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  • Feminist Theaters in the U.S.A.: Staging Women’s Experience
  • Leah Lowe
Feminist Theaters in the U.S.A.: Staging Women’s Experience. By Charlotte Canning. Gender in Performance Series. London: Routledge, 1996; pp. x + 271. $16.95 paper.

In her introduction to this thoughtful history of grassroots feminist theatre groups from 1969 to the mid-1980s, Charlotte Canning observes that feminism is troubled by an uneasy relationship to even its recent past. In order to win political and social recognition for women, radical feminist projects of the early 1970s employed unifying strategies such as consciousness-raising, based on assumptions of commonality among all women. Later feminists, concerned with the intersections of women’s oppression with other oppressions including those of race, class, and sexual preference, recognize the pioneering efforts of earlier feminists, but often criticize their work as simplistic, essentialist, and hopelessly naive. Canning acknowledges the impact of both moments of feminist thought on the women’s theatre movement and on her historical account of it. She practices both “celebration and critique” (6) as she “moves among the different models of feminist critical historical practice, making visible the achievements of women from an earlier moment in time, while including their biases, assumptions, and flaws” (6). Canning argues that knowing one’s own history, even if it is a contradictory and troubled one, is necessary to understand the present fully and to effect future change.

Canning’s historical analysis of feminist theatre groups is based primarily on interviews, conducted between 1989 and 1994, with twenty-eight women active in feminist theatre between 1969 and the mid-1980s. Those interviewed represent groups ranging from Seattle’s Front Room Theater Guild to the Women’s Experimental Theater of New York, and include women associated with groups that previously have not received much critical or historical attention. The resulting work is organized around themes and issues of importance to past and present feminist communities, rather than a linear chronology. This structure enables Canning to note similarities among feminist theatre groups, but more importantly, to delineate a variety of differences in both positions and practices, complicating the generalized notion of “women’s theatre.” The use of oral histories offers multiple perspectives on various aspects of feminist theatre and evaluations of the movement’s successes and failures by its participants. Of particular interest to Canning, the women interviewed repeatedly stress connections between political activism, personal experience, and theatrical practice. In her first two chapters, Canning outlines her methodology, locates her study with regard to other works covering the same era of feminist theatre, and contextualizes feminist theatre in relation to rise of the women’s movement and the politics of the New Left.

Many feminist theatres rejected traditional hierarchical power structures in favor of developing their own alternative models. Chapter Three, “Collectivity and Collaboration” examines collectivity as the organizing principle behind women’s theatre groups and its impact on the theatre they produced. Collective structures sought to empower women and to ensure that each individual voice counted in decisions, but frequently proved problematic in practice. Claiming to represent all women, feminist theatrical collectives often were composed primarily of white, middle-class women. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, an increasingly perceived need to attend to differences of race, class, and sexual preference, reflecting tensions brewing in the larger feminist community, strained collective organizations. Consensus models of decision-making did not always facilitate artistic development; as Terry Baum of San Francisco’s Lilith collective noted: “Everybody has the power to say no, and the person who is the most fearful will say no to whatever they are afraid to do.” (71). Canning concludes the chapter with case studies of four theatrical collectives—the Women’s Experimental Theater Project, Spiderwoman Theater, Lilith, and the Front Room Theater Guild—tracing their organizational histories with regard to collective practices.

Canning argues that women’s theatres did not merely present new material in alternative theatrical forms, but also actively engaged in the creation of “feminist events.” The “feminist event” is defined by Michéle Barrett as “the creation of a cultural milieu in which feminist vision is consumed as well as imaginatively produced” (113). [End Page 249...

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