February 09, 2022
“Courageous Conversations” Focuses on Upcoming Musical
“Courageous Conversation”s is the opportunity for the community to come together and ask, discuss, and ruminate over the hard questions. With the upcoming musical 9 to 5, there is a myriad of sensitive and challenging topics that arise throughout the course of the performance. The show is based on the award-winning film that premiered in December of 1980, which tells the story of three working women who live their dream of standing up to their chauvinistic and misogynistic boss. Though it is known for its comedy and its triumphant ending for women, its themes of sexual harassment, misogyny, and gender discrimination are acutely felt throughout and expose issues faced by women in the workplace – even today.
With the goal of opening up the dialogue, Director of Theater Kyle Reynolds recently brought in an impressive line-up of Broadway actors and actresses to the 9 to 5 student cast via Zoom, all of whom had first-hand knowledge of tackling difficult material on stage, and specifically surrounding the 9 to 5 show itself. These included Janelle Robinson (Mary Poppins, Showboat, Thoroughly Modern Millie), Ioana Alfanso (9 to 5, Wicked, American Son), Jessica Lea Patty (9 to 5, Evita, Bandstand), and Michael Mindlin (9 to 5, Hamilton, Aladdin). Additionally, two female members of the KO community shared their own accounts of what they faced as young women in college and transitioning into the workforce during the time period from the 1970s through the 1980s. Their accounts were first-hand examples of how despite the galvanizing women’s movement in the 1960s, discrimination and sexual harassment were ever-present.
Broadway star Janelle Robinson said, “If it is a show that is written well and has a good script, it will have controversy and conflict. Otherwise, there is nothing to fight for in the storyline.” She encouraged the actors and actresses to take the conflict at hand and turn it into something positive for the school and the community at large by showcasing the problems of that time.
“Yes it is an important conversation, and it is also important to remember why we do theater and that standing up on stage and portraying characters gives us the freedom to have these hard conversations and have things that speak to all of us,” she said. She encouraged the performers to keep open minds and use the performance to inform, enlighten, and open the story one can tell through this piece.
Faculty member Nancy Solomon shared her experience of having a double major in college and one that wasn’t predominantly held by women. Out of 50 students, she was the only female in the class and endured a great amount of ridicule because of it. She shared that her professor started the semester out with the statement, “Oh, there is a girl in the class; I am not happy about this.” Then, the teachers proceeded to try and make her blush by telling a dirty joke every single day moving forward. Solomon shared, “I had no recourse except to get the highest grade in the class…and believe me, I did.”
KO’s Director of Marketing and Communications Jackie Pisani shared her story as well during the mid-80s. She reminded the audience that this was a time when the women’s movement had been noted for making great strides. While in college, she had to plead her case for additional scholarship money to a prominent male dean at her college while he said wildly inappropriate sexual comments. During her career at a well-known publishing company, a male publisher questioned her work attire. Despite her wearing a very professional-looking pants suit, he wanted her to wear skirts moving forward. “It was very minimizing,” said Pisani. “As a young woman and not knowing what to do or say and not being able to share with anyone.”
Both Solomon and Pisani remarked how sometimes these times might feel so far away and distant, but yet they weren’t all that far back in history.
Jessica Lea Patty agreed. “We are in a better place than we were, but there is still a long way to go.” One student asked Patty where the unestablished “line” is in theater – the line that tells the important story but also the one that many fear crossing and upsetting an audience or the popular opinion.
Patty said, “The line is really far away in 9 to 5. I venture to say unless it is something that is so so offensive, that is where the line is. These are stories and experiences that need to be told. Therein, in and of itself makes the line far away. Our job as actors is to push the line and push the boundaries. Maybe it offends people but maybe it opens their eyes to something more.”
When asked about the show presenting as a comedy and how this landed to the cast and to the audience, Patty defended the storyline. “The way of comedy it is to keep it lighter, so it doesn’t get too heavy.” She used the example of political satire on Saturday Night Live, something it has hung its hat on for decades. “They poke fun at issues that aren’t actually that funny, but we are able to laugh at it,” said Patty. “It gives us a sneaky way speak to our audience without it being so heavy. With a comedy, we are able to connect with them more.”
Patty offered a fresh and confident perspective to the narrative of 9 to 5. “You/we must focus on the importance of being able to do this show and the gift to send this message. It is about being the voice of these marginalized women and people. If we don’t take the chance to tell this story, we are silencing these women and their stories. Yes, the material is uncomfortable. Our job is to take it and present it so they can take it in and turn the lens and see it differently or give people a voice or give marginalized the opportunity to stand up for themselves.”
Patty continued, “As a woman and an artist I felt a great responsibility to tell this story. These women in this play are trailblazers.” She made a strong point that as women, each generation is standing on the shoulder of the previous one to show the work that has been done and continue to push it forward. “The Me Too movement is not a new thing; it has been ongoing. It is important we keep telling these stories, and we as artists have the chance to tell this story on stage,” she said.
Reynolds asked Ioanoa Alfanso to fill in the blank to the question, “We must do this show because……” Alfanso said without hesitation, “because there is still progress to be made.” She continued, “It is really very simple. We have come aways. Made progress, made changes. I would argue that it is important to question what that looks like. Seeing it in movies, articles, journalism. The right to vote for women wasn’t all that long ago. You are in a position to show the audience what is possible. “If we don’t tell those stories we are silencing someone’s voice somewhere.”
Mindlin drove home the reality that the controversy and challenge 9 to 5 conjures are relevant to the majority of shows on or off-Broadway. “Take Hamilton,” said Mindlin who recently performed in the show. “We are dealing with subject matter that involves people owning slaves.” He encouraged people to remember that this show hit Broadway prior to the news of George Floyd, the pandemic, and the issues that have plagued our nation surrounding systemic racism. “No conversations were held responsibly beforehand. Even a show like Hamilton that that is up on a pedestal has its issues.”
KO students asked a range of questions to the Broadway stars including: how do you make sure you are not being discriminatory towards your own race in a role and how do you make sure the audience understands the actors are portraying the story not endorsing it.
The fact that Broadway stars, Kingswood Oxford students, faculty, staff, and administration recognized this difficult conversation as a priority speaks to the goal of placing students and their education at the center. As part of Reynolds’s important work as the director of the show, he made this open and honest conversation in a forum that was safe and engaging for the participants. The ongoing goal for KO theater is to create strategies to cultivate productions in a mindful manner that is proactive in the before, during, and after the process of artistic presentations to our community.
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