On Prophecy and War and The Body As Resistance

Magnus Hirschfeld's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

I met Francis Weiss Rabkin and Leslie Allison of Tight Braid Group two years ago, when Won’t Be A Ghost was just beginning to form. I was struck by their interweaving threads of Manning’s and St. Sebastian’s stories, of song and theater and lecture, in an early work-in-progress showing curated by Sarah Rose Leonard. Now they’re preparing for a two-nights-only performance, the culmination of their summer residency at Dixon Place.

Francis Weiss Rabkin: In the very earliest incarnations, I was considering [Won’t Be A Ghost] a performed essay. It started out of doing a lot of research into St. Sebastian and his reputation as the gay saint and what led to the covalence of his identity. … Not too long into doing that research, I found myself obsessively reading the news around Chelsea Manning’s sentencing. … I realized that it would be really important to bring Chelsea Manning’s story into the mix, and it felt really natural for me to follow an instinct to blend it with St. Sebastian. … Then this past spring, my partner Leslie Allison and I were in Berlin, and at the Jewish Museum there was kind of a case about sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, and his story just stuck in our heads and … started to get woven in too. So then we had this big sprawling three-stranded narrative. And for good measure we brought in some Greek Mythology.

Elliott Jenetopulos: Right- Cassandra.

fwr: Yeah.

eej: What did you see as the original through-line from Sebastian to Chelsea Manning ?

fwr:  The thing about working with [the subject of] Chelsea Manning is that her story has been really drastically changing over the process. So I started writing about her before she had been sentenced to 35 years in a military prison, and over the course of the last two years she’s been in primarily solitary isolation, but also has had the opportunities to get a platform as an editorial contributor to The Guardian and has been able to pursue gender affirming therapy… and seems to have been growing up almost, in the way that she writes about herself and U.S. politics and international politics. So there’s this kind of constantly evolving thread to her story, but when I first crossed paths with it, she really seemed like a martyr. I mean she was being punished in this insanely abusive, unprecedented way. [The Espionage act of 1917]  that was invoked to sentence her for 35 years has not really ever been invoked to that severity… It was a law that could have potentially sentenced her to death, and it was being invoked for the first time since the 1910s… She was turned in to the FBI by someone that she was chatting with online, and the way in which she had immediately divulged all this information to him has this very self-incriminating martyr-like mode to it. So there was this initial very strong feeling in my mind- a parallel between a Catholic Martyr that has these queer valances and a queer soldier who … seemed to have a kind of death wish. And even the day after her sentencing, there’s a kind of change in how you can read her behavior. She came out as a trans woman right before entering an all male military prison, and there’s something that, to me, reads very much as, I’m going to survive and I’m going to assert the body that I should live in, despite really atrocious context.

eej: Won’t Be A Ghost centers around four very distinct characters. I think most people around us have some understanding of Chelsea Manning and her story, but maybe less people know about St. Sebastian. … He may or may not have been a queer person, but his image has been invoked throughout time—

fwr: Yeah, it got queered, essentially. It’s been utilized as a symbol by queer people. … Around the Renaissance, this very very beautiful androgynous image of Sebastian was the popular way of depicting this saint, and that bulk of images building up lends this visual vocabulary. And it has become this coded symbol that’s gone at least as far back as the Renaissance.

fwr: Magnus Hirschfeld was a sexologist … When he went on a book tour in the U.S., the papers were calling him ‘the Einstein of sex.’ He wrote a book in 1919 called The Homosexuality In Men And Women. It’s the product of ten thousand interviews with male and female homosexuals and transexuals, and to the extent that I understand his breakdown, he wrote that there’s a kind of Venn diagram of physiological sexual traits, sexuality and desires, and then gender presentation; and these facets can interact on so many different variables that there’s a range of sixty genders, which seems to me like a precursor to the gender spectrum. [Since 1871] there was a law on the books that male homosexuality was illegal, and [in the play] we are focusing on a moment when it seemed like that law was going to be overturned. … [Hirschfeld’s] political work was trying to abolish this law, and there looked to be a moment in the 1920s when that was going to actually happen. And then the stock market crashed, and the country turned more conservative, and the Nazis took a lot more seats in the Reichstag. And actually the same paragraph that he believed was going to be abolished – Paragraph 175 – they ended up basically putting it on steroids, once the work camps and death camps ramped up. So homosexuals in Auschwitz were called the 175ers. … And writing right now, when U.S. federal law has changed around gay marriage and it looks like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is completely being repealed, it’s like, are these cause to celebrate? I don’t know. There’s been a lot of thinking of cyclical time and there isn’t a trajectory of progress. That’s why I wanted to focus on this moment of Hirschfeld’s story…

