What is sexuality? How would you describe your sexuality? How do you think the media portrays female sexuality?
Is it bad that I can’t easily answer any of these questions?
Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Rachel Sullivan hope to unpack with their new play, The Birds and the Bees… Unabridged. It will open March 27th at Speyer Hall at University Settlement (184 Eldridge St). It’s a devised theatre piece, meaning that it is a form of theatre where the script originates not from one particular writer, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory work by a group of people, or in this case, their wonderfully diverse cast of 25. Through the eyes of the cast and online surveys from more than 2,000 people, this group has put together an open, honest, and raw piece of work all about female sexuality. I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the cast members, and the creators, Maggie and Rachel to talk to them about the project.
BUST: Hey girls, what’s your elevator pitch?
Maggie Keenan-Bolger: (to Rachel) Go for it!
Rachel Sullivan: It’s a theatre piece, an art exhibit where a diverse cast explores female sexuality. The awkward, the poignant, the humorous... I’m missing one.
MKB: I think there’s just three.
RS: I think it’s four, but that’s good.
BUST: How long have you guys been working together and how did you start this project?
MKB: Well, Rachel and I went to grad school together a number of years ago and we ended up doing our thesis project together, which was about women’s experiences in public space. We had a really good time working with that population and found it interesting that during the process, sexuality never came up in any sort of overt way. It was alluded to, but it was never talked about in any sort of specific way so we were like “interesting, there’s clearly something going on that makes it feel like even in a group of people who have experiences similar to your own, there’s still something not quite acceptable about talking about sexuality”. So I approached Rachel like, “I want this to be our next project” and Rachel jumped on board!
RS: And I think too, talking to a lot of our friends or just colleagues or people we know, any time sexuality came up in conversation you could watch people get a sparkle in their eye-- they kind of want to talk about it, but a lot of people need a little bit of an invitation or push and then they just have so much to say or so many questions or ideas on things that they want to get out there… things they are working on in their head, and we thought. “That’s a great way to approach a show because our whole goal is to stimulate dialogue, get people talking.” You know, maybe we’re part of that little nudge that helps bring it out.
BUST: One of the questions in your survey is ‘Who is your role model when it comes to your sexuality? Peers, movie stars, characters in books, family?’ Who are your role models?
MKB: I went to a summer camp for many years where a lot of the counselors and staff were queer, which was not something I necessarily knew when I was ten, but soon found out later on along the line and it was very much an [epiphany. I thought,] “Oh, these are awesome people who are totally open, totally out and amazing and very well adjusted and are people I would like to be like”.
Cast Member Holly: I was really excited about this project because I didn’t have any or many [sexual] role models when I was growing up. Later I became friends with more queer people, but when I was first coming out, there wasn’t anyone I could talk to about it. Even my friends, who I was very close to and I felt like I could open up to more, had no basis in helping me and knowing what I was experiencing.
Cast Member Cole: As a trans man, [I notice how my] gender identity, which is not related to my sexual orientation, [seems to perplex others]…People conflate them all the time and ask me all sorts of questions about my sexuality on a daily basis and it confuses people. I wrote about it when metrosexuality started to become a word-- now it's kind of outdated maybe, but that sort of made a lot of sense to me at the time because feminine masculinity was becoming sort of popular and acceptable as a way to present and it wasn’t necessarily a gay masculinity. That made a lot of sense to me because I’m not gay identified, but I read as gay so people always assume I’m gay or ask me questions about my sexuality as if I date men primarily, which is not the case. I worked in upscale retail where [metrosexuality] was prevalent, so there was a peer group of co-workers who had that sort of presentation, and then I started to see that in the media too, and I looked to [certain celebrities] as icons...people who maybe have inherent queerness but aren’t queer, like Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Little guys that dress well. They’re performers but they date women…if I had to align myself with some world it would be that one.
BUST: When you were casting, what were you looking for?
MKB: Diversity was really important to us-- [we wanted to represent multiple spectrums of] age, gender, sexuality. Initially we had put out a call for female-identified and then got a lot of feedback from the survey that people really wanted to see transgender representations, which was awesome. So we reached out to Cole and some other folks and tried to find trans women as well, but were not as successful at that… it was important to us to have a wide variety of perspectives and ideas that could come to the table and could be part of the dialogue.
RS: Because it’s a group created piece, we are limited by the two of us, we can’t speak for every woman, and the 23 (cast members) of us can’t speak for every woman either but it gives a bigger range. And one more thing. We had a nice qualification. You had to be nice. If there is any meanness… out. That was a biggie.
BUST: Cast members, what has this hands on project been like for you?
Cast Member Meg: It’s more than "hands on": we do actually create it. There isn’t a script, even at this point. It’s been a process of doing exercises, improv games, a lot of brainstorming on paper together, and then creating little snippets, little snippets, little snippets, and what Rachel and Maggie do is kind of take a step back and look at the snippets and say, "Okay, it seems to me we need a scene on sexual health," and then we kind of go back to the drawing board… more brainstorming and more writing and then eventually as directors [of our] outside ideas, they’ll say, that works really well, that doesn’t work, let’s change the order of this… but it's not just hands on it’s… hands US.
Holly: I think what Maggie are Rachel are so wonderful at is taking a huge broad topic [like sexuality] and the surveys that over 2,000 people answered…and picking out what everyone is really interested in, and then finding out how the cast relates to it, finding the best way to create something and how theatrically it would work, fixing all these parts together...I don’t understand how they do it.
BUST: Can you guys talk about what you want the audience to walk away with?
Holly: What I hope the audience takes away from this is open mindedness and a desire to talk more with other people or their friends or peers about what they saw and questions they have or things they never thought about before and just to open up a conversation about things they wouldn’t normally talk about.
Meg: [It's] also [comforting to know] that there is so much diversity in experience-- that there is no normal, and also that we all share, I don’t know, the insecurity or the feelings surrounding [sexuality. We think,] "Oh, we’re not normal” or “Oh, is this normal?” but everyone of us is feeling that same thing. So in addition to starting a dialogue, I would hope the audience also gets that, that there is a huge diversity, and that there isn’t a normal.
Cole: So it’s hard not to feel huge responsibility to represent the trans voice as [the] isolated trans identified cast member…I am the only really masculine person in the show there and it's very obvious that I’m different than everyone else. I don’t know how to negotiate that yet. I’m still kind of new to the cast and working with that, but I mean, I feel it…I am wondering if the audience will understand that. That they might be expecting another women’s show, another Vagina Monologues or something, and it’s really much, much bigger than that.
MKB: I work as a sex educator around the country and everywhere I go, I'll get questions afterward and really, the underlying question is, "Am I normal?" And it can vary from really heartbreaking to funny, whatever. If you’re different, then you’re normal. If there’s something that makes you feel wrong, then you are probably in line with other women who feel the same.
RS: I think it's really powerful to see people onstage that are giving a truthful performance. It’s one of the most beautiful things about this type of work. It is such a moving thing…to see people get up there and be bold, whether they are telling a personal story or putting out a real opinion. I hope the audience can connect with one piece of the show and see something that maybe they don’t normally see in the media and be moved and laugh. And I hope that maybe different types of people come and see the show because I think female sexuality is a part of everyone’s world, whether it’s a parent, a child, a partner, a colleague…I feel like it's part of our existence and I hope that [this play] can spark some [dialogue].
The show opens Wednesday March 27th at 8pm and runs through Saturday March 30th at Speyer Hall at University Settlement (184 Eldridge St NY, NY 10002). Tickets are suggested donation $10/$15/$25.
For tickets, click HERE.
Photo via thebirdsandthebeesunabridged.com