Closing Words With Olivia Greer
July18–This year’s Women Center Stage festival officially closed June 17 with an evening musical performance at the Knitting Factory. The following is an interview with WCS director Olivia Greer.
Q: In a previous interview, you mentioned that “My hope is that we will have an audience that reflects our world.” Were the audiences diverse?
A: I think in some ways it was and in some ways there was more work to do. It was (diverse) in terms of background, in terms of age. The continuing challenge for me is that it continued to break down show by show. The audience tended to reflect who was on stage. How do you get young women of color to come in to see that older white woman? Our next goal would be to integrate those diverse audiences attending each event.
Q: How did having a diverse audience affect the events? Did it ever feel like speakers were preaching to the choir?
A: I think it really did make discussion really powerful. Preaching to the choir is not an issue that I’m really worried about. In a social movement, there is always conversation and debate. I think the conversations were really productive. I think people really learned a lot and shared ideas with each other.
Q: One of your goals was to engage young women in action and conversation, such as the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York. Did you succeed in this outreach?
A: I think they learned a lot and I hope felt really valued within those conversations and that it was a positive experience for them. The Third Wave Foundation sent a number of interns to our shows. I’m excited about the outreach and the opportunity we had to develop relationships with organizations such as ViBe Theater Experience and Young People For. I think what we’ve done this summer more than anything else is to build a really strong base of a community of people who are engaged in this type of work. We’ll really be able to use this base to develop the festival further.
Q: Which events were popular with audiences? What has the feedback been like?
A: Comedy proves to be very successful. Julie Goldman and the Ladies Laugh Last shows were well attended. We had a really amazing response to our “Focus on Darfur” event, which is something that I’m really proud of happening; I think we received a lot of positive feedback from that audience. “The Scarlet Letter”–with a cast like that it’s hard not to have a good show. The “Conversations” are not something people have all the time. There are many people who see the need for this type of festival. We had a lot of repeat customers, people who came back to see one things and came back to see something totally different.
Q: Are women’s festivals necessary? Do you hope for a day when we no longer need “Women Center Stage” just to showcase women’s work or do you think there should always be this type of space?
A: One of the things we’ve begun talking about is to integrate Women Center Stage into Culture Project during the year as well. I think that’s important. As we look to make change to the work we see represented, in the country and in the world, and if we’re really serious about what we say, women’s work has to be better represented throughout our program and not just in the festival that we do. Of course I’m looking for a day when women have total equality in the world. I’m hopeful, but I’m also a pragmatist and I don’t see the need for this festival going away any time soon. Perhaps we can leverage it to make change. We’ll continue to make the space safe and inclusive, but challenging to the norm.
There will be a special screening of “Kamp Katrina” in New York at the Museum of Modern Art Aug. 23, a day before the official theatrical premier will be held at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York from Aug. 24-30. For more information visit http://www.carnivalesquefilms.com/.
It was also interesting to learn that we don’t have a standard voting system and to see all the discrepancies in the voting system among states or even within counties–resulting in over 4,000 different voting systems in the United States. For example, some states allow ex-felons on probation to vote while others say they must wait until they’re off probation. There are some precincts that allow citizens to register and vote on the same day. Panelists Maggie Bowman (producer), Sarah Klein (field producer) and Neal Rosenstein (from the New York Public Interest Research Group) led the discussion following the screening. Among the topics were voter turnout rates, voter fraud, voter rights and improvements that need to be made before the 2008 elections.For more information, visit http://www.electiondaythemovie.com/ or http://www.nypirg.org/.
The second film shown on Sunday was “Revolution ’67,” a collection of interviews with historians and first-person accounts on the urban rebellion/riot/revolution that occurred in Newark, N.J., in 1967. The documentary attempts to piece together what happened during those six days of violence that turned the Newark community into a war zone, and a symbol of racial and economic turmoil, and discusses the condition the city is in today, 40 years later.
Filmmaker Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno, who has lived in Newark all her life, led the panel discussion that followed. When prompted by an audience member, Tibaldo-Bongiorno explained that she decided to title her film with the word revolution–instead of riot, which was the label initially used by the government, police and media–because she liked the ‘revolving’ imagery. Newark is currently the 22nd most dangerous city in the U.S., and she said the solution to solving the city’s problems is “not to invest so much in downtown, but in the revival of neighborhoods.” For more information, visit http://www.bongiornoproductions.com/.
