If you’re an actor, you know of the famous “set” – that fateful pair of monologues that shows a casting director who you are, as an actor and as a person. It is meant to demonstrate your text analysis skills, as well as your “type” and range. In just a couple minutes it says, “This is what I can do; this is who I can play.” No biggie, right? The thing is, there is a dearth of material available for women, especially in the realm of comedy.

If you’re an actor, you are probably also familiar with the history of theater – specifically the fact that women were banned from performing for centuries, from the inception of theater in Ancient Greece, well into the Renaissance. Throughout that time, men filled women’s parts, telling their stories through their own lens, rather than through an actual woman’s perspective. The history of female playwrights has been even more scarce. Today, only 30 percent of plays being produced in the United States were written by women. The meaning behind these statistics goes far beyond the numbers themselves. This inequality of representation has resulted in a lack of understanding of women’s stories and perspectives. It has allowed the voices of men to dominate the narrative and proclaim what is true for women. It has produced a significant number of shallow, one-dimensional female characters for aspiring and professional actresses to vie for. Women have so few opportunities to exercise their range and ability in comparison to men, and the material available to them is a significant root cause.

There is something that irks me about finding suitable audition material: the “overdone” list. If you are in musical theater, you have probably heard of some songs that are no-no’s for women: “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, “All that Jazz” from Chicago… the list goes on. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that it can be frustrating to casting directors who have to hear these songs over and over again. It gets repetitive and tiresome. The problem is that there isn’t a whole lot else to choose from that suits the average female voice or that has any amount of depth or complexity. Theater is rife with female plot devices that seem to only serve to move the male protagonist’s story forward. This applies to so-called “straight” plays, too.  The vast majority of material available to women does not pass the Bechdel Test. That is to say, the woman is either talking to a man, or about a man. I, for one, have better things to talk about. Most of my days are spent discussing ideas and inspiration, not lamenting my troubles in romance. My “main objective” revolves around building a better life for myself and my family – one that is more equitable and free from patriarchal structures. Even more contemporary plays do not do justice to the complexity of a woman’s life, and when they do, they are pounced upon so quickly by women hungry for something of substance, that the material quickly becomes taboo. It is suddenly considered “overdone,” even though people have been demanding Shakespeare for centuries and somehow we still haven’t gotten over that.

There are two solutions that I propose to fill the void where women’s voices currently reside: produce more works by and for women, and consider women for historically male roles. I live in Seattle, WA and there are several companies that are actively engaged in this kind of shift, including Macha Theatre Works, Upstart Crow Collective, and Hedgebrook, among others. They have recognized how vital it is to include women’s voices in the representation of our past, present, and future, and are recruiting more and more women to be a part of their initiative. They are re-imagining the way that we view women in the world by handing them the mic and encouraging them to speak their truth.

My truth is that my life as a young woman is far more complex than the roles I see as available for me to play.

The way our audition system is set up perpetuates a gendered standard of how men and women are expected to behave. We demand that actors prepare material that represents “who they are,” and yet I rarely see myself represented in the material I find. How, then, am I to understand myself as a human being and how I fit into this seemingly crystallized system?

I went to an audition a few days ago where we were told we could prepare anything we wanted. A monologue, a scene, a song, dance, or story. This, of course, led to some pretty interesting presentations. But it split open the bubble of expectation that we, as actors, have been conditioned to protect. I initially planned on pulling out one of my (already tired) monologues – those faithful words that provide some modicum of female empowerment in the audition room – a privilege so seldom granted. But then I realized: I can do whatever I want. And I have never felt more empowered onstage than when I performed my solo show, A Pyrate’s Life: Anne Bonny. I decided to perform a scene that I myself had crafted – a scene that breaks the convention of how women “should” act and puts Anne’s future in her own hands. It is a moment where she takes a leap of faith and changes the course of her life forever. Now, I don’t think my fate is tied up in this audition, but it did offer me a new perspective on the possibilities of auditioning.

