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Saturday, December 15, 2012

LATE Reports from WPIC Sweden

Guerrilla Girls On Tour's Fanny Mendelssohn and Josephine Baker report on our antics at the Women Playwrights International Conference last August in Stockholm!


Diary #1
Wednesday, August 15th, 2012
We got on a plane last night, and this morning, when we got off, we were in Sweden!  Our driver met us at the airport to take us to the hotel.  We're staying at the Clarion, which is in a pretty great area of Stockholm.  Although, I honestly can't complain about any area!  It's absolutely beautiful here.  After our drop off, we all passed out in our hotel rooms for a few hours.  Man, jet lag is something awful! 
This afternoon, we arrived at the Women Playwrights International Conference.  All of the women are so beautiful and full of light and life!  They were genuinely interested in finding out who we were.  I'll be living as another woman for the next few days.  It's going to be a strange week, being at a conference as a Guerrilla Girl On Tour, yet spending more time out of mask than in.  And, all the while being Josephine Baker, but not myself.  It's like a split personality! 
In the evening, we attended the opening night ceremony.  Being around all of those female theater artists was so empowering and inspiring!  We all split up, and networked.  I have to say, though, the highlight of the night was meeting Elizabeth Hess.  She played the mother on one of my favorite childhood television shows, Clarissa Explains It All.  I definitely cried like a big, stupid baby. 




Diary #2
Thursday, August 16th, 2012
This morning, we got up early so that we could grab good seats for the conference's key note speakers.  We listened to the three Arab women, and their remarkable stories.  Nidal Al Achkar, the founder & director of Al Madina Theatre in Beirut, was hilarious and brilliant.  Mona Knio's refusal to be repressed in a male dominated world as a stage tech was an inspiration.  Egyptian journalist Sondos Shabayek's stories of protests at Tahrir Square in Cairo, along with her upfront attitude were amazing.  These women made me seriously question what Americans are being fed by the media regarding the plight of Arab women.  All three were intelligent and strong.  Free.
After the speakers, we were interviewed by a new feminist internet magazine.  The questions were pretty straight forward, but that kind of thing is always exciting.  It really makes me feel like a celebrity :).  That night we saw, In the Lost and Found: Red Suitcase by Lana Nasser from Jordan.  The show was very interesting and the movement pieces were beautiful.



Diary #3
Friday, August 17th, 2012
Okay, so while Aphra and Fanny took their seminars, Ann and I played hooky and went SHOPPING!  We couldn't help it!  Stockholm is such a breathe taking city, and the day was beautiful.  The stores were calling! LOL We met back up with the other girls at one, and had lunch.  During lunch, the women at the conference started talking.  We all planned to get together at five to march to the Free Pussy Riot rally.  How exciting!  We put on our masks, and walked to Mynttorget with the rest of the conference ladies (and men).   Everyone was screaming and chanting, 'FREE PUSSY RIOT!  FREE PUSSY RIOT!'  It was so empowering!  You can check out some highlights on You Tube! 
The tour is almost over, and I'm having the time of my life.  I don't want this experience to end :(.


Diary #4
Saturday, August 18th, 2012
It's show day!  I have to admit, I'm nervous.  And I don't usually get nervous before shows.  There's one part of the show that, for one reason or another, just won't stick in my brain.  I pray that I don't screw it up.  I'll keep ya posted!...
… Okay!  The show went great!  I mean, yeah, there were a few mistakes here and there, but overall, it was an awesome, energetic, hilarious, well-received performance!  One of my favorites to date.  I have to admit that after such a busy week, I was pretty exhausted.  Before we went on, I chugged a Red Bull, and that gave me the proper amount of energy to make it through.  I sang and danced with all of my might.  And, when we got to the rape portion of the show, the part that kept me stumped, I just took a deep breathe, and it went fine.  The audience was the best.  They laughed when we needed them to; were sad at the proper places.  Elizabeth Hess was in the front row!  I couldn't have asked for a better night. 
I will admit, I was a little disappointed during the Lesbian! Vagina! Feminist! song.  I sang LLEEEEESBIAN! with, literally, everything I had in me.  But, my section of the audience was very reluctant to sing along.  I found it strange that that word would be difficult for so many women in such a liberal country. 



