By Emma Kahn
A table reading of “Myths and Ms.” gave Women’s Studies Research Center Resident Scholar Rosie Rosenzweig the chance to hear her characters come to life and the opportunity to receive vital feedback from a thoughtful audience on Sunday, March 5.
Many distinguished guests were in attendance, from fellow resident scholars to family members of the actors to various members of the community.
The event was hosted in honor of Shulamit Reinharz Ph.D. ’77, founding director of the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC). Reinharz will retire soon but leaves behind a strong legacy of scholars working out of a robust research center. Sitting on a couch in front of a photographic history of women at Brandeis—including portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt among other notable women—Reinharz summarized the founding ideas behind the WSRC. “The center began back in 2001. Its purpose was to find a model for the integration of research, art and activism,” Reinharz said. She spoke of the more than 80 resident scholars with great satisfaction and pride.
Playwright Rosenzweig viewed the table reading as an important opportunity for artistic growth. “The purpose of the table reading is for the playwright to get to hear the dialogue and bring up what needs to be changed,” Rosenzweig explained. The actors had only rehearsed once prior to the table reading and used the reading as a time to practice and grow. “Rosie will be getting the characters out of her head, off the page and onto the stage,” Reinharz added.
Both the play’s director Ronn Smith and Reinharz introduced the play before the actors began to read. “The play addresses radical ideas about reincarnation and abortion, which are not often put together,” Reinharz explained.
The WRSC does put on performances that consist of complete works, but also frequently present works in progress, utilizing the creative potential of an audience as critics and reviewers. “She invites you to write and share your thoughts,” Reinharz reiterated, highlighting the main purpose of the evening. The audience—made up of WSRC scholars, actors’ family members and community members—was timely, attentive and engaged throughout the table reading.
Six actors and one narrator made up the full ensemble. As Smith noted before the reading began, the actors were chosen not according to age or physical appearance, because these elements are less important during a table reading. Instead, the audience was urged to pay particular attention to the ways in which the characters emerged through their dialogue with one another.
The play centered around the family of Ruth, a middle-aged woman whose mother had recently passed away. As she finds herself in an ambiguous point in her life, she reflects upon her spirituality and her belief in reincarnation. Her husband Jack takes an interest in an NPR radio special that celebrates the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and even calls in to discuss his wife’s abortion. Meanwhile, his daughter tunes in and hears her father’s revelation, opening up new windows through which the family can understand each member’s invisible woes.
As the play progresses, we delve into each family member’s complicated struggles with a broad range of dense themes like abortion, reincarnation, spirituality and racism. No topic is taboo for Rosenzweig, and she effortlessly weaves heavy subject matter into gentle banter between family members and everyday banalities. To understand more about the play and how the plot unfolds, one really must sit down to a table reading, or better yet, stay tuned for the play’s opening. “Myths and Ms.” cannot be adequately compared to any other performance piece, and is unique in its blend of powerful themes and messages.
The audience members were then given the opportunity to speak about what worked for them and what they found lacking. Members of the audience made all types of recommendations, including minor moments of dialogue that did not work, and questions regarding technical elements of the plot. There was even some profound commentary regarding the realism of a character and what might make a more compelling individual emerge from the playwright’s script. All the comments appeared useful to Rosenzweig, who thought critically about what her audience had to say. At times, she seemed aware of what questions or comments the audience might raise, anticipating the direction of certain discussions, and at other times she seemed to turn over new ideas that had not yet occurred to her. Overall, the Q&A session sparked deep and fascinating exchanges.
Much of the dialogue and themes emerge from Rosenzweig’s own experiences over several decades of her life. When the first act opens, Ruth is telling her husband a story about a man in the airport who was telling someone over the phone that he would “sooner sell his children” before selling his boat. In reality, Rosenzweig did encounter that man at the airport and unlike Ruth, she did confront him. At the end of the play, Rosenzweig confessed with a grin, “I’m the lady in the airport.”
In addition to fun or lighthearted elements, it became clear that Rosenzweig derives inspiration from more dense materials as well. “This has been decades in the making,” she explained. “I started writing this play at 31 when my sister died.” Such powerful ties to her reality are what ground the characters in the minds of the audience as genuine and relatable individuals.
Not only did Rosenzweig find inspiration in her own life, but she also finds inspiration from one particular individual, Nick Danforth. She and Danforth listened to the Roe v. Wade anniversary radio show together, a pivotal moment for the development of her play. Danforth has direct experience with Roe v. Wade, as he was responsible for hiring lawyer Sarah Weddington, the youngest lawyer to ever win a case before the Supreme Court. He also worked on the social science and activism elements concerned with the case. Throughout his career, Danforth has worked on abortion rights throughout the world, particularly in Africa. He has also previously brought Weddington to the WSRC to speak about her experiences and answer questions.
Danforth’s contributions after the reading nicely summed up the impact of the play and of the evening as a whole. He spoke first of his experiences working on Roe v. Wade. “We had no money. We had a very difficult time putting it together. I thought we’d lose the case. When we got a 7-2 decision … that decision didn’t solve anybody’s problems. It didn’t answer any of these questions. It just enabled us to begin to have discussions,” Danforth remarked.
Over 40 years later, it may be easy to forget that prior to Roe v. Wade, the subject of abortion was taboo even within families. One integral result of Roe v. Wade was to open a space for new conversations and to grapple with heavy notions of rights to life, of human rights and of women’s rights. “What I loved about this experience was that there were all these complexities and all these discussions. It was wonderful. This was the first generation that could talk about this openly,” Danforth said.
“Myths and Ms.” will provoke profound questions and emotions in its audience. In fact, even without any formal theatrical elements, without the actors having memorized the lines and without a cast that represented the intended physical appearances of the characters, the dialogue alone still evoked powerful thoughts and discussions by the audience. Theater, if nothing else, generates conversations, and “Myths and Ms.” does so in an entirely unprecedented and thoroughly sincere way.
There will be additional table readings of “Myths and Ms.” prior to its formal performances, as well as similar opportunities for audiences at the WSRC to engage critically with works in progress, a unique and exciting opportunity for any member of the Brandeis community.