We should not let ourselves be restricted by the standards laid before us. We should feel free to take a risk and explore our options. I, for one, will continue to seek out empowering female monologues, but I will also not be limited by gender. I will find material that really speaks to me and resonates with me, rather than that which is defined as “Female, Early 20’s, Comedic.” I hope you will break out the walls of your own prison and continue to challenge the status quo that tells you where you “fit.” Don’t let yourself be boxed in anywhere. Define yourself and who you want to be as a person and an artist. Revolution is the only path toward evolution. Keep rising up.

Co-producer Kymberlee della Luce sat down with me to talk about the generation of A Pyrate’s Life: Anne Bonny.

What was your inspiration for Anne Bonny?
The idea came from one of my teachers, Keira McDonald, who suggested I look into female pirates. This would engage my love of history, and give me the chance to incorporate stage combat and dialects, which I have an affinity for. It also provided the opportunity to explore a powerful woman’s story and embody her ferocity.
I didn’t really know anything about female pirates, so I Googled a list of names and read each of their bios. I was drawn to Anne’s strange origin story and the fire in her belly. She was a person who took her life into her own hands, and I find that very inspiring.

What was your creative process?
I originally developed this piece in a solo performance class at Cornish College of the Arts with Keira McDonald and Marc Kenison. We had to bring in material every week to get feedback on from the class which, by necessity, kept me rolling along. I learned what was drawing people in and what they wanted to learn more about, and that often took me in a direction I couldn’t have planned.
A lot of it was trial and error. I started out doing research, trying to learn whatever I could about her. The information out there is pretty limited, so I had to fill in the blanks along the way. I took her major life events and fleshed them out into scenes. This took me into researching the other major players in her life, like Mary Read and Calico Jack. It’s also when I had to start thinking about what these people sounded like and how they moved.
Again, the feedback that I received from my teachers and cohort was invaluable. Just because you’re doing a “solo” show, doesn’t mean you should go it alone. Quite the opposite – you need that outside set of eyes and point of view that can tell you what’s reading and what you need to specify.

What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?
I think the most surprising thing was the lack of information about what happened to her! It’s like she got arrested and then her story just stopped. This presented me with an interesting challenge, because I had to just make it up. But I’m pretty happy with the “ending” I gave her.

Do you find this character relatable? If so, why?
I think Anne embodied and experienced a lot of what women today are going through. She was born into this patriarchal system that told her she should be one thing, and she wasn’t having any of it! She charted her own course (so to speak), and yeah, she hurt people along the way, but she was living life to the fullest and being her authentic self. I know I have something to learn in that regard, and I’m sure a lot of women can relate. It can be difficult to find your own unique voice in a world that constantly demands conformity, but Anne did that.

Why this story now?
We have reached a point on a national and international level where women are really done taking men’s shit. We are done being told what to think, how to act, and what to do with our bodies. Anne Bonny was an early feminist. She defied the expectations of the men in her life and did what the fuck she wanted! While I don’t condone the ways in which she harmed people, I admire her tenacity in the pursuit of a life of her own choosing, and I believe that’s where we, as women, are headed. Not isolated, on our individual “hero’s journey,” but among community that values and cares for us – who have our back and will fight for our right to sovereignty. I don’t know that Anne truly had that, but she took the first step onto that ship, and it’s our job to keep it sailing onward.

Anne Bonny

I am currently Assistant Directing the Caryl Churchill play Vinegar Tom, which our director, Kaytlin McIntire calls, “a play about witches with no witches.” Written in 1976, at the height of the Second Wave Feminist movement, it addresses the social and political origins of the 17th century European witch hunts – and the history is bleak.

I have done an extensive amount of dramaturgical work (research) on the time period, and the picture it paints is one of complete condemnation and persecution of the female sex. The witch hunts were essentially designed to root out anyone that opposed or didn’t conform to the patriarchal model of the time (and this one). Specifically, this meant single women, widows, the old, and the poor. All of these people were considered a needless expense of their village, because they did not neatly fit into the “woman’s” role as wife, child-bearer, or even sex object. If they couldn’t be used for baby-making, they were of no use to society.

