MICHELLE TSE

The Rose | The Thorn

"For most of history, Anonymous was a woman."        - Virginia Woolf

   Females make up 51% of the population in the United States, account for 82% of the buying power, attribute to 70% of theatre ticket sales annually and fill 68% of the seats. Yet in 2014, we still live in a society where 97% of the time, men decide what is important, what is right, and most importantly, where the money gets invested. This year, The Pulitzer Prize and all its finalist went to women, yet there wasn’t a single new play by a female on Broadway this past season. Story telling across disciplines is not only male dominant, but many of the 17% of stories with female protagonists are in fact scripts in service of the male characters. Why do we not authentically reflect our current culture, trust our statistics and produce stories by and about females?

   Theatre is one of the most ephemeral art forms most notably housed in buildings dedicated to the magic of storytelling. Performances die each night at curtain call, only to be recreated by the same company the following evening to a different set of spectators. The style of shows changes from one production to another, and the physical theater itself exerts a considerable influence on those who work in it. A theater’s architecture, like a play, is the result of the progression of an interaction of various cultural forces.

   Throughout history, the ritual of story telling has been a central tenant of our experiences and the shaping of our societies—one tends to inform the other. Take for example, the genre of “kitchen sink dramas”, which manifested out of a fear of McCarthyism— playwrights began writing small family dramas because they were seen as less political. When we think of our greatest playwrights, directors and composers, they are men. When we think of our greatest Broadway actors, they are typically women. So why are these women performing the points of view of men? When writers like Foucault describe the home, it is a place of rest, when for many women, it is their place of work.

   During the same time of the movement towards “kitchen sink realism”, the City of New York saw the need for the betterment of all of its citizens, and put into action the building of public bathhouses. As the need for public baths eroded, gay men saw them as an opportunity and a place to retreat to, to explore their desires.

   The bathhouse, as well as the theatre community, became their safe havens, to explore what was previously way too taboo to experiment with. Bette Midler famously got her start singing at these bathhouses, accompanied by a towel- wearing Barry Manilow at the piano. Flash forward 40+ years later, housing required proper plumbing, suspending the need for bathhouses—the desires echoed within the walls of the baths in the 60’s and 70’s are now translated to a gym culture, and theatre became an art form most often run not only by men, but men who want nothing to do with women.

   A recent article in the New York Times stated that gay rights has come further in the past 10 years than women’s rights have in the past 50 years. The assumption has been made by many that even though gay men have been ostracized, they are still inherently male, so that in fact they are still taken more seriously and judged less severely than women are. Though having a “gay mafia” detaches the stigma of women as body props, many women still don’t speak out because they’re afraid of being blacklisted by people in positions of power. “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” has been used as a weapon against gay people for some time, but Adam and Eve has been a weapon against women since the moment the myth was invented.

   The fact is – women are seriously under-represented across nearly all sectors of the globe. Media images exert a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating our unconscious biases. However, media images can also have a very positive impact on our perceptions. In the time it takes to make a production, we can help change what the future looks like, and how it is represented. Architecture reflects the tendencies of those who created and occupy it, and they in turn are influenced by the architecture, which they have produced. Thus, the variety of theater structures that has occurred in history has revealed to us something about the cultures and urban context in which they were built, in addition to the drama and the audiences in which they serve. The focus on theatre architecture here is not a mere matter of styles and forms; by relating this ancient art form to the progression of humanity through the lens of feminism, we can see that theatre architecture has a life of its own and its configuration should change for each production. The current spaces of theatres, while varied, follow a very linear narrative: box office/ front of house, house, stage, and back of house. The ‘front’ never interacts with the ‘back’—the actors and audience co-exist in the same space for hours but never interact except maybe during curtain call, even though theatre actors often speak of ‘playing off the energy’ of the audience. This linear narrative is also commonly found in a majority of male-authored plays: introduction of character(s), conflict, climax, and resolution.

