The hilarious and ambitiously-named solo show How To Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less opens next week.
Hot ticket writer/performer Leigh Hendrix dishes about identity + gender in theater, the artsy lovefest that is Providence, RI and song selection for Karaoke.
So I did my homework for this Q + A – I looked at your resume and everything! I noticed that your roles include some interesting performances having to do with gender. You were Viola in Twelfth night, a play that endlessly fascinates me when it comes to talking about portrayal of gender, as it’s about a women pretending to be a man falling in love with a man and they end up together in the end. In Shakespeare’s time this would have been played by a male actor, portraying a woman portraying a man… so that adds a whole other level. And then there’s the whole quasi-kinky bit with the yellow stockings and suspenders… so basically it’s a play full of explorations of interesting gender and sexuality stuff.
You’ve also played Matt Damon. Who happens to be (especially when playing Jason Bourne) on my exception list. Tell me a little bit about how gender and identity politics inform your acting and how it personally connected to you in roles like this?
LH: Amazing – this makes me feel super serious and I like it. I think gender and identity politics inform my acting and other performance work in much the same way they inform my life and my view of the world – I think about it a lot and I move from that place. As an actor, though, I think I serve the work I do better by approaching characters as characters first – which, for me, has as much to do with interior life and relationships as it does with physicality or even the pitch of my voice.
When I played Matt Damon in Theatre of Thought’s production of Matt and Ben, I found it to be a big challenge to create that character because I am essentially the girl equivalent of Matt Damon in many ways – white, middle class, passionate about art making, a little bit of a pleaser. I definitely focused on physicality that is widely accepted to read “boy” or “masculine” because I needed it to be clear.
With Viola and Twelfth Night, I was pretty young and it was the biggest role I’d ever had up to that point. I was acutely aware of the gender and sexuality play happening in the piece – what was put there by Shakespeare in his time and also what we see when we look at the play now – but the director insisted that it wasn’t there! She assured me that Viola wouldn’t feel anything at all for Olivia, wouldn’t feel reluctant to return to women’s clothes, etc.
Basically, I have played a lot of girls dressed as boys, boys, lesbians, and tragic Greek queens in my time and since at the end of the day it is always me showing up to play those characters, all my experience as a queer woman in the world combined with my fan-girl love of gender theory shows up too.
I grew up in RI and moved away and lived in a couple major cities for a decade and then came back here. Part of the reason I was happy to be back here is because of the art scene in Providence, which I find very inspiring. So I know you grew up in the South and went to school in Boston. I’m wondering how you ended up here and if (how) Providence has functioned as a place for you to develop your art and writing?
LH: I moved to Providence from South Carolina with my girlfriend four years ago. We came specifically for her to study at URI, but knowing that there would be creative and academic opportunity for me in the area as well. I commuted to study theatre education at Emerson College in Boston and that is actually where my show came together as a full-length script and performance for the first time with the direction and dramaturgical expertise of my professor Sunil Swaroop.
Providence has been THE place for me to develop as an artist outside of any academic institution and I adore my creative community. I think Providence is special because it is big enough and excited enough to support a pretty wide group of theatre artists, but small enough that you actually feel like people know what you’re up to – and that they would like for you to succeed. Perishable Theatre really opened up to me early on – I started taking dance classes there with Peter Deffet and Nikki Carrara my very first week in Providence and have continued to work with them both – Pete directed How To Be A Lesbian in 10 Days or Less and I did a big chunk of the development of the piece at Persihable as a resident artist last year.
Something I feel like I severely lacked growing up as a queer person was role models that made sense to me as out queer people. I kind of joke sometimes how I knew I was attracted to girls long before that even registered as an identity for me because the idea of being a lesbian was really alien to me… I thought of people who were lesbians and just had no concept that I could be that or identify with that in any way. I think if your show had been playing in Providence in the 90’s, I would have gone and sat there taking it very seriously… wondering the whole time “is that what I am?” So I guess my question is, with a character called Butchy McDyke, there is obviously a lot of this that is tongue-in-cheek and employs some great over-the-top humor – what is that rooted in that you want people to get out of your show. If a 15 year old me was in your audience and you hope that your play would be saying something to me… what would it be?
LH: This is the best question ever. I had a similar experience – my biggest fear at a certain point was that I was completely broken as a sexual being, not that I was a lesbian. Nothing seemed to make sense and I think it was in part not having access to different queer identities and narratives.
This part of my story is also present in the show, through the more personal elements, but also in Butchy. Butchy McDyke is over the top and tongue-in-cheek, yes, absolutely, but she is also incredibly ernest and sincere. She truly wants to help her audience members to “be the best lesbian you can be,” which is essentially whoever you already are. If 15 year old you came to see my show – which would probably be the best ever – I would hope the play was saying, “This is crazy, right? Nobody can tell you how to be who you are but they’re definitely going to try. Here is a version of those events in my life, broken up by characters that speak to my own personal experience and anxieties about doing this show in the first place. I hope you like it!”
In college, in the days where lesbian or queer identity for me was very much enveloped by the whole grunge-punk, riot grrrl era, we used to joke about “earning our lesbian cards” and bestow points based on things like chopping my hair really short and dying it purple, getting my nose pierced and tattoos, how many Ani Difranco concerts I had been to, playing guitar, wearing doc martens etc. There are so many queer female stereotypes, many involving sports, some leaning towards the hippie-earth mother-birkenstock wearing crunchy kind of lifestyle. I’m wondering how mainstream Lesbian stereotypes play into the humor in your show and your directives on “How to Be a Lesbian”?
