Earlier this week, Firebrand Theatre founder Harmony France opined on Facebook that she missed acting — but not the constant body-shaming that came with it. The post generated an insta-thread of actresses sharing stories of being reduced to their body parts — their performance abilities ignored while their physical shapes were instead scrutinized. The conversation could have been a scene from Collaboraction’s blazingly frank, equally entertaining and altogether necessary “Gender Breakdown.”
When: Through April 1
Where: Collaboraction, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $10- $30
Based on more than 200 interviews with Chicago theater artists, the work, created by Dani Bryant and directed by Erica Vannon, is a funny, poignant and enraging exploration of size-ism, racism and sexism in the theater, and how these “isms” are deployed against women who have the nerve to try to break the boxes of stereotyping. As “Gender Breakdown” makes clear, you should not have to bind your breasts into oblivion to be a ballerina. Nor should your melanin level/body shape sentence you to a career of playing the spicy best friend/maid/third-terrorist-on-the-left. These and other timely commentaries are included in the 80-minute production.
If you think the artists are overreacting, have a seat. “Gender Breakdown” is as rich in facts as it is in emotion. The piece incorporates a few trenchant statistics (culled from an analysis by Mariah Schultz and Kay Kron as part of Kron’s master thesis at DePaul University) of 52 theater companies and 250 plays during the 2015/16 season. The numbers reveal a “community” where women are marginalized, women of color are extremely marginalized, and non-gender-conforming artists are statistically invisible. The results breakdown: Female playwrights wrote 25 percent of the shows produced; female playwrights of color, 5 percent. Female directors helmed 36 percent of the shows; female directors of color, 4 percent. You’d think at least female actors would have parity, yes? No. Female actors comprised 43 percent of all the actors hired.
The facts are illuminating, but what makes “Gender Breakdown” work dramatically are scenes portraying the people represented by the numbers. Everyone on stage has a story to tell — and the skill to tell it well.
A scene dealing with education shows how the erasure of stories by and about women starts in school. The point is made by a professor (Mia Vivens) reverently listing the great playwrights on the syllabus. Mamet, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Shepard, Miller – the roster of white guys drones on and on, ending in “…and ‘Fences’!” Apparently “August Wilson” is too much to remember, while female playwrights don’t rate studying at all.
Then there’s the series of audition “breakdowns” – character descriptions, pulled from actual audition notices. They are hilarious and also might make you want to stab somebody in the eye. All describe female characters where actual character traits are apparently unimportant. “Must have a slender figure as performance space is limited,” “sexy,” “fantasy figure for a male college student,” are among the entries. There are also audition tips, whispered conspiratorially among the women and ending on a chilling note: “Whatever you do, don’t ever be alone with him.”
In one poignant scene, sound designer Karli Blalock uses a snippets from “A Chorus Line” while Vivens and Carolyn Sinon deliver gut-punching monologues about the world of ballet — a world where you are not beautiful if you don’t have the body of a prepubescent boy, apparently. Aimy Tien delivers a blistering and ruefully funny response to the oft-asked question, “What are you?” and its companion query, “Where are you from?”
Kamille Dawkins captivates with a monologue about being repeatedly told she’s “not the type” to play “women who are in love or who are loved.” Kate Hawbaker-Krohn breaks down what it’s like to audition when you don’t fit “male” or “female” casting breakdowns. (“When they say ‘female,’ are they looking for biology or performance?”) And Brianna Buckley has an elegantly cutting commentary on the call for change: “Some of us have been questioning the world since Nov. 8, 2016. Some of us have been doing so since birth.”
In all, the cast succeeds mightily on two fronts: The call for change is loud, clear, unapologetic and needed. It is also a marvelous piece of theater.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.