Notes from the Field

by Chloé Hayat

Welcome to the quiet of the upstairs bedroom! You must be curious about the unorthodox, behind the scenes journey this play took to come to fruition (and if you’re not already, you should be). Read my findings on how this play came to be on your computer screen, and where it’s going next!

To hear the artists’ perspective on the piece and its process, you can also watch this roundtable discussion with Rinne and Tara, Associate Director NJ Agwuna and Creative Technology Directors Nick Hussong and Masha Tsmiring. 


PART 1: THE WORKSHOP

My name is Chloé Hayat, I’m a playwright and dramaturg, and a HUGE fan of Clubbed Thumb and their artists. I was in the middle of my residency as a member of Clubbed Thumb’s Early Career Writers group in March 2018, when I was brought on to a three day workshop of a play that didn’t yet exist. I knew almost nothing about the work — except that it was Rinne B. Groff’s newest commission. Needless to say, I was stoked but very nervous.

I entered a bustling, bright, slightly overwhelming rehearsal room at 440 Lafayette. Eleven generous artists were gathered around a table to support Rinne in an exploration of her brand new commission from Clubbed Thumb. All of the actors were women. The faces around the table were diverse in age, race, experience, and sexual orientation. I took my seat and pulled out my laptop (I was the official note taker for the workshop), and Rinne asked us what we knew about Alice Paul and the ERA. Some of us had heard of the ERA but not Alice; some were very familiar with both Alice and the ERA; and some knew about the topic, but not in detail. The topic prompted impassioned discussions about legacy, exclusion, preservation, and progress.

But this was by no means Day 1 for Rinne and Clubbed Thumb’s process for this play…

CLUBBED THUMB: In early 2016 we asked playwright Rinne Groff — who we’d known since before Clubbed Thumb existed, who we’d produced three times and commissioned before, who was a member of our mid-career writers’ group — if we could commission her. One stipulation: we wanted a large, all-female cast. We’d produced Men On Boats and commissioned Of Government at the time, and were on a bit of a kick (which we are still on).

She had an idea from some research she had done, which was a moment of crisis in The National Women’s Party, in their Washington Headquarters, around the time when the ERA was arguably closest to passage. The notion of making a play about battle-hardened female politicos as we approached the centenary of Women’s Suffrage, and the strong possibility that the US would soon elect its first female president fueled our excitement about the project. We applied for a grant in February. By the time we were notified about receiving the award, in December 2016, the landscape was forever altered.

RINNE: Several years ago, Maria Striar reached out to me to offer a commission and the only requirement of the commission was that it be a play with a cast of all women. The moment the offer came I knew the idea I wanted to use: a play about a coup attempt which took place approximately January 11th, 1947—I say, “approximately” because some sources cite it at a different date—at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of The National Woman’s Party, founded by Alice Paul. 

I am not a historian, and I was setting out to write a play, not an academic paper; however, I wanted to delve into the history of the National Woman’s Party, a history about which I was woefully ignorant, as best as I could. So I started my process, as I often do, with a ton of research, spiraling off of the materials which were shared with me about Alice Paul and the fight for suffrage in the U.S. The fact that I was dealing with difficult historical material (poor documentation, or documentation with a pronounced prejudicial slant, poor citations, conflicting accounts, etc.) and the tone of the piece I intended to write (stylized, over-the-top, and hopefully humorous) gave me some license to invent, but I wanted as much as possible to avoid presenting anything completely fabricated. I wanted to know the facts as clearly as I could ascertain them, and I wanted audiences to see this play and know what was history and what was invention and to be interested in both.

I’m a research hound, but in this process, which I knew was going to be vast, I needed some help. Ryan Gedrich (now the Advancement Director at Clubbed Thumb) had recently signed on to Clubbed Thumb as a Producing Fellow, and Maria introduced us, and I cannot overstate how incredible his research contributions to this play were. He was organized. He was deep. He brought enthusiasm and clarity and understanding to the process. He tracked down every article I mentioned to him, no matter how obscure, and he brought material to my attention. He was aces. 

So at a certain point, I had a whole bunch of material and no play.

Clubbed Thumb to the rescue again.

