Identity, Heritage, and Growing up in ‘Muthaland’

Muthaland at 16th Street Theater is a one woman show written and performed by the talented Minita Gandhi. It’s a showcase for her dexterity and ability to create and inhabit characters we love, and characters who make our skin crawl, as she goes on a journey to her parents homeland. In 16th Street’s bare black box theatre, there is only one practical light onstage, and the rest of the show travels on in the darkness with Minita herself. She walks down the staircase through the audience carrying her suitcases to the practical standing lamp on stage. Little did we know she was carrying the world of the play in her arms.

The opening of Minita Gandhi’s Muthaland is an energy-packed celebration of femininity and personality. She animatedly tells us about her life, her hopes for love and her family drama, which includes the upcoming wedding of her dear brother Milin. Minita separates herself as narrator by giving herself the affectionate nickname of Minu when she’s playing in a scene from history.

Minu is an independent woman, the daughter of two Indian immigrants who are audience favorites for Minita to affectionately and sometimes comedically interpret onstage. She is 35 years old, and has been getting her groove back by listening to Pink and Fiona Apple, reading The Power of Now and taking a Pranayama breathing class. After a visit to a gynecologist, Minu learns she only has two years to get a husband and have babies before she has to be concerned about freezing her eggs, and this is a terrifying enough thought that she returns to her prayer cabinet. Minu is a practicing Jain, which at more 85,000 years old is the one of the world’s oldest religions. She recites the Namokar mantra, one of the most fundamental and spiritually significant prayers in Jainism. This moment of gravitas is our first insight into bubbly actress Minu’s depth of intention and spiritual practice.

Though dramatically this is very clever, sometimes Minita playing an earlier, more innocent Minu is hard to buy. At the end of the production, when a you see a grown Minita in her mature fury and might, you understand why this character, that is so very personal and so profoundly changed in real life, might be harder for Minita to access than the multitude of personalities she brings to life onstage. These other characters are defined very specifically through gesture and voice, and it is clear who is speaking at any given time.

Minita the writer gives us access to the finer points in her life and family’s traditional customs in a delicate way that allows us to laugh at Minu’s reactions without laughing at cultural differences – which can often happen if an audience doesn’t understand something outright. Milin for example is in an arranged marriage, something Minu has a really hard time understanding at first, but once she sees how happy he is the audience is happy for him too. So, Minu is off to India, in one of the most fantastic visual moments of the play. Contained in her tiny suitcase is truly the entire world, as she pulls out costumes and scatters the stage with color as the lights (designed by Cat Wilson) flood the world with a pink and orange hue, transforming the black walls. You can feel the heat and the dust as Minu describes it to us thanks to the vivid text and suggestive design visuals. The sound also helps us understand our cultural context, as a variety of American and Bollywood love songs are played throughout the piece.

Muthaland is based off of Minita’s true experiences during her travels to India, and I do not want to spoil the surprise that is the crux of the drama in this play. I will speak to her magnificent performance of these gravity-filled moments. During a scene I will refer to as “The Interrogation” she masterfully plays a council of older Indian men who are questioning her honesty with a misogyny that will make your toes curl. Legs spread wide in a single spotlight, Minita easily embodies the threat and danger of these men as a steady heart-beat like pulse (sound by Barry Bennett) underscores their words. It conjures visceral memories of femmes being accused of lying when under threat from men, and is very hard to watch though artfully portrayed. The experience is so awful, that when it is over, it prompts Minu to tell her parents she hates India – thankfully only a temporary conclusion.

Muthaland is about the forcible growth of an already strong young woman, who was forced to undergo an emotionally and physically violent experience yet still reconcile her identity. In a spectacular final ten minutes of the play, Gandhi goes on an emotional journey from absolute devastation to a realistic healing process, perhaps even slightly optimistic about what is in her future. I commend Minita for her stamina in performing in this fabulous 90-minute production of her own work, and I can’t wait to see what productions lie in its future.

BIAS ALERT: Minita Gandhi is a friend.

