—Originally published January 30, 2017—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw Lipstick Theatre’s production of Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness.” Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
It was a strange thing to think about in the middle of a protest — stranger still to think while in the process of chanting along with the others around her — but even Gwen was surprised when Lipstick Theatre’s upcoming production of “Body Awareness” wormed its way into her head in the middle of the Chicago Women’s March.
The protests taking place nationally – and internationally, she would learn – had been beset by criticism online when a pro-life group of marchers, in Washington, D.C., had been kicked out of the march. Gwen hadn’t agreed with the decision, seeing the “women’s” march as an opportunity to bring people together rather than highlight our differences. Besides, during the Chicago march, she had seen plenty of men, and more than a few signs with pro-life messages.
It was when she checked her phone in the middle of a rally that Annie Baker’s play popped up. Swiping through social media, there were calls to action in every direction: call your senators, boycott these businesses, get out and march, call your senators, donate to ACLU, call your senators. It was an overload of necessary activism, and as Gwen stood at the women’s march – looking over the hundreds of thousands of pink hats surrounding her – hearing Dania, now several feet away from her in the swirling crowd, loudly informing the crowd what democracy looks like – she quietly wondered if being in the crowd was helping.
Gwen had seen “Body Awareness” only one time previously, at a local theatre in her hometown, years ago. She recalled only the basics of the plot: two women and their son, who has Aspergers…or does he think he has Aspergers? There’s a photographer, he takes pictures of naked women, and one of the women thinks this is artistic and the other thinks it’s exploitative. Right. And then one poses for him…is it the first one? The one who thinks they’re beautiful? Or the other one, does she change her mind at some point?
Dania and the crowd around her had morphed into another chant by now, one concerning female organs. Gwen recalled someone posting about how “women don’t need to be biologically female to be women,” or some rephrasing of that. But then, Gwen remembered the pro-life women being rejected in D.C.
Aren’t they all women? Gwen thought to herself. There are men here too. Cisgender men. Should they leave?
Eleanor was unable to attend the march. She worked in the morning on Saturdays, and having put in her request for the morning off too late, she had been left at the Library information desk alone with a male co-worker, filling in for the women who had left.
She glanced around the ground floor of the library, trying to determine if the crowd milling about was more male than usual – if all the women typically in the library had vanished. There were a few people gathered at the far end of the lab room, too far away to tell gender based on visuals. Of course, you can’t always tell gender based on visuals, Eleanor silently chided herself. But she knew what she meant regardless. Glancing once again, she concluded that the emptiness was most likely the result of the date, Saturday morning, than any perceived threats to the system of democracy.
On her computer, she also scrolled past the same posts as Gwen had, seeing the same mutual friends posting congressional phone numbers, checking the list of affected states to see if it warranted her calling her senators on a specific issue (MA is never on that list, she thought). As she scrolled along, growing more and more concerned for her future in a country slowly bending the moral arc of the universe back to a breaking point, she thought about image.
In July, Eleanor had made donations to the National Immigrant Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Media Justice. Admittedly, they were in-name donations, requested to her parents as birthday gifts. In November, she had asked her parents if they could make the donations monthly. Her parents, budget strapped, compromised and turned them into yearly donations – “they’ll still need them in four years,” her father had said. Eleanor told herself – promised to her future self – that once she had a stable job out of college, and a salary that allowed for greater philanthropy, she would donate more.
But none of this had she put on Facebook. Her posts did not litter the news feeds of her friends, save for what she shared when a friend encouraged others to share as well. Her activism had been private. Effective, but private.
She thought of Gwen and Dania at the march, surrounded by “nasty women” and activists, chanting, shouting, holding signs, demanding, singing, standing out.
“Am I helping?” Eleanor said aloud.
“What” said her male co-hort, turning his head across the desk.
“Oh, nothing,” Eleanor said. She looked around the library ground floor again. The unidentified person from earlier had moved closer to use the printer. That was definitely a man.
