The Acting Company

May 2017

GET TO KNOW LADY TATTOO:

an interview with
PLAYWRIGHT MEG MIROSHNIK
and DIRECTOR DEVIN BRAIN

 

   


What is your inspiration behind Lady Tattoo? Why now? Could you describe the story for our readers?

MM: I came across an anecdote one day about Winston Churchill's mother, Jenny, who had a snake tattooed on her wrist. She apparently covered it with a bracelet when necessary. I was surprised! I had thought that tattoos had come into the mainstream in the 1960s...I didn't realize that there was a fad decades earlier. This mystery got me thinking and writing!

The character of Picky Gibbons is largely based around the life of the first American female tattoo artist, Maud Stevens Wagner. Did you have any specific source material you gravitated towards while writing Lady Tattoo?

MM: Maud Stevens Wagner was definitely a point of inspiration. Like Picky, her husband was a tattoo artist and her mentor. Maud also had a daughter who joined the family business, traveling as a circus performer and tattooist. This is the place where I started to depart from the history. In the play, Picky struggles with the idea of her daughter following in her footsteps for both selfless and selfish reasons. 

I did a lot of reading about the history of tattoing. I particularly enjoyed and drew from Amelia Klem Osterud's The Tattooed Lady: A History. 


(Pictured: Maud Stevens Wagner)

What interests you about the dynamic between Elizabeth Arterton and Picky Gibbons?

DB: There is something lovely about the give and take of this relationship, a relationship forged across remarkable differences in age, class, education, and background. All dynamics that should get in the way of communication, and in the play we see that hurdle appear again and again, but we also see this idea of tattoos and what they come to represent to these two characters bridging those gaps. There is something lovely about watching both of them learn something from the other.

MM: Elizabeth is what Picky calls a "lady lady." Meaning, there's a huge difference in class between the two women. I was interested in exploring this dynamic because class has played such a central role in the history of American tattooing. It's a subculture of sideshow performers and sailors that has been taken into the mainstream at various points in the 20th century.At the time the play is set, even a circus performer like Picky would have had tattoos that could be covered by the high-necked styles of the period. There's a notion that one is leaving mainstream society forever by transgressing those boundaries of skin. I think that this idea is only recently receding. I can definitely remember being told there were certain kinds of jobs (i.e., white collar) that one couldn't have with visible tattoos. 

I was also interested in the role of curator. Elizabeth is a character with artistic vision, but no tangible skills to execute it. What happens to a person like that? And how does she relate to a character like Picky, who has long taken her God-given artistic abilities for granted.

The role of modesty seems to play an important role, showing contrast between moments that could be considered immodest and others that seem shy or proper. What does this idea, of a lady's modesty, spark for you?

MM: The play deals with women's autonomy over their own bodies. Picky has been tattooed by her less-talented tattoist ex-husband. Elizabeth's art collection is in her husband's name. And then, of course, we learn about their choices to become mothers or not. I don't think that we've culturally put the question to rest at all--do women truly have the right to make decisions about the own bodies? But I found it helpful to wrestle with this in a period setting where the strictures are more literal and extreme. It's about the stuff I'm thinking about today, but the past is the lens into that. 

DB: To me the play seems to reveal modesty / propriety as…well, a shell?  A defense at times, but also a prison that we put ourselves in based on our conforming to the societal expectations. Just the image of these women’s modest clothing hiding these bold statements of personal identity is fascinating to me. These women are all dressed in the mode of the early 1900’s, clothing that covered everything, and yet beneath the social masks those clothes entail there is something else, something bold and personal, some absurd and silly and revolutionary. Yeah, for me in this play modesty feels like a mask the characters put up even as they long to shed it.

In your opinion, what elevates trade into Art?

DB: That’s hard, as I don’t think there is a clean moment when craft or trade becomes art. There is some difference of intent I suppose? But mostly I think of craft and trade as the set of skills to create something, and the practice it takes to hone those skills. Art then lies in a grey area between intent and observation. I can think of craftsmen who create works that I would consider art, but that they might not use that word. There is artistry to be found everywhere, but I think that perhaps the line that the play seems to draw is the idea that Art is the moment when Craft reaches beyond it’s own boundaries. It is the moment when the creator stops simply crafting within the rules and starts expressing themselves through the work?

Your plays have been noted for their heightened attention to language and for placing emphasis on central, complex roles for women. Are there any other repeating elements or themes in your plays?

MM: Tattoos are oddly enough a repeating theme. I don't know why. The theatricality of marking skin and transformation, I guess. The big thing for me is that the women are always given their own arcs. They are never just reactive or there in support of the male protagonists growth.

DB: Having read a good portion of Meg’s work, and worked on a few of her pieces, one other element that draws me to her work is that her plays are in fact plays. Sounds simple, but a lot of plays today feel like they are plays because no one would make them into TV episodes or films. Meg’s work is consistently theatrical, and while never losing the emotional reality of her characters her work seems to also invite the audience into the experience by asking them to choose to believe in her theatrical worlds, to activate their imagination consciously.