Diary #5
Sunday, August 19th, 2012
Today was our workshop day.  Suffice it to say, we were all pretty exhausted from last night's extravaganza, yet we were excited to work with this brilliant group of women.  We started with some really fun warm ups.  I love working with theater people!  They just got it.  We didn't have to force it out of them.  After warm ups, we introduced the task.  They were to create an original piece of street theater.  We all sat together and brainstormed.  They came up with an array of topics.  In the end, we narrowed it down to three.  It was a piece about transsexual/gay/lesbian issues that really stood out to me.  Their take on what is normal and what is natural shed an ironic and hilarious light on a controversial topic. 
After each group had presented and reworked their skits, we took them outside into the square.  They had a blast performing for the people.  There were three little blonde kids playing in the fountain in the middle of the park, their parents watching from afar.  One of the little girls climbed out, and stood behind the actors, fully enthralled.  She even posed the way the normal/natural group suggested that a woman should!  It was awesome!



Diary #6:  Malmo!
Monday, August 20th, 2012
This morning, Aphra and Anne left for home.  In the evening, Fanny and I were scheduled to perform at The Malmo Festival.  So, we hopped on a train, and when we stepped off we were in this amazing little beachy town.  Malmo isn't as cosmopolitan as Stockholm, and the people come off as a bit more down to earth.  Definitely my kind of town!  We were greeted with open arms, and lectured to the perfect audience.  We were preaching to the choir.
One man, who was in a wheelchair, asked what kind of work we performed for disabled women.  It was a question that left Fanny and I a little stumped.  We had never been asked that before, and I, quite honestly, had never considered it.  I told the man that as activists, it's our mission to stop discrimination against all people, and that we would work on it.  And as simply as that, we have our next topic!  Onward and upward!  It's been a fantastic tour, and I am EXHAUSTED.  Until next time, diary. 

Love,
Josephine Baker


 Day 1: August 15th, WPIC Stockholm


Our Swedish Guerrilla Adventure has begun!  Aphra Behn, Anne Sexton, Josephine Baker and I arrived in sunny Stockholm this morning after a red-eye flight from New York, bright, bushy-tailed and ready to seize the day after a splendid night’s sleep at 30,000 feet.  We even ran a few laps around the hotel, Usain Bolt- style, before loading our plates with pickled herring for breakfast!

Okay, maybe not so much on the Olympic running.  (But there really was pickled herring for breakfast.  I think.  I was so tired that it’s all a little fuzzy.)

After a smorgasbord of napping and a little time to wander through the bright cobblestone Stockholm streets, we headed over to the Riksteatern, where the 9th annual Women Playwrights International Conference will be held all week.  It was exciting to check out the list of attendees who we’ll be communing with during seminars and performing for on Saturday.  There are women playwrights from Lebanon, Australia, Canada, Chile, India, Estonia, South Africa, and just about everywhere in between.

In the evening, we headed over to the WPIC opening ceremony at Stockholm’s gleaming city hall (literally – the room we were in was covered in real gold mosaic tiles!).  There was more pickled herring involved:


We spoke to women playwrights from all over the world and also learned some interesting facts about the Golden Hall, including the herstory of one particular mosaic piece on the wall:


This image depicts Queen of the Lake Malaren holding the city of Stockholm in her lap and reaching with both hands to connect Sweden to the East and West.  When the image was first created, there was social backlash from nobility who thought the Queen looked too masculine – her eyes, feet, and hands too big and unfeminine.  The artists responded by saying that she needed big hands to reach out to the global community; big eyes to be perceptive of her surroundings; and big feet to stand firmly with a strong foundation.  Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about, Sweden!  Grrr!!!

Day 2: August 16th, WPIC Stockholm

Our second day was filled with nourishment of the feminist, artistic, and pastry varieties.

First, a morning of WPIC keynote speeches on theatre in the Arab World from three remarkable women: Nidal Al Achkar, founder and director of the Al Madina Theatre in Beirut, Mona Knio, Lebanese theatre technician and University professor, and Sondos Shabayek, Egyptian journalist, director, and activist.  Nidal stole the show with a luminous tenacity and sharp sense of humor; Mona was brave to admit that, being a technician, this was her first performance ever; and Sondos was youthful and direct in her stories of the 18 days on Tahrir Square in Cairo and creating the feminist theatre piece “The Pussy Monologues” in Egypt.

