by Penny Jackson · December 17, 2014
I met Jody Christopherson when she acted in my short play in New York Madness, not realizing she is also a wonderfully talented musician, writer, and photographer. Jody's remarkable project, NECESSARY EXPOSURE: THE FEMALE PLAYWRIGHT PROJECT, tackles a question I often face: why are female playwrights invisible? When I ask friends if they can name any female playwrights, the usual name--if there is a name--is "Lilllian Hellman." Well, there are living and extremely talented female playwrights who are working in New York City and the rest of the world who deserve to be seen and heard.
Jody's photography of female playwrights will be exhibited at Dixon Place, January 6th to 26th, at 61 Chrystie Street in Manhattan. I asked Jody some questions about this project:
Jody, what motivated you to create t Necessary Exposure: The Female Playwright Project?
Like a play, a photograph tells a story. In a play you get one or a few pieces of a writer's heart, but in a photograph, if you're lucky, you get an idea of where that piece comes from. I always think it's kind of great to watch a ferocious play that's full of these giant worlds and characters and then meet the person who contains all those stories. I'm often surprised and inspired. Playwrights themselves aren't visible; we see their work but not their image in the way that we do, say, an actor. I've always felt like playwrights were these enigmas. It's powerful to see an artist after knowing their work and realize that they are a person too.
I started taking headshots to raise money for Greencard Wedding (my band) and performances of my transmedia event The Skype Show (which includes video shot on some fancy Canon DSLR’s). Allene La Spina and Chris Jessick at School of Visual Arts put a piece of mine in an exhibit there, the photo I took of playwright, Mariah MacCarthy. People who came to that exibit were mostly fine artists who used mixed media and wanted to know A LOT more about her. And The Kilroys and Killjoys were happening at that time, stemming from conversations about the lack of commercially viable female playwrights and thinking “my God, that’s ridiculous I KNOW SO MANY GREAT ONES." Quite a few of the people I had photographed were female playwrights and I started to wonder if this might be a way to continue bringing awareness, open up the conversation to a new audience as well, help to create cross-over between fine art and theater, create new audiences, maybe even a new “pipeline.”
Who is involved and how are playwrights chosen?
Through my work as a performer and my blog The New York Theatre Review I’ve had the opportunity to meet incredible female playwrights. I've taken more photos than there is wall space at this first installation. So I drew names from a hat. It was really stressful to you know say, ok, these are the portraits I am allowed to make right now. Because all these women really deserve to be seen. But this also gives me great motivation to seek out more gallery shows.
In total the playwrights I have photographed to date are: Caridad Svich, Jessica Dickey, Crystal Skillman, Normandy Sherwood, Mariah MacCarthy, Sarah Shaefer, Charlotte Miller, Gina Femia, Ms. Minty Newport/Kim Gainer, Cecilia Copeland, Diana Oh, Penny Jackson, Amy Witting, Kari Bentley-Quinn, Angela Santillo and Laura Noni Rohrman. The first nine playwrights listed are featured in the Dixon Place Gallery exhibit Jan 6th-Jan 26th.
These writers are vastly different in style, genre, the type of stories they tell and which stages they get produced on. They all write great female characters. They all have very distinct voices. Ms. Minty Newport (Kim Gainer) is a Burlesque Artist who is writing her first play about and from that perspective. Normandy Sherwood is an other worldly experimental playwright, artistic director and designer who makes incredible costumes for her plays. Caridad Svich is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Obie Award and is produced all over the world, frequently writing visceral, poetic, artivist works. Crystal Skillman’s works defy genre, play in indie theater, regionally, on film. She’s known for writing these intense dramas as well as these hilarious and heartbreaking comic book influenced works.
Where do you envision these installations and project going?
Everywhere. Anywhere. Seriously. The materials cost is very low and the portraits can be assembled in any city. I’d love to do a series on regional American female playwrights. Go into cities and photograph the female playwrights there. DC, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Detroit and the list goes on. I also think it would make a good book.
You are an actor, writer and photographer. How do these other mediums inform your photo work?
It’s all storytelling. Different mediums are different ways to listen, express what we experience. I like to work in evocative theatrical environments, and my photo sessions are like that too--props, music, costumes, lighting, the location--all add to this. Mariah MacCarthy’s work has this dark sense of humor, crosses boundaries, creates and straddles lines between many worlds; gender, propriety, feminism, violence, religion,and family. So the portrait of Mariah is shot at dusk, and coincidentally there is a blurred out church in the background. It’s kind of ended up being a little early 80’s Madonna. People have said the portrait has both masculine and feminine energy. I don’t really know what that’s supposed to mean. But it sparks discussion about how we/should we define traits as gendered. (Mariah’s work is also genderqueer and people have picked up on that from the photo too somehow, without additional description, which is also important to talk about.)
Jessica Dickey, Sarah Shaefer and Charlotte Miller were shot together because Rising Phoenix Rep is producing the three of them. They get along famously, like family. The photoshoot was really fun, we could barely stop laughing. Each of them has a very distinct voice. And in a group shot with collaborators that adore and accept an artist that comes out even more.
Gina Femia and I started out doing a boudoir shoot, which is a side of Gina I don’t think many people see. She’s writing a play about Roller Derby and the women who are a part of it, powerful, rock and roll, (no pun intended). Gina can be shy, and has always struck me as someone who is into counter culture, defies convention. She writes about outsiders who discover power, while still maintaining what makes them authentic. She also has this striking resemblance to Patti Smith. We did an intimate shot of her in a cut up Derby t-shirt sitting on my kitchen table with the slightest bit of glam rock hair and make-up.
When viewers leave your exhibit, what do you hope they will learn?
Well first, I love that this is happening at Dixon Place, which is not only a Gallery but two theater spaces and a bar. (The Gallery is part of one of those spaces and the bar.) It’s really a brilliant cross-over scheme what Ellie Covan and Katy Einerson are doing in that space. Anyone who is coming to see theater there or get a drink in January will have to walk by all these photos of female playwrights. There will be no way they won’t be able to see them.
I hope people will go buy and read these women’s plays. Perform them onstage or through another medium such as video, film or fine art. Teach them, use them for auditions, share them with everyone they know, attend their shows, program their work.
Do you have any plans for a video installation of female playwrights?
At this time, no, but I love working with video and I'm excited about ways the exhibit could expand. It would be really lovely to be able to show video footage on a loop, with actors performing the work of playwrights who are on display.
What will happen opening night - will there be performances or a talk back?
On Jan 6th at Dixon Place's Gallery Opening from 6-9pm there will be short performances of each writer's work beginning at 7:30pm. Each photo will have nameplates, a description of each piece with the writer’s bio. The portrait includes a piece of text, a monologue or scene from the playwright's work to complete the portrait.
[Above: Photos by Jody Christopherson: Top to bottom - Penny Jackson; Sarah Shaefer, Charlotte Miller, and Jessica Dickey; and Mariah MacCarthy]
To learn more about Necessary Exposure: www.facebook.com/pages/Necessary-Exposure-The-Female-Playwright-Project/795089977220325?hc_location=timeline