Amelia & Audrey respond to SHEILA

Photo by Russ Rowland

Amelia and Audrey both attended Sarah Lawrence College, where they were in plays and seminars together. When they each heard about The Associates’ SHEILA, which ran January 12-27, 2018, at A.R.T./New York Theatres, and were interested in responding to it, Amelia suggested they do a companion response to slightly mirror the basic premise of the play: two women who haven’t seen each other in a long time reckon with the past ten years.

For readers who haven’t seen the show, here’s a brief synopsis of SHEILA: Gloria (played by Lauren LaRocca) has moved back to the town where she grew up after many years away, living on a commune. She invites her former best friend, Mary (played by Peregrine Heard), over for iced tea and a long overdue conversation. During the show, a third woman in a housedress (played by Emily Stout) drifts across the stage, appearing to exist in her own fictional world. Through a series of reveals, we learn that Gloria left home for the commune after she saw her father sexually assaulting Mary in her basement at the end of high school. At the top of the show, in a prolonged bout of postpartum depression, she has just left her own two children to be raised by their father on the commune. Mary, meanwhile, has pursued a more traditional path since college, becoming a nurse and living locally to support her mother in the nursing home.

What follows is a conversation about the show from emails back and forth, and as one might expect from two people who identify as  ~literary~, a reading list.

**

Audrey: Did Sheila make you think of any friend conflicts/difficult friendships with girls/women you’ve had? If so, elaborate?

Amelia: Yes and no. I think I kept trying to draw parallels because that feeling is so familiar of coming back to a high school friend/other person in your life whom you haven’t seen in a long time and have definitely grown apart from, but still feel a deep connection and have shared a lot of history.

I can think of a couple friends that fit this bill — one in particular whom I kept thinking of during the show because we used to play with this troll puppet that we named Dr. Russ, and we would make up these elaborate stories with him. We had all these different imaginary characters, and we both knew how to do the voices, and it was this perfect little invented world that used to entertain us for hours on end and make us laugh until we cried. Sometimes we would perform for one of our mothers, but mostly it was just for us. We were old-ish to be playing with dolls, like 5th or 6th grade, maybe, but it felt more like a secret bond between us than anything else. As I was trying to understand who/what “Sheila” was, that secret language from the shared world of Dr. Russ kept coming back to me, especially because that friend and I have grown apart as we’ve gotten older. We have nowhere near the baggage between us that Mary and Gloria share, but that moment where the women were sitting on the floor together, trying to literally get on the same level, comparing versions of their past and present selves, felt extremely relatable.

*

Amelia: Were you on somebody’s side? (I wasn’t.)

Audrey: I wasn’t either! In fact when that question was posed in the talkback, I thought that Gloria and Mary served as mostly evenly matched foils to one another. This reminded me of Shaw, especially something like Mrs. Warren’s Profession, that long conversation with Vivie and her mom that ends the play. It was so satisfying, I thought, to have a play with only women onstage, discussing these sort of existential questions — duty v. happiness, or maybe finding the greatest possible fulfillment within constraints v. seeking a break from any and all constraints — that I’m sure have been done to death by men in the Western theater canon. Except their concerns and lives were specifically about living in the world as women, as opposed to as men (or, in the case of Warren, written by a man).

*

Audrey: Did you think of Ibsen?? (specifically A Doll House or late stuff like JGB or When We Dead Awaken?)

Amelia: Not at all, although I wish I did, now that you pose the question, especially since we met in an Ibsen seminar! My references were more in the vein of Revolutionary Road and Big Love (the HBO series, not the Chuck Mee play) and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which I just finished watching and can’t stop thinking about. Also the climactic conversation about Gloria getting to run away and “selfishly” follow her bliss versus responsible Mary staying home and taking care of life’s practicalities rang so familiar to me that I can’t tell if I’m thinking of a specific reference point, or it’s just a recurrent theme in family dramas and so they’re all blending together in my head.

Audrey: Why do you think they chose to set the play in 1987?

Amelia: I wondered the same thing, and actually would have placed it a little earlier in time, by the costumes and the commune idea. But after hearing the talkback, I guess The Associates members were drawing on their own/their mothers’ experiences, and so they wanted to locate it in the recent past. Just out of reach from our present day existence, but still close enough to be relatable.

*

Amelia: Did you think Sheila was resting or dead on the kitchen table, at the end? (I thought dead.)

