What musical theater taught me about feminism

When I was five years old, my mother decided I needed a creative outlet, so she enrolled me in children’s summer stock theater. I think the hours and hours of me standing in my room, loudly singing the songs from Annie were a contributing factor (Miss Hannigan’s “Little Girls” was my specialty).

I was cast as a Munchkin in a production of The Wizard of Oz, and immediately was possessed by the fever of stage performance. I ended up receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in acting in college, and moved to New York shortly after graduating to try and make it in the business. That dream quickly ended when I was faced with the reality of what being an actor entails, but I still perform in community theater at least once a year.

Both my experience in community theater and a kid and my training as an adult were instrumental in shaping who I am as both person and a feminist. I thought about this the other day after I watched some of my old VHS tapes, and (aside from deeply cringing at some of my acting choices) I realized that theater was fundamental to my understanding of feminism. My current life as a gender studies scholar was largely informed by years and years of sitting in hot high school auditoriums, sweating through piles of costumes, giggling nervously about kissing scenes, and celebrating with burgers and ice cream at cast parties.

Why? First, musical theater allows women to be sexual subjects, not objects. ​One of the greatest summers of my young life was in2002, when I was cast as Rosie in a production of Bye Bye Birdie. One scene involved Rosie, aglow with independence after dumping her milquetoast boyfriend Albert, breaking into a shriner meeting and dancing all of them into frenzy. I was 16, and at that point in my life I felt about as sexy as a pile of dirty laundry. I felt pretty nervous about being that brazen on stage (and in front of my parents, no less). I ended up having a blast, and it gave me the realization that I could be sexy without sacrificing my agency, and that sexiness wasn’t a quality you have or don’t have, but a state of mind. I still think about it now in my teaching life; I’m able to translate those feelings of confidence and bravery into the classroom when I articulate my views on feminism and sexual subjectivity. Thanks, musical theater! (Although making out with people on stage when your Dad is in the audience is still awkward no matter how old you are.)

I also learned that women are hilarious. ​Some of the funniest people I know come from musical theater. When I was growing up, I idolized Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner, women who would do anything to get a laugh. These women taught me to be fearless, that giving 150% in a scene or song (or life) is always worth it. When I was 13, I was cast as a stepsister in Cinderella, and when we were staging the climactic ball scene my director told me “Do whatever you think is funny.” I looked at the girl playing the other stepsister and she had the same look on her face as I did: an excited glow of possibility. Looking back at the video of that production, I see someone who grew up was unafraid of falling on the floor ­multiple times ­to get a laugh. It shocked me later in life when I found that some men were convinced women couldn’t be gifted comediennes. Of course they can.

Lastly, musical theater taught me that it’s OK to be vulnerable.​ When I was young, I thought being a “good” feminist meant being stoic and strong. It meant not being a crybaby, or even showing a lot of emotion at all. Tome, emotions meant you were being a girl, which meant you were failing. That’s not necessarily the best move when you’re trying to make it as an actress. A huge part of being on stage is the ability to cry on cue. It’s not just having that emotional outburst at the ready, but also having the skill to be completely and utterly present in the scene in order to sell the emotional state of your character. When I went to theater school, the training I underwent focused mainly on physical technique, so I kept on my facade of being Strong. A lot of my emotional scenes were just of me screaming, much to the chagrin of my acting teachers.

Then I did a project in which we could pick a character from any Greek tragedy and perform a monologue. I picked Andromache from The Trojan Women, and I performed the monologue in which Andromache is forced to give her son to the Greeks so they can murder him. When I read through this scene for the first time, something clicked. I realized that Andromache’s greatest strength as a character didn’t lie in her physical prowess, but in her emotional vulnerability. She wasn’t a warrior, or a goddess: she was a mother.

It taught me that not all women need to be this towering monolith of physical badassery to have real, tangible strength. When I performed that scene, I felt the truth of that realization sink into my bones, and as I openly wept in front of my classmates, I’d never felt more strong. Theater allows you to go into yourself, to understand a power that you never knew you had. I hope everyone has that opportunity to be that vulnerable, and that unstoppable. It made me the feminist I am today.

Alysa Auriemma is a writer and proud resident of the Nutmeg State (any state with a nickname based on a fall spice is the best, right?). She enjoys all sorts of sports, Marvel films, historical novels, and a good coffee stout. Her favorite Jane Austen hero is Mr. Knightley. Follow her @allyauriemma, or read her blog at www.thecuriousallycat.com.

[Image via Columbia Pictures]

Filed Under