While billed as a professional storyteller, Ellouise Schoettler’s performance entitled, Pushing Boundaries, is much more of a politically driven persuasion piece than it is real theatre.
Storytelling gave birth to theatre as we know it today and has a revered and time-honored place in the history of the performing arts (the depth and breadth of which are on display at this year’s Capitol Fringe Festival).
Listening to Ms. Schoettler, seated on a stool, recount her personal experiences of the radical changes that took place concerning women in the 60’s and 70’s is pretty interesting and definitely thought provoking. It is not in the least theatrical, however.
Ms. Schoettler was a very accomplished and effective organizer and lobbyist who got her start advocating for women artists (having a degree and a passion for art herself). She apparently played a major role in opening up NEA and GSA funding for the arts to women by successfully lobbying for “gender blindness.” It turns out there was a time when arts’ grant judging was dominated by males judging entrants whose names were clearly identifiable during the judging period. At that time, there simply were not very many prominent women artists so, of course, men chose other men to receive grants in spite of there being no shortage of female applicants.
But Ms. Schoettler’s abiding passion is with the Equal Rights Amendment and a women’s march in Washington in the summer of 1978 that was a life changer for her and apparently for many of her contemporaries. There arose, on that hot steamy July day in front of the Capitol, a kinship, a seemingly unbreakable bond – a sisterhood that lives quietly on right up to the present time.
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the U.S. or by any state on account of sex.” For anyone with half a brain living in a country that is willing to go to war and squander trillions of dollars and thousands of young people’s lives for the sake of freedom and human rights halfway around the globe, this should be a simple, straightforward no-brainer. Half a brain is not even required. Isn’t all of that covered in the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution?
But of course, it couldn’t be that simple. As with so many things that appear to be pure common sense and wholly in keeping with so-called American values, this became a political football. Only thirty-four states ratified the amendment. They needed thirty-nine and the elegant, yet very powerful statement made by the ERA got lost in a cacophony of truth twisting and rampant hypocrisy that has come to be politics as usual thirty years later.
The history behind the fight for the ERA from an insider’s point of view and a straightforward appeal to bring it back to life is at the heart of Pushing Boundaries. In fact, it is so much about the issue that the story, as very ably told by Ms. Schoettler, is borderline boring and has very little real heart or soul to it. Halfway through the hour-long presentation I found myself glancing at my watch and fervently hoping that my next Fringe show would be a lot more theatrical and entertaining.
There really is not much to critique in Ms. Schoettler’s storytelling. Her style could use a little more variety in pacing, tonal inflection and things of that nature. There were a few vignettes within her story that were genuinely funny, but not many. And yet, I left the theatre bothered.
There is so much about her story that she doesn’t tell. She mentions a husband and four children, one of whom died at an early age — but only in passing. I found myself wanting to know more of what it was like for her to juggle being a mother and a political activist in an era when sexual prejudice was readily accepted as being the norm. And what of the angst of losing a child in the midst of all that? Scenes from “Mad Men” began flashing across my mind. How did Ellouise Schoettler make her way through such an incredibly challenging time? What was going on inside this lady during this tumultuous period?
Were she to bring that element into her story I think I would have been much more engaged. There just isn’t much humanity to her story – particularly no human vulnerability that would make her story that much more compelling and accessible, especially to men.
As far as men are concerned (c’mon,guys – ‘fess up), women remain one of the unsolved mysteries in the universe. I can kind of relate to the feeling of sisterhood that was so prevalent back then, although I’m not sure it’s in the same ballpark as towel-slapping, locker-room camaraderie. Gauging by the reaction of her contemporaries in the audience, sisterhood is still at least a little bit alive and well today. But so what?
Women have made huge strides in bending gender equality in their direction in the last thirty years. I have a 28 year-old daughter who was handing out condoms to the football team in high school and has never met a barrier to the advancement of her career or life goals that she could not overcome with relative ease.
Do we really need the Equal Rights Amendment? According to Ms. Schoettler we do, but I really wonder if her story might not have much more to do with reaching back and attempting to recapture that unique experience women had in the 60’s and 70’s. There was something beyond words and understanding in that sisterhood. And yesterday at the Goethe Institut as part of the 2012 Capital Fringe Festival, there was a deep sense of longing shared by Ms. Schoettler and the women in the audience who lived that experience. It was tangible during the brief Q & A after the story when others chimed in with their experience. What was that? What is that?
Speaking strictly from the point of view of a man, I would love to have had a little more understanding and insight into the “feminine mystique” that came to the fore thirty years ago and has grown into something today that was quite unimaginable at that time. But I didn’t get it at Pushing Boundaries.
Pushing Boundaries has 5 performances ending July 28, 2012 at Goethe Institut, 812 7th Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Larry rates this 3 out of a possible 5.