The three women differed in age, background, and discipline, but they were united on the mainstage at Riksteatern by their herstories of creating theatre in the face of political persecution and sexism.  Sitting in the audience surrounded by women artists from all over the world, I could feel excited energy coming from all sides.  More women from the U.S., Nigeria, the U.K., and other countries shared similar stories during the question and answer session, and the inspiration in the room could have exploded through the roof.  There is nothing like commiserating, laughing, and learning in a room full of women artists who know what it’s like to have to struggle every day to make work.  As an activist, it’s these rare moments of connection and unity that provide fuel for the fight.  Nourishment!

In the afternoon, we took our hungry gorilla selves out for some prime Swedish pastries.  There was a cinnamon roll (upstage), a vanilla crème bun (stage left), a bright pink berry thingum (stage right), and my favorite – the cardamom roll (down center).  Oh yeah:



In the evening, we continued feeding our minds at the Dramalabbet with Lana Nasser’s solo performance, In the Lost and Found: The Red Suitcase, one of the featured events at WPIC.  Lana is a Lebanese performer, and her piece explores the current sociopolitical climate in the Arab world (particularly as a woman) through deconstruction of language and beautiful movement involving just a scarf, a length of rope, and, naturally, a red suitcase.

After the performance, we headed back to Riksteatern for a late-night panel discussion on female representation onstage featuring theatre practitioners and activists from the U.K., Sweden, and Australia.  We especially loved hearing from Van Badham, an Australian playwright and dramaturge who was fiercely intelligent, charismatic, and unrelenting in her critique of sexist theatre practices in Australia.  As a Guerrilla Girl, we spend a lot of time mobilizing around the state of theatre for women in the United States, so it’s always exciting to get to think about the same issues internationally.

Day 3: August 17th, WPIC Stockholm

This morning, GGOT split up to attend different WPIC seminars.  I headed off to “Staging Gender,” which (in my book) really should have been called “SWEDEN IS THE BEST!”.  The seminar was with a group of academics/activists/artists who took on a several-year, government-funded project examining how actor training in Swedish drama academies is gendered, and implementing workshops and other educational programs to challenge gendered norms in theatre training.  The presentation included a short film, a stereotypical story about high school students, in which male actors playing the female roles and vice versa.  It was done with a lot of nuance and care, and forced the audience to actually see the gender of the characters rather than take it as a given or ‘natural.’  And, the government funded all of this!  It’s frustrating and inspiring to be reminded just how far the United States has to go in terms of tackling gender issues.

In the afternoon, our rehearsal plans were derailed, but not without good cause: today, three members of the Russian activist punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for performing an anti-Putin song in a church.  We did what any good Guerrilla Girls, or artists, or activists, or women, or anyone would do: joined the troops for a march and rally in protest through the streets of Stockholm.  We marched through the winding, touristy streets of Gamla Stan (Stockholm’s Old City) chanting “free pussy riot!” along with our female playwright compadres from WPIC.  We joined hundreds of other protesters outside of Sweden’s houses of Parliament for a rally with speeches, chants, and songs in Swedish and English.  Now Guerrilla Girls On Tour are no stranger to protest, but it was so powerful and special to be with an international community of women playwrights when this decision was made, and to raise our voices as a unified, global front in favor of free speech, peaceful protest, feminism and the value of arts activism.  This is what it means to be a Guerrilla Girl On Tour!  This is what it means to be a feminist artist!

Fanny says FREE PUSSY RIOT!

Day 4: August 18th, WPIC Stockholm

Performance day!  Still inspired from yesterday’s protest, we headed over to the Dramalabbet (which, by the way, is the only theatre in Sweden that produces solely new work – woohoo!) first thing in the morning and set to work rehearsing and teching Feminists Are Funny: The WPIC Stockholm Edition!”  We were able to sneak our tired selves out for a quick nap on the quiet and sun-drenched Riksteatern terrace after lunch, and then back to the theatre for more rehearsal!

Now, if anything, WPIC is about building community and getting those collaborative and supportive juices flowing among women playwrights from around the world.  The WPIC women have been in this intense, inspiring incubator since we arrived on the 15th, and that energy made them one of the best audiences I’ve ever performed for!  The theatre was overflowing with women playwrights ready to laugh, sing, think, and talk back from the moment we hit the stage in our yellow jumpsuits, and they stayed with us ‘til the very end.  

