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The Difficulties Facing Feminist Theater: The Survival of At the Foot of the Mountain

Sandra M. Bemis

Volume 1, 1987

Feminist theater has emerged as a direct result of the feminist movement. Too often theater that is specifically feminist in its intent is categorized as being exclusively by and for women. This label is superficial and rooted in the stereotypical misconceptions placed upon the feminist movement. Furthermore, feminist theater is generally defined within the broader context of women's theater, even though feminist performing companies are often concerned with issues that are more political and social in nature. Women's theater also deals with such issues, but their goal is geared more towards entertainment rather than social change. Feminist theater historian Meredith Flynn states: "feminist theater needs to be examined within its own political context so that its innovations and contributions to the development of theater may be better understood and appreciated" (5). At the Foot of the Mountain provides an excellent example. However, before the difficulties facing feminist theater organizations such as At the Foot of the Mountain can be fully examined, it is important to define more specifically what separates feminist theater from the women's movement.

Contemporary feminist thought spans a nearly infinite range of political and social orientations. Members are extreme right, extreme left, wives, mothers, working class, upper-class, and even men. While such membership offers diversity within the ranks of the movement, such a wide strata of beliefs has made it difficult for the movement to consolidate its goals. Perhaps feminism can best be summarized as: "a mode of analysis, a method of approaching life and politics, rather than a set of political conclusions about the oppression of women' (Building Feminist Theory 35).

Shirlee Hennigan, author of The Woman Director in the Contemporary Professional Theatre, in defining feminism for theater artists concludes: "Rather than deciding where on the radical-moderate continuum the definitive 'feminism' should be located, my definition includes the entire range and makes the decisive factor the collectiveness evoked by and due to the raised consciousness"(61). The collectiveness to which Hennigan refers is the emphasis that feminism places on the importance of the group rather than on the importance of the individual. Thus, feminists are working for the equality of all, whether they be male or female.

However, if feminism works for the equality of all individuals, why is it so misunderstood? Part of the answer lies in the diverse beliefs of the feminists themselves. Because the movement lacks clearly defined goals and objectives, the intentions or actions of feminists are easily misinterpreted. People see the feminist call for social change as an attack on their morality and personal lifestyle. Therefore, the mention of feminism often elicits a negative reaction. Perhaps Hennigan has found the answer for this question:

"It would seem likely that if men were presented with enough evidence, they would see the 'error of their ways' and immediately cease discriminating against women. This hasn't worked with racial discrimination or the ERA and it has been a hard lesson, but women have learned that no matter how much evidence is presented, logical proof is useless when the listener is operating on an emotional level. Listeners who have different belief systems, who see their norms and values as under attack, will not be moved by logic" (90-91).


This is the very reason that feminist theater is so vital to the goals of the feminist movement. It allows the audience to identify with the dramatic action through the shock of emotional and personal recognition. Social change can, therefore, be implemented.

In the early stages of the women's liberation movement, consciousness raising groups provided a structure for the exploration of sisterhood, unity, camaraderie, and shared oppression. This was achieved through discussion which allowed people to broaden their perceptions of the world and the way their lives were consequently shaped by the people and events around them. Although differences in regards to class, race, sexuality, and politics soon became evident, the practice of applying self-awareness techniques to political action and doctrine became widespread. As a result, feminists came to the realization that much of what is social or personal is also political in nature--they don't see politics as relating exclusively to government. Every aspect of an individual's life can carry political implications.

Feminist theater in the United States emerged in the early 1970s through the momentum of the women's liberation movement and the radical theater practices of the 1960s (Leavitt 1). The Radical Theater Movement, which included such groups as the Open Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the National Black Theater, and the Living Theater, was motivated by the changes in perception about human beings and their environment (Leavitt 2). The history of the movement reflects a search for adequate methods with which to express these changes in perception. Within the movement are two theatrical styles: experimental theater and political theater. Experimental theater sought to revolutionize techniques by an ensemble of artists. Political theater was specifically political in its method and intent (Leavitt 2). It analyzed and challenged social institutions, debated political issues, and advocated social change. The goal was not to entertain, but to improve the quality of life in the society (Flynn 57). Feminist theater also shares this goal and is, therefore, more political than experimental in its intent. The feminist movement sparked an historical analysis of female artists, the merit of their work, and the possibility of a

specifically female point of view in regards to art. Artist Joelyn Snyder-Ott concluded: "Western civilization's culture and arts are 'male' dominated and 'male' oriented. Women's highest artistic achievements are off the scene, seldom heard, or if heard devalued, and finally viewed, but not observed" (Leavitt 3).