Audrey: I actually really didn’t think about Sheila much at the end. I forgot she was there! I guess her twitching and then lying still at the table was, for me, the least interesting part about Sheila. I loved other moments, like when she sort of burst out of the refrigerator when Gloria opens it, and while Mary is alarmed by the intrusion Gloria seems unaware. Or her walking around with a broken pearl necklace; the sound of pearls dropping on the floor — and echoed around the house through the sound design — was particularly eerie in a lovely way, I thought.

As you probably already know based on my questions for you, Sheila as well as Sheila as a whole really reminded me of late Ibsen at times: how there’s a really gut-punchy emotional conflict, but there’s also this strange, maybe allegorical, maybe poetic sort of imagistic character wandering around, or constantly coming up in conversation… Sheila’s heavily incomprehensible to maybe anyone but Gloria and Mary but we definitely feel something about it. I felt disturbed, also sort of envious of the closeness that led to Gloria and Mary’s joint creation. Then again, I wonder if that closeness — that sort of one-ness (which I think Associate member Emily Stout [who plays Sheila] discussed in the talkback with relation to a friendship her mom had as a girl) — is the sort that must ultimately end in psychic violence because that level of inseparable really isn’t sustainable. Especially because of the world we live in — maybe here’s a bit of room for the ‘untethered from men’ idea, or the ‘paradox of female existence’ concept…

I’m not sure, I never had this see-each-other-every-day sort of friendship as a girl. I count myself lucky to have some very close friends who are women, but I still don’t think I’ve quite experienced that phenomenon. As I see other women continue those close friendships as adults, I do wonder what I’ve missed. I think that was another reason why I loved seeing this specific sort of relationship play out onstage in Sheila.

*

Audrey: Did you think the sexual assault by Gloria’s dad was a bit of…. maybe not an afterthought, but not as considered as it could have been?

Amelia: Yes! Absolutely. I actually felt like the whole piece was kind of flat, or small, for all that it was trying to take on. The awkwardness between the two women took so long to go away after Mary walked in the door, that at first I thought it was a stylistic choice, like the high intensity acting was hyperrealism, to play off the surreal presence of ghostly Sheila on stage.

But then, if the sexual assault was the climax, I justified the intensity that way, like there was SO much they needed to talk about in that encounter, and it took them an hour and ten minutes to get there. It almost felt as if they (the creators) were afraid to go there. Although I appreciate that the makers of this play were creating from their own experience, maybe because they were so self-aware, it felt a little restrained?

Everything I write and make and think about is through a ferocious feminist lens, so I was kind of expecting this play to be more of a slam dunk for me in terms of how much I would like it. And yet, I had a hard time caring about these characters. Even though their issues and experiences are things I care deeply about, I still wrote in my notes “heavy white people shit.” Maybe I wanted more specificity from the characters, so I could get more attached? Or to know more about their present selves, so I wasn’t just rooting through the shadows of their past with them? I don’t know, but I still feel kind of a distance from the story.

*

Amelia: Did you have strong feelings about the characters’ agency? Or that idea of living lives untethered from men? (No quick and easy response here. Still mulling.)

Audrey: I’m pretty uninterested, or maybe irritated, with the word ‘agency’ lately; it’s so easy to go around in circles with the word. I strongly dislike the idea of denying agency to either Gloria or Mary (or any woman, for that matter) — Maria Lugones writes beautifully of finding subtle ways of resisting within the most oppressive of circumstances (see below), and I like that idea very much. It gets tough, I suppose, because saying “every woman has agency” threatens to diminish or cancel out the systemic oppression we are all, to varying degrees, subject to?

But in the case of Gloria and Mary, the image that comes to mind is that they have each made their beds, and now they have to lie in them.

For Gloria, that means really considering — and I appreciated how the play really emphasizes that she has considered this — the best way she can care for herself, while still ensuring her children are cared for and that her actions now will not severely damage something between her and her children later.

(Total aside: I really loved how her actions, well okay once again echoed Ibsen for me – she pulled a Nora! – but also opened up the discussion for alternate modes of kinship. Mary’s assumption that kids must have a mother and a father, their mother and their father, sounds maybe a bit close-minded to us today. Yes, the children will miss the mother they have already known, but depending on the specifics of the commune she left them and the father with, I find it completely plausible that their “it takes a village” style might ensure their total psychic safety and well-adjustedness. Should the communal parenting prove successful, Gloria’s psyche might be in the most precarious position…)

Gloria also has to decide to what extent she will sort of return to her past. She doesn’t seem to want Mary’s friendship again, but then why did she initiate their meeting? To shed more and more selves, like she talks about? That hit close to home: how well I know the seduction of — and I have a hunch many others feel the same — “If only I can get closure on X I can move on and really begin, then my true self can finally be born.” And the realization that follows as soon as you really get into it that, which is that such shedding or closure is of course impossible.

