True story. I am sitting in front of a grenade that is more than six feet high, waiting on two firearms to be released to me. That is, after I pass a background check with the ATF. A few questions first: Am I a fugitive from justice? No. Have I ever been adjudicated as a mental defective? Not really, though perhaps my ex would have an alternate view.
The guns will be given to me in leather cases with handles. One is a single action Colt 45. What that means is it can only fire one round at a time. The other gun can fire continuously which means you don’t have to cock it between shots. I learned these fine points from my friend Bram who offered me this gig when I said quite sincerely “What can I do to help?” He’s the kind of friend you truly love and would do anything for and guns wouldn’t be my first choice, but he said guns so guns it is. Our hope is that one of them can fit into a boot or a belt buckle. If not, they won’t work.
On my way here, I learned from Lynne that I’d need a canvas bag to stow the weapons. Was I traveling with one? I have so many remarkable canvas bags – where do I start? The Highline, The Central Park Conservancy, Athleta with its metallic handle. So damn many bags. But I didn’t have any with me when I was already underway, after I picked up the stuff AJ needed to give me when we met at his van while the taxi waited, all so that I could get these guns. My cab driver is awesome and he knows exactly where we’re going in Queens because he lives there. But I need a canvas bag, I tell him. And I wave him over at 73rd and Lex at a chocolate shop where they sell them I’m pretty sure. He’s a love, this taxi driver from a land far away, and he is excited we’re going to Queens together and so he just pulls over and waits.
The shop is meticulously merchandised with like next to like; it steadies the swirling confusion in my brain. Why is it true that a long row of things – say truffles made with Valhrona nibs – all the same size and shape - are so relaxing? No, they don’t have canvas satchels but they do have excellent sturdy paper bags in a warm brown with ribboned handles the color of the expensive chocolate they sell. So I buy a $40 Easter bread and talk my way into two luxurious cordovan bags. $40 is a lot for bread, ok, but then when you need a place to stow the guns, you do what you need to do. Besides, I sampled so much bread in the chocolate shop that Cynthia – that’s the wondrous clerk – said something like “oh my” impressed with my appetite as she was. And the bread, I concluded, is actually worth $40 because it is tender and studded with little surprises like plump sultanas (raisins with a college degree) and moist apricots. It is called a Columba and I am in love with it as you are at the front end of a first date with a man with good teeth, a warm smile and strong hands. A Columba is Easter dove bread and what we’re doing with the guns involves a dove or two and I see it as a sign. Cynthia offers me a chaser of an exotic breakfast tea warmed on a votive light and I take a full cup as I scramble out of the beautiful shop. Bye, Cynthia. Off on my gun adventure!
The cabbie is delighted by my return and I show him the packaged Columba and try to explain it as expensive bread that you would never eat with an actual meal. Wait, wait! While I was sampling sweet bread, an oil truck decided it was time to make a delivery on 73rd St. The street is now blocked. But like I said, my driver is just a fun guy, intrepid really, and he does something you don’t often see in the city – he backs up blindly onto Lex while cars leap off a green light and, sure, there’s some honking and what not but we break away towards the Williamsburg Bridge and the next part of our journey. He is saying what I think are friendly things to me but I don’t have my hearing aids in. I have gotten in trouble for this from time to time, assuming what people were saying to me by their vocal quality and facial expressions. But I’m pretty sure he’s saying something like “it’s a beautiful day” which it isn’t – it’s cold and rainy – or “what a fun time I’m having with you. I wish I could rate you a 5 which I would if I were an Uber driver.”
There is paperwork. There always is, isn’t there? While I’m waiting on it, I google a Columba recipe. Let me reveal that I’m not the slightest bit baker. It’s science which means precision and sequence, two things I try to avoid wherever possible. Included in the recipe are instructions that instantly raise my blood pressure: “The dough for this bread is quite sticky, and it's easiest mixed and kneaded in a machine of some sort. With its fairly high sugar and fat content, the dough is slow to come together, and equally slow to rise. Have patience, and plan on extra time for rising if your house is cool. This is a perfect place to use SAF Gold instant yeast, which is designed specifically for high-sugar yeast breads. You'll save at least an hour during each rise by using SAF Gold.”