“A Write to Heal” was sobering, as the other WCS events regarding violence against women have been. The play, which featured real accounts of domestic violence, was written by Lisa Regina, a survivor of domestic abuse and founder of a weekly writing program for others experiencing domestic violence. Her program, called A Write to Heal Inc. based in New York, has been a safe space for women to network with other women by sharing their experiences in a creative way (such as through music, monologues or poetry).For more information, visit http://www.myspace.com/awritetoheal.
Speaking to some of the audience members after the performance, however, I noticed a recurring comment about the stereotypical nature of the portrayals of the abusers and the victims. For example, Regina included one portrayal of a woman who had a career outside the home but was being abused by her husband. Yet her other characters were all women from minority ethnic groups, immigrants, working class, unemployed, etc.
The consensus of the audience members I spoke with was that domestic violence happens outside of these stereotypes–not just to submissive Asian immigrant women or stay-at-home moms living outside the city–but to women across class, ethnicity and background, and the play didn’t reflect that too well. Since the play was based on actual testimonies from survivors of domestic violence, however, they do reflect a percentage of actual cases.
So far I haven’t been able to make it to any of the WCS comedy events, but I will try my best to attend Liz Swados’ “Political Subversities” on July 11, 12 or 15 and provide coverage on this.
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July 16–Many of the WCS festival events have highlighted the roles of specific individuals in social movements. The conversation between journalists Samantha Power and Elizabeth Rubin and photojournalist Lekha Singh on “The Role of the Individual in Social Movements” July 14 “gets on the crux of what we’ve been looking at,” said WCS director Olivia Greer. The three speakers told the stories of women they had met while reporting in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Darfur; Power said that “in telling the stories of these individuals, we hope we as individuals on this side of the ocean will empathize.” Singh presented a slideshow of Afghan women and their “little acts of rebellion that might lead to a rebellion,” such as wearing nail polish or displaying a pencil drawing of an Indian movie star in their homes.
In order to start a U.S. social movement, the women advised, citizens must continue placing domestic political pressure, be aware of how people are suffering abroad as a result of our political actions and ask questions such as “When do we give aid and where do we not?” Along these lines, WCS presented “Kamp Katrina,” a documentary on New Orleans native Ms. Pearl who took it upon herself to start Kamp Katrina by turning her backyard into a campground that strangers could call home for the next six months on the condition that they help the city to rebuild.
Directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon arrived in New Orleans three weeks after Hurricane Katrina and stayed to film Ms. Pearl and her endeavors for the next six months. Once there, the filmmakers answered Ms. Pearl’s phone call urging them to “come film right now.” Sabin and Redmon stayed with Ms. Pearl at Kamp Katrina and captured 24/7 how these survivors sustained themselves.
Ms. Pearl was active in camp life as well as the politics surrounding the rebuilding of New Orleans. She asked her residents to submit “Christmas wish-lists” and tried to find the requested items–tools, acrylics, toilet paper, socks–because she understood that they had “lost everything that made them who they were.” She protested against Mayor Ray Nagin when he closed Washington Square Park, a distribution center for free meals, due to complaints from neighbors.
“She tried to structure things, a lot of things,” Sabin said. “By letting these people in she really thought she could change New Orleans, but it’s a lot for this 5-foot-3-inch woman to take on. She still has her backyard open. She still has the same energy but it’s a lot for one person to take on.”
The film has been met with mixed results, Sabin said. For example, the documentary premiered at the South by Southwest festival in March and has been traveling from one film festival to another, winning awards such as “Best Documentary” at the Magnolia Film Festival. The New Orleans Film Festival, however, rejected the film because they said they no longer wanted to dwell on the subject of Katrina, Sabin said.
About 20 people attended the “Kamp Katrina” showing, including a couple from New Orleans who now live in New York and return to their Louisiana home about once a month. During the discussion that followed, the couple said the film was only “focusing on the travesty,” and that they didn’t want the audience to have the impression that this was all that was left of New Orleans. Another audience member, however, said that recovery is not fast enough and “that landscape doesn’t change and it doesn’t change because no one wants to invest in it.”