For Mary, that means assessing how much of her personal desires and/or interests she has sacrificed for the sake of other priorities: duty, family, security. I found her profession of nurse as a bit funny when she was an English major in college — that is still the career move my mom (herself a nurse) suggests whenever she suspects my vocation as writer isn’t the most stable. Mary seems to like it well enough, I thought; she seems far more unhappy being tethered to her hometown so that she can care for her ailing mother. She mentions her brother sort of shirks this responsibility with the excuse that he has a wife now, a career, they want to start a family. Mary’s life as a single woman is assumed to be less valuable, and so she should be the one to step up.

Regarding other aspects of Mary’s character — here’s where I get a little murky, because I admit I think Mary’s character was less developed than Gloria’s. I know I asked you this, so I’m curious what you think: I felt that Mary’s sexual assault at the hand of Gloria’s dad was a bit less considered than I would have wanted. I’m not sure what would have made me feel differently about this – I’m not saying we should have been able to tell she was a victim of sexual violence from the moment she walked in through the door — I know as well as any woman that hiding such things away is not only possible but also can feel like the only possible choice. But in the midst of so many other reveals — the play in some ways is one long string of them doling out their experience of the previous ten years to one another — it sort of got lost for me.

*

Audrey: Why was Gloria fixated on ‘happiness’ as opposed to say ‘fulfillment’ (a term used by a particularly insightful audience member at the talkback)?

Amelia: That’s an interesting question. I kept thinking about Joseph Campbell’s old “Follow your bliss” advice. “Happiness” seems naïve, selfish, and is so often used pejoratively by certain adults, but is also such a part of the American dream, the shiny picture of the nuclear family. “Fulfillment” for me seems simultaneously more elevated and also more grounded, less about indulgence or pleasure-seeking or temporary gratification, and more about serious contentedness, living a balanced life. I guess “happiness” feels like a young word, whereas “fulfillment” feels like the more mature version of that idea. So it’s telling that the younger people making this play were using the younger word, whereas said silver-haired audience member had a more mature interpretation of the idea, or understood better what Gloria’s character was trying to express.

Gloria also probably had some stunted development, since she left society as we know it at such a young age. For her, on the commune, where naïve ideals tend to be championed, maybe happiness was the ultimate good, and so she naturally brought that quest with her back into the “real” world.

And here’s a few more questions for you:

And then Audrey and Amelia started firing questions back and forth as fast as Google Docs would allow them, which are here woven into a simulated conversation.

Amelia: What did you think about the staging? (Also is there a word for that layout? I want to say “galley” or “gallery” or something?) I found myself observing the audience members directly across the room more than I usually would have, which layered into my experience of watching the play.

Audrey: I think it’s called an ‘alley stage’? Wikipedia says we can also call it a Traverse stage, which sounds fancy. Yes, I also found myself very much observing the others. At one point I sort of accidentally caught the eye of a guy across from me and I saw him start as he saw me. I started wondering if he was wondering why I was looking at him, even though I had never meant to in the first place… I want to assume that when people use this setup it’s because they want us to be aware of the audience of our own watching. I felt this was a bit odd, since in most respects the piece was very intimate, and like you said almost hyperreal. Then again, I think that so much of what makes womanhood difficult has to do with societal expectations placed upon us, the feeling of constantly being watched by the community around you. When it was revealed to us that Gloria had left two children behind, as I assessed my own reaction to that revelation of her character, I also thought about how bad that made her look: how irresponsible, how un-maternal, how un-womanly. Whether or not I agreed with those judgments (and on the whole I don’t think I do), they were still at the forefront of my mind.

Amelia: Let’s talk about the ghost figure (whom I came to interpret as “Sheila” embodied, although at first I thought she was one or both of their mothers, haunting them). Did she work for you? How did you interpret her presence? Would you have employed her differently? I thought the fake eyes on the panty hose that Sheila wore over her head were so incredibly creepy and effective, serving as an inverted mask — normally we see the actor’s eyes through a false face, but this time we saw the actor’s face with false eyes.

