On a sunny afternoon in Madison Square Park, I recently met up with playwright Gina Femia and director Blayze Teicher, the creative team behind a new play called The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows. I serve as the Programming Director for Spicy Witch Productions, the company that will be mounting Virtuous Fall at the Flea Theater in May, but I was meeting up to chat with Gina and Blayze in an artistic capacity, as I have just cut and adapted my own version of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the play that initially inspired Gina’s new work. My Measure will run in repertory with Virtuous Fall on alternating nights, and both plays share the same cast and design team. Surrounded by adorable dogs and happy babies, the three of us discussed unicorns, the #MeToo movement, and the challenges of updating Shakespeare’s classic in our current cultural climate.
Phoebe Brooks (Rail): So Gina, your play is set in a Catholic school where there’s an aspiring playwright, Minnie, who has written her own sequel of Measure for Measure called M4M2, which is, perhaps controversially, set in Hell. What inspired you to make that decision?
Gina Femia: The characters in Measure are all asking each other, “Who’s more right? Who’s more wrong?” I thought it would be interesting to explore which characters would actually wind up in Hell and which wouldn’t. For instance, according to strict Catholic rules, the main character’s [Isabella] brother Claudio would go to Hell just for the fact that he had sex outside of marriage.
Rail: Can you talk more about Catholic schools’ very clear rules about sex?
Femia: So, I went to Catholic school for two years—that’s all I lasted—and happily left. But as an adult looking back, I’m horrified by how sex is talked about to women, or genderqueer or trans students because everyone is assumed “woman” if you’re in an all female Catholic school, so even that says a lot. I think the way I was taught about sex is horrifying; it’s just where you find the most rules. I very clearly remember that my morality textbook said “these are the Sins of the Flesh,” and one of them was masturbation. “You shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage” is a thing that is still talked about.
Rail: My cut of Measure in a lot of ways was informed by the direction your play was heading. However, my piece is focused on the justice system. I very much shied away from discussing religion because I think it is a crutch for the play to not have to talk about real gender issues.
Femia: I was interested in exploring religion as connected to femininity. Organized religion can be a hypocritical structure. Faith is awesome, but I think it’s a shame how there are all these arbitrary rules at the heart of religion.
Rail: Within our justice system there are a lot of arbitrary laws too. Partially because law is not a perfect language to talk about humanity. And partially because of the religious nature of our country where these laws are being passed (mostly by men) regarding women’s bodies. The legislation is written in the terms of law but is fired by the kilns of religion. The script of Measure itself is like a lawmaker’s “thought experiment” in which a new judge, Angelo, suddenly decides there is only one law he really cares about. And that one law is about forbidding sex outside of marriage, which is not that far off from abortion legislation.
Femia: That was why I was compelled to set my play in a Catholic school, an all-girls Catholic school specifically, because that’s where the rules are informing young people who are entering into adulthood, entering into sexuality, and trying to find out what the right answers are. And they’re being told very clearly that there are right and wrong answers.
Blayze Teicher: I find the reality of that all female environment at a Catholic school fascinating. It’s really exciting to go back and take a magnifying glass to it.
Rail: Speaking of taking a magnifying glass to things, I wanted to discuss one of the wackiest parts of Measure, which is the “bed trick.” So, a bed trick is when a dude is told he is sleeping with one lady, and then it is revealed that he was tricked and he accidentally had sex with a different lady. Did that make it into your adaptation?
Femia: I think it is the weirdest thing ever. Shakespeare’s a beautiful writer, but I don’t think he knew what dramatic action was, very well. I think that it’s apparent in the bed trick.
Rail: Just, like, working backwards to fix a play?
Femia: Yeah! It’s a disappointment because Shakespeare builds up such intense questions of morality, and then he’s like, “Eh, it doesn’t matter.”
Rail: The conceit of a bed trick is that a man wouldn’t notice the difference between two different women’s bodies. And so for us, as lady theater artists, what does that say? Is that a thing that happened a lot in the 17th Century?