Taking her program as she walked into Shanley Pavilion, Gwen began to recall details of “Body Awareness” from what she had forgotten. Joyce! Right, that was the woman who starts the show, with the whole whiteboard business. And Frank Bonatanti…Boninatbi…Photographer Frank and his complete lack of social cues in his first scene. She knew this show.
“Big set,” Dania said, taking in the house positioned around the Shanley pole.
“Yep,” Eleanor said. “Not quite ‘StuCo-builds-a-house,’ but close.”
“Let’s sit up close,” Dania said, pulling Eleanor to the front row.
Gwen trailed behind, following. She looked around the theatre and saw the director, Pauline M. Moll, and producer, Lindsey Weiss. Had they been at the march? It seemed likely. The subject matter of the show was more timely now than ever. Nastiness was on the mind, and it was certainly on Gwen’s mind as the show began.
As the applause died down, Dania heard the strangest thing to her right: someone sniffling. She turned and caught Eleanor wiping a tear away from her face.
“Were you crying?” Dania asked.
“No, I only…” Eleanor said, trailing off. She rubbed her fist into her eye, trying to clear her vision. “I just got a little teary at the end there.”
“Hm,” Dania said. She had enjoyed the show, but had it been cry-worthy?
“I have to say hi to the people I know,” Gwen said. “I’ll catch the two of you outside.”
“Cool,” Eleanor said.
Dania and Eleanor made their way through the crowd. Eleanor quietly hoped they could talk about the show within the heated walls of Shanley, rather than heading out into the cold January wind. But the 100-yard rule held fast, and they didn’t want anyone to hear what they would say about the show.
Stepping outside and stuffing her hands into her pockets (“I should have brought gloves,” Dania added), the two walked towards the bike racks, a few feet from the entrance to Shanley. They stood motionless, glancing around. No one else had exited.
Dania turned to Eleanor. “Well,” she said. “Does the 100-yard rule count when there’s no one around to hear us?”
Eleanor laughed lightly, then sniffled again. “I guess not. And I don’t really care if people know that I liked it so, so much.”
“I did too,” Dania said. “Sure, it was a little slow at times. And that guy was so slimy…”
“I know, right?” Eleanor said. “I mean, he was clearly supposed to be, that’s what makes the two women angry with each other.”
“True,” Dania conceded.
“But the whole ending of it, with Joyce and the photographs, and Phyllis and her long tangents trying to figure things out, it’s just…it’s such a good play.”
“I got confused by it, I’ll admit,” Dania said. “It’s clear that both of the women are, like, liberal, you know? But then Phyllis gets all body-policing about the photographs and both of them are trying to force the son into this diagnosis of Aspergers. It was weird.”
“Gwen would probably say that’s the point,” Eleanor said. “That it’s not oversimplifying the divide between who’s in the right and who’s wrong as far as sensitivities go. Everyone’s sensitive about different things.”
“Well, I’m sensitive about not having some creepy guy take naked photos of women.”
“As am I, obviously,” Eleanor said. “Although I didn’t totally hate Frank.”
“You didn’t?” Dania said, shocked.
“I mean, he was a jerk, that’s for sure,” Eleanor said. “But arguably he was just really willing to let other people’s beliefs speak for themselves. I kind of liked…well, I mean…”
“The whole conversation with Joyce in the gallery – I assume it was in a gallery – about artistic intent? Where she asked him what he did with the pictures?”
“Oh, you mean if he jacked off to them?” Dania said, curtly.
“Yes,” Eleanor acknowledged. She had hoped to avoid the specifics of their conversation, but this would do. “That conversation.”
“And you thought it didn’t matter?” Dania asked.
“Not that it didn’t matter, but just that…the idea that it is impossible after a certain point to know what the intention of art is. Right?”
“You’re not supporting the photographs, are you?”
“No, not technically,” Eleanor said. “Maybe it was just the actor that did it. But I did at least see where he was coming from, even if I disagreed with it.”