Now, we’re back where I entered —

RINNE: Clubbed Thumb agreed to host a (3 day workshop) with a bunch of actors when all I knew was the central event of the play and a whole bunch of potential characters to inhabit it. At that point, I didn’t have a director so I ran the room, having actors read text, improvise scenes, research their given characters, and talk about the history as a group. It was another exciting, invaluable step in the process.

The workshop was exhilarating and fun, and required quite a lot of note-taking. I’ve never typed so fast in my life! As Rinne mentioned, the actors were each tasked to explore one of the women present on the night of the National Woman’s Party coup, led by Doris Stevens. Based on their independent research, the actors wrote and presented monologues, performed scenes, and discussed both the admirable and abhorrent actions taken by the women of the National Woman’s Party.

I encountered this play and process exactly when I needed it. It was moving to be a part of a community of women (even for just three days) discussing a “shared history of fierceness” and creating theater conscious of representation — with a wild, raucous sense of humor.

At the end of the three days, Rinne went off with the intense amount of research and devised material. Once she sifted through it all, she began crafting a play.

RINNE: A few months later, I wrote a first draft of the play over the course of a few weeks. The story was there and most of the characters, but I had employed a formal idea about a way in which double-casting might work in this play which was a total bomb. Clubbed Thumb’s dedication to the theater once again manifested in Maria Striar telling me: Forget double-casting. Write it for as many actors as you need. A play with ten actors, all of them female-identifying, all of them fifty plus years of age, most of them seventy plus years of age, emerged. 

CLUBBED THUMB: This play has slowly but surely evolved over the subsequent four years, informed by every person who has participated in it. Over the course of its development it became clear that the cast should only be older women, that there should be a lot of them (no doubling, which was originally the intention), that the cast should be extremely diverse, and that the play would be about that diversity (or lack of it, in the history of the party). The play was further informed by the movement for racial justice that reawakened in the light of the murder of George Floyd. 

RINNE: Several workshops later, we had a director and a design team in place for Summerworks 2020, and then…

The world shut down!

PART 2: THE SHOW MUST GO ON!

RINNE: And then… Covid.
When Clubbed Thumb was forced to cancel Summerworks, they immediately, graciously began discussions of when to reschedule the production. We talked about the fall of 2020. We can laugh now about how optimistic that planning was, but at the time when the talking points had recently been “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” it seemed reasonable. However, I had an inkling that even if theater were able to come back by that time, I couldn’t imagine a situation in which a group of ten older actors—the characters in the play are aged 58 to 92 years old—would feel comfortable gathering in a small theater for any audience. It turns out even rehearsing together would have been impossible. So with that thought in mind, I reached out to Maria about the possibility of a virtual premier. She gave the go-ahead to pursue it. 

CLUBBED THUMB: We began to explore making a virtual iteration, understanding that it was unlikely that we’d be performing in person in a tiny theater with ten older women any time soon. As we worked on the play virtually, we understood we needed far more time to negotiate the technology than we’d initially planned—we didn’t even get halfway through on the first reading. The production approach developed as we gained better understanding of new technologies, and of how we might most effectively craft something vibrant with technically-averse actors in their homes. We did a weeklong workshop in October in which we live-streamed the first third of the play, after which we determined the steps that we are now taking to make this production.

RINNE: This was my first time collaborating with Tara Ahmadinejad as a director, and at the time I didn’t know that she had experience in mixed-media productions, but as she leapt into exploring this possibility with me, her expertise in that field was so useful. We started by talking to as many people as we could who had experience in making things on-line. The designers were also completely gung-ho and knowledgeable and adventurous as we discussed what this new version could be.


MASHA: [This new format is] Madness! I think it’s a very unique blend of high tech & low tech (analog). The handmade & human spun through many software robots.

Masha Tsimring and Nick Hussong signed on as Creative Technology Directors for this huge undertaking in completely uncharted waters. I asked Masha how they developed a vision for the play knowing it would be shot from actors’ homes:

MASHA: Embrace the chaos! We decided to be inspired by the context of each actor’s home, instead of trying to hide it or battle it. We also knew it was going to be on the actors to accomplish any of the technical/design adjustments we needed in their space, so wanted to be considerate of that and keep the changes and equipment to a minimum. And now everyone is very fluent in angles and shadows!