   My proposal for The Gift to Alphabet City is a feminist theatre collective that operates under a sweat equity system, where one must earn the trust and right to become part of the company dependent of economics, using a space that is traditionally and culturally male dominant. The idea is to repurpose the 11th st bathhouse’s interior – now a fancy photo studio—into a safe haven for female theatre artists to aid in each other’s exploration of their craft.

   The East Village/ Alphabet City theatre community is incredibly strong and nurturing, but mostly insulated, except for La Mama and the New York Theatre Workshop, who has shows that get to Broadway. Being ‘insulated’ is not a negative connotation, and in fact has many positive points to it. It is important to note that by operating within a community that has been ‘insulated’ and therefore able to hone in on elevating the craft, the purpose of this theatre can be fully realized, by beginning to bridge the gap between past injustices and future ideals, and to become a precedent for future theatre models.

   The modern day theatre is gravitating towards a more cinematic approach, where transitions are a part of the narrative, and its architecture should reflect this change. The magic of theatre comes from the idea that an audience member is transformed to another world that is happening right in front of them after stepping through a threshold, much like The Rabbit Hole in Alice’s Wonderland. If we accept Shakespeare’s notion that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, we are all in fact constantly performing for each other the second we leave our homes, and architecture should allow for this instance.

   I believe and advocate for equality, where each individual, regardless of gender, race or sexuality, would be given equal opportunity. I believe that gender should be perceived on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals. I believe that this should be taken into consideration while designing architecture, and I believe that when one is forced to walk through paths and stories they have not known before, that person can begin to step into the shoes of another character, and begin to transform their way of thinking- while media images can affect the general identity of a culture, so can architecture.

   As Carol Jenkins of the Women’s Media Center said, ‘97% of everything you know about yourself and about your contry and your world comes from the male perspective. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. It just mean that in a democracy, where you talk about equality and full participation, you’ve got more than half of the population not participating.’

   The audience, upon entering the theatre, is seemingly able to see something and nothing simultaneously. Materiality will take precedence in this theatre, to mask, hint, and reveal at different programs. The partitions of the entry sequence begin with opaque elements and end with translucent screens, as if symbolically peeling off and revealing layers of one’s mask the further down you go. The sequence also takes a cue from the geometry of the hammams in Morocco, using 90° angles to turn corners through the series of ramps of varying widths and slopes, allowing each participant to eventually become immersed in the creation of the world of characters they are about to meet. This strategy creates a sense of excitement of discovery for what’s around the corner. This orthogonal condition is found throughout the theatre, to link each sequence into one narrative.

   The performers, upon entering the theatre, slip into the box office areas, which masks two elevators that bring them below ground to the dressing room area. Once again, the orthogonal condition is present, here in this instance to allow for privacy.

   Consisting of 68 8’ 6” square tiles on 3 levels, the stages are designed as a completely flexible system based on the logic of sliding puzzles. Each puzzle piece is made up of offset and/or stacked layers, creating simple systems that let the layers lock into one unit, then subsequently lock, unlock and notch into adjacent pieces. When one puzzle piece is removed, the ones adjacent are then able to slide into place, or not.

   There are specific inventions for the two groups: actor and audience. While the ‘stage’ tiles will focus on inventions that create boundaries that imply different height planes, interiors and exteriors, the audience tiles will focus on platforms that rise to create different height planes for seating. These pieces come together on the stages to form terrains for specific stagings. Because the three stages are stacked right above the prep area, and the stages are essentially made of a series of trap doors, the actors are able to enter not only from ‘the wings’ but from below and above. This system is also completely removable, to allow for a solid flooring system or large pieces to come through.

   These stages can be used separately, as one, more traditionally with stadium like seating, like a theatre in the round, and you won’t miss a thing even if you have to get up and use the restrooms.

   So while there’s a winding entry sequence to get the minds of the audience prepared for the upcoming experience, the exit sequence operates on the narrative that the audience would exit out into the street as abruptly as possible, as if waking up from a dream, and back to reality.

Fall 2014
Mentor: Yehuda Safran