It was important that the women's movement and radical theater coincided. The women's movement clearly defined the causes of female oppression and thus provided possible solutions to the problem. Political theater, particularly the Black Theater Movement and its methods for vividly dealing with the issue of racism, opened the way for the public examination of difficult social issues.

Actual steps toward a completely feminist theater were taken in 1972, when a group of women playwrights (Rosalyn Drexler, Maria Irene Fornes, Julie Bovasso, Megan Terry, Rochelle Owens, and Adrianne Kennedy) formed the Women's Theater Council. While not professing feminism, it sought to create a professional theater which would develop the talents of women in all areas of the theater (Leavitt 4).

As feminist theater gains momentum, feminist drama grows in importance and relevance to people's lives. But this development is slow. Traditional American theater, dominated by male characters, gives little thought to an accurate portrayal of the female experience. Although some plays have major female roles, the fact that they focus on women does not necessarily mean that they provide an accurate and balanced picture of women. In Arthur Miller's drama, Death of a Salesman, the role of Linda is pivotal. Although this role is a major one, it does not provide a desirable role model (Leavitt 81). Linda's unhappiness is clearly evident. However, we perceive her unhappiness from the male point of view, not because we are allowed into her own private world. By not examining the reasons behind her emotional state, her condition cannot change.

Feminist artist Myrna Lamb "...sees no single correct way to present women in drama, but she feels that reaching a final awareness is mandatory for a protagonist in a feminist play" (Leavitt 13) Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, one of the first plays to exhibit feminist characteristics, provides a perfect example. At the end of the play, Nora decides to leave her husband and children and make a life of her own. She comes to the realization that the loss of her own self-worth is not an acceptable price to pay if she is to remain with Torvald. Nora's slamming of the door as she leaves was a shock that was "heard around the world." To an audience in 1879, such feminist action was almost incomprehensible and consequently the play was banned in most countries--surprising, because Nora was the product of a male mind. Interestingly enough, Nora's decision is still shocking to modern audiences despite the increased awareness of the female experience.

Modern feminist drama, written by and for women, arrives at the universal through the personal; it is created from the author's own personal experiences. Although characters are different and must be considered within the context of their plays, some similarities do exist. Many plays show women in the midst of an identity crisis. The dramatic conflict, therefore, arises out of how a women reacts to her situation and the way in which she ultimately solves her dilemma. The heroine is often angry, confused, and on the brink of some new awareness of herself and her role as a woman (Leavitt 97).

An important trend in achieving this awareness is the use of negative female images in new, positive ways (Leavitt 17). Hysteria and emotionalism are exposed and used in performance. The rationale supporting such exploration is that negative images and behavior exist for a reason. Feminists need to show why such behavior is present in women. Stereotyped female characters in traditional male drama are "hysterical" and "bitchy" without any apparent reason. There is no explanation of the human motivation of the women's inner-self. She simply behaves the way she does because she is a "bitch." Finally, feminists believe that these "female characteristics" may not be negative at all when presented from the women's perspective. Just as blacks have had to escape the "nigger" image, so have women had to shake the burden of being considered "emotional hysterics.' (Leavitt 100).

The growth of the feminist theater movement generated a keen interest among feminists, who saw the potential that theater offered for presenting their message. As a result, many theater groups were established, but only a handful have survived. Those that have faced many of the same problems, which are very circular in nature. As with any type of theatrical venture, adequate funding was, and still is, difficult to obtain. Groups are often unable to pay their members on a full-time basis, if at all. Thus it is necessary for women to hold jobs outside of the theater. This double work load often causes burnout. Rather than resigning from the jobs that support them financially, women are forced to quit the theater. There is also a lack of artistic dedication in many organizations. Women whose primary interest is feminist politics have little patience with either managing the business aspect of a theater group or spending long hours rehearsing for a theatrical production. Finally, there is an overall lack of solid theatrical experience. People have good intentions and much enthusiasm, but without the skills to write plays, construct scenery, costumes, and props, and to direct the plays in production, it is difficult to maintain professional standards (Flynn, 5-6).

In spite of these odds, the issues are important enough that some companies have not only survived, but have made a major impact on their community. One such company is At the Foot of the Mountain, a Minneapolis-based organization established in 1974. At the Foot of the Mountain is the oldest continuously producing women's theater in the United States and has a national reputation for its artistic excellence and experimental techniques. It is a theater that is committed to a women-centered vision of art and society (Flynn 5). At the Foot of the Mountain has developed many experimental techniques. The three most important of these are the feeling circle, Ritual Drama, and company collaboration. Each of these theatrical conventions has its origins in feminism (Flynn 238). The feeling circle is similar to a consciousness-raising group and is used at the beginning of every rehearsal. The members of the company sit together and take turns identifying their emotions at that particular moment. The circle was developed as an acting exercise which would allow women to become completely aware of their different emotional states (Flynn 240). As a result of this awareness, they would then be able to accurately recreate these emotions during rehearsal and performance. The women of At the Foot of the Mountain believe there are six basic emotions: joy, sorrow, love, anger, fear, and shame (Flynn 87). By limiting the emotional states in this manner, a performer is forced to analyze more carefully what she feels.