So, in short, the Baking a Columba barriers are: I don’t know how to knead, I don’t have a machine, I don’t have time to let the dough rise (and how many times must it rise?), my apartment is sometimes radiant and sometimes arctic – city radiators anyone? – and I wouldn’t know where to look for SAF Gold if my life depended on it. I think you’ll agree that spending $40 on a loaf of bread is a choice, a very smart choice because it enables me to have cover for the weapons and, at the same time, not to bake. Wins all around.
But oh that paperwork. Still waiting on it because the people doing it have gone to lunch. Lunch! Interesting idea. I’ve long digested the Columba bites and, right, it is time for lunch. Note to self: when you are in the center of an industrial park in Queens, you are much more likely to come upon a few thousand rusting car chassis than you are a bran muffin. It’s a place where things come to die – cars and even trucks by the likes of what I see on my stroll to find something to eat. Also buildings. Many shuttered with those rolling metal curtains that close the show once and for all. But the people I see are lively. I spare myself death at an intersection. Though the light says “Please walk across this industrial highway” with its white gender neutral picture of a happy pedestrian, when I do so I am met with the honking of a an 18-wheeler followed by several smaller trucks with drivers who wave at me and seem to be saying, “walk, bitch, if you must but we’re still coming through.” And I remember a news story about an intersection – I think it was Queens – where the crossing light wasn’t long enough for people to actually get to the other side and 187 people died there every year. But I have come for guns and I’m not going to let an aggressive intersection get the best of me. I find chicken and rice soup and I sit and gulp it down. The place is so warm inside my glasses fog. They want me to have chicken parm, chicken marsala or roast chicken all of which look damn good when the last thing you had was a sugar-coated sultana. But I play it safe with soup, admire their steam trays and overtip the friendly waitress. I could say “I’ve come to your ‘hood for guns” as a way of credentializing myself. But I resist it. Why ask guns and baked chicken to be good neighbors?
Third cup of tea. Four hours and counting. But remember, it’s guns and they are not that easy to get especially if you’re doing it legally. Paperwork, signatures. They took my license and they’re running a background check on me. “Will I be on record as being a gun owner now?” I ask the very nice young man named Sean who handles weapons for a living. No one ever asked him that question, he says. It’s just a matter of time before the NRA registers me in their lock and load database: I can look forward to a signed photograph from Charlton Heston, an invite to a pub crawl with Wayne LaPierre in which we all pack heat and watch old Chuck Norris flicks. I’m now noticing that the air smells like there’s a mold intervention underway. And there is. “Water in the cellar” a nice man in flannels with an Irish brogue reports in response to my excessive sniffing. Guns. Guns. Guns. But the tea is warm and I brought milk back from lunch and I’ve offered it to the folks here so that no one has to use non-dairy creamer that comes in a packet. Just to be clear: no one ever should. Please don’t. It’s a failed chemistry experiment.
OK, five hours. And now I can say I spent the day in a gun lobby. Ha. A gun lobby. It’s a secured waiting room with small snacks such as the hot tamales I had as part of my afternoon tea service. They are capsules of joy with a shape like my beloved Good & Plenty. There’s soft rock in the background, today’s version of Loggins & Messina. Remember them? Now one of my favorites, “God Bless the Broken Road,” plays and I spark up my tea with some hot water. The women at the front desk have come to like me. I have asked little of them and not had a fit. I’ve been through one entire cycle of recharging my MacBook and my iPhone. It looks like once I get the guns, I can get an Uber pretty quickly. Or wait, should I go for a cab? “I Hope You Dance” is playing. Really? Have you ever seen me dance?
