Twenty-nine-year-old playwright and actress Courtney McLean has done her share of day jobs: as a former wedding and party DJ, she DJed an afterparty for N'Sync at the San Diego Sports Arena, and her brushes with celebrity include discussing bikini waxes with Jessica Biel. After studying theater at UC San Diego, the California native headed to New York five years ago, and currently waitresses at Penelope, among other gigs. But her true love is theater, especially alternative theater, where last year she performed her first solo show "Normal-C," which you can catch highlights of on YouTube.
Tonight is the premiere of a new show, "Super Glossy!," which takes aim at the women's magazines at your local newsstand or, quite possibly, in your bedroom. Directed by Jenny Lobland, the show aims to let women know that "homogenization will win if we let it" and is billed as "The Stepford Wives meets The Venture Bros." in a "feminist sci-fi satire" about Jane Fuller, played, along with all the other characters, by McLean, featuring characters based on real-life women like famed Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.
How did you get started as a playwright and performance artist?
I have been acting since elementary school, but I discovered in college that I hated auditioning. I'm not keen on fitting in with how other people want to define me, which is pretty much what a casting director does when you go in for a role. As a playwright and performer, I write my own words, things that are straight from my soul and with a small chunk of change, I put them up for the world to see. I cut out the middleman of the auditions and casting process. A lot of actors I talk to think it's so brave of me to write and perform my own shows, but I do not envy their position of stressing out about getting a role according to how someone else deems you worthy.
What was the catalyst for "Super Glossy!"? Was there a specific article or headline or incident involving women's magazines, or was it based on a lifetime of reading them?
I remember riding in a car in the summer of 2002 and it just came to me. I think it was just more of a lifetime of reading women's magazines and seeing that they say the same thing over and over and over. And what truly disturbs me is that this is how a majority of women learn how to be women, outside of their mothers. I don't think a lot of us (and I'm speaking specifically of Western women) use the internet to see sites like Feministing or know about Bust or Bitch magazine. And not that everyone's into that, but the magazines that are sold in mainstream supermarkets on the impulse-buy rack are all about putting women into a homogeneous mold. These mags are the most visible option. And my wild imagination just turned that into conspiratorial science fiction. Pretty logical if you ask me.
Your main character is named Jane, surely not coincidentally. What do you think of Jane the magazine?
It's kind of a convenient coincidence that the main character shares the name. Jane, the character, is Everywoman--Jane Doe (although her last name in the play is Fuller). She's everybody and a nobody. She's the lowest common denominator to whom this magazine culture is marketed.
As for Jane the magazine, I have been a Jane Pratt fan since the days of the best teen magazine ever, Sassy. But there's something I don't trust about Jane the magazine. I think I have never forgiven Jane Pratt for selling out Sassy (and I'm not the only one, Jane!) and so when Jane the mag came out, the wounds were still fresh and I just felt it was contrived and didn't have the guerrilla, fuck-you attitude that Sassy had, though it was obvious it tried. But, of all the women's magazines of that caliber, I think Jane the mag serves as the gray area between Glamour (fluff) and Bust (real stuff women can use). So, in that respect, it's my favorite fluff mag.
How much research did you do to prepare for the show? What was the most surprising thing you found in your magazine reading?
I subscribed to Jane, Glamour, and Allure magazines this past year and picked up the book that's a surefire way to make me angry⎯The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. But again, "Super Glossy!" has been five years in the making. Throughout those years, I have combed different magazines, from In Style to Martha Stewart Living to Sista 2 Sista to Essence to Lucky to Marie Claire. I asked friends to donate their mags and I had a huge stack that moved with me twice. I sent a survey out to my girlfriends about women's mags and was relieved to hear that many people felt the same way I do.
I was also surprised that some of my girlfriends were into the magazines! The most surprising thing I found about my magazine reading was how I got totally sucked in, in spite of myself. I found myself slipping out of reading them with a critical eye and reading them in earnest, which made me question the validity of my argument. But I suppose that's the most obvious evidence of the brainwashing right there.
You play all the roles in "Super Glossy!" yourself. Why did you choose to do a solo performance rather than casting actors for some of the parts?
I can't say I don't miss working with other actors, but by the same token, I'm the only ego I have to deal with (except for my fabulous director, Jenny Lobland, but we have complementary egos). I simply don't really love working with other actors even though I live with one and I am in love with one. But ego aside, it's so much fun taking on 12 different roles in one show. My goal is to never have to audition for anything ever again. These shows are my auditions. My own words, my own vision, and if someone "important" comes to see me and they like what they see, then we'll talk. Plus doing solo work means I rely on myself and I'm the only one who can complain when the paycheck is late.
What would you say is the main message of "Super Glossy!"?
Homogenization will win if we let it.
Is there a single biggest offender when it comes to women's magazines, one that you find most off-putting?
I want to say Cosmopolitan because it's so garish, but I think Glamour magazine was the one that really inspired the show. Glamour has great articles about women around the world doing their heroic work, which is fantastic, but it's also the biggest offender of "LOVE YOUR BODY" articles when it has contradictory accompanying visuals. Glamour is all about women loving what they've got, but I rarely see any models in there that aren't white and 100 pounds. At least Cosmo is aware it's trash. Glamour is having a monthly identity crisis: It is laden with subliminal hypocrisy. But my answer could change next month. And just to clarify how I define women's magazines: I mean women's lifestyle or self-help magazines. There was a specific beauty/lifestyle angle I was getting at with "Super Glossy!" Vogue, Lucky, or In Style didn't totally fit into that category.