I didn’t grow up with any sort of religion, so it shocked me to hear the Christian assertion that women were to pay for Eve’s sin by bearing children, and that even having done this, must also suffer the pain of childbirth. There was no way for them to ultimately absolve themselves – they were inherently evil.

This mindset was the genesis, so to speak, of the “swimming” test performed on witches at this time. In it, an accused “witch” was tightly bound and then tossed into a body of water. If they floated, it meant that the “holy” water was rejecting them and they were indeed a witch. If they sank, they were innocent. Of course, this often meant that they were also dead.

Swimming Witch Test

Women could be condemned simply for the way they looked – sound familiar? In Antonia Fraser’s book, The Weaker Vessel, she says:

In the writhings of the popular imagination concerning the old, all these webs – woman’s weakness, her voracity, ugliness and Satan – became darkly and menacingly entangled. The bodies of old women, twisted and gnarled by time like tree trunks, marred perhaps by protuberances and growths of different sorts including harmless warts and lumps and dangerous tumours – might the dissolving eye of fantasy not see in these ugly excrescences and bumps strange teats which the devil could suck? Was a particular wart or discoloration a mark of old age – or the witch’s mark, which when pricked did not hurt? (103)

The witch prickings were a particularly disturbing phenomenon of the time. They were designed to discover what were known as “devil’s marks,” which in truth, could’ve been as simple as a mole, wart, or freckle. Witch hunters would use long, ornate needles to poke these spots, claiming that if the woman was a witch, she would not feel pain. Since they were, in fact, simple blemishes on the skin, this practice was really just a method of torture to induce a confession. Successfully condemning a witch was a profitable market, and as such, professional witch hunters began to emerge. In order to ensure conviction, the witch hunters developed trick retractable needles which, needless to say, did not inflict pain on the victims, but did confirm them as witches in the eyes of the public.

The public nature of these accusations and trials were what drove them forward across miles and years. “Heresy” was the crime of the age, and resulted in millions of deaths over several centuries. This means that any act or even thought “against God,” was punishable, usually by death. To make things even more complicated, the rules around this were entirely subjective and changed rapidly. The reign of terror inflicted by Protestants and Catholics alike had far-reaching and deeply- penetrating consequences. They created an atmosphere of fear among the general populace, which spread like wildfire. There was no limit to the violence that people inflicted upon one another – it was every person for themselves. And, as is still the case, women and children were the most vulnerable groups, as they had no freedom or control over their own lives. Women’s very existence was a sin. They were not considered people, and so were subjected to any form of torture, humiliation, or punishment that the nobility, clergy, and lawmakers could dream up.

While the free reign of such abuse has been curtailed in the present day, its roots are still felt and its repercussions apparent. We are still condemning women for daring to challenge the status quo. We are still silencing their voices. There is still no justice for the wrongs that have been done, and that continue to be done to women.

So where do we go from here? Where can we find the seeds of hope?

In each other. In our communities.

The most powerful tool used during the religious wars and the witch hunts was division – divisiveness. People were pitted against each other and convinced of “the other’s” wrongdoing. They were conditioned to be suspicious of their neighbors, not to sit down and get to know them. The result has been centuries of assumptions and taking sides. One of the tragic elements of the feud between Catholics and Protestants is that, at the end of the day, they were really just splitting hairs over what it meant to be truly faithful to God. And in the mean time, they completely ignored true Christian values – the teachings of Christ. In fact, they trampled, maimed, and mutilated them – and their fellow human beings.

At some point we must consider the cost of our humanity. What is “righteousness” worth? Your life? Someone else’s? An entire group of people? That’s what it has been, historically.

We must switch this narrative if we are going to survive – and thrive. We need to start looking out for one another – investing in the human race, as a whole. We need to break down the barriers and walls that have been built and reinforced by those in power, who hold no regard for the general population. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves and focus our attention on dismantling these systems of oppression. Because they are systems. They have figureheads, but they are not the individuals themselves. We need to address the root of our problems and the crises we face today. We need to look back at our history, and we need to look forward toward our future.