Women Influencing Politics
July 12–A group of about 15 women gathered July 11 for a lunchtime introduction to Code Pink, led by Dana Balicki, the anti-war group’s national media coordinator, and Nancy Kricorian, Code Pink New York City coordinator.
In the audience were several members of the Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York–who have been fundraising throughout the WCS festival by selling cookies in the shapes of lips and peace signs–and those from such organizations as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Raging Grannies and Women for Women International.
The session provided an overview of the organization’s history, activities and stance on political figures and issues. Balicki and Kricorian emphasized “strategy” and calculated tactics in making their anti-war, pro-peace perspective a “permanent presence” in the minds of our elected officials. To keep the public informed, Code Pink keeps a thorough record of politicians’ actions (how they vote, their stance on social issues, how their rhetoric on the war has changed) to be used in its campaigns such as “Listen Hillary!” “PelosiWatch” and the latest “Don’t Buy Bush’s War.”
Kricorian and Balicki both stressed that they do not want to focus on Clinton as a woman, a good person or a good mom, but “what she’s doing as a senator. We want a woman for president, but we want a viable candidate,” Kricorian said, whose first Code Pink event was to demonstrate in front of Hillary Clinton’s office on International Women’s Day in March 2003 and she has been a part of this “preemptive women’s strike for peace” ever since.
Hearing the Work
July 5–I am one of those people who refuse to watch the movie version of a book before I read the book myself. I like developing my own ideas first–personifying the characters so they step off the pages of a book–before seeing how someone else interpreted it.
But watching Eve Ensler perform her piece “Fur Is Back”–which is about how her fashionable acquaintances recoil from her news-driven scoldings–last night made me wish that I could hear all my favorite writers and poets read their work. The experience of hearing a writer read her own work is unparalleled: to know that each emphasis, each pause, each sentence is just how she intended it to be read.
Ensler, who is one of the five Women Center Stage advisors, brought the book that she edited with Mollie Doyle to stage last night as part of the WCS festival. During the Until the Violence Stops festival held in New York last summer, Ensler and her V-Day team asked a group of writers to contribute what they had to say regarding the state of global violence against women. “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer” is a compilation of written responses to her prompt.
Ten other authors, playwrights, performers and activists were invited to perform excerpts from “Readings on Violence Against Women.” Some read their original submission and some were guest readers for others’ work. For example, Dylan McDermott read New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof’s “Untitled” and Alice Walker’s “To Stop the Violence Against Women” was read by Eisa Davis. The other readers included Abiola Abrams, Elizabeth Lesser, Susan Miller, Ed Blunt, Nicole Burdette, Carol Gilligan, Alyssa Bresnahan and Periel Aschenbrand. The topics ranged from “Conversations with My Son” to a memorial of a murdered rape victim, “In Memory of Imette.”
Although Ensler’s new book features a mosaic of stories, like her famous “Vagina Monologues,” this compilation is unique in that it includes the experiences and perspectives of men on the subject of violence. The performance itself was well-received by an enthusiastic audience of fans, loyal and new, who seemed ready to shout Vagina Power! and join the V-Day global movement. Advanced copies of the book were sold after the performance and Ensler signed them all, “For peace, for vaginas!”
Today marks the halfway point of the Women Center Stage 2007 Festival. Festival passes are now being sold at the box office for a reduced rate of $60 and the film pass is $40 (there are five out of seven movies left in the festival).
July 3–Over the weekend, I saw “Becoming Natasha,” a play that is the story of three women who are trafficked and was inspired by Victor Malarek’s book, “The Natashas.” The play incorporates his text with women’s stories adapted from testimony and original writing. It will run as part of Women Center Stage on July 3 at 7 p.m., July 6 at 7 p.m., July 7 at 3 p.m., July 13 at 7 p.m. and July 14 at 3 p.m.
The play’s four actresses took turns voicing the perspectives and personal accounts of johns and clients and trafficked women. They provided accounts of what clients have to say about the sex workers they visit and the concerns some have expressed in visiting women they suspect were trafficked. The play also revealed what the everyday conditions were like for the women and how they were trafficked from their country of origin, from being physically abused to threats against their families to having their passports taken away from them to being locked in a dark cage with rats and roaches and no food or water for days.
The play was good in that it was a provocative and poignant piece of art that generates interest and was a catalyst for discussion. Unfortunately, the producers chose to create a panel with three members, all with a similar perspective.