LH: Oh, those are some really good ones – I definitely identify with the cutting off of hair and Ani Difranco concerts (eight, by the way). I feel like I focus on some of the biggest, broadest stereotypes with the character of Butchy McDyke. She is a motivational speaker and expert lesbian and How To Be A Lesbian in 10 Days or Less is her “patented method” designed to teach people to be a dyke and she’s the central character of the show. The other character in the show, THE Performance Artist, is a whole other stereotype – the super-serious artist making art with her body about patriarchy. Even some of my stories that I choose to share might be a bit “expected,” and trade on the language of coming out and self-revelation. Mostly because that’s how I roll.
I think I used those things because they’re funny to me and it turns out they are read and received well by a wider audience than I expected. I honestly initially thought I was making a piece of theatre that would be one of those “preaching to the converted” type of things that was one queer artists sort of talking to others queer artists, thanks all ten of you for coming and good night, and then I went and made this totally accessible show that everyone seems to find places to relate to and learn from. But I decided to hide all that behind an off-putting title – smart, right?
Your hometown is Myrtle Beach, SC – you talk about bringing the show there and that’s exciting – I have a two part question about this. First of all, how did growing up in the South shape parts of your identity – as a woman, as a lesbian and as an artist? Second – including your roots in a show like this is a deeply personal choice. What are your feelings about this. I’ve seen a lot of artists and writers kind of disguise real memories or places, or omit them and I think in their minds they do this out of respect, but I feel like there can be a way of honoring the truth that lives there. I’m curious how it felt to you to include it, why you did it and why you are bring the show back there.
LH: I think that growing up in the South shaped all the parts of my identity so much. I grew up going to church and singing in the choir and I was a debutante – that’s another show I think – and yet it was not a completely oppressive environment or experience for me. I felt supported and encouraged on so many levels by so many people – my passion for performance and writing was cultivated and encouraged by my family and community at every turn and in some way I think being valued as an artist and being told that art mattered assured me that while being a lesbian maybe wasn’t considered the BEST idea, being yourself was ultimately the most important thing you could do with your life. This sounds cheesy and I am typing these answers and I could totally revise, but I’m not going to do that. That’s how I feel about my life experience.
None the less, I struggled and questioned and beat myself up and watched that Lifetime movie with Cherry Jones and Brooke Shields called What Makes A Family with the remote in my hand to switch the channel if anyone came anywhere near my room. The things that are in the show are personal and intimate, but they are all mine to share.
I’m doing the piece in Myrtle Beach through the support of Coastal Carolina University, where I went to undergrad. The theatre department is bringing me to speak about the work I’ve done since graduating and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program is also supporting my visit. I think it’s important for me to be sharing this work with the people who’ve known me forever because they helped shape me into the person that wants to tell her story on stage. I also think it’s important for me to take the opportunity to talk about the stuff I kept to myself then because it’s still a scary world that so often tells people, “No, you can’t be that.”
Well, no, you can. Whatever it may be.
[Note to Reader: In her Kickstarter video for the show, Leigh makes humorous, heartfelt appeal for donations that includes belting out a bar of the following tune…]
“Alone” by Heart is one of my favorite cheesy 80 power ballads. There really is a special place in my heart for the kind of songs that I feel deserve to be belted-out at a dimly lit karaoke dive bar somewhere. So… I would like to know your top 5 karaoke songs or top five 80’s power ballads.
LH: Oooh. One, this reminds me that I would like to go to karaoke in dimly lit dive bars more often. But I feel I must admit that I am not a great singer – however, a drink or two will lead to me singing in public. It’s not so much that I forget that I’m not great as much as I forget that I care. I’m going to include in the top 5 karaoke songs, three that I have actually sung at the gay bar in Myrtle Beach, plus two that I just like it when other people sing; see if you can guess which are which: Does He Love You by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis, Dance 10 Looks 3 from A Chorus Line, Would You Light My Candle from Rent, Shoop by Salt-n-Pepa, and Fancy, also by Reba McEntire. You only get one guess!
My answer: I’m calling that you like it when other people rock the Reba tunes, but you stick with musical theatre and hip-hop flashbacks from your youth. True story, I once impressed a girl in a bar by being able to rap-along with Shoop and Whatta Man, I got part-way through None of Your Business before getting glares from her girlfriend. (I didn’t know!)
And lastly, my favorite bonus, multiple-question round:
I’m a big fan of the Proust Questionnaire. In the last Q & A I did (with author Matthew Gallaway), I asked him to pick five questions and answer them as an optional bonus Q & A. The self-selection of this fascinates me. Since the theme of what we are talking about is all about identity, I would love for you to do the same.
LH: I struggled with the self-selection portion of this assignment.
1. What you appreciate most in your friends: A sense of humor and a sense of passion and the ability to laugh at yourself. Because I will laugh at you sometimes.
2. Your favorite prose authors: Jeanette Winterson. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” Ugh. From the best book in the whole world, The Passion.
3. Your favorite poets: Daphne Gottlieb, Anne Carson, Eileen Myles.
4. What I hate the most: irony and snark. I’m sensitive and pretty serious about my funny.
5. How I wish to die: What? Why did I pick this one? Self-selected pass!