Dania didn’t respond right away.
“If you think about what Phyllis says later, with the vaguely racist bushmen metaphor. Do we know that artistic intent?”
“I don’t know.”
“And what about people who don’t know that Frank is a man? What if were a woman taking the pictures?”
“But it’s not.”
“But it could be.”
“But it’s not,” Dania said, turning to Eleanor again.
Gwen exited Shanley just in time to see Dania shoot a look to Eleanor.
“Is something going on here?” Gwen asked.
“We were discussing––” Eleanor began.
“You find Frank to be creepy, right, Gwen?” Dania asked.
“I do,” Gwen said. “Perhaps a little too creepy.”
“What do you mean by ‘too creepy?’” Eleanor asked as they began to walk home.
“If they want to paint the different viewpoints about exploitative authorship fairly, they have to actually present Frank as a legitimate opinion, rather than just saying he’s weird the whole time,” Gwen said. “Having him eat all the baby carrots with his mouth open in the first scene is just asking the audience to dislike him right away.”
“I would have disliked him anyway once the photos were mentioned,” Dania said. “Because…wait, the photos were mentioned before he came in, right?”
“I think she’s right, Gwen,” said Eleanor. “I remember when he appeared for the first time, I thought, ‘yep, that looks like a guy who takes pictures of naked women.’”
“Did he?” Gwen said. “I suppose he did. But at any rate, I just thought the production was stacked against him, painting him as this unrepentant…”
“Are you really going to say the problem with the show was that they didn’t treat the creepy photographer with enough respect?” Dania interrupted.
Gwen sighed. She realized how that argument sounded. But it was true: the production seemed simultaneously focused on proving that neither Joyce or Phyllis was entirely in the wrong, while still fully condemning Frank – a dichotomy that didn’t seem to make sense. But, Gwen supposed, not everyone could bite the bullet for their opinions the same way, well, Frank could. That’s basically the point of the show: personal taste affects objective moral judgement.
“That’s true,” Gwen finally said. “I don’t suppose I would want him presented in a way that said he wasn’t discomforting.”
“Exactly,” Dania said. “He was creepy and weird.”
“I thought the actor did a nice job with him, though,” Eleanor said.
“All the performers were really good,” Gwen said. “Helena and Juliet played off each other really well in all the scenes they had together, especially the ones in the bedroom.”
“Hm,” Dania said. “I liked them, although it was unfortunate where I was seated.”
“Oh, you must have been right behind the Shanley Pole, weren’t you?” Eleanor asked. “You were on my right.”
“Yep,” Dania said. “Right in the middle, right in front of the bedroom.”
“Still,” Gwen said, “only a few scenes take place up there. I will say, too, I thought it was clever to position the bed higher up onstage so we could only hear their voices when they were lying down in bed. Left more to the ear to interpret.”
“The whole set was impressive, overall,” Eleanor added. “That the entire kitchen was there as well, making it all feel like a real house.”
“I did wonder how they were going to stage things that took place outside the house, initially,” Gwen admitted. “You know, scenes at the gallery and at Phyllis’ college addresses. But they sold it and it still worked out.”
“I don’t know why she had to write out the day of the week every single day,” Dania said. “Couldn’t they have written it on pieces of paper and just flipped them over, or something?”
“That’s in the script,” Gwen said. “Her writing the days out, I mean.”
“It’s showing the passage of time over the week.”
“Okay,” Dania said. “So could just having signs.”
“It’s what Annie Baker wanted, anyway.”
“You know what I found funny,” Eleanor said, smiling. “Or, not necessarily funny, but…well, I suppose funny, considering Phyllis at the end of Act One…”
“What was funny?” Gwen said. “The ‘retarded’ joke?’”
“Not the joke itself,” Eleanor said. “But the context around it. The program has a content warning about discussions of ableism, and child abuse, and the producer gets up and gives a very heartfelt speech about the content in the show, and then in the actual show, there are mixed messages about how to treat that kind of language anyway.”
