DCTR Interviews Michael Baron, director of Signature’s The Sex Habits Of American Women
The Sex Habits Of American Women is such a visual production — tell us about the strong emotional currents that flow beneath the play’s stylish surface.
My goal with the designers was to recreate a 1950’s world and show what made it so appealing to many Americans. These new “modern” American homes were showplaces filled with bright colors and varied textures; the latest products made from newly manufactured materials, and helped define roles within the family unit. “Good, clean living!” Each room was designed with a clear purpose and held rules of behavior that were expected to be followed: the living room was for entertaining- with cocktails; the kitchen was the domain of the wife; the study/office was the domain of the husband; the twin-beds in master bedroom were meant for sleeping- not intimacy (except when the couple decided to share a twin bed for the time required to have sex); the foyer for greeting guests; etc.
The problem with this “clean” compartmentalized living is that men and women are more complex beings than is world allows. Gender and sexual orientation do not inherently make someone a better homemaker, businessperson, cook, lover, or parent. By limiting the roles of men and women, the culture of 1950’s created tension, repression, and anger among many people of both sexes. I think this tension and anger is present today between those that are trying to uphold a view of society in which gender roles and sexual orientation are limited and those that understand that human behavior is complex and want to create a society that reflects and celebrates difference. I want the audience to delight in the 1950’s of their memories through the sets, costumes, and music, but remember that it was a restrictive culture that didn’t allow for individual choices outside the societal expectations of men and women.
Speaking of visuals, the play consists of a conventional portrayal of the 1950’s life of a sex researcher and his family and a videotaped subplot of a 2004 documentary similar to the Kinsey Reports in which a divorcée is interviewed. That subplot is displayed on fifteen flat panel monitors hidden around the set during scene changes. Tell us about the importance of the subplot in relation to the struggles our family of the 50’s is experiencing.
I think the two worlds play off each other in interesting ways. Both the 1950’s world and the world of the modern documentary are set up to be “representative” of people living in those times. But what Julie Marie Myatt has written is much more interesting and unsettling in content then an audience expects. She presents complex characters and doesn’t judge their behavior. The stories told in each period aren’t “representative” but very specific and ask an audience consider many issues but offer few, if any clear answers…except perhaps that societal change occurs when enough people become dissatisfied with the life they are living and demand it. Since the 1950’s, American women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans (essentially anyone who isn’t a white, heterosexual male) have demanded the right to be in control of their lives, future, and happiness to varying degrees of success. The “sexually-liberated” woman in the present-day documentary has more freedom to choose how to live her life and raise her family, but is still negotiating her choices and their results.
As director, what were the biggest challenges you faced with this production?
The biggest challenge I faced was figuring out the tone of the play. Julie has written a thought-provoking American play- not a period sex comedy, nor an “explosive” family drama. While the play is very funny and quite serious at points, its effectiveness comes from watching complex people, like ourselves, struggle within the artificial, often destructive construct of our American society. We find joy in the play when we see the characters facing the same challenges we face and recognize the despair when unnecessary compromise and sacrifices are made to maintain an unequal, restrictive society. Throughout the rehearsal process, I had to remind the actors and myself that we have to maintain the 1950’s world when dealing with serious family issues. In addition, it was a challenge to bridge the film and live-action worlds together. The script calls for the present-day film to be in black and white (like a Kinsey-type documentary) with the 1950’s in live “Technicolor.” The set designer and I chose to place monitors throughout the set to have the world of the film live within the action of the 1950’s home.
Given that there have been so many changes in the way we view women since the 50s does “Sex Habits” offer us an opinion on what effect those changes have had on the way we live our lives today?
I don’t think it offers an opinion of the effects of the 1950’s on our lives today, but instead presents an intimate portrait of a present-day woman and allows us to examine how she is dealing with changing views and attitudes toward women, sex, and family life.
Thanks so much Michael for this interview — what is next for you?
Thank you for wanting to know more about the production! As for what’s next… I’m currently working on two new musicals- one about Brownie Wise, the unfairly fired founder of Tupperware Home Parties and one about tap-dance legend, Ann Miller. In addition, for 5-weeks this summer I am traveling to Inhumas, a small city in central Brazil, as part of the ArtsLiteracy Project at Brown University and Universidade Estadual de Goiasmasters to teach masters-in-education students how to use performance in their classrooms as a way to teach English.
Thanks, Olivia Haas ( Director of PR & Marketing for Signature Theatre) and Michael Baron!
DC Theatre Reviews