So that I would be loved: a conversation with Lyndsey Bourne
To get to have a voice, you also have to have a body. So what happens if you hate your body?
— Lyndsey Bourne
I recently spoke with playwright and doula Lyndsey Bourne about her new play, I Was Unbecoming Then (previously scheduled at the Tank Apr 2-25, now postponed until next season). Set in 2006, right at the moment when Lyndsey and I were both becoming women and unbecoming girls, I Was Unbecoming Then is a stunningly precise and moving evocation of adolescent girlhood in all its rigor and ugliness.
Directed by Ilana Khanin, with an original vocal score by Sam Kasetahe, the play follows a high school choir as it prepares for competition and features a cast of twelve girls ranging 14-18—played in this production by female-identified and non-binary performers who were also un/becoming in 2006. Like so much of Lyndsey’s work, I Was Unbecoming Then is fiercely attentive to the dynamics of female friendship and to the repression of women’s sexual pleasure and women’s political consciousness.
In our conversation, Lyndsey posits choir as a metaphor for girlhood. The vocal demands of choral singing—matching vowels, matching pitch, and, as Lyndsey says, “just looking at each other’s mouths and bodies”—can help us understand how girls in the process of becoming women tune themselves both to cultural expectations of femininity and to one another.
There’s community and collectivity in that attunement, in that intimate listening. But, as Lyndsey notes, it can also leave you vulnerable to exploitation, particularly when the voice that you’re learning to use depends on the body you hate.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for concision.
Kate Kremer: Maybe the best first question is simply to ask about the process so far.
Lyndsey Bourne: Yeah! Um so…so okay: I’m trying to figure out how it started. I applied to ANT Fest at Ars Nova with this idea. And we ended up making the show in a month. And I felt like, Oh, actually there’s something here, there’s a play that I want to write here, there’s something larger that I feel like I want to say about girlhood and the spectrum of femininity through the minutiae of what it means to have a body. So I started working on that, and thinking a lot about my own experiences in high school, and specifically in choir, and how that was such an important thing in my life—I mean it was really all I cared about—and I was so shaped by the women I was standing beside on the risers. So much of how I felt about my body, so much of how I felt about like girlhood as a collective, everything that I felt about femaleness, came from the choir room, came from my experiences with these teenage girls.
KK: I was interested in the relationship in the play between voice and body, because it feels like the play is proposing that some aspect of aesthetic expression—and potentially of political expression—is rooted in these very physical discoveries that the women are making.
LB: Totally, absolutely. I mean sex is super political and we need to be talking about that more. I think teenage girls on whole—feel entitled to participate in sex but we don’t feel entitled to enjoy it or to experience pleasure. And we’re not taught to experience pleasure. We’re not taught to think about our bodies that way. And I really think that that is part of the world that we’re living in now, is that we’re totally denied agency of our own bodies. Peggy Orenstein in her book Girls and Sex talks about it as a psychological clitoraldectomy that American women are facing. I grew up in Canada and this play takes place in Canada but—that still applies.
KK: I was fascinated by the monologue in which one of the girls was talking about the moment of discovering her clitoris and not understanding where the shame came from, being so young that she didn’t feel like the shame had been taught to her, even, but that it was there nonetheless.
LB: Yeah I don’t know where that comes from, I really don’t. I mean, little girls are really smart. We know immediately what our roles are. I babysit a lot, I always have, I see what happens around age four and five when all of a sudden girls go from wearing pants and T-shirts to dresses, barrettes, bracelets, necklaces—all of a sudden femininity is everything. We understand our role so quickly. And that changes—our understanding of gender shifts so dramatically during puberty and after puberty. But I think so much of what I’m interested in is that disembodiment that you’re talking about and that idea that to have a voice, to get to have a voice, you also have to have a body.
LB: So what happens if you hate your body? Which is what we are taught from every aspect of society, is not to value ourselves. Teenage girls are not yet in the workforce, our only real function in society is as consumers. I think that’s what we’re taught through all these advertisements through Seventeen, Cosmo: If you act a certain way, you might become this person! If you wear this thing, you could be this woman! And it’s all rooted around performance of body.
KK: I have a couple of questions that come out of that. One is about the way in which the choral movements in your play offer an opportunity for people to be embodied as a collective. Is this a kind of resistance to the individual disembodiment that feels so pervasive in our culture?
