What if men wore makeup and earned less than women? What if they clicked around in heels and were afraid to walk alone at night? Chicago writer/performer Vincent Truman asks these questions in his new play Venus Envy. He spoke with Our Town about directing, feminism and “Glen Steinem.”
Our Town Stereotypically, one might expect a play like Venus Envy to have been written by a woman. Thoughts?
Vincent Truman I think that's a marvelous idea. I wish one would have.
OT What was your original inspiration for the play?
VT The year 1920. That was the year that women, after a 40+ year struggle, finally got the right to vote. Although this was pretty common knowledge amongst my peers when I grew up, I have been appalled to discover that the majority of my younger female friends had no idea of this date or the importance of it. Perhaps it is because there are not enough monuments for women's history - there are few Martin Luther King Drives or Stonewalls for women - but I do not see the ignorance (not stupidity) of their own history to be a primary cause for the erosion of women's rights, especially recently. That bothered me intensely. I knew I could not write a play about women's history, but I could do a "flip," make it a woman's world in which women deride men for not knowing their history. That way, I could get the point across without being too aggressive or preachy.
OT The concept you're working with is one seen before--in 1986 Gloria Steinem wrote an essay imagining the sort of world you’ve set up--how do you move beyond a clever idea to create the depth needed to fuel a full show?
VT Indeed! And before that, Norman Lear concepted a short-lived show called 'All That Glitters' which had the same conceit. What I did with Venus Envy was gave lip service to the surface issues - men wear make-up in the play while the women do not - and did a great deal of research into how society and civilization evolved thousands of years ago. Prior to the emergence of the three major monotheisms that are so prevalent, many theologies were based on and around woman. The three monotheisms have, for millennia, made a concentrated effort to keep women in their place (making them, literally, chattel, along with cows, pigs, homes and other things owned by men). For Venus, I stripped those out of history altogether (replacing them with a female version of Christianity), which affected the majority of the writing, attitudes and performance. The hunter/gatherers in Venus are errand boys, not claimants of power.
On that score, there was much discussion about the word 'empowered.' Most of the female actors responded favorably to the concept when we first started discussing the piece. I then asked them, 'what would the world be like if you weren't empowered at all... but you simply had the power to begin with?' There were so many eye-opening moments in the rehearsal process for everyone, but that was a big one. Everyone's performance changed.
Incidentally, Gloria Steinem is namechecked in the play, but is remarked on as 'Glen Steinem.' There are so many references that have been flipped - the three main characters meet at a restaurant on Coretta Scott Boulevard, there's discussion of how many children President Rodham has - that I don't think I can count them all.
OT Would a world run by women be inherently better than one run by men?
VT My conclusion is that it would be different, neither better nor worse. People in charge tend to be arrogant and overbearing, no matter where in history or when on planet; I don't think that would change terribly. I make one observation in the play that there has only been one major war in all of history, but that 42.5% of the planet remains uninhabitable.
OT What informs your writing? Does your personal life figure in?
VT I do use little nuggets of personal experience in my plays; it's a good way to exorcise some demons by removing them from one's head and putting them on a page. My divorce of earlier this year produced some interesting twists on male/female relationships which aided the piece. I would never drop something personal in just to do it, though.
OT As a director, how did you go about cultivating a sense of believability in the play’s fantastical world?
VT For the first few rehearsals, I didn't really give the male actors the time of day. I wasn't rude, but I was somewhat dismissive of their efforts and made them work twice as hard to be considered half as good. At some point, I revealed to the cast what I was up to, and there were more than a few 'aha's coming from everyone. And once the male actors started wearing the heels and sporting makeup, it was quite easy for everyone to be very aware of the changed perception. Both the women and men in the cast have had their share of eye-opening moments and have come out the other end being more respectful and empathetic to each other. Most rehearsals now end with a spontaneous, heart-felt group hug, something I've not experienced on prior projects. It has been an mind-blower!
OT Are you a feminist?
VT I'm a classic feminist, from the Steinem or Paglia or King schools of thought. I do think that feminism is more than just pro-woman and there is much that can be done to achieve equality. Feminism seems a better vehicle than most other approaches. I think, in time, humanism will supplant both feminism and masculinism, though I don't expect to see it in my lifetime. One can only try to push the process along.
'Venus Envy' runs through September 23rd at The Charnel House. Buy tickets here.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez and Facebook.