eej: And certainly SCOTUS [ruling in favor of marriage equality], from the outside, looks like a step in the right direction. But then actually there’s all of this other underlying [discrimination] that’s happening that still hasn’t been addressed, and a lot of states are swinging much more conservative, and possibly the entire country is about to swing much more conservative … so yeah, the past mirrors the present.

fwr: There’s this thing that really gets my goat- I notice a lot of people say the phrase I can’t believe in 2015. Like, ‘I can’t believe in 2015 that we’re having the same fight about abortion, or I can’t believe in 2015 that the police are behaving like this to Black men.’ … As if time just passing is inevitable progress. And in some small way, in the weaving of all these stories, I’m ok with it not being the most clear ‘narrative’ necessarily, and okay with introducing these subject matters that may not be super familiar to an audience, but this idea that it’s almost more like a circle with layers… There is no clear progress, so why would there be a clear plot trajectory either?

eej: Yeah, time is not very linear.

fwr: Time’s not linear, and you know, I don’t believe our barbarism is in the past. I don’t think we are evolving. I think that becoming a society that is equitable to people is constant work and not inevitable. … Of course it’s still happening because [we haven’t] done the work.

fwr: Cassandra is from the Greek Tragedy Agamemnon. … Cassandra is a Trojan who has been captured and brought back as a slave after … Troy has fallen. And she is also a prophetess. … She rejected Apollo’s sexual advances and therefore was cursed to always be able to see the future but no-one would believe her story. … We were already looking to Greek Tragedies structurally, to kind of grapple with the enormities of the subject matters we were taking on. And also the play is very much structured [with] this choir element, so it seemed natural to be looking to formal cues from a Greek Tragic mode. And then to have Cassandra, whose story is prophecy and war and this feminine body as resistance built right in to it, it just seemed like, if we’re already dipping our toe into the Greek waters, we might as well go in all the way and bring her home.

eej: It’s also interesting to have this through-line of war, and these characters who come from times of war.

fwr: Yeah it’s hard for me to know if I gravitated toward stories about people in war, or if there is always war. I mean maybe that’s not true, but it’s certainly been true of my life as an American born in the late 80’s, you know. We’ve been in war since I was in high school…

eej: And Desert Storm was when we were kids, right?

fwr: Yeah. … And so we’ve always been fighting these weird complicated classified wars… the most classified wars. Increasingly classified. I think that classified information and war and that sense of ‘knowledge needs to be protected and hidden’ comes out of a wartime mentality. You know, I feel like as a nation we’ve been at war, but there are also other ways of being at war that marginalized parts of the population experience. So thinking about access to information as a war tactic is like — sorry, I could spin out from here to talk about school closures in Chicago — but yeah, I feel like my artistic impulse is to go macro and micro. And maybe that’s aquarian. But yeah, it’s all connected. forever.…To me, all these people represent a sort of telling-truth-to-power-figure, and have that relationship with the State or a kind of monolithic force, and I want some examination of how their bodies are affected as being the knowledge-and-truth-challengers to power. My instinct is that something about the severity of Chelsea Manning ‘s punishment has to do with her being a trans body. I feel like Magnus Hirschfeld’s entire archives being burned, and being chosen as this symbolic first book-burning by the Nazis … has something to do with this homosexual body, this Jewish body. … And Cassandra’s murder, and Sebastian — there’s something that seems like [the power figure in all these stories is saying] not only do we need to stop the knowledge that these people are giving, you have to destroy the body too. The body’s existence is a threat.