LB: Totally! Yeah, I knew pretty much right away that I wanted this play to feel as if it had these three different distinct levels of consciousness. So [at one level] it seems that we’re seeing the everyday quotidian experience of being a teenage girl through the stylized and rhythmic language. And then the monologues are existing outside of time and they’re more confessional. It’s like a real, dropped-in, present look at this emotion that neither the character nor me as a teenage girl was able to say, but I certainly was feeling. And then with the choir and the music I really wanted to express that collective consciousness, which has to do, again, with that opening note in the script where I talk about—[how the girls are] constantly adjusting and tuning and retuning to each other. And this is also why I think choir is such a perfect metaphor for girlhood. Because literally that is our job is to be listening and retuning and matching: matching sound, matching vowels—we’re literally just looking at each other’s mouths and bodies. I think that’s the perfect metaphor for girlhood and this collective consciousness because it’s sort of happening on this very practical level where we’re all in a room working on this very tangible thing. But collectively, we as young girls are also doing that. We’re always perceiving how we’re being perceived in any moment. And I think that there is a lot that we are—I mean that shame, that internalized misogyny, all these things—that we now may be developing language for, but fifteen years ago we didn’t have that language. So it is about this energy, this haptic quality that I felt like I couldn’t really express but we were all feeling. The collective consciousness is sort of my way of, I don’t know, taking up space—rewriting that narrative.
KK: And then I also was thinking about what you were saying about performance how we learn so early what our roles are, and I was thinking about the ways in which the different sections of the choir perform themselves differently—what the difference is between an alto and a soprano, for instance—and the way that manifests in this micro-culture of the play.
LB: Yeah I think that there is a sort of a stereotype. Sopranos—first of all they’re typically singing the melody, so there’s sort of—I’m trying to figure out a way to say this—I’m just going to say it how I want to say it, but like: the sopranos were always the hot blondes. And the altos were always you know doing the choir teacher’s photocopying and collecting attendance sheets or permission slips, right? Like we were all—I think there’s something, I think it’s from Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, by Tiqqun, I don’t know if you’ve read it?
KK: No I haven’t.
LB: I think it’s from that—but there’s all this stuff about how we learn pretty quickly that our value as women is either as sex object or as in service to the man, like what we can provide to make his life easier. And so in that case – and this is truly such a general statement – I think that the sopranos were filling [the sex object] role and the altos were like Okay now time for the busywork.
KK: It’s so dynamic in the script, the differences in status but also the differences in listening that are happening among those groups of people. Like what it means to listen for something other than the melody, what it means to be trying to tune yourself to people in a different way.
LB: Another example of this is like in grade 10, the choral director, put me in the top jazz choir that was mostly for seniors. So it was a big deal—I was the youngest girl in the choir. And I would wake up at 5:00 AM every Wednesday—because we had choir at 7:15—I would wake up at 5:00 AM every Wednesday and bake cupcakes, brownies, whatever because…it was a way to be loved! It was a thing for me to do to get affection. And every single thing I did for him, for the choir, was so that I would be loved. And it was these incredibly gendered tasks. And I also like you know was really struggling with my own sexuality—again in hindsight—but there was just no queer representation at that time. And I just felt like I was playing the girl all the time. Or I remember some of the older girls were like Oh Lyndsey, you’re so cute, do you have a boyfriend? Just like value was always whatever your proximity to a man was. I feel like a major coping mechanism for me in high school was knowing that if I acted a certain way around male authority figures—it was a game, kind of, I mean it’s all a game, being a teenage girl. But knowing that that was a way to survive. By servicing—by um, being of service.
KK: I’m interested in the ways in which this script makes visible how the pursuit of excellence can actually make you vulnerable to exploitation. There’s a violence to excellence, or a way in which the kinds of self-denials required of being a really excellent singer are also the kinds of self-denials that might lead you not to recognize when you’re being abused in a situation.
LB: Yeah, I think that’s totally there.
KK: It feels like the play is so much about how these women are molding themselves to the needs of these two men, as you said, and vying for their attention and also critiquing them. But I feel like you see it in other fields, too, like you see it in gymnastics or in so many different sports where people push themselves to this point of almost hurting themselves, being right on the edge, and it turns out that that’s a space of vulnerability.
LB: Absolutely! Yeah I, when I first came to New York and was at NYU one of my teachers was like, There’s something off about the quality of your voice and they sent me to get my larynx imaged and they sent me to a speech therapist and they were like, You have tons of vocal nodes on your larynx. I was just muscling through for so many years, just practicing all the time—
LB: Anyway I think what you’re saying is totally right and has to do with a lot of different things. I think that for many teenage girls or maybe even most that there’s this time in girlhood where your body starts, your body resembles that of a woman. And you sort of become a passive, though not totally unwilling, participant in your own objectification. And that has to do with the playing of womanhood and the consumer culture we’re in. But we’re shaping ourselves around men, and that of course is what we’ve been taught to do since the beginning of time. But I think in that moment where we’re not actually active in society, where we really are playing at being grown-ups, we’re so susceptible to male authority figures. And I think that most of the time men aren’t even conscious of that kind of power that they have.
KK: I’m curious about how the music works on stage.
