Saturday, March 8, 2014

We Can Be Heroes - Heidi, Janie, and Christmas cakes after Christmas

Happy International Women's Day and  Women's History Month! I know, we get a whole month and internationally, a day. It's pretty great.

All kidding aside, I thought I'd spend the rest of March discussing women that I admire and that have influenced me in some way. I was partially inspired by this article I read in The Washington Post about celebrities versus heroes (in the lead up to the Oscars) and this other article about women in leadership positions at area museums. I was having a cup of tea before my museum shift started and the idea to talk about the influential women in my life just sort of hit me. These women are definitely all Leading Ladies.

I don't know a lot of people who truly enjoyed high school. I'm sure everyone has fond memories of high school but unless you went to high school without other students chances are it wasn't that fun all the time. When I think of high school I think of two things: my terrible high school English teacher and my high school theatre. All of my favorite memories from high school are tied to the theatre department. I made a lot of great friends and certainly had some wacky and weird experiences while working on shows. This was also where I honed my bossiness and responsibility; I was in charge a lot.

Not only did I work on all of the productions, I was also in theatre class so I was learning stagecraft, design, theatre history, acting and directing techniques, and reading plays all the time. Our director (who is still the director at my high school) didn't just focus on the classics or Williams and O'Neil; we also read Sam Shepard, Paul Rudnick, William M. Hoffman, Christopher Durang, Beth Henley, and Wendy Wasserstein. He also liked to do Shakespeare with a twist (our In the Course of Justice was Shakespeare goes Tarantino and won us a district championship) and our production of Rashomon is still one of my favorites.

Wendy Wasserstein quickly became one of my favorite playwrights. She won the 1989 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles. This is probably her most well known play and my favorite. All of her plays had intelligent and independent women as their heroines. What I think appealed to me most, though, was that they were not perfect women. They had flaws and doubted their abilities. They worried about love and "having it all". While I wasn't concerned (necessarily) with many of these ideas as a 17 year old, I was navigating the world of being a young woman and what that means. I didn't really date in high school and I didn't think that I was pretty. I wasn't sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. Wasserstein's heroines, particularly Heidi, made me feel better about life. You could grow up and do whatever you wanted to do. And you could be funny and smart and independent. I wanted to be all of those things.

I've worked on two productions of The Heidi Chronicles: in high school I was the stage manager (and everyone got stomach flu when we went to competition with the production) and in college, I was the costume designer. I haven't been able to find all of my photos from that production but look at that cast. I was incredibly proud of my costume choices. It's a challenging play in that it moves from the late 1960s through the late 1980s so the fashion changes quickly but still has to remain true to the character. My favorite looks in that production were Debbie from the museum protest and Becky from the consciousness raising group. She reminds me of Judy Chicago in early photographs.

During my senior year of high school, Wendy (I feel like she'd be okay with me calling her Wendy) released her first children's book, Pamela's First Musical. My friend Leah and I went to the Folger Library to hear her talk about the book and her other work and we got to meet Wendy briefly (as she signed our copies of the story). I don't remember much from the talk itself (apparently I hadn't started taking notes at these things like I do now) but I do remember how nice she was to Leah and I when we talked to her. I think I told her that we had just done a production of The Heidi Chronicles and I gushed about how much I liked her plays. Or something very theatre nerd of me. I also remember thinking it was cool that Leah and I got to go to the talk in the first place; that's what Metro accessibility and being "an adult" (at 17) gets you. Leah is often the person that comes to mind when I read Wendy's plays; she and I did a scene from Isn't It Romantic during class once (and also a scene from Beth Henley's wonderful Crimes of the Heart). I think we both were looking for role models in other women and Wendy was someone we both admired. Wendy was never conventional nor were her heroines and I think that was part of her appeal.

In addition to her plays (I've read all but the last one multiple times), I devoured her book of essays Bachelor Girls. Most of the essays were written for New York Women magazine and cover all manner of topics. Two of my favorites are "Tokyo Story" and "Perfect Women Who Are Bearable." It's in "Tokyo Story" that Wendy learns about "Christmas cakes after Christmas" (her Japanese tour guide tells her this is what unmarried women over 25 are referred to) and that Janie Blumberg and her mother, Lola, make sense outside of New York in the mid-80s. She also teaches us that it's okay to not be Jessica Lange even though Jessica Lange is divine and lovely. Getting both Sam Shepard and Baryshnikov to fall in love with you is only something you should try if you've been in a remake of King Kong. I've been rereading Bachelor Girls recently and it resonates even more now as I approach my mid-30s and am, in fact, a Bachelor Girl. 

Wendy never married but she did have a baby at age 48 (never naming the father) which I thought was incredibly amazing. This gives me hope for my own prospects as a mother. Wendy would write several more plays in the late 90s and early 2000s as well as additional books of essays and the musical adaptation of Pamela's First Musical. In 1998, she created the program Open Doors to mentor and foster a love of the theatre to under-served students in New York City.

It was a sad day in 2006 when I heard that she had died at the age of 55 from complications of lymphoma. The lights were dimmed on Broadway as is the tradition. It's not just her plays and writing that remains but these wonderful ideas that she created through her characters. Wendy understood how challenging it is to be a feminist and still want "traditional" things like a husband and a baby (as Fran says in The Heidi Chronicles, "Susan, either you shave your legs or you don't."). I also enjoy her treatment of the relationships of mothers and daughters - complicated, tension-filled at times, but also wonderful and powerful. I also look at the women who were in early productions of her work - Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz, Meryl Streep, Joan Allen. Wendy wasn't just writing plays for herself; she was helping to foster breakthrough performances for amazing actresses.

I'll leave you with a two of my favorite quotes from her plays:

"This portrait can be perceived as a meditation on the brevity of youth, beauty, and life. But what can't?" The Heidi Chronicles

"No matter how lonely you get or how many birth announcements you receive, the trick is not to get frightened. There's nothing wrong with being alone." Isn't It Romantic

Wendy Wasserstein photo

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