Audrey: I think that, were it up to me, I would either make her a lot more pedestrian and comprehensible — maybe making the dialogue between Gloria and Mary make more sense to the audience — or I would have gone a LOT weirder. As I said, those were the Sheila moments I loved the most. What if Stout had literally climbed up on Heard or LaRocca, made one of them give her a piggyback? What if she did some ridiculous dance in the middle of the living room at some other pivotal moment? I don’t know, it seemed like it could have come back more at the end. Her stillness at the end did, I think, ultimately give me the impression that their shared universe had died, and I think she could have had a louder or more flamboyant death rattle, if you get me.

Amelia: Anything else you’re thinking about and want to share?

Audrey: I guess the only other thing I want to speak about is the lens through which I watched it. I think upon Mary’s first appearance, as they began to speak to one another, I felt that the performance would not quite be able to digest the content it was chewing on. Maybe it was that the setting felt a bit arbitrary, or that the actors seemed slightly younger than the characters they were playing (if not literally then emotionally).

But, I was so pleased with the premise, with the fact that this was just two women, onstage, discussing their friendship and when it went wrong, that I sort of chose not to care. I was able to pretty easily focus more on what about the premise was working for me, how smart the script often was, how engaging and organic the actors could be. If they sometimes failed to live up to my incredibly high expectations we all now have for hyperrealism (probably largely because of what I’ve heard called ‘prestige television’), I thought that was frankly to be expected given the newness of the play and the company, and the ambition of the task.

It’s certainly true that the task was narrow — it did not interrogate race much, despite the fact that Heard is multiracial — but I think that many, many projects must sacrifice breadth if they are to pursue depth. And I was happy to see a show — especially one that was created by a company who prioritizes devising over more traditional theater-making methods — specifically tackle such depth, specifically about a relationship between two women. This genre is still new! There are many experiments and trial-and-errors that remain to be seen as we unpack the many ways relationships between women can look onstage.

Amelia: My last thought is in response to what Heard said at the talkback, that in making this piece, The Associates wanted to give Mary and Gloria desires and motives between women, not to do with men, and yet they were acknowledging that women are living in a patriarchy, so they are necessarily affected by men (i.e. the paradox of female existence).

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about since I saw Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility at A.R.T. in Boston a couple weeks ago: the Bechdel Test can necessarily only apply to modern women, to art made within the last few…decades? Because prior to not very long ago, white women of a certain class’ entire worth/“career” prospects, essentially, depended on who they hitched their wagon to. So in fact, there was actually nothing more important to talk about than who you were trying to marry before women’s lib, because every dinner party was a job interview and every calling suitor was a potential employer.

So…to tie that back into Mary and Gloria, it’s a very recent privilege in the history of being a non-impoverished white woman to have other concerns than heteronormative relationships that you need to pressingly discuss with the women in your life. And for me, that puts the whole happiness/selfishness conversation in an almost distant perspective. I’m still chewing on what the aforementioned silver-haired audience member said at the talkback, “What seemed like taking agency was really only damage control,” stemming from the fact that girls grow up feeling like nothing that they do matters. Thirty years ago, these women were thirty years closer to having far fewer options, and far greater assumptions about what their lives were supposed to look like. (Which also makes me think about the Meryl Streep/Tom Hanks interview in The New York Times following The Post — similar to the younger reporter, my jaw dropped when I learned that Streep was in graduate school when she was first allowed to get a credit card without a male family member signing for her.)

The issues haven’t gone away, but maybe that novelty feels poignant, thirty years later. We, the 2017 off-off-Broadway New York audience, all acknowledge women have interior lives that deserve more stage time and screen time and general societal respect, but where do we go from there? Maybe this is why the play felt a little flat to me. I’m SO on board with creating more plays by women and about women’s experiences, and I think there is value just in making them, no matter how they turn out, to make more space for women’s stories to be shared, to make that a normal practice, because everyone deserves to be heard.

I think I probably, ironically, was not the ideal audience member for this show because this is already the art and personal experience I’m (fortunate enough to be) surrounded by every single day. I was glad to be proven to be a silent minority during the talkback, though, because all the other audience members who stayed were so jazzed by the show, and had had so many thoughts and feelings triggered by it, and that’s far more important to me.

READING LIST

-”Practicing” by Marie Howe
-“This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work,” Rebecca Traister, The Cut, December 10, 2017
-“Maybe Men Will Be Scared for Awhile,” Molly Fischer, The Cut, January 17, 2018
-“Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on the #MeToo Moment and ‘The Post’,” Cara Buckley, New York Times, January 3, 2018
-“In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel
The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman
Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility
-Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes by Maria Lugones
The Voyager by Jenny Lewis
Call Your Girlfriend podcast
Mad Men
Lady Bird
Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
American Beauty

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