forceful then you’re bossy, if you’re not forceful enough, you’re weak, if you try to make sure everyone’s experience is a valuable one, then you’re just being a female, you’re just being touchy-feely. I think that sometimes people don’t expect women to be leading the charge, or if we are, then it has to be some pro-feminine thing. We’ve been around for 8 years, and The Whistleblower Series is one of the first times we’ve said that we’re gonna stand up and create a series around feminism. What we try to do in all areas of diversity is just have a presence. We don’t have to come out and say this is a feminist piece; just by having women in it and having us be a focal point, having people of color be in it and be a focal point, having people who are trans or gay be in it and be a focal point, without having to explain why they’re there and without having to politicize, necessarily – that’s what we try to do. So it’s one of the reasons we’ve been hesitant to connect ourselves to the #MeToo Movement, because I think that those are just two different things, and what we have in the play here is slightly different.
Q: A lot of these characters can be considered controversial. In I Am My Own Wife, the play focuses on the experience of a real-life, sex-loving German transvestite who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the repressive East German Communist regime. In My Name is Rachel Corrie, also based on a real-life person, the central theme explores a young girl who naively, and ultimately tragically, jumps into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What do you say to people who might come against these controversial characters?
A: Well the first thing I always say is that we are aiming to ask questions, not answer them. Our job is not to provide answers, but to hold up the situation and have them reflect on it – that’s the first thing. And then the second thing that we say is there’s a difference between sharing a story and glorifying it. We recently did a production of Macbeth – it’s a classic and a lot of people die – and we hope that people don’t think we’re glorifying mass murder when we do the play. There’s another play – The Pillow Man – and it’s about a man who writes really terrible children’s stories about children dying, and we hope that we’re not glorifying the mutilation of little children by doing a play like that. And so similarly, we hope that people can recognize that doing a play about this person is not saying that they are amazing and completely flawless people. With respect to the protagonists of The Whistleblower Series and in particular Rachel Corrie, there are parts of her that were very amazing; there were also parts of her that were foolhardy and idealistic. She just really believed she could dive right into the middle of the Israeli Palestinian conflict with no information, and that’s a very delicate thing to do. But I think that the central message of the play is really important, and that’s why we’re willing to do it even though there’s a lot of controversy. We’ve already gotten a lot of angry emails, patrons of ours who have been patrons for years have said that they are never coming back, and they are going to tell everyone they know not to come to see our shows. But we think that there are sometimes stories that are more important than making everybody happy.
Q: So in a way, you’re kind of like the anti-hero yourself?
A: We are a little bit like that, we’re a little bit of a rebel when it comes to the indie theater community.
Q: Besides being a bit rebellious, what about The Seeing Place makes you unique in a city where there are hundreds of theater production companies?
A: One of the things that makes us really different as a theater company is that it’s an actor-driven company – the actors all do everything. Every actor is responsible for helping with outreach. We train them on fundraising, we train them on production. They’re doing props, they’re doing costumes, they’re doing everything – so when you see this group of people performing in The Whistleblower Series, they put their lives into telling the stories, and we work very hard on our outreach to try to make the message go beyond just selling a show.
Q: If there is one thing you could say to your audience to prepare them for the The Whistleblower Series, what would you tell them?
A: Just be ready to think, and be open. We are very edgy, very daring, really intimate – it’s not safe theater, and it’s not easy theater. You’re not going to have an easy time of it because you’re going to be forced to think – you can’t get through it without thinking and feeling something. I think that there’s also something to learn – we have a lot of talk backs, so there will be opportunities for them to share with us their thoughts on what it means to be a whistleblower, so that we can learn from them as well.
Q: Last but not least – what do you like to do for fun when you’re not involved with theater productions?
A: I enjoy watching TV and movies, I enjoy reading old and new fiction, and business/self-improvement books – Malcolm Gladwell is a favorite. I love to sing, I used to do a lot of karaoke…and thrift stores, oh my goodness, I LOVE thrift stores! I love imagining what the life of something was before and knowing that I’m contributing to less waste in the environment – that makes me really happy.
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