Then Sean appears. “Have you heard from Bram?” No, I haven’t. And what that means is I’m not leaving with the guns today. If you guessed a piece of paperwork is missing, you are correct. Dejected, I Uber home and take myself out for oysters and a couple of martinis on Happy Hour. Guns? Almost. But not quite.
So I wake up deeply determined to pull this off. Screw my midday meditation at The Rubin Museum where I practice mindfulness which involves breathing and not thinking at the same time. (It’s not easy, by the way.) I make some phone calls, light some fires, contact Sean and tell him I’m returning to score the weapons. He genuinely seems to be looking forward to my return. “Does anyone ever say yes,” this morning’s Uber driver asks me when I try out my warm-up question on him: You’re not a serial killer, are you? And that gets us off on a good footing. We wend our way through the Queens midtown tunnel. They’re happy to see me in the – well, the gun lobby. Now they really run the background check; I help myself to tea and ask if anyone else could use a hot beverage. It’s fun to be part of a team.
“So the FBI thinks it’s fine for you to have a handgun or two,” Sean shakes my hand. Why do I feel a momentary burst of pride? He takes me in back where you get to go once you have clearance. Opens the case; two handguns, each distinct with an engineered beauty. The Colt 45 sports a curved, burnished wood handle; the 38 Special is lean and muscled. The ammo is in a small shopping bag, boxed neatly. “Your husband is a very lucky man,” he says which is startling and a tad thrilling. I am so not married and yet Sean – who has spent the better part of a day and half with me – thinks someone might actually find such a union incredibly rewarding. Thank you, Sean. I let go of the guns for a moment and contemplate my social life. That’s enough. Back to the guns and their merciless power once in the hands of an actual human.
So I jump a train with my bagged weapons and get there just in time. Turns out, they love the dove bread. The Columba. No one’s ever heard of it and they look at it quizzically. “Just eat it,” I say and it catches on quickly. Vince, son of a baker, actually wants the recipe; one more life lesson – we are not all the same. The dove bread goes well with prosecco which Bram remembered to bring so we could celebrate and it conjures La Paloma which Peter – Peter! - has been playing on Spanish guitar. We only had a day with the guns – one day to practice before we had to use them – and Meghann was a trooper. Turns out, the Colt 45 fits in her boot and it looks super cool in the belt of her expedition pants too. Even though Sean gave me precise instructions that included “Don’t point it at anyone, ever” Meghann has to point it at O.V. on several occasions and she does other things with it like killing a poisonous snake in the jungles of Guatemala and wafting a shot over O.V.’s shoulder to make it clear she’s not kidding about using the weapon if she needs to. She will. And they all thank me, starting with Mary Cate who keeps things straight, for helping them make live theater with kick-ass props. Cue “What I Did for Love.” When you’re creating theatre, you are moved to do what is needed to pull off the impossible. We did what we had to do. So, yeah, kiss today goodbye. The love it takes to make theater is deep and unfathomable. And love’s what we’ll remember.
Janice Maffei is a playwright and serves The Schoolhouse Theatre in Croton Falls, NY as their Literary Manager and on their Board of Directors.
Where Are the Women?
This piece continues a partnership between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW). For many years, LPTW has been publishing an annual magazine, Women in Theatre (WIT). This year they’ve expanded the magazine to include an online format and are collaborating with HowlRound to provide content covering an array of issues and perspectives within the theater, all highlighting women’s voices. The co-editors for this project are Eliza Bent and Alexis Clements. Look for bi-monthly content from WIT on HowlRound ranging from interviews to articles and blog responses. Find all WIT content here.
The New York Times posed this question on April 29 when the Tony nominations were announced. It’s a problem that’s getting long in the tooth; for years we’ve known that over 60 percent of the ticket buyers and “butts in seats” are women, and yet less than 20 percent of the stories staged are written, directed, or designed by them. Hmm.
