Theatre Topics 15.2 (2005) 221-239
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Creating Community, Constructing Criticism:
The Women's One World Festival 1980–1981
Women artists in the '80's can deal with—and need—"tough" feminist criticism. There are times when the ghetto is a needed refuge, but there are times when it's just a closet—for anyone.
The feminist critic who writes frankly of a feminist production's problems risks a certain ostracism from the creative community. In the spirit of progress, however, it seems necessary to point out the limitations of even the most well-intentioned feminist work [. . .] and to institute a dialogue that resonates beyond the confines of an insular feminist community.
In 1980, Village Voice theatre critic Barbara Baracks attended the first international women's theatre festival to be held in the United States, the Women's One World (WOW) festival. In 1981, when the festival returned, Baracks did too, in order to write a two-part review series covering the performances. After her first review in 1981, Baracks received complaints from festival participants that she had not been supportive enough of the women's work. In her second review, Baracks responded to this accusation with the assertion that "women artists in the '80's can deal with—and need—'tough' feminist criticism" (103). She argued that criticizing women's work was indeed a way of supporting it, and stressed that the comfort of community could easily become a stifling enclosure, a limited and limiting arena where success might only be the dubious achievement of refuge. Significantly, it was tough feminist criticism that promised to liberate women artists from this closet.
Seven years later, Jill Dolan published her groundbreaking book on feminist theatre criticism, The Feminist Spectator as Critic. By this time, WOW had established itself as a permanent performance space in Manhattan's East Village, and Dolan was a regular attendee. In the afterword to her book, Dolan raised the question of the relationship of feminist criticism to feminist theatre production; she arrived at a similar conclusion to Baracks, but with one significant difference. In Dolan's book, WOW is not the object of her criticism; rather, WOW attained a privileged position as the model for feminist performance. (As Dolan would later explain: "I went on to suggest that the performances at WOW offered the most potential for subverting the historically conservative performances of gender authorized by theater production"[Presence 6].) But, while she found these performances to be radical in their subversiveness, Dolan still worried that the insularity of WOW might limit its capacity for social change. She asked, "For example, how can the formal experiments with old contents [End Page 221] evidenced in the WOW café work truly contribute to cultural change? How radical is the work if it continues to take place in an alternative context in which its spectators are mostly lesbians with a predisposition to the meanings the performances construct?" (Spectator 119). Thus, while Baracks worried about the insularity of community-based performance limiting its participants, Dolan worried about how the confines of the community might impede the impact of feminist work on the culture at large. For Dolan, as for Baracks, it was the feminist critic whose job it was to overcome this limitation. Thus, both critics raised similar concerns: they both worried about the constraints of community, and both questioned the role of feminist criticism in relation to feminist performance. Significantly, these concerns reveal themselves to be deeply intertwined.
Anxieties about community-based performance are often articulated with words such as "confined" and "insular." These terms implicitly demarcate a boundary around the community, where what is "inside" is seen both as being imposed upon by the "outside"—in the sense of being boxed in or relegated to the ghetto—and as having severely limited ability to push back and affect what lies "outside." At the same time, these implicit inside/outside distinctions place the critic in an uncertain relationship to community-based performance...