Interview: Playwright Nina Morrison counters gender biases in ‘Féminaal’

Image via Nina Morrison
Image courtesy of Nina Morrison
Playwright, MFA Directing candidate and feminist Nina Morrison took time to talk with Little Village about her upcoming show, Féminaal, which debuts this Thursday at 8 p.m. at the UI Theatre Building (Theatre B). Penned by Morrison and directed by Sam Collier, who recently graduated from the MFA Playwright program, the play was written as a response to two highly influential pieces in Morrison’s history, Baal and Masculin Féminin. As a part of the Féminaal experience, audience members will be required to sign a contract stating that they will identify as a female (for the duration of the play) before even stepping foot into the auditorium — a concept Morrison talked about at length when corresponding with Little Village prior to the show.

The play is described as a response to Baal and Masculin Féminin, for those that are unfamiliar with these works, could you go into further depth about them?

The response is, in part, to the type of story they tell. Baal, a play by Bertolt Brecht, follows a poor young poet/balladeer (named Baal) through a series of sexual exploits with women and men. Baal, according to the script, is not very physically attractive, but is nonetheless irresistible to everyone. While reading this play I kept asking myself why I found it so compelling, the story is silly and hard to believe – this unattractive man of no means being irresistible and never experiencing any real consequences for his mistreatment of his long list of lovers. Even when he commits murder, he just leaves town, he isn’t actually caught or punished. I started thinking about this ‘bad boy’ story and thinking about all the variations of the ‘boys will be boys’ trope in all media. Then I wondered why there were no ‘bad girl’ stories. Can we see young women behaving badly, making mistakes, treating people horribly and can they also go unpunished as ‘girls will be girls’?

Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
I had a similar experience when watching Masculin Féminin. This is a film by French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard about a young man navigating the quickly evolving political and social landscapes of 1966 Paris. He can enjoy the volatility of Paris in a way that only a straight, white, French man could at that time on the eve of revolution. Women were still treated in this film like objects and their burgeoning sexual freedom is ambiguously hinted at, but never explored. Here again we see a young man having an interesting problematic series of experience and he behaves like a pompous sexist jerk many times, yet there are no real consequences for his behavior and he is still considered attractive. No one expects him to be repentant. I have been wanting to see this kind of story for a woman for a long time.

So, how did these two works impact your playwriting?

Both Brecht and Godard had a big effect on me when first exposed to their work, their forms are brazen in their intent to affect their viewers. They sought to disrupt the audience. Neither of them hoped to make work that would allow the audience to escape into another world, quite the opposite, they wanted their audiences to be confronted with their own world and its current issues.

Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
Brecht revolutionized theatre by creating his own form called Epic Theatre. He actively worked to keep audiences constantly aware that they were seeing a play. Brecht strove to keep the audience at a distance emotionally from the play to ensure that they were thinking about what they were seeing rather than becoming lost in the emotional story. He used techniques like music breaks, title cards, projections, having the actors talk about what was happening to their characters while acting and actively showing the mechanisms of theatre (exposing the lighting instruments, non-naturalistic scenery). He wrote plays within plays using the ‘outer play’ as a framing device for the ‘inner play.’

Godard revolutionized film with his disorienting editing, use of entirely natural sound, his dismissal of the importance of keeping the camera on the person speaking, among many other new techniques. In Masculin Féminin he actually filmed many of the scenes as interviews and only after they were filmed did he cut it together to make scenes between two characters. Godard, like Brecht, sought to affect his audiences differently and used Brechtian techniques in Masculin Féminin, there are title cards, music breaks, and the action is episodic and disorienting.

What does your background in theatre entail?

I was an undergraduate theatre major, and a few weeks after graduating I moved to New York City where I lived for 17 years before moving to Iowa. For the first five or six years in New York I performed in comedy improv exclusively, then slowly changed my focus to directing and producing. I directed shows written by my friends and then wrote my own plays which I also produced and directed. I received a WORKSPACE Writing Residency from the LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) in 2008. The play I wrote in residence, Forest Maiden, premiered at the 2009 NYC International Fringe Festival and received favorable reviews. My devised work Girl Adventure Parts 1-4 was presented at Dixon Place theatre and then I was given an Artist’s Residency at Dixon Place.

Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
How long have you been working on this project?

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I have been working on this play for a little over a year. I started the first draft in a class on Brecht taught by Art Borreca, who is an expert on Brecht. I continued working on the play in two independent studies with playwright Lisa Schlesinger (who is also playwriting faculty here). I have continued to consult with Art and I met once with Professor Steven Ungar to discuss the French music history of that period and get his recommendations for further research.

The audience is required to sign a contract stating that they identify as a woman, where did this idea come from?

In the Brecht class we watched a video of director Heiner Müller talking about audiences for plays and how he wanted to affect them more. He had asked the audience for a play he directed to divide up by gender and had men sit on one side and women sit on the other. I’m loosely paraphrasing, but he was bothered by the bourgeois complacency of the ‘theatre date night.’ He didn’t want this piece of theatre to be romantic, he wanted it to be a revolution. After hearing that, I became really attached to the idea of aggressively framing an audience’s experience.

I’m so frustrated by having to constantly adjust my viewing lens since almost all of the media I consume is made by and for straight white men. I have found it difficult to enjoy plays and films unless I shut down (as best as possible) the critical part of myself that is asking ‘why, oh why, am I watching another story about a straight white man?’ Of course I love their stories, I love film and theatre and tv, but I just want more than one subject. I want balance in representation of gender and sexuality and race and class and age, because I’m tired of just one subject over and over.

Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
Photo courtesy of Nina Morrison
The idea of the contract appealed to me because it is so ridiculous! The idea that I can get people to sign a piece of paper and change their thoughts, it’s impossible. I thought that it would be an interesting way to frame the experience of this play. Brecht and Godard worked to actively affect their audiences and I wanted to do the same thing. We live in a very litigious society and contracts have meaning, so I thought it would be a good way to start a conversation about the imbalanced gender, race and sexuality representation in our current media. The contract was written by my brother, who is a lawyer, and he intentionally created a contract with a sense of humor. For instance, the contract states that the viewer agrees to hold harmless not only the playwright, but any of the playwright’s agents, including her cats, for any loss of enjoyment or understanding…

Féminaal runs through Sunday, Oct. 25. Tickets are free for UI students and $5 for the general public.