LB: I wanted to create a psychic space and the music was a part of this storytelling. And thinking about choral music—there are so few female or nonbinary composers, there are so few female or nonbinary or trans conductors and music directors, and that obviously seeps into the material, both the kinds of melodies that exist and the arrangements themselves but also the text and the song choices and the sensibility. When everything is through the male gaze we actually have no idea what women sound like. Because for so many hundreds of years we haven’t gotten to figure out what we sound like.
KK: Does that feel connected in any way to your muscling through? I mean obviously your vocal nodes had to do partly with overwork, but do you think that there’s a connection between the sounds that people are asked to produce and what’s actually healthy for people’s bodies?
LB: Yeah, I think that’s a much larger concept that the music world at large is also thinking about. I just read this article about how menstruation effects the vocal cords—
LB: Yeah! It affects your ability to harmonize, to sing pianissimo, it makes your vocal cords drier and then your range becomes shortened. So there are certain opera houses that are now giving female singers the week off for their menstruation so they don’t hurt themselves.
KK: That’s amazing
LB: It is amazing and it’s like this thing that we’re looking at again that was actually happening in the 19th century—but I think that’s an example of how we’re not talking enough about anatomy when we’re talking about singing. And that’s everything. There’s also—I’m obsessed with Anne Carson’s essay, “The Gender of Sound,” and she talks about the two mouths that women have. They’re both connected by a neck, both have lips that are best kept closed. And yeah I’ve been thinking a lot about that as well, about our anatomy. And especially in my doula work. When Lidocaine is inserted into the cervix, a lot of my clients will talk about the taste in their mouth because there’s a direct connection between our cervixes and our mouths.
LB: But we don’t talk enough about that. That’s the other thing that was so important about this play and for me as a whole, is I’m obsessed with destigmatizing the female body and like celebrating genitals. We’re taught that our bodies, our vulvas, are disgusting, and icky, but also like these sacred gifts and don’t give it away or you’re a slut. So the spectrum of it is so insane. And we’ve become completely detached and disembodied. And we’re not learning about what our bodies do at all. And not even, not even like pleasure and orgasms but just like, we’re not understanding our own cycles, our own bodies. I’m really excited and interested in talking about the perineum for example, or vulvodynia or vaginismus. When we’ve been going through the script in past rehearsals, almost all of the actors don’t know how to pronounce these words or what they mean and this is part of what I feel like I’m trying to do with the play, is: Let’s use the names! Let’s know what our body is!
KK: Do you have a sense yet what the movement language of the piece will be?
LB: The set is very spare. We’re not using props. It’s really all about the rhythms and the timing and how language is embodied, and how bodies and language and music work as texture, and how it can be this haptic psychic oscillating thing that is never a clearly delineated mode of working. I like hybrid theater. I want theater that is also a concert that is also performance art, that can only be made by cutting and crafting bodies in space.
KK: How old are the actors in the cast?
LB: Generally they’re like 22 to 27. Our whole team is female or nonbinary-identifying and our entire team came of age in 2006, which is when this play is set. Which feels important because 2006 had a very specific cultural energy. It was the precursor to what is happening now. Greed was in. Television about rich white skinny hot teenagers: like the OC, One Tree Hill, Laguna Beach, the Hills, or all the way to Paris Hilton, Hilary Duff—the mainstream cultural celebrities in 2006, at least for teenage girls, all pretty much looked the same. And I think, again, looking at these sources, we’re really just looking at rich kids. And it was sort of the year that YouTube, Facebook, and camera phones were happening everywhere, always. So it was like this new age of disembodiment where we were creating representations of our own representations. And it was new. All of a sudden there was an added layer of self-expression and of the performance of self.
KK: Do you feel like it’s different now? For teenage girls coming of age now, that there’s a different mentality, or that things have changed for them?
LB: Yeah I mean I think there’s a lot that needs to change still, particularly on the institutional level. I think this play takes place in 2006 for a reason, and post- #MeToo we now have language, we now have more agency around our bodies and asserting the right to openly express—whether or not we actually are able to, again because of all of the shame and stigma that still exists—but there are examples of women coming forth and speaking about their abuse, speaking about mistreatment. And I think that a lot of this play is also about all of the times in my life when I didn’t have the guts or the courage to say what I needed to say, like I didn’t value myself enough, or I didn’t feel safe enough to express what was really happening for me. And a lot of that was because of the external structures—and I really did feel that way in undergrad too, it’s extremely pervasive. I’m still working through a lot of my own internalized misogyny. But I do think that we are trying to change that for young women. I hope we’re changing that, by way of making space for them. That’s something I care a lot about and I’m seeing, at least in my students—who are all about 18, they’re freshmen at NYU—I think they are so, they’re just miles ahead of where I was in what they’re able to articulate about their experiences. It’s the best aspect of teaching, is being totally amazed by my students.