What excites you about developing or presenting a new script?

MM: I love the process of problem-solving. So often, there's a point that's not coming across to an audience and it's just a matter of removing three words to make it pop...There's something about figuring out which three words and then watching the whole thing come to life that's just magical.

DB: New scripts are exciting because, well, they are the future. There is more danger and more possibility in a new work because there is no road map beyond the text and the collaboration. That danger is thrilling, and important if an artist is trying to really communicate with their audience.

Finally, do you have any tattoos?

DB: I do. More than few: a full sleeve of water color-esque ravens on my left arm, a large black tribal sleeve on my right arm, a small sigil on my chest, and a Shakespeare quote (“And damn’d be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'"), plus a large design of a dragon and phoenix dancing / fighting across my back.

MM: No! I keep thinking about getting one! The joy of working on this play is that everyone who encounters it shows me their tattoos, so there's a lot of inspiration! 

Meg Miroshnik's plays include The Fairytale Lives of Russian GirlsThe Droll {A Stage-Play about the END of Theatre}The Tall GirlsOld Actress, and an adaptation of the libretto for Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki. Her work has been developed or produced by the La Jolla Playhouse, O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, Center Theatre Group, Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Rep, the McCarter Theatre Center, Alliance Theatre, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab, Lark New Play Development Center, Chicago Opera Theater, the Moscow Playwright and Director Center, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Yale Cabaret, Circle X, The Wilma Theater, Perishable Theatre, WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory, One Coast Collaboration, and published in Best American Short Plays, 2008-2009. The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls was a finalist for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn prize and winner of the 2011-2012 Alliance/Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award. Recent productions: The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls at Yale Rep (directed by Rachel Chavkin, 2014), The Tall Girls at Alliance Theatre (directed by Susan V. Booth, 2014), and The Droll at Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep (directed by Mia Rovegno, 2014). She has commissions for new plays from South Coast Rep, Steppenwolf, and Yale Rep. She holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama where she studied with Paula Vogel. Meg hails from Minneapolis and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is a member of the Playwrights Union and The Kilroys.

Devin Brain is the Associate Artistic Director of The Acting Company where he has previously directed Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and went on tour as Staff Repertory Director for Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Of Mice and Men and As You Like It. He served as Artistic Director of both the Yale Cabaret and Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival. Credits include Rose Mark'd (an adaptation of Henry V, Henry VI parts 1-3 and Richard III), The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love Suicide and The Phoenix. Devin is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a member of The Hypocrites.


ON THE ROAD WITH THE 16/17 TOURING COMPANY!

by PROGRAM DIRECTOR and COMPANY MANAGER, LISA GUTTING

 

After nearly three years of developing deeper relationships with The Acting Company’s university and community partners nationwide and planning education curricula for Marcus Gardley’s X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I found myself on tour as Company Manager of the 2016-17 season. Nine weeks, five states, 53 shows, 125 workshops, 4 flights, numerous buses, 1 semi-truck, 11 hotels, 10 actors, 7 crew members, Staff Repertory Director, and me. It was my first time out on the road with the Company -- it made me realize that adventure comes with more than a few surprises along the way! 

We opened the tour in late January in Arizona where we all relished the warm desert climate. After refining the performances and re-imagining the truck pack during previews, we opened the season at Mesa Arts Center on Feb. 2, 2017 with the world premiere of Gardley’s X: Or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation.

At a student performance of X in Mesa, it was particularly moving to see rows upon rows of young Muslim girls from the Arizona Cultural Academy in white hijabs – faces beaming at the sight of the Judge and Stenographer in hijab and seeing a part of their culture represented on stage – something most had never seen before. With each performance, post-show discussion, and educational workshop the individual impact of these shows was felt through thoughtful questions, critical dialogue, and standing ovation after standing ovation.

The Superbowl came and went, our next stop was Flagstaff and then Flagstaff Medical Center where the amazing medical staff performed a late night emergency appendectomy on one of the cast. This true theater hero was back on stage three days later without missing a beat and even made the Company trip the Grand Canyon! Never a dull moment as we toured across the nation: bowling in Lawrence, KS; arcade games and craft beer in Kansas City, MO; and a visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD.

With six weeks under our belts we were ready to roll home for two weeks in NYC and open the shows Off-Broadway at The New Victory Theater! There is nothing quite like the bustle of NYC and the privilege of performing in a historic theater for diverse audiences, families, students, and our patrons.

I feel honored to have worked with this season’s extremely talented and dedicated cast and crew. We truly worked hard together as a Company to present the best shows possible and most meaningful engagement with our audiences before, during, and after each show. The memories and relationships live on as we forge our way to the next stage!

Lady Tattoo

MONDAY, May 15th

7 PM

West Side YMCA

(10 West 64th Street near Columbus Circle)

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