There is also a personal aspect to the feeling circle. Performers are allowed to discuss any positive or negative emotions they might have concerning the production. In addition, the circle can be used as a clearing session for interpersonal clashes. Finally, personal therapy can be achieved through the emotional analysis. The feeling circle forces each individual to be completely honest with herself and with others (Flynn 102).

There are a few disadvantages to this process of self-examination. When first introduced to the feeling circle, most people experience anxiety over the way they will be perceived (Flynn 87). Mutual trust and respect must first be cultivated. As an acting exercise, the results are not always tangible. While all of the actresses agreed that the feeling circle was an important tool, it may take weeks for someone to process the information from the circle into solid character development (Flynn 87, 121). The use of Ritual Orama was implemented when Martha Boesing, artistic director of At the Foot of the Mountain, recognized a need to fill the spiritual void in our society and consequently stated:

This is a time when there aren't enough ceremonies in our lives. We've cut back in our family lives--our nuclear family lives. Religion seems to have left a lot of people's lives. The need for ceremony is so profound, that people really cry for an experience where they are touched and then allowed to act on it. Which is what Ritual Drama is about (Flynn 239).


The ritual utilized in a production not only fills this spiritual void, but allows people to envision a different, healthier world (Flynn 239).

There are two types of audience participation in Ritual Drama. The first is psychological. The vulnerability of the actors creates an atmosphere where the audience is able to drop their own defenses and emotionally participate in the drama. The second is a literal participation. Such methods as meditation, litanies, personal accounts from the audience, and the breaking of bread allow the audience to become part of the production and provides them with a sense of community (Flynn 187, 19l). According to Boesing, the end result of Ritual Drama is the healing of the audience. As the spectators confront their deepest emotions and fears, they are able to let go of them. A catharsis, a cleansing has occurred (Flynn 192). Company collaboration is the method by which At the Foot of the Mountain often creates theater directly from the values and experiences of company members (Flynn 68). Such collaborative techniques have their roots in the feminist practice of operating without a hierarchy (Flynn 239). However, such communal handling of power has the potential for lowering the artistic quality of a production. At the Foot of the Mountain has found methods to alleviate this problem.

Feminist theater groups, such as At the Foot of the Mountain, are able to employ relatively few artists. This provides each member with an opportunity to voice opinions. Work assignments are made through group discussion and group decision, allowing the special talents of each individual to be used to the group's advantage. This collective process may be more time consuming, but it works well in a small group comprised of a close-knit number of people who share the same artistic goals and sense of responsibility to the group (Leavitt 79).

Perhaps the most important contribution At the Foot of the Mountain has to offer the theater profession is its attitude. Actors are treated with respect, their ideas are listened to and supported; they are encouraged to always be honest with their feelings, bringing them into rehearsal, never allowing them to fester into an intolerable working relationship. Their wish for the audience is to come away from their plays healthier, wholer, saner.... Achieving these optimistic goals is not easy. Problems do arise. But they are actively developing conventions which will help them achieve these goals and the theater profession in general could learn a lot from this wholistic approach to theater(Flynn 243).


In conclusion, feminist theater is important for the simple fact that never before has there been a theater movement led by women. Furthermore, feminist theater is important because it presents truthful images of women and the women's experience through a growing body of drama which specifically focuses on women (Leavitt 99).

It is important to note that although the movement is feminist in its intent, it does not have the support of all feminists. Shirlee Hennigan, who interviewed several professional female directors, found a prevalent attitude among her subjects. Even though all considered themselves feminists, they felt that by labeling themselves as "feminist directors," they handicapped their careers. Hennigan quotes one of the directors as saying: "Some women become 'separatist' by working exclusively at their directing art in feminist theater groups. This response ignores the problem of the lack of integration of women into the mainstream directing profession. In fact, it perpetuates the problem" (90).

I beg to differ wiih this opinion. The goal of feminist theater groups is not to be accepted by mainstream American theater but rather to create an alternative to it. This alternative fosters an atmosphere of discovery and emotional growth in regards to the female experience, thereby improving attitudes toward all women. "The socialization process makes a male...blind to the discrimination he perpetuates, and one cannot help to solve a problem if they are a factor contributing to it" (Hennigan 86). Feminist theater aims to change such socialization.



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