Berwyn Cultural Center
6420 16th Street, Berwyn IL
August 31-October 7, 2017
Directed by Heidi Stillman
Photos by Anthony Aicardi

Assistant Director – Maeli Goren
Dramaturg – Lavina Jadhwani
Voice and Movement – Lanise Antoine Shelley
Scenic Properties – Jesse Gaffney
Lighting Design – Cat Wilson
Sound Design – Barry Bennett

About Face Youth Ensemble’s ‘Brave Like Them’: Explosive, Feminist, and Unapologetically Queer

By Regina Victor

About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble’s Brave Like Them is an exciting and dynamic exploration of cultural movements and gender expression infused with feminist punk. The show is entirely devised and performed by the members of the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble and co-directed by About Face’s Education and Outreach Director Ali Hoefnagel and Education Coordinator Kieran Kredell. The script was well-written, and memorable, especially impressive because the age range for the ensemble that devised it is 13-23 years old. The play takes place in the Riot Grrl movement of the 1990s, an underground punk feminist movement that originated Washington state, credited with being the beginning of third wave feminism. Famous bands that came out of that era include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney. Brave Like Them takes us to Washington state in that era, and investigates both the successes of the movement but also the racial and class discrepancies – most of the voices of this movement were middle class, white cisgender women.

The set (designed by Scott Penner) is papered with posters from iconic punk acts like Joan Jett, and the young people roam the space at the top of the show, cleverly setting our place and time. A couple of the ensemble members were talking to an audience member, and pretended to be mystified and confused by his cell phone flashlight, much to everyone’s amusement. Complete with twinkling bulb lights and alley seating, it’s hard not to feel like you’re at a real punk show when the actors break into their energetic opening dance highlighted by multicolored club lights (lighting by Kaili Story).

Danni (Kyla Norton) and their best friend Jamie (Sandy Nguyen) are old friends reunited after Danni lived in racist Tacoma for six years. As they try to find their place in the punk movement, Danni wonders why more of their favorite punk bands don’t look like them. Danni’s old crush Sam (a charismatic and stylish Ophelia Ashley Murillo) conveniently comes waltzing back into Danni’s life, asking if they would like to hang out at a venue called The Crocodile. There, they meet femme superstar Hannah (Lilian McGrady)  who chants her feminist manifesto “Girls to the front!” over a thrumming bass to an adoring crowd. Danni’s friend Jamie gets all up in this movement and finds her sense of self, immediately changing her aesthetic to match what a Riot Grrl is “supposed” to look like, complete with leather jacket, red lips and fishnets, Nguyen does a wonderful job portraying both Jamie’s bravado and her emotional complexity as she struggles balance her new Riot Grrl friends with Danni.  The costume design by Jeanine Fry informs us where each character is in their lives and gender expressions effortlessly. Danni, still trying to find their identity, is in their school uniform for most of the play.

While Jamie is off with the Riot Grrls, Danni meets some new friends in the form of an energetic ensemble that hangs out and plays punk music in the school gym. Noa (Jude Gordon), Coe (Jimbo Pestano) and Chris (Ben Flores), are all punk rockers who used to roll with Hannah until her movement got too exclusionary. We see this demonstrated very clearly when one of Hannah’s shows includes the words “no dudes no dykes no douchebags.” Coe uses they/them pronouns, Noa ze/sir, and Chris he/him. Chris points out that he is often excluded from feminist dialogue like Hannah’s because of his male presentation, but that erases the portion of his life where he was perceived as female, and his ability to talk about those injustices. Chris poses an interesting question: how can he possibly convince other people his masculinity isn’t a threat? It’s a really interesting argument that I’ve heard socially but was refreshing to see onstage, and Ben Flores’ thoughtful portrayal of this character really shines.

Coe and Noa were equally amazing ensemble members, with Noa’s dry wit cutting across the dialogue and generating big laughs from the audience. Noa refers to Jamie as the girl who “suddenly has all the buttons.” As someone who’s worked in community organizing, I found this particularly hilarious – there is always one eager person who shows up with 80 buttons on their jacket even though they’ve been to two rallies. In order to describe Jimbo Pestano’s portrayal of Coe, I have to be colloquial: Coe was serving band frontperson intersectional realness in a crop top and a flannel blazer with shoulder pads and skinny jeans. Serving. All. Day. One particularly fantastic lyric voiced by Coe and Danni I will be singing to all of my cisgender friends was “Nice gender, did your mommy pick it out?!”

The entire ensemble was strong, but there were many other notable performances, including the hilariously spacey record store clerk (Sharon Pasia), who encourages Danni to be a part of the movement, and not a part of the crowd. Danni’s mother, played by Mia Vivens, gives an endearing performance as a mother who has to navigate a new relationship with her child. Fresh from a divorce and struggling financially, she is often anxious and sometimes angry (but only, as she rightfully points out, because she’s black and had to sell her business and live in Tacoma at her husband’s behest for six years – I feel you sis), but never gives up on loving her family fiercely.