Femia: It’s in other plays from that time period, so it’s definitely a thing.
Rail: Euro-culturally speaking, not trusting the word of women is very baked in, it’s an old idea. Don’t trust women because they’ll give you apples that ruin your life!
Femia: It’s from the Bible.
Teicher: It shows how men have always had all of the agency when it comes to heteronormative sex, and that’s what is shifting.
Rail: But does it speak to a fear of women having agency?
Teicher: Absolutely, evening out the playing field means somebody doesn’t have power anymore. And that’s not just gender dynamics, that’s everything: socio-economics, race, and culture. We wouldn’t be good advocates of change if we didn’t call it out, even if it’s centuries old.
Rail: Speaking of calling out, did you start writing your adaptation pre-Kavanaugh, Gina?
Femia: That happened around the time I was choosing this play, but actually the thing that put me over the edge was Chloe Dykstra. She wrote an article about an abusive relationship she was in without naming the dude. People knew who it was about, but she didn’t ask for money or retribution. And everybody turned against her. The fact that she wasn’t believed, that was huge.
Rail: I’ve ended up with a very Kavanaugh Measure. In all my notebooks I call my version Measure Blasey Ford Measure.
Teicher: If we’re taking down the Weinsteins and the Allens and the people who have been in charge of our cultural outlook, what is it all for if not to empower the voices that we haven’t heard from?
Femia: Yeah. When I chose to loosely adapt Measure I thought it would turn into a #MeToo play that was more on the nose around that issue. But then I found myself wanting to go deeper into how we got to this point.
Rail: Not wanting to be very on the nose is something I definitely struggled with when approaching Measure because the play is extremely topical in our current cultural moment. How do you address those similarities without preaching to the choir? When is the time for nuance, and when is the time for clarity?
Teicher: When we’re talking about equality across all genders, it is sometimes necessary to be super on the nose. Sometimes we live so entrenched in our allyship that we forget that just outside our immediate circle somebody could benefit from that dialogue.
Rail: That’s definitely why I had to call my version of Measure an “audacious cut,” just for myself. I feel like you have to rip it apart to bring it into our day and age. It’s necessary because if we’re keeping old texts alive, we have to give new voices to those old texts and find ways that they can still be relevant to our society.
Teicher: I agree, being on the nose right now is necessary because look who’s on the Supreme Court! Who’s in the White House? We’ve got to keep talking loudly and encourage other women to talk loudly despite the shitstorm that might ensue.
Rail: There’s a tremendous amount of pressure that gets put on women. So often women are taught to avoid, and men are taught to pursue. Temptation is a huge element of Measure that I cut out of the script. I think victim blaming is too rampant. It’s a hard thing to break our culture of because it’s so ingrained in what we’re raised to think. In Measure, the judge Angelo is introduced as this totally upright citizen, and we are meant to be shocked when the nun Isabella accidentally tempts him and causes him to fall. It’s essentially “The Virtuous Fall of Angelo.”
Femia: By David Mamet.
Rail: [Laughter] Yes! But I’ve cut a lot of Angelo’s dialogue so we can focus mostly on the consequences of his actions rather than the thought process leading up to those actions. I feel like in this #MeToo era, we’ve gotten all these non-apologies from male celebrities with so much explanation in them.
Femia: Well, it’s not an apology. They’re not actually following the definition of an apology. They’re framing it as, “I didn’t know, so I don’t have to apologize for how my actions made you feel.” They’re just not taking responsibility. If you truly were uneducated and you really didn’t know, that’s… fine. But why aren’t you apologizing for it?
Rail: Right, you should apologize for not knowing. You shouldn’t defend your ignorance. My friend put it well. She said that until 10 years ago there was literally no expectation for men to be better than the terrible garbage monsters that many of them were, but now we’re all holding up this very clear set of expectations to society, and man after man fails. It’s sort of a reverse Bechdel test.
