I immediately got a request for a link to a video of the MIKVAH reading. No, we did not record it.
And then I thought, since I'm sending another blog, I should also send my very silly photo of Nikki.
Since he recovered from an eye infection, I have been washing Nikki's eyes every morning with warm water. He was not pleased with these daily ablutions, but he grudgingly submitted.
And then I woke up one morning and got out of bed. I sleep in an alcove in my studio, separated from the pups, Loulou ensconced in the recliner and Nikki relegated to an actual dog bed. When I left my sleeping alcove and rounded the corner, I was confronted with this vision:
Nikki was standing absolutely still, with the curtain over his head. It seemed he had gotten fed up with having his eyes washed and he was hiding from the eye-washer. He appeared to believe that -- because I was invisible to him -- he was invisible to me. He did not move a muscle as I went and got my camera and slowly approached.
How long had he been standing there like this?
For all his elegance and careful breeding, Nikki is a rather hapless dog. Loulou has the padded recliner all to herself because Nikki cannot figure out how to lie down in it. He stands and rocks madly back and forth. At the park, he is totally dedicated to chasing the ball, but he thinks the ball goes in the direction he runs, so he just starts out galloping without paying attention to my throw. Not that it would make much difference, since he has terrible eyesight. Fortunately, Loulou is much more discerning, and he follows her. This photo of the two of them says it all. I call it "The Goofball & the Princess."
So the last time I blogged, I was preparing for a Zoom reading of my play, MIKVAH.
I was exhausted after the reading. I don't know if it was because:
(1) I'm eight years older than the last time I dove into starting a play (in 2013)
(2) Because this subject is particularly intense and challenging to me
(3) Because I'm feeling drained by this strange world we've been living in since March 2020 -- Pandemic, Presidential election, right-wing insurrection -- little details like that...
,,,,But I've been EXHAUSTED by writing in a way I haven't experienced before.
So I needed a break after the reading of MIKVAH. And my close ex Jessica was arriving for a visit and I took a break for a whole week. It was quite a nice experience to work to exhaustion on a beloved project and then take a real break with an old friend.
We even went AWAY for two days, with my podmate Elizabeth and our three dogs to the lovely Art Deco Ocean Park Motel on 46th Avenue at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I'm telling you, I VACATIONED!
And, yes, it was foggy at the beach. But fog can be nice TOO if that's what you end up with. Very mysterious and magical, fog is.
So: The Zoom reading of MIKVAH with a cast of two experienced and age-appropriate actresses for an audience of friends:
It was so exciting for me to see the play LIVING. People believed this 1905 Jewish village world. They believed Rachel and Chava were real people. They cared about them, thanks to the wonderful actresses and my writing. They believed the two women were madly in love with each other, even though they couldn't touch each other because they were stuck in boxes next to each other-- one box in Brooklyn and one in Ashland, Oregon.
I am so grateful to my director, Heather, who arranged the auditions that brought Amy (Chava) and Emily (Rachel) to us. The two of them were inspired.
The Zoom audience understood Rachel was trapped in a marriage to an abusive husband and it was particularly unbearable to her previously untrammeled spirit.
But then again, the actual murder of her husband was a bit controversial. That was good, that was good.
The Zoomers had a lot of good suggestions -- way too many for me to take in. Fortunately we recorded most of the discussion, so I can go back and watch it. And the Zoomers had criticisms. One friend went on at length about how inappropriate it was for for Chava to give Rachel the nickname "Little Bird." It was hard for me to hear. But then again, my friend went on so long that I actually realized she was RIGHT!
WHAT PEOPLE WANTED MORE OF:
People wanted a longer play, which was very gratifying.
People wanted more about the mikvah itself -- its rituals and history and the little details of its operation. In other words, the mikvah is a CHARACTER.
People wanted Rachel to display her knowledge, if she was so damn learned.
People wanted to see Chava and Rachel having a GOOD TIME, being more playful. Wow, I was happy to hear THAT! Because them playing together is going to be FUN to write! Let's hear it for NOT going deep, for energizing myself by creating a bit of cavorting!
Trying to understand how Rachel can get to the point of killing her husband, and imagining the emotional consequences of that act -- this is very unknown territory to me. This exploration takes a lot out of me. But lovers playing together -- that's not just familiar, it's..it's really enjoyable to think about!
After everyone else had left the Zoom room, Carolyn and Heather and my friend Tara, who read stage directions, and I continued the discussion. More and MORE and MORE ideas!
Carolyn thought the play absolutely needs music. Now, THAT'S a very exciting thought, because the music of that time and place and culture is KLEZMER! Kind of jazzy and minor key, ranging from mournful to wild celebration, Klezmer is Jewish blues that makes you get up and DANCE. And we know the leader of Isle of Klesbos, a wonderful lesbian klezmer band. She can perhaps be convinced to compose some music for us.