Two of the panelists, Norma Ramos and Dorchen A. Leidholdt, are involved with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which opposes the legalization of prostitution. Although the play itself tried hard to be objective in portraying all those involved in human trafficking (traffickers, trafficked, clients) the panelists had very rigid perspectives. The CATW takes a firm stance against all trafficking and prostitution, and does not use the more neutral term “sex worker” because the organization’s viewpoint is that prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession, it’s the world’s oldest oppression. The third panelist was Victor Goode, an associate professor at the City University of New York, who was more neutral on the subject.
There will be a different group of panelists after each of the “Becoming Natasha” performances and I am very interested to see who these speakers will be. I was able to talk to Anna Klein, who is co-creator of Isadora Productions and has a part in the play, and have her answer some questions to clarify Isadora Production’s perspective on the issue.
Klein says: “The company has no specific stance on it. Obviously we see human trafficking as an issue that needs to be abolished and addressed by politicians. A lot of the anti-human trafficking laws need to be advised and changed. We wanted to look at human trafficking. We specifically try not to take a certain political stance. We just want to tell stories and for us, it’s just about truth. We want our audience to walk away with facts and make up their own minds. We think it’s really important to get both sides of the issue. We want no part in the politics between NGOs; we want to make sure we start a dialogue among the NGOs.”
Klein said that Isadora Productions makes an effort not to take funding from one particular nongovernmental organization for any of their productions, but that the Nathan Cummings Foundation was the major supporter for “Becoming Natasha” to appear in the Women Center Stage festival.
Klein also mentioned that the panel on July 14 will include representatives from Amnesty International and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, two organizations who Klein said have opposing views on legalizing prostitution and how to deal with human trafficking.
The panel for tonight’s show will include Klein as moderator and:
Laurel W. Eisner, JD, MSW, executive director of Sanctuary for Families
Norma Ramos, executive director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
Gave Maxson, director of “Becoming Natasha.”
Another limitation of the play is that it ties human trafficking with prostitution. Many experts now argue that too often advocates focus on prostitution, when human trafficking exists in many layers: migration for work opportunities, migration to flee gender and other oppression, migration to join family members and migration for voluntary sex work.
For those who are interested in the topic and would like more information on human trafficking, I’ll be compiling a list of Web sites where one can find more literature and data on the situation (in the U.S. and internationally), so stay tuned.
June 29–I don’t know how I feel about interactive theater, but Lenelle Moise’s performance last night, “Womb-Words, Thirsting” kept me awake and awakened me.
Moise looked extremely comfortable on stage, at home, barefoot and wearing clothes one can actually jump and sway in. She was comfortable shifting from performance to interaction with the audience, moving in and out of both realms with a Krik! The audience replies: KRAK! It was hard to tell what reality was, what was now, what is hers and what is ours, what she actually wanted me to respond to. She told us the fourth wall was going down, and it did.
Moise, who is Haitian American, had set up on stage an altar to the Spirit of Battered Women and Lesbians that guards her house and family. She laughed while telling us that she loved that there was a voodoo explanation for her queerness.
Her work, which she calls “autobiofiction,” traces her experiences from Haiti to New York, Florida and Massachusetts. It’s autobiofiction because “It’s what I want to remember. It’s what I want to tell you,” she said. She told us about Haitian culture and its history with the United States and New Orleans. She brought the audience back with her as she reminisced about her first crushes and touches with other girls. She asked us if we remembered where we were when 9/11 happened and most of us did. And what about September 1, 2, 3 and 4 in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina happened?
I think the Women Center Stage calendar describes it best when they say that her work is “mixing a brew of Vodou jazz, queer theory, hip-hop and movement…of patchwork poetic storytelling.”
Correction to the WCS festival calendar: The Liz Swados’ Political Subversities event held on July 12 is at 10:30 p.m. instead of 9:30 p.m.
Also, the film pass for the festival’s nine movies is $75.
Jacqueline Lee is a Los Angeles-based reporter interning with Women’s eNews for the summer. She enjoys traveling and recently returned to the U.S. after studying for a semester in Amsterdam. She has also been to Thailand, China, Morocco and other European countries for personal leisure and learning as well as disaster relief. Lee will graduate this December from the University of Southern California with a double major in print journalism and gender studies.
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