Brave Like Them is about the power of friendship, the discovery of personal identity, and the multifaceted aspects a movement needs to have so that it can succeed. It examines our fear of breaking apart systems and movements when we have nothing to replace them with, even if the movement is imperfect. A movement needs to encompass all people, or it inevitably dies. However, Brave Like Them does not condemn these movements, but examines how even when they are fleeting, even when we find ourselves in opposition to them, they can help us find the most important parts of ourselves.

Brave Like Them closes August 6th: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Directors: Ali Hoefnagel & Kieran Kredell
Assistant Dir: Donny Acosta
Devised by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble

FEATURING
Ophelia Ashley Murillo
Charlie Blackburn
Melody Derogatis
Ben Flores
Jude Gordon
Liv Haman
Elliot Hobaugh
Lillian McGrady
Sandy Nguyen
Kyla Norton
Sharon Pasia
Jimbo Pestano
Jae Taylor

PRODUCTION
Production Manager: Melissa Hubbert
Music Director: Nicholas Davio
Choreographer: Erin Kilmurray
Asst. Choreographer: Gabrielle Wilson
Lighting Designer: Kaili Story
Sound Designer: Brandon Reed
Costume Designer: Jeanine Fry
Set Design: Scott Penner
Prop Design: Meghan Erxleben
Stage Manager: Kasey Trouba
Asst. Stage Manager: Serena Dully

Photo Credit: (left to right) Jude Gordon, Ben Flores, Kyla Norton and Jimbo Pestano in About Face Youth Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of Brave Like Them, co-directed by Ali Hoefnagel and Kieran Kredell. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

BIAS ALERT: I directed for the About Face Out Front 2017 Series, and identify as genderqueer.

Marin Theatre Company’s Sara Waugh on her Role as a Marketing Director and Navigating Press and Critic Relationships

Rescripted’s Staff sat down to talk with Marketing Director Sara Waugh about the role of a marketing director, their relationship to critics, and tactics for both good and ‘unfavorable’ press. 

Rescripted: How would you describe what you do?

Sara Waugh: I’m the Director of Marketing & Communications for Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, CA. I create all season-long & show/programming-specific marketing campaigns and outreach strategies employing multiple communications channels through what we call the “marketing mix”.  That’s a combination of direct mail campaigns, digital email campaigns, social media outreach, including sharing content organically, meaning, the level of engagement a post receives when you first post it, will affect how frequently and how many other people will see it, and sharing content that we promote with the help of our “digital presence” agency through Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc.  It also includes paid advertising both print & digital, “ earned” media  or features in the press that we don’t  pay for,  and sponsored media. Sponsored media is usually part of our paid advertising contract, though it doesn’t look like an ad, it looks like a feature story. I’m essentially creating a strategized “mix” of efforts—on a budget—in order to get us the biggest return in ticket sales for our efforts.

R: How much do “bad” reviews affect a show?

SW: “Bad” or “unfavorable” reviews are tricky, because sometimes they don’t affect the impact our show has on our community, which in turn does not affect ticket sales, and sometimes they do in such a way that we are unable to recover from the impact the review has had.

For example, when we produced Native Son back in January (2017), the reviewer for the SF Chronicle did not give us a favorable review, but coming off of the “high” our patrons were on, loving us after our holiday show, pre-sales, and name recognition for the play, which is based on a very famous novel, we were still able to fill houses and exceed our sales goal for that show. So in that case, audiences were more willing to take a chance on our show because of the strong word of mouth recommendations from other patrons,  and familiarity with the novel rather than go by the review alone.

Fast forward to April when we produced Guards at the Taj when we received another unfavorable review in the SF Chronicle, and unfortunately our patrons agreed with the rating of the review, if not the actual review itself. The review tore apart the text, while our patrons simply thought the production itself was far too gory. So oddly enough, though patrons were not enjoying the play for different reasons than the reviewer didn’t enjoy the play, the negative way in which it was received all around  inevitably  impacted our sales goal for the show.