Some even stuck around to chat, hug, or have posters autographed after the show.  My favorite reaction came from Elizabeth Hess, an American playwright who we all have connected with at the conference, who said “Wow – it’s so empowering to be funny!”.  Yes!  To laugh is to claim agency, and it makes activism feel good, and builds community, and breaks the ice.  Her comment made me so proud to be able to spread GGOT-style fearless, funny feminism all around the world.  Cheers to that, Stockholm!  Here’s to women playwrights!

As if we needed any more adrenaline, as we were leaving Dramalabbet we literally ran into a joyous city-wide event: Stockholm’s annual midnight marathon, an all-night race through the city.  Runners zipped by in the streets, and drunken revelers packed the sidewalks to cheer them on.  It took us tired gorillas a little longer than expected to get back to our hotel (er, zoo), but it was fun to see the whole city out in the streets, celebrating one other.  There is electric energy in the air tonight- everywhere!


The midnight runners, all in uniform blue t-shirts, go too fast for my shutter speed!

Day 5: August 19th, WPIC Stockholm

No rest for these masked avengers!  Anne, Aphra, Josephine, and I were up bright and early again this morning to finish off our Stockholm tour with our signature street theatre workshop.  I couldn’t wait to see what political street theatre pieces our group of international feminist playwrights would come up with.

After warming up together (we stretched, we zip-zap-zopped, we ground it down, we ran around and made weird noises!), the group of about 30 conference guests got to brainstorming issues they wanted to make political street theatre about.  This was particularly interesting since we had such an international group, and became a learning session about what issues matter in different parts of the world, and the different ways people talk about the problems.  An Indian playwright clued us in to the phrase “Eve Teasing,” i.e. street harassment.

After brainstorming, the artists split into group to create pieces on sexism in theatre, notions of normality, abortion and reproductive rights, and more.  They created some wildly creative performances, and I loved walking around the room while they were working and hearing snippets – “…choose love over hate!” “Be a NATURAL woman!”





Speaking of acting natural, one of the groups created a hilarious piece challenging societal norms of gender.  They marched around the room chanting, “It’s NORMAL!  it’s NATURAL!” and asked the audience to mold performers into “real” men and women.
When we ventured outside to perform these pieces in the street, a young (very blond!) Swedish girl couldn’t help but join their demented dance moves during the performance.  It was great to see her bopping along to their rhythm, copying the moves they were making, and see that yes – we can change the way our kids think about gender if we’re brave enough to start thinking about it ourselves, all while being total goofs dancing around in the street.  Feminists really ARE funny, folks!

Day 6: August 20th, Malmofestivalen, Malmo

After bidding farewell to Aphra Behn and Anne Sexton this morning, Josephine Baker and I boarded the train for a relaxing 5-hour ride through beautiful Swedish countryside to Malmo, a southern beach city just 35 minutes from Copenhagen.  Still sleepy-eyed on arrival, we were greeted by the bright, colorful energy of Malmofestivalen (that’s Malmo Festival, naturally), the week-long, city-wide, free, outdoor arts festival where will give a lecture on the history of GGOT (“Humor in the Service of Feminism”).  When I say bright and colorful, I mean it – the whole center of the city is closed off to auto traffic for the festival, and most of the signs and landmarks (road signs, statues, fountains) are draped with knit covers that are totally wild and colorful.  The city has been taken over by artists!  What a great environment to inspire and be inspired.

Josephine and I were greeted by Pi, Elna, and the rest of the women of the Malmosfeministiska Natverk (Malmo Feminist Network), who hosted our lecture in a beautiful outdoor courtyard.  The place was packed with Swedish feminists young and old, and our audience was energetic and responsive.  One man even raised his hand in the middle of the lecture to ask us what we thought about Julian Assange.  An appreciative audience always feels great, but an audience so eager to engage directly
is even better!  We got great feedback after the lecture, and had some great banter with audience members.  One man told me about the feminist parenting group he’s a part of, and asked for some recommendations of my favorite feminist plays (among others, I mentioned The Rover, by our very own Aphra Behn).




Josephine & Fanny with the Malmo Feminist Network post-lecture

Josephine and I toasted the end our successful, normal, natural, funny, feminist Sweden tour with celebratory drinks alongside our new Swedish feminist friends.  Here’s to female playwrights, here’s to Swedish public policy for gender equality, here’s to pickled herring.  Keep kickin’ butt, Sweden!  See you again, I hope.

Love, 
Fanny Mendelssohn