Femia: It’s a big learning curve, we’re part of a huge movement. And I do feel for people that didn’t know. I see that their worldview is cracking and shifting; I think that it would be unreasonable to just assume that they can be on board immediately.
Rail: Talking about Measure through this lens emphasizes how much it resonates with the stories that have a very binary understanding of heteronormative sexual situations. So I am very excited that it’s paired with the explorations of queerness in Virtuous Fall.
Teicher: The way that Gina wrote it, there are multiple expressions of queerness. Some people are just discovering it and other people already have the language for it. There’s a bravery to that, but it’s also very scary to be 15 and think you want to define yourself in a way that is not accepted, particularly in this school environment. Also to not just have, like, one token queer character is a revolution in itself. Queerness in the play is important. Frankly, I don’t think there could be any other way for the story to be told.
Femia: As an adult I reread a journal that I wrote in high school where I said, “I definitely like guys but I like girls too. I wish there was a word for that.”
Rail: You had written that in your journal?
Femia: I still have it. I sometimes look at it.
Rail: I want it framed!
Femia: I literally didn’t know that a word existed. I was already coming into my sexuality—I knew I had the impulse, but I didn’t learn the word bisexual until much later. I didn’t have that vocabulary readily available to me when I was 15. So it’s always important for me to have queer representation in my plays, in nuanced ways that are informed by the characters’ experience and aren’t just like “the issue play.”
Teicher: Thinking about heteronormativity, it even sucks itself into queer culture—you can have pressure to be some sort of label when you come out. Sometimes labels dampen your expression because you think that you have fit into this new kind of binary.
Rail: There are also so many ways heterosexual structures can be replicated as “normalcy” in queer environments. I think we all want to make sure we celebrate the queer unicorns who don’t give into those pressures.
Femia: I need a real queer unicorn to exist, for me to have one.
Rail: I’ll find one for you! But speaking about our teenage years, I wanted to ask Blayze about the time period in Virtuous Fall. Gina set her play in East New York, late 2002. As the director, what does that 17 year separation do for you?
Teicher: 2002 was very much my coming-of-age. At the same time, the aftermath of 9/11 made the world shift in terms of feelings of safety. So many people of our generation got to be their own phoenix and have a rebirth of who they want to be in this world that wasn’t as certain as maybe they thought it was. The play is set in a New York City borough, you’re literally dealing with the fact that the skyline just shifted, the world shifted.
Femia: For me, the impulse was there because that’s when I went to a Brooklyn Catholic school as a high schooler. They say, you know, “Write what you know.” Well, I did that!
Teicher: Getting to craft and stage a story that shows young women coming into their own identities when the world has shifted is an interesting parallel to our country post the 2016 election. My mentor and I were discussing what a massive shift in culture that election has caused. So there is this very obvious parallel to remind us that 2001 was the last time that the earth shook for American culture.
Rail: Sort of an Obama sandwich structure. I feel like we had eight years of a very different societal conversation going on, bookended by two conservative administrations.
Teicher: Exactly. I like the structure of Spicy Witch’s season, we have an emerging playwright reflecting on a past decade paired with a classical text that is shooting it into the future. It overlaps in the questions of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. It’s constantly putting us under a microscope: who are we as people, as theater makers, as audiences. And also it’s important that we’re talking about sex. Keep talking about it and keep empowering people to have it however they want.
Femia: Yes! You can have sex anytime, anywhere, so long as it’s consensual!
Rail: Three cheers for consent! I’m so excited to see how these two plays develop as we start looping our collaborators and audiences into this conversation over the next month.
Spicy Witch Productions presents the World Premiere of The Virtuous Fall of the Girls From Our Lady of Sorrows written by Gina Femia, directed by Blayze Teicher, in rep with an audacious cut of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, adapted and directed by Phoebe Brooks at The Flea Theater (20 Thomas Street, Manhattan), May 17 - June 1. Performance times and tickets: spicywitchproductions.com or The Flea Box Office at 212-226-0051.