RINNE: Zoom is amazing. It allowed us to rehearse a ten person show during Covid. It allowed us to come together when we were in different cities, different time zones. It allowed us to have break-out rooms for problem-solving and chatting. It allowed a cancelled production to be reborn.

Zoom is terrible. The lag, oh the lag. The difficulty with overlapping and interrupting. The tech issues. This person’s microphone is glitchy. Oh, and that person just disappeared. (She emerges later to inform us that there’s major construction on her street and internet is probably out for the rest of the day.)  I am mostly living in the country these days where wi-fi is terrible, and not a day passes that text doesn’t pop up on my screen to inform me: “Your connection is unstable.”  Yes, I know. I can’t even begin to express how unstable my connection is right now.

The technical adjustments that were made to make the show happen were no small feat! 

CLUBBED THUMB:  We shipped to actors’ homes a computer (which we controlled remotely) a microphone, camera and lights, which were hard-wired into their internets, as well as stands/tripods for the equipment, blackout curtains, props, costumes, hair and make-up supplies – there was a lot of shipping involved since actors were all over the country.

They performed on Zoom, so we could capture the feeling of them acting together — a certain live-ness – the machines recorded the footage locally and uploaded it to a server at the end of each day, where the editor would grab it and cut together drafts of each episode (with sort of shocking quickness).

We knew it would be best to have these tech kits worked out beforehand, so filmed the entire piece with a stand-in cast beforehand and did a rough cut of many of the sections – that allowed us to work out any kinks and figure out what tech issues might arise so that we could anticipate them.

The design team worked with actors beforehand to figure out where each scene would be shot, which informed the model house that was built that sort of stitches them all together. And of course all the little things we take for granted being in-person – costume fittings, and wardrobe maintenance; light adjustments and set dressing; mic placement  – so much of that work fell to the actors while the design team instructed via Zoom.

This is where I reenter The Woman’s Party journey. 

Three years after the first workshop, I got an email from Maria asking if I wanted to get involved with The Woman’s Party again. Obviously, I was excited! Of course, I want to be involved. 

I had the privilege of watching a few days of filming, and although we all miss the warmth, spontaneity and camaraderie of an in-person rehearsal room, I didn’t feel a lack of excitement, zeal, or friendship from the virtual space. It warmed my soul to get to listen to the actors talk about their lives, joke about the frustrations of Zoom, casually mention their histories of protesting with the Civil Rights Movement, and then jump back into character and give wonderful performances! 

(I also got to speak with the actors about their careers and their experience with this new performance world. You can hear my conversations with each of them in The Office, coming soon.)

This has been my dream dramaturgy project. If you couldn’t already tell from this website, I am an absolute nerd for intersectional feminist history. Once again, this project found me when I needed it most — in the middle of a pandemic. Watching a story about perseverance and progression, brought to life by an inspiring group of actors, and built by such a generous, inventive, and adaptive company of artists has been inspiring, to say the least.

MASHA: I am hoping our use of collage and handmade design elements will help the comedy of the piece shine through. We also wanted to be very clear that we were not making a film – there are many professionals in that field and we are not them. So we really focused on translating our theatrical tools to this hybrid space, hopefully creating some unique textures in the process. But the main goal was to let these amazing actors connect and mold this story – to create a digital room where that was possible.

It has been such an honor for me to join this team and watch this multimedia creation come to life, through this winding, unique, and exciting process.

RINNE: To this day, I think of this virtual video premier as just one production of this play which I hope will have subsequent productions, productions in physical theaters; but I couldn’t be more delighted with the way this video production has evolved.

But all that said, I burst with admiration for the can-do spirit of this team of producers, designers, and performers who weathered it all and did their jobs magnificently, despite the obstacles. They have floored me with their talent, their good humor, their grace under pressure, and did I mention their talent? Ferociously brilliant people worked on this production. And I feel so lucky to have been in their company during this difficult time.

Beautifully said, Rinne. I feel the same way!