Currently, we’re running a play called The Legend of Georgia McBride that our audiences are literally leaping out of their seats to sing, clap and dance along with the finale musical number and curtain call, though we again received a negative review in the SF Chronicle. Here, I’ll note that the Chronicle is the only publication that gave this show such a negative review; all other reviews we’ve garnered in the week since we opened have been glowing. So we’re now really feeling the impact that the review in “the big paper” is having on us, overshadowing not just patrons’ word of mouth, but also the positive sentiments coming from other reviewers. I have to add that patrons who are attending are absolutely loving it. So we can only think that the reason ticket sales aren’t being affected by positive word of mouth while seemingly moreso affected by this negative review, is that people are not even wanting to take the chance on coming because of the unfavorable review in combination with the last show’s negative review and possibly not having a good experience at the last show.

So all in all, ticket sales/attendance are going to be affected by a number of things, but the potential for a “bad” review to harm us is high, and that’s just something we’re always going to have to combat, especially when we see that the audiences who are  here, are enjoying the piece.

 

R: How do your marketing tactics change if a review is negative?

SW: Obviously we will promote all other good reviews, and patron comments in order to paint how the play’s being received in the best light possible. But that’s  always going to come with that an increased personal touch with every message, as if we’re reaching out to folks individually. For example, I might pull the list of attendees from the last play by the same playwright or or featuring the same beloved  actor and filter out anyone who’s already attended or bought a ticket, and then send them a “personal” (we call this microtargeting, because the language gets really specific) email communication to say “HEY—we know you loved that last play, so why not come give this one a shot?? Here’s a promo code for you and your friends to come have a great night at the theatre” or whatever the angle is we want to push.

How we change our tactics is always going to be specific to the show, because outreach efforts will vary based on what the  thing is that we’re trying to sell, but I am also not ashamed to write to people who’ve already attended to ask “HEY did you love this? Tell your friends!” because that personal ask can really work for us too.

 

R: Not every show is a great show, sometimes things fall apart or just don’t work as planned, does agreeing with a negative review affect how you approach your strategy?

SW: You know, going back to the Guards at the Taj fiasco, we started off trying to push the fact that it was an award-winning show and it had been received well regionally across the US, but then we decided we shouldn’t assume our patrons  here in Marin have the same feelings and want the same things from the plays they’re attending as folks in other parts of the country.

So by the last week we just tackled it head on and said “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this SF Chronicle review!!!” and encouraged folks to read both the Chronicle review AND the other, way more favorable reviews, and to attend the show and make up their minds for themselves. This did actually give us  a bump in sales, so we’re glad we didn’t try to just ignore it and push forward. We’re hoping that our patrons appreciated that fact, and truly encouraged the public to make up their own minds.

 

R: Can you give an example of a situation where you’ve had to employ creative tactics to get around a negative review?

SW: Well we can certainly talk about what we’re doing for our current show! We’ve been planting ourselves at way more community events to increase our presence. One of the first things I learned about advertising was that people have to see an ad  at least 10 times before the message will stick, and even more times to actually remind and motivate them to move  to the  purchase point. So we do what we can to get our advertising content out into the world without making people feel like we’re hitting them over the head . But I think pairing those advertising images with some talking heads from the theatre to really help fill out what the show is and what they can expect when they come to the theatre really helps drive that message home,  and hopefully to our website or to the phone or box office to buy tickets! Because it’s one thing to send emails, tweets, etc. but having a presence can make a huge impact. So we’ve had a presence at local events, like the Mill Valley Memorial Day Parade, we’re also attending several Bay Area PRIDE parades and festivals  we’re partnering with other local theatres to have a presence at their Summer of Love events, and we’re employing some guerilla marketing tactics like going to  the LGBTQI+ friendly neighborhoods to leave postcards on windshields, in mailboxes, at bars, etc. It does start to feel like a lot of extra legwork, but unfortunately, when you produce a play with an unrecognizable title that then gets slammed in the community’s biggest local publication, you’ve gotta roll up your sleeves and hit the town!

 

R: Do you think the critics who come to your shows reflect the preferences of your audience?

SW: Not necessarily… I can’t presume to know what our audiences prefer to see (outside of the occasional survey response asking us to re-mount show X that they loved 10 years ago), and I also know that many of our critics are seeing so many shows a week all over the Bay Area, unlike many of our patrons, so critics are automatically going to be the more experienced theatre goers of the patrons in any house. But for the most part we can count on the majority of our critics to write meaningful critiques of what they experienced in community with the rest of the audience the night they attended, which, if the experience was positive, that’s a good indication that more patrons will take their word for it and give our little show a chance.

