Rachel Hynes is excited. She is a few hours away from the Friday night performance of LadyM, a devised production based on interviews with D.C. women on their experiences with menstruation. The ensemble-devised piece focuses on the titular LadyM and the three witches of Macbeth.
Hynes explores with passion and dignity what the play description recognizes as difficult issues, “delving into the deep, dark, and bloody traditions of women’s stigmatized bodies.” She and the rest of the cast for LadyM are taking on difficult subject matter, and have listened to and shared difficult stories. And they are excited to share these stories with their audiences.
On the eve of their last week of performances, Hynes has taken some time to chat with DCTS about the process of developing LadyM. The following question and answers are from this conversation, and are lightly edited for clarity.
In your words, what is LadyM about?
LadyM is about three witches trying to cast a spell. They’re being hit with all the things that women and other people go through in their lives. They trying to integrate all these things that happen into the spell.
In a way, it’s about menstruation, and the way that gender assumptions play into menstruation: how these assumptions affect a person’s ability, or their worth, how we think about bodily autonomy, and how we think it’s acceptable to treat people.
But it extends beyond just menstruation into the assumptive world of gender. There are a lot of gender assumptions that take place around whether or not certain genders do or don’t menstruate. The show is about transformation: trying to use the world of absurdism, comedy of the grotesque, Commedia dell’arte and clown to reflect the world as we experience it right now.
In the cast and in the devising team, we are three women who still menstruate. We’re trying to reflect the world we experience now and use this effort to transform it into something different, into the future we’d like to see. One of the core tenets is how we think about and treat menstruation. We want to open it up and normalize these words and this process so it doesn’t become a secret activity or stigma, but a normal bodily activity.
What is meaningful about the connection to Lady Macbeth?
I was joking with a colleague, Hannah Hessel Ratner, about a production of Macbeth that was going on. I asked her, jokingly, “What do I have to do to be a part of that production? I’ll even be one of the women who runs across the stage naked covered in blood, screaming.” We laughed at it at the time. We laughed at this idea that every production of Macbeth has to have some woman who is vaguely sexualized but also has something violent happening to her. We started joking about the stage, the audience being covered in blood, the theater being covered in blood.
“I’m going to make a clown show called Macbeth: Covered in Blood.”
And [Hessel Ratner] said. “If you make it, I will program it into happening at the Harman.”
So I reached out to a collaborator, Francesca Chilcote. We’d both studied devised theater, physical comedy, We’re both interested in clown and comedia dell’arte, and theater of the absurd and the grotesque and how these art forms can reflect society back on itself and raise some questions about the way in which in which we live.
So we brought in a third collaborator: a mutual colleague named Anastasia Wilson (originally from D.C., now in Atlanta).
The three of us were talking about Macbeth and the themes of violence and ambition and blood. We were really interested in the character of Lady Macbeth and the witches, and how these two central character groups are essentially ostracized from womanhood. She says “Unsex me here/ I am not a woman” I am so ambitious that I can’t possibly be a woman anymore.
The witches are described as old crones. They’re clearly post-menstrual or post-menopausal and not even allowed to be in the city. They’re banished to Birnam Wood. They have a different kind of power that is so terrifying to the men in the city that they have to be banished.
Anastasia then said “I think that this play is about menstruation.”
The piece is devised theater. One of the core tenets is that you don’t start with a script. You start with people in the room. The people say “What about this/ what about that?” and you say “Yes!” and you follow the impulses. So Anastasia said, “I think this is about menstruation.”
And we agreed, “Yeah, okay! Let’s follow this trail.”
We did some work and some creation within ourselves. And we decided to talk to more people who menstruate.
How did you collect this information?
We got a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to meet with menstruating people.
We had “period circles”, in-person conversations about menstruation, really open conversations. We also had an online survey for people who didn’t have the time or were perhaps too embarrassed to discuss periods publicly. So, within the survey, we found a lot of themes of shame and silence and lack of knowledge sharing, which wasn’t surprising, but it was pretty stunning to see it reflected survey after survey.
So within this Grant period making connections, I started making connections with people who were working on the forefront towards menstrual equity. I’m embarrassed to say I never thought about how people manage their period when they are homeless. And I learned about the tax that’s placed on tampons. It’s considered a luxury item, for women, for transgender and non-binary people who menstruate who are already experiencing a wage gap, and earn much lower salaries than most men. It’s already a double tax. So you start the see the myriad of tiny ways: just because you happen to be born with your body working a particular way that there is the inability to care for oneself.
The Welders’ production of LadyM closes July 27, 2019. Details and tickets
What are the messages that the audiences are taking with them from watching LadyM?
For me, as an artist and a creator, that’s a heavy question.
It assumes a kind of control over people that I don’t feel like I have. And I think that there’s an arena of art-making where the goal is to make your message crystal-clear. To give a very particular message to an audience.
Especially because this piece of devised theater uses movement as text. More than we used text as text. We use movement. We use music. We use performative actions. We use interactions with props all as scripting materials. We use all of those as writing. Part of the idea of writing with image or writing with action, or writing with the body, can be a little more open than a kind of explicit story-telling.
We’re trying to present an experience that many people go through. The play reflects the survey results: the information we’ve collected and the people we’ve spoken with.
Our play starts with shame and silence and isolation. Then, these three witches do some spell-casting to try and transform all the reasons people experience shame and silence and isolation. The third act is the beginning of the future we’d like to see.
Our ultimate goal is that we want people to reflect how absurd our existence is right now and we want to give the audience some knowledge and some tools and a space of contemplation so they can choose the future they want to be in.
In a nutshell, we want audiences to think about menstruation in a new way, because I think the way we’ve been taught to relate to menstruation is very limited.
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You’ve touched on this, but how is the message coming through devised theater different than if this were a traditional script-making process.
Devised theater has everyone together in the same room creating. As opposed to a playwright who would write a script and hand it over to other artists.
If I had written the play by myself, it would have been dark and poetic. If Francesca had written the play it would be purely sketch comedy. If Anastasia had written the play, it would have been a very long epic poem. So we have the opportunity to be greater than ourselves.
We put ourselves in a room together. It means some ideas are followed and some ideas are put to the side. I think, ultimately, with Anastasia in Atlanta and Francesca and I in D.C.. Our time and space is limited. It makes us better artists, to make choices for the play and not choices for ourselves or how we’d like the play to be. It offers the opportunity to step away from intellectualizing an idea and really work on an impulse.
We could not have written that without being up on our feet, being in our bodies. Discovering what works and putting that scene together. I think there are ways in which we become distant from a thing, even if it’s one little step by thinking about it.
When you’re in your body you’re improvising, these deep impulses come out that touch on the things that make us really human. The things like love and blood and guts and death and hate and admiration.
I think being on our feet and being very present in the moment allows us to touch into some of those primal instincts. We can step out and talk about it and craft it for its writing and its dramatic potential, we’re never ignoring the fact that this is going to go in front of an audience.
What is your favorite question to ask someone when you meet them for the first time?
The first time I meet someone, my favorite question to ask is “What is your passion?”
I have the instinct to ask “What do you do? What do you for fun?” but I know that what people do in their day jobs isn’t necessarily what makes them interesting so, I just skip to the heart of it, “What do you for fun?”