“I’ll have three tickets for, the, um…”
“For The Hrotsvitha Project?”
“Yeah, that. Wait, this is the women in theatre thing, right?”
The lobby begins to fill with excited-looking people, united by a common relief that now, tickets in hand, they no longer have to worry about attempting to pronounce the title of tonight’s event. Backstage, local actors, directors, and playwrights are abuzz, running lines and chattering with a nervous, almost pre-karaoke excitement: for the creatives involved, these readings are projects of passion. Which is strange, because they’re adaptations of a play written by a tenth-century Saxon nun.
Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, the tenth-century Saxon nun in question (who wrote about exactly the sorts of themes you might expect, e.g. vows of chastity, the supererogated perfection of catholic saints, and the idea that good will always, always triumph over evil, to name a few), might not immediately stick out as a feminist icon. For all its painfully out-of-vogue earnestness, though, her written work is quietly subversive, not only in its existence but also in its treatment of the topics that Hrotsvitha chose to address. Put simply, these plays are not just important because they were written by the first woman playwright, they are important because the first woman playwright had some very important things to say. Here in the dated walls of her prose we find self-assured women at the center of their own universes, struggling to deal with harassment and abuse by weak, powerful men. Sadly, in the more than ten centuries that have passed since she put pen to paper, these themes have yet to become any less relevant.
In recognition of Hrotsvitha’s contribution to the dramatic canon, Project Y has undertaken a five-year project to commission and produce adaptions of each of her six known plays. This year, six modern women playwrights (Eliza Bent, Suzanne Bradbeer, Antu Yacob, Laura Pittenger, Kaaron Briscoe, and Kelley Nicole Girod) are poised to share their loose adaptations of Calimachus, a conversion comedy about poisonous snakes, unrequited necrophilia, and the cleansing power of divine grace. The original plot is a pretty classic case of Boy meets Girl, Boy falls in love with Girl, Girl has a husband and even apart from that has taken a vow of chastity, Boy unsuccessfully tries to seduce Girl, Girl prays that God will take her life so she doesn’t yield to Boy’s lusty desires, God takes Girl’s life, Boy tries to buy her corpse so that he can have sex with it, Poisonous Snake comes and kills Boy, Saint John appears and raises Boy from the dead, having felt the fire of hell Boy no longer wants to have sex with corpses, Saint John raises Girl from the dead, everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of like The Sister Act meets Click meets Weekend at Bernie’s. Standard stuff.
At 7:30, we’re all inside the theatre and Michole Biancosino steps up to thank us for coming (you’re welcome!) and introduce us to the event. As she speaks, an almost-familial spirit comes over the room, a common understanding that we’re all sitting in this room because we actually really want to be. Many of us are either involved with one of the productions or with Project Y, and we all form part of the narrow subset of people who get genuinely excited to hear new plays read aloud. Now, it’s time to see them.
The plays are hilarious, disturbing, damning, devastating. People actually laugh and people actually cry. I am one of those people. While the plots of the plays are generally very distinct (e.g. Fill in the Blank, by Kaaron Briscoe tells the story of a tinder date between an absolutely horrible man and a wigged mannequin whom he spits wine at, while Antu Yacob’s The Conscious Her is a poetic exploration of what it means to search for God) it’s clear that all are adaptions of the same original source. Hrotsvithan motifs like the presence of real good and real evil, our responsibility (or lack thereof) to the Almighty , and the way toxic masculinity objectifies and endangers women float in and out of the room throughout the night. These plays speak to each other, though they don’t settle on any solutions.
There’s a line, hidden away in the stage directions of Kelley Nicole Girod’s An Act of Contrition, where she describes the way the sunlight hits the face of one of her characters, a senile woman named Mae suffering through life in an understaffed nursing home. Girod describes the light as a sign that even though the nurses have perhaps forgotten about her, “God hasn’t.” As the last actors take their bows and we all stand up and get ready to filter out of the theatre, there’s a similar feeling of divine consideration. So many female artists have been silenced and maligned by history; it falls on us to bring their votes out of the shadows and into the light. Even if the world has forgotten about them, we can’t afford to.
By Cole Merrell