It also starts to get weird if you try to break it down demographically. Especially because Marin County specifically is such an affluent, white collar, white community. So, yes, 99% of our reviewers are also white, and most of them are over forty; though our mostly white patrons are closer to the 65+ range. So my number one struggle is to get more, younger people of color in through the doors, to enjoy the shows we produce that are definitely geared towards that demographic. But do I focus my audience development efforts on more younger [white] people in Marin, or younger people of color who live outside of Marin?

When we produce August Wilson plays—or other plays by writers of color—we inherently see a more diverse audience in attendance: non-white, younger, and even more men.  Those folks are not necessarily interested in hanging out in Marin all the time and seeing all of our plays, but they can count on us being committed to producing these works—aka not an entire season of Neil Simon or Mamet—and they will make the effort to come to Marin because the stories we’re telling and the messages the playwrights want us to drive home are important.

But I digress…. Here’s my main struggle with aligning critics’ preferences with audience preferences in order to attract more, newer patrons: if we’ve got white people critiquing white plays, does that give them more license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was “authentic” representation of the white community because they’re also a member of that identifying community? Probably. But if we’ve got white people critiquing African American plays, or straight people critiquing plays with  LGBTQI+ themes, does that give them license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was authentic representation of that community even though they’re not a member of that identifying community? I don’t have the best answer here but it doesn’t feel appropriate. Because I don’t think African American people need white people to defend them just like I don’t think queer folks need straight folks defending them, but ultimately, I am not a theatre critic, so I can only react to what I think is or is not appropriate with what a critic is choosing to focus on in a review. But when anyone negatively criticizes a show for being “inauthentic”, with no prior knowledge of the content and experiences being depicted in the show, that review is only going to keep more people from said communit(ies) from attending—as we’re currently seeing—because at a glance, readers don’t know that the person writing doesn’t have that experience. They only know that the critic is the person who’s been hired to tell the world what is and is not a “worth seeing” piece of art. And making an assumption about a community/experience which you know absolutely nothing is so damaging to all of the artists involved, especially those who have lived the experiences being depicted on stage.

What I would LOVE to see more of are younger critics, critics of color, and critics that represent the LGBTQI+ community so that when we are producing non-white/affluent-centric plays (in this very white community) we’ll at least be receiving criticism (negative, constructive, and/or positive) from folks who have also lived similar experiences off-stage and who can themselves speak authentically to our company’s depiction of those experiences.

But for the time being, I will still, always, gladly take the positive reviews from the majority [old] white reviewers we have currently attending who, despite not necessarily being members of the communities whose stories we’re telling, can still find the space to appropriately comment on the pluses and minuses of the actors, direction and production quality, vs. criticism from someone who has chosen an appropriated hill to die on.

 

R: What is the relationship like between marketing directors and the press? Is there anything you do to foster long running positive relationships with reviewers?

SW: In many organizations, Marketing Directors do not even deal directly with the press; the publicity department does. So other than promoting reviews/putting content together, such as production photo shoots, interviews with artists,  there’s no direct line of communication. However, published reviews affect my marketing efforts, so the relationship is tighter than you’d think, even if I wasn’t communicating with them directly.

Here at MTC, I double as the publicity rep and the Marketing Director, so I communicate with all the press, all the time. I 100% try to keep relations good with the reviewers because regardless of one person hating everything we produce, we still want them to come back to the next show because there’s always the potential for them to love it, print a great review, and blow our sales goals out of the water.

At this point, because the reviewer for our largest publication, the SF Chronicle, is so unpredictable, I will likely always try to keep the dialogue open with her regardless of her loving or hating a show we produce, because maybe—just maybe!—the longer she’s in her position the more I’ll be able to pseudo-predict how she’s going to review a play. this is not to say that theatres should only choose programming they think reviewers will like. That’s not how this should work at all. Critics are not going to love your theatre 100% of the time. But if you can help the theatre stand out for whatever its mission is, and then stick to that mission, hopefully, all critics (and patrons too!) will recognize your organization for always being on mission, even if individual productions aren’t always top notch, and that’s what’s most important with branding in general. Say who you are. Be that thing. And hope that you’ve got enough tricks/creativity flowing through your team mates at all times so whenever a reviewer slams you, you’ve got extra ammunition in your back pocket to pull out and use to keep those patrons coming in!