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Bitch At Us: Rachel Grossman

Washington, DC
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BitchBiz: This article is sponsored by dog & pony dc.

On the heels of the second annual Women’s March—and in the midst of heightened conversations about ‘Me too’ and ‘Time’s up’—D.C.’s second annual Women’s Voices Theatre Festival launched in some of the city’s most reputable theaters.

The Festival runs through the end of February, with stages from Studio Theatre to Ford’s Theatre debuting plays and productions written and performed by women. At the Woolly Mammoth, an interactive piece is literally keeping up with the fruition of the #MeToo movement in real time; it’s called Peepshow.

Over the span of Peepshow ’s five scenes, performers confront the complexities of the male gaze, review the history of feminism in a wrestling ring, and expose the modern woman’s complicity in her own oppression. It’s funny, touching, and totally interactive.

The best part? The show is created, produced, designed and performed by non-male-identified individuals, and it’s also the only hearing and deaf-inclusive piece in the Festival. (It runs through Feb. 25, get tickets here.)

We sat down with dog & pony dc’s Ensemble Director Rachel Grossman to understand the thinking behind this fun and poignant show.

Where did the Peepshow idea come from?

Someone recently asked me, ‘Wow, this is incredibly timely. How did you manage to do this?’ and we said, ‘It’s really impossible. We got lucky, or unlucky, depending on your perspective.’

We’re a woman-co-founded company. We are also one of the few professional theater companies in D.C. that is led by a female artistic director. When it was announced that the theater community was going to be doing a Women’s Voices Theater Festival, we felt it was really imperative that we participate.

D.C. is sort of an outlier, stylistically, in the way that we create work. So serving in three major outlier ways in the community already—the way that we create, the theater that we make, and that we are founded and run by women—we felt it was our responsibility to participate.

The announcement that [the Festival] was going to be produced again came only less than a year ago, and we normally take two or more years to create our shows from the time of gestation to the time of a fully produced, first run of a play. We were caught with our bras off.

We’re saying, ‘What are we going to do, what are we going to make?’ Nothing that we had in the hopper really felt like it was appropriate for the Festival. We had originally conceived a puppet show; we were going to make a giant puppet show that involved only parts of the body as puppets as a cheeky way of thinking.

We wanted to explore the concept of women in positions of service. How do women and women’s bodies serve in contemporary American society? We imagined this big puppet theater in which you could only see hands or arms or shoulders.

We gathered this group of non-male-identified artists, so they were women-identified, non-binary, and there were 16 of us together and we spent a Saturday, Sunday, and a Friday night creating work and talking about our experiences and creating fairytale stories and superhero comic book characters and their adventures together with this idea that we were going to create these puppet shows.

Over the course of the weekend, it became very clear that the form we created was too small to contain the stories of all these women’s voices. The phrase of the weekend was the container of women is too small for all the demands and responsibilities … the view of gender equality, gender freedom is just about women right now, and we’re only focusing on women, and that is really too restrictive.

Really what we wanted to do was create these insider looks into the ridiculousness of trying to define and contain the idea of gender and of being a woman. That became the idea of a peep show. We took these different views or themes and switched up the frame of sexism, the male gaze, women-on-women oppression, the idea of feminism and the feminist movement.

We said, ‘What are the different theatrical ways we can explore those stories?’ So it becomes these different views into the contemporary non-male struggle and the fight for gender equality.

How is it interactive with the audience? Should the audience expect to be really participating?

As with every dog & pony show, our work is audience-integrated, so we have been thinking about what the audience’s role is going to be from the start. That doesn’t always mean that it’s participatory or interactive.

The whole spectacle, the whole event has a definite journey for the audience. We have a pre-show event that begins to usher people into the actual space to the specific audience configuration.

There is at least one scene that brings in our multi-sensory work that we’ve been developing, involving taste, touch, smell into the actual performance, so there will be consumable parts in one of the scenes.

And certainly there is what some people would consider classic invitation for audience members to become interactive and participatory within the performance. There will be an opportunity to dance if you want to and an opportunity to cheer. But it’ll change from scene to scene.

So tell me about the women behind the show. It sounds like a really incredible group.

They’re non-male-identifying, predominantly women-identified, but not all of them are. We do have a couple non-binary artists who have been working with us and who have been involved with the final production. It’s an amazing collection.

We span an age range from 22 to 42, mixed race, and deaf. There are eight actors—one of the actors is also the sound designer and was also part of the three of us who conceived of the show. There are 15 of us who have been a part of writing the material, who, through improvisation or choreography, have been developing it since August.

Our choreographer is also one of our co-founders. She is one of the people who is really an example of the way that women are actually marginalized — women in particular, I use that identity category — in the theater. She is one of the top choreographers that I’ve ever met, and she’s almost never hired in the D.C. area because it is a field that is locally and nationally led by men.

What has happened in the last year with Me Too and Times Up is incredible, but how have you seen women’s empowerment evolve in D.C. specifically?

I think what’s been really wonderful is this releasing of a ground swell. I think people who are working at the larger theaters, the big-dollar houses, the arenas, and then the people working in the more independent theater scene, they are coming at the problem of safety in the workplace, safety in the theater workplace, of sexual harassment, of equity among all genders, and really among many social identities, women are coming to it hard-hitting now more than their male counterparts.

I’m really warmed by that, and I’m really excited about that. There are so many wonderful women managing directors in this city, but not in the artistic position. I think that’s what we’re moving toward. This is where I’m warmed. Because of this strong movement from the many different sides, we’re going to see a move toward gender equity and gender equality more and more.

What I’m hoping is that it’ll be not just from this binary perspective of men and women but actually more toward the gender equity and equality for all. I’m excited because it’s not just coming from one direction or one body of the theater, ecology or economy.

Was it difficult to create this show?

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival is very important to me, obviously, but right now, it’s been hard to keep up to date with reality. I know we’re attempting to do that, but film and television can’t because of its production schedule.

When Harvey Weinstein’s story broke, we’re in the middle of creating a story. We started rewriting the opening number of the show, and we’ve continued to rewrite that and the closing scene, the ending of the show, over the past two months because we realized we’re finally able to, as a community, understand what this means to bring men to justice.

As artists, we felt a real sense of responsibility to not take it lightly, to actually be as hard-hitting as we possibly can and not allow a traditional theater-going audience or an arts consumer to come in and say, ‘I’m woke, I know what I’m talking about.’

We’re all part of the problem now. That becomes part of the message of the show. How do we take a beat right now and actually say, ‘Really, we’re all not that woke.’ We’re really excited about that.

The other thing that I’m really proud of is we started working with deaf artists more and more in 2014, and in this show we have six deaf artists working on it, two in the cast, one designing, and three on the production support end. This is the only production in the Women’s Voices Festival that has deaf artists on stage.

It’s the only one that is fully accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing, in every performance in multiple different ways, because it’s not just captioning or interpreting, it’s actually integrated into the production itself.

Hearing audiences are able to develop a great appreciation of deaf culture in that way and the impact of these issues and how gender language and objectification plays out in multiple identity areas and in multiple cultures.

The show is just super fun. It hits in the gut and the heart and it’s also really empowering. And whether it’s our show or another one, come out and support theater that’s written by the people you want to uplift in the world.

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