I've always prided myself on being open to criticism. I'm not as defensive as other writers. I have a very deep understanding that I cannot get where I want to go artistically BY MYSELF! I need help, and lots of it.
But I also need lots of encouragement. I'm not one of those visionaries whose inner flame burns so brightly that they can overcome obstacles on their own. (I just read a biography of the first woman doctor in America -- Elizabeth Blackwell. She had that indomitable drive.) Me, I need people to tell me my work is important, in order to believe in myself.
So I was especially deeply touched by my friend Jerry's words. He could not understand how other people could even SPEAK after the intense and powerful experience of MIKVAH. Thank you, Jerry, for your articulate inarticulateness. Thank you for being overwhelmed by MIKVAH.
So the first draft of MIKVAH is a success. The play really works in its current form --- although it can be SO MUCH BETTER, with music, playfulness, more information on the mikvah, more scholarly observations by Rachel and a new nickname for her too -- among other things. Chava, strange awkward innocent Chava -- she's already there in full bloom.
You know, I channeled this whole play -- except for one part of it. Quite often incidents in my plays are based on my life or on things I read or heard about from other people. But MIKVAH came from inside me -- except for the part about Schlomo the beggar drilling a hole in the mikvah so he could peep at the women bathing. That came from a New York Times story about a Hasidic community in upstate New York, where the Rabbi did that very thing.
I've said before that being a playwright is like being God and creating a world. But I've never gone so far out on a limb before. This world I've created is so different from my own. I wondered, before the reading, whether I'd really brought it to life. I have! And this world is the right place for me to examine a theme that has haunted me for decades -- women's rage against the patriarchy.
Dear Bloggelinis: I'm looking forward to describing this process of creation of a play to you. I've never done that before.
This is an 18th century etching of a Jewish ritual bath (mikvah in Yiddish) in Amsterdam.
Observant married women must purify themselves every month in the mikvah
after they menstruate and before they have sex with their husbands.
I haven't been blogging lately, because I'm deep into writing a new play. I'm not a good multi-tasker. I know, I know, I shoulda just SAID I was taking a break from BAUMblog. But of course I THOUGHT I was going to blog AND write MIKVAH. Anyhow, my apologies for being missing in action for so long. Later today, we are having a ZOOM reading of the first draft of MIKVAH, for a few friends. Having a first draft is a very big deal for me.
MIKVAH takes place in the women's ritual bath house in a small Jewish village -- a shtetl -- in Poland in 1905. We're talking FIDDLER ON THE ROOF time and place -- but a very different take.
The story concerns the intense love affair between Chava, the unlettered mikvah attendant and Rachel, a highly educated young woman who has just married an abusive and controlling man.
The theme of MIKVAH is:
WOMEN'S RAGE AGAINST THE PATRIARCHY!
The seed of MIKVAH was actually planted in 1974 at a women's music festival in the Santa Cruz mountains. At the time, I would never have believed it would take 47 years for me to actually get around to finishing a first draft.
THE STORY OF THE CREATION OF MIKVAH:
I moved to Santa Cruz in 1974 to join some college friends to start a new theater. All these college friends happened to be of the male persuasion. I was not yet a lesbian, but it was still a great big drag to be the only woman. The men were perfectly nice. But they found my ideas strange or uninteresting or both.
Carolyn relates what happened next in her Introduction of ONE DYKE'S THEATER, and she does it well. So I'll let her tell it:
"That summer of 1974, a bunch of us from Isla Vista crowded into my old VW and drove up the California coast to Santa Cruz to visit Terry. We went to The Amazon Music Festival, where there was great music and two hundred women dancing ecstatically, mostly shirtless. This was our first time in a women-only space. We were luxuriating in our new-found feeling of safety and sisterhood under the towering redwoods, when a group of tough-looking men on motorcycles roared up to the gate, hostile and aggressive, shouting, demanding to be let in. A few of us recognized that things could get bad quickly, and tried to reason with the five of them. We were followed by 195 angry women, including Terry, itching for a fight. Our ad hoc negotiating team pointed out to the men that they were outnumbered forty to one, and that even masculine superiority might not save them. Just before the point of conflagration, the bikers turned around, and roared off. That night, Terry told me, when she was part of the legion of women warriors, she had received a vision of a play about women's rage against the men, created by an all-women theater troupe. She was going to move to the Bay Area to realize her vision. This is the mythological, yet true, creation story of Lilith Theater (named for the Bible's first uppity woman)."