“It is very clear whose side the team for the show is on, either Phyllis’ or Joyce’s,” Gwen said. “At least, in terms of policing language. But I thought they actually did an excellent job of not painting either woman as the one who was ‘right’ in the story.”
“The shot at burlesque was kind of funny,” Dania said. “Considering Lipstick is already planning theirs for the exact reasons she said in the play.”
“I was just going to say that!” Eleanor said. “It’s fascinating that Lipstick produced a play that presents an opinion that goes so contrary to their own.”
“Wait, this show was by Lipstick?”
“That’s another example,” Gwen said. “It’s fantastic that a show like this one is coming to Northwestern. Especially in light of the election, and the marches and everything…”
“The continuing marches,” Eleanor said. She had checked her phone at intermission and saw a new event to congregate at O’Hare Airport that evening.
“Ongoing protests, yes,” Gwen said. “All these arguments about the ‘right way to be an activist,’ and the importance of always showing up and believing the right things…”
“‘You have to be at the Women’s March,’ and stuff,” Eleanor said, quoting the mantra she had heard the past week.
“Yes…although, you should go to the march, if you can,” Gwen said.
“Even though she couldn’t,” Dania said, pointing to Eleanor.
“Oh, right,” Gwen said, backing down. “Sorry about that.”
“Well, it’s like you were just saying,” Eleanor said. “The play is about how there’s no ‘correct’ way to be an activist, or to believe whatever you believe.”
“People are going to disagree,” Gwen continued. “They always do. Even when they agree generally, people will find small reasons to still argue within their own…”
“Parties?” Dania suggested.
“I was going to say ‘sides,’ but I’ve been trying to avoid the reductive two-sided view of things lately,” Gwen said.
“Well, people do generally see issues as being between two sides, anyway,” Eleanor admitted.
“That’s true,” Gwen said.
“I am absolutely in support of resistance to whatever is going on,” Dania said. “But that doesn’t mean we all need to do the same things in order to resist.”
“Yeah,” Eleanor said. She considered bringing up the O’Hare protest that night, and her reticence to attend, but decided it wasn’t the place to mention it for the first time.
“It really is strange,” Gwen repeated. “Having a production go up on campus — not only on campus, but now on campus — saying that liberals can all disagree with each other without being considered, I don’t know, ‘fake allies’ or something. I think that’s important, no matter who produces it or how good the show is.”
“Well, ‘fake allies’ are still out there,” Eleanor warned. “Let’s not forget that.”
“Definitely,” Dania added. “But I get what she means, not everyone who disagrees with how to do things in the next four years is automatically fake.”
“Yes,” Gwen said.
“Yeah,” Eleanor concluded.
“I’m still not entirely sure how you pulled that moral out of the show,” Dania said. “But whatever, I agree.”
“It’s in there,” Gwen said. “I know it is, it’s just a very complex show.”
“What does the director’s note say?” Eleanor said, digging her way through the program again.”
“It’s a poem, and really short,” Dania said. “Something about ‘why look for answers when you can look for people?’”
“Yeah,” Eleanor said, reading Pauline M. Moll’s words from the program. “There are no definite answers. / We made up the dictionary.”
“Yeah, that,” Dania agreed. “No one is 100% right all the time.”
“Well, some people are 100% wrong,” Gwen said. “Right?”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “You mean on the other side?”
“Yes, the other…well, now we’re back to sides again.”
“It’s complicated,” Dania groaned. “But I guess it worked if it made us think. Right, Gwen? That’s what theatre’s going to be doing for the next four years?”
Gwen looked to Dania. She seemed a little disheartened at the prospect of four years of ethically grey theatre. No more happy endings.
“Maybe not everything,” Gwen posited. “But it’s important that this stuff happens.”
“Sure,” Dania agreed, as they walked on towards their home.