What do you think about the advice men are given in men's magazines? Is it on a par with women's magazines? Do you think women are more susceptible to the messages in magazines marketed to them than men are with men's magazines?
I have limited experience with men's magazines, but from my distant POV, men's magazines pander to men's stereotypes just as women's magazines do to women's stereotypes. Assumptions are made about what is important to men too: women, fitness, cars, gadgets, etc. I would assume it's on a par with women's magazines, especially in this day and age when the archetype of the metrosexual is making its way to the forefront. Here is a paradigm that shifts the modern man into the mega-consumer, a role that was carved out for women.
If you were to start your own magazine called, for instance, Courtney, what would be in it? What are your favorite magazines to read and why?
Oh damn! A friend of mine and I have wanted to do a teen magazine ever since the demise of Sassy! I would want my magazine to be a kind of survival guide for young women, built by its readers, perhaps. As in getting different perspectives from different girls. I would not glorify the idea that girls are competitive and hateful to each other. Instead, I would promote sisterhood and friendship. And of course I would do fashion spreads--I love clothes just as much as the next woman--but it would be less about brands and more about expression. And some of the models would be fat and ugly. With zits and headgear.
How is this show different from your first solo show "Normal-C"?
"Normal-C" is an autobiographical purging that had to be written before I could do what I really wanted with solo theater: tackle social and feminist issues. "Super Glossy!" is science fiction, and though I know that Jane and I are a lot alike, the show is not about me. Of course, it's not really about Jane either.
What's the relationship between your feminist beliefs and the theater work you've done, including "Super Glossy!"? Do you think it's easier to get your points across in this format?
I consider myself equal parts performer and feminist, so they are inherently linked in Courtney McLean's cosmic makeup. "Super Glossy!" is most certainly a direct result of the feminist beliefs I've honed since my teens. "Normal-C" had its sprinkling of feminism too. As for theatrical work in the past, I have had the good fortune of never really being typecast and getting to play a variety of different women. Being a feminist actress means you give the Catholic character whose main objective is to have 10 babies just as much validity as the character who is breaking through the glass ceiling.
Last year, you performed "Normal-C" at various fringe festivals. What do you like about the fringe festival setup? How has it helped you grow as a performer?
Fringes are perfect for a performer like myself because you have a festival with a concentrated amount of theater in a week and a half. This rallies the community of whatever city you're in to go see theater because it's at its most accessible. Unfortunately, this is not true in New York City, where theater is going on all the time, but even in Minneapolis, which has a huge theater community, the people get hyped about the Fringe Festival. And it's also a fantastic way to network and see what else is out there. Doing Fringes last year helped me tremendously in the area of preparation. I am a horrible procrastinator and every time I do a show unprepared, it bites me in the ass. I "went pro" for the Fringes. It also taught me a lot about promoting myself. Essentially, if you don't get out there, pound the pavement and talk to people about your show, you're not going to fill your seats. And then you're not going to make money.
Did you find the show took on different qualities depending on what city you were performing it in?
The shows take on different qualities depending on what space you're in! For instance, I took part in the inaugural Capital Fringe Festival (in Washington, DC) last year. Even though I'm not from there, the city was excited for this new happening in town and I, an out-of-towner, sold out three shows. However, in Minneapolis, where they've been doing the Fringe for over 13 years and there's this cult following of local theater actors, it's a little more difficult to fill your seats. And the audience size will always affect the energy of the show. As for the show itself taking on different qualities, I found myself more wary of offending someone in the Midwest. I don't really know why. Maybe because I'm this crazy redhead from New York City?
Your official motto is ""If you asked me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to LIVE OUT LOUD." Can you elaborate on what this means?
HA! These are not my words and I'm too lazy to look up who actually said it. I am a personality above all else. I don't care if I "make it" as an actor or whatever, I believe my gift in life is the light I shine. I know for a fact that I have a huge circle of friends around me because I live out loud: I am not apologetic for who I am and y'all can take it or leave it. Lucky me, I don't have to apologize because I'm an awesome person who's also blessed with generosity and a great attitude.
You're originally from San Diego and have been living in New York for five years. How are the alternative performance scenes different in each city?
It seems to me that the performance scenes, alternative or not, are proportionate to the amount of people. Because there's punks everywhere.
You're also the co-founder of the Fucking Cool Women's Society. Why did you start it and what's it all about? How do you define "fucking cool?"
My friend Joanne Morton and I had a conversation about being feminists when we first met and she had told me about this film she made, "Women Are So Fucking Cool," and how she wanted to start a society of women that would get together and network. My personal reasons for starting it were that I am tired of being pitted against other women. I feel like this is necessary in Western culture to make sure women don't get out ahead by keeping us competitive and from uniting with each other. In other cultures, there's blatant sexism and women are straight-up second class, but in our culture, we're just kept apart so that we don't have the numbers to take the system down together. FCW Society is not about overthrowing the patriarchy or anything (okay, that's not entirely true), but I just wanted to help create a place in our culture where women could come together and applaud each other for doing our thing, whatever that might be. Being "fucking cool" is all about love. Own who you are and accept others for who they are and do it with love. And right now, this is so important that it happen between women. Don't worry, we're adding men into the mix little by little.
Find out more about McLean at www.courtneymclean.com or her blog, Brash Lion. "Super Glossy!" opens tonight as part of the NYC Frigid Festival and runs March 9 (9 pm), March 10 (2:30 pm), March 11 (8:30 pm), March 15 (6 pm) and March 17 (8:30 pm) at Under St. Marks Theatre, 94 St. Marks Place. Tickets are $10 and available at Smarttix.