As a member of WomenStageTheWorld, an advocacy project of the League of Professional Theatre Women, we believe an important first step is to create awareness. We’re asking theater decision-makers and audiences to consider the question: Who wrote, directed and designed this show? Maybe the lack of gender equity in theater is not part of a systemic conspiracy to deprive talented women of their place in the mix. Maybe the larger truth is that neither decision-makers nor audience members are sensitized to the issue. What we’ve got is a blind spot that demands…a parade!
Inspired by the marches that changed the conversation for women’s suffrage and civil rights, we’re planning our second annual Gender Equality Parade in the heart of Times Square on May 8. We’ll step off at 6 pm and wend our way through the Theatre District, distributing leaflets and singing our anthem, newly minted by lyricist, composer, and League member, Sheilah Rae. Some of us will be dressed as theater women from our past who have inspired us—Aphra Behn, Margot Jones, Rachel Crothers, Hallie Flanagan, Dorothy Parker and Lady Gregory—among many others.
I’ll be decked out as Susan Glaspell who won the Pulitzer in 1931 for Alison’s House. Considered O’Neill’s peer (indeed she gave him his start at the Provincetown Players she founded with her husband), her work is rarely mounted and the history books have lost track of her. Her short play, Trifles, is what remains of an impressive career innovating the form and pioneering the small theater movement.
Indeed, where are the women?
Last year, we followed up the Parade with regional dial-ins to understand the issues across the country. With a couple dozen women in a conversation, we dug a little deeper and identified roots of the gender equality problem:
- A paradox of two theater worlds in which women flourish in the festival/low pay/no pay space and find it hard to move their work forward to a more prestigious venue.
- Institutional structures that are self-reinforcing—artistic directors and literary managers play it safe with known quantities and graduates of well-known programs.
- Women may not be building their “brand” or building the key relationships with the same velocity as their male peers.
We asked: what concrete actions will make a big difference?
Build awareness, educate and create consequences, reaching decision makers, theater subscribers, and the theater-going public. Many described how theater seasons changed once the AD was made aware of an all male season. The Equality Parade is all about building awareness.
Form alliances, large and small, and push for impact. “How can we connect with a larger movement?” asked one participant.
Create ready resources to support theaters that want to do the right thing and don’t know how. We need to be ready to answer the obvious next question from theatres—“can you help us do a better job?”
Foster access. “Can we find a way to talk directly to producers?” asked one participant.
Develop and execute an influence strategy with the theater power structure. “Women are not a ‘protected class’ when it comes to NEA grants,” said one woman, pointing out how institutional structures need to be calibrated if gender parity is to become a reality.
Amplify and celebrate theatres making good choices.
Use the power of the pocketbook with theatres having a track record of gender disparity. Ideas here included reaching out to theater boards and finding ways to educate the subscription base about the issue.
Showcase the talent of theater women and the production challenge in visible, influential ways. From media coverage to expert panels, women need to be seen in positions of authority in the arts.
Promote blind submissions. Just as symphony orchestras have changed the gender mix on stage, we need to create a national movement towards blind submissions at all levels.
Cultivate a new generation of critics. If theatre is 65 percent supported through ticket sales and butts in seats by women, where are the women critics?
Mentor and coach. Begin addressing the next generation by coaching young women and coach each other to “lean in” to market ourselves and build our brands.
So, if it all begins with building awareness, maybe you can join us in Times Square on May 8 or host a gender equality event in your neck of the woods?
Let’s continue to keep this conversation alive and work together to raise awareness, confront the blind spot and celebrate progress wherever we see it. (Speaking of celebrating, one example is the upcoming Lilly Awards honoring visionary theater women on June 2, founded by Marsha Norman, Theresa Rebeck, and Julia Jordan in 2010.) Maybe someday soon, when we ask “where are the women,” the answer will not only be “at the box office and in the seats” but also as the storytellers creating magic at a theater near you.