…Since the beginning, I’ve been collaborating with my romantic partner and creative partner Leslie Allison, who is a musician and singer. Her training is through choral music, and she’s also a poet. She has a very great chapbook about Martha Stewart called Martha. … She has a band called Cross that I guess is on infinite hiatus, but Cross has a song with a lyric that she was singing to herself: the wound is the sexual organ that we all share. And I remember waking up and hearing her sing that lyric, and I was like, ‘St Sebastian! And everyone else that we’ve been talking about!’ There is some truth to that. My instinct, in my kind of writerly pull, tends to go essayistic, and having Leslie’s music be a part of this piece since the beginning has been the permission to make some more conceptual leaps. … Trust the audience to make these jumps; the melody will carry it through.

eej: Actually, that has been something that’s really intrigued me, watching the life of this work. When we met you were sort of first showing bits of it, when it was a transcript and a lecture and a chorus.

fwr: Yeah. She rearranged that lyric … into a choral arrangement for many voices and a lot of beautiful harmonies, and from there has written five more songs. And they’re really beautiful. They could all stand on their own outside of it, and that’s what I think keeps us from making this a musical. The narrative doesn’t depend on the songs, and the songs don’t depend on the narrative.

eej: But they feed each other.

fwr: And belong together. And she has an incredibly talented group of singers. And we’ve been working with a director Sophie Traub, who actually started in the choir and has taken on the directorial role, which is really exciting. And Laurel Atwell has been helping with movement. She’s a fantastic choreographer, and hopefully in a more polished, final version of this piece, will be taking on a bigger role in the future. … And everyone is working a little bit outside their regular medium, or whatever their training is in. I think there’s a shared amateur spirit going on, and that’s certainly something that I have sought out and cultivated. There was a while where I was like, Should I be making theater with directors who’ve been trained as directors and actors who’ve been trained as actors? But I realized I much prefer the mode that I’ve by-accident-slash-secretly-intentionally been building, which is to pull people in from different backgrounds. So the choir is two school teachers, and two dancers, and Leslie’s day job is in a law office. Everyone has a lot of different hats that they wear. There’s a way in which there’s something fresh about their approach.

eej: It’s nice to work with people who are not exclusively defined by the role that they are playing, because their outside experience comes into the room with them. And I can see how that could be frustrating at times, but as a working model, it can be really beneficial.

fwr: Yeah, I think there’s a lot more asking why … but usually why is an incredibly fruitful question. I think we may be making the work harder for ourselves, in that everyone is teaching themselves the rules as they go along, and we’re always making up new rules for every project. There’s no thing we’re turning to, or practicum we’re using, but I feel like everyone is coming from a place of pretty strong honesty and openness. It very much is a cultivation of people with a lot of talent, but ultimately the criteria is: Who do I want to be in a room with for as many hours as I have to be to make a piece of theater?

eej: My observation is also that there are a lot of different genders and types of the Feminine represented in the performers. I don’t know that everyone in the room would necessarily identify as femme, but…

fwr: There’s definitely a strong goddess spirit going on.

eej: It’s very powerful.

fwr: We have one straight man representing, actually, but other than that, yeah. A lot of female-identified people and non-binary trans-identified people working together. And even over the course of this production people’s identities have shifted a little bit. It’s been really nice.

eej: It sort of affirms that you’ve created a space that is safe in that way.

fwr: It’s felt very safe. I mean getting fourteen artistic queers in a room, you’d think that there’s going to be drama, but it’s been beautiful.

fwr: One of the complications of having pulled together a cast of actors in a kind of shoestring production, and the reality of the New York art scene, is that we just don’t have a lot of time or money or flexibility. We ultimately got a group of performers that don’t necessarily match up with the genders they’re performing as. So we do have a gay cis man playing Chelsea Manning, who is a trans woman, and in an ideal world I would’ve loved to have cast a trans woman in a trans woman’s role. But the actor – Patrick Costello – is a really talented performer and brings a lot of nuance to the role, and i think has just a good sensitivity. And this is definitely a conversation we’ve been having as a community creating this piece. There’re two trans characters in the play and we were able to cast one character with a trans-feminine performer and i feel very glad that we met her. But it’s a struggle to make what’s best for the piece with what resources you have, and then address this pretty big problem in the greater performing arts and film world that trans characters are not being played by trans people. I know i’m not getting it perfectly right, but the story feels very important and i have a lot of trust in the ensemble of people we’ve brought together. And developing that community of people invested in this project is kind of the most important thing to me. To the best of my ability, i just wanted to set up a space where everyone could love each other a lot.
Won’t Be a Ghost will be on the Main Stage at Dixon Place Thursday, September 3, 2015, at 7:30p and Friday, September 4, 2015, at 10pm. http://dixonplace.org/performances/wont-be-a-ghost/}

Photo by Bailey Carr

Photo by Bailey Carr

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