So I DID move to Berkeley and I DID start a women's theater collective. But did I create a theatrical attack on the patriarchy? ABSOLUTELY NOT! And why not? Because I discovered that people were really not all that interested in seeing women's rage portrayed. I would say they were intensely interested in NOT seeing women's rage portrayed. In fact, when Lilith Theater tried to talk about men oppressing women, we were perceived as man-hating females who exaggerated how bad men were!
The clearest example, of this universal distaste for women's rage, occurred during the development of Lilith's 1977 play, MOONLIGHTING, about women and work. Strange as it sounds, way back then it was groundbreaking to talk about WOMEN AND WORK! Of course, women WERE WORKING at jobs everywhere! But still, the culture held onto an image that MEN worked JOBS and women just lolled around the house all day cooking, cleaning and taking care of children. That is, they did not go to JOBS and WORK!
So Lilith created a play through improvisation that was inspired by the jobs that the collective members had actually worked.
Carolyn had been a forest fire fighter on a crew in the National Forest a few years before. Her crew was the very first crew in California to have any women on it, and her boss did everything he could to humiliate and intimidate her in front of the other crew members. We created a scene that portrayed what her boss actually did and said, interspersed with Carolyn's fuming fantasies of what she'd like to do to him in return.
But when we showed an early version of the firefighter scene to a small group of friends -- all women and feminists -- their response was: "Why are you making the crew chief so evil? It's not believable and it makes you look like man-haters!"
MAN-HATERS! An identity to be avoided at all costs!
In response to that critique, we toned down the portrayal of the crew chief. The scene no longer accurately reflected Carolyn's experience. BUT we hoped it would be palatable to our supposedly liberated audience. However, audience members -- from straight women to separatist dykes -- STILL took us to task. Why were we going out of our way to make doctrinaire feminist points in the Firefighter scene -- points that had no basis in reality?
So it turned out that, living under patriarchy, feminist women in the Bay Area did not want to hear about the true extent of men's oppression of women. Men's violence had to be muted, normalized.
And while it was rather impolite to portray the extremity of men's oppression of women, it is also true that men oppressing women seems, well, kinda normal. Just think about how frequently women are killed, both in reality and in fiction. Under patriarchy, we've gotten USED to men killing women.
Woody Allen's 1989 movie, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, is about a man who murders his wife, largely because her existence is inconvenient for him. He gets away with it and goes on to live a pleasant life, thank you very much. Nobody was shocked by that! For many fans, this is Allen's greatest film. It was considered a great philosophical statement about the INDIFFERENCE OF THE UNIVERSE. But in fact, it was a statement about the DEPRAVITY OF THE PATRIARCHY. Not only did Woody Allen fail to notice that, nobody else noticed it either! (Well, I did, but I'd been thinking about women's rage against the patriarchy since 1974.)
But, on the other hand, if you want to show a woman killing a man -- oh then, everyone's all concerned. Did she really HAVE to do it? Couldn't she have run away? Did he really treat her THAT badly? Couldn't she have just hurt him without killing him? Was she mentally ill to do that? Why didn't she go to the police and ask for help?
Really, a woman is not entitled to kill a man UNLESS SHE HAS ABSOLUTELY NO OTHER OPTION AVAILABLE. And even then, she's not supposed to do it. And she can NEVER just get away with it, like Allen's creepy hero! The best she can hope for is to pull a Thelma & Louise and drive over a cliff to her death! Yes, when it comes to violence, women are held to a completely different standard than men.
And that is why it has taken me FORTY-SEVEN YEARS to finish a first draft of MIKVAH, a play about women killing oppressive and violent men and getting away with it.
I got started writing MIKVAH several years ago in a playwriting workshop that my good friend, Martha Boesing, was teaching in the Tenderloin. In this rough neighborhood of San Francisco, many of the budding playwrights were living in homeless shelters or seedy hotels. There were some very talented writers in that group. Martha would give us assignments, and we would write in class. I used those assignments to start exploring MIKVAH for the first time.
I know that finally finishing the first draft at this moment has a lot to do with the MeToo Movement. This worldwide uprising of women, who refuse to live any longer for the exclusive benefit of men, has helped me give myself permission to explore this story. And completing a first draft was greatly facilitated by finding a director (a straight married woman at that!) who believes in the play and is pushing me to make it happen.
So in a few hours, MIKVAH will take a step into the world. This reading is for an audience of a few friends. There will be a discussion after, and I'll know more if the world is prepared for this story. And if it is, I'll keep on writing MIKVAH. And if it isn't, I'll keep on writing it anyhow.
All for now, my dear Bloggelinis. I'm pretty excited. I'll tell you how the reading turns out. Terry