Members of Guerrilla Girls On Tour who participated in this interview include Aphra Behn, Lupe Velez, Julia Child, Fanny Brice and Georgia Douglas Johnson.
Guerrilla Girls On Tour is a New York City based internationally acclaimed anonymous theatre collective founded by three former members of Guerrilla Girls. We began in 1997 when Aphra Behn, Lorraine Hansberry and Hallie Flanagan, then members of Guerrilla Girls, initiated a new focus for the anonymous feminist group that would address the lack of opportunities for women in theatre and explore a way to combine performance and visual art.
Our mission is to create original plays, street actions, visual work and residency programs that dramatize women’s history and advocate on behalf of women and artists of color in the performing arts. In order to put the focus of our work on the issues we address, each member works under the name of a dead woman artist and performs wearing a gorilla mask.
We have 26 members, 35% women of color and all of us are either women performers, designers, composers, writers and/or comediennes who have day jobs in the theatre industry. We’ve toured through 26 states and 5 countries bringing our brand of satirical performance art and activism against discrimination, sexism and racism to places like southern Georgia, eastern Europe and South America.
Our motto is "Changing the world, one sexist city at a time."
Can you talk about how "Guerrilla Girls on Tour" came into being and what you're all about?
Julia, Fanny, Aphra, Georgia and Lupe: In the fall of 1997 the Guerrilla Girls invited many new and energetic members into the group. Many of us were theatre and performance artists and we wanted to address sexism in the theatre world. We began with a sticker campaign directed at the Roundabout Theatre whose then current season did not include any plays by women (Note: The Roundabout Theatre’s 2004/05 season also does not include any plays by women).
Accompanied by male supporters (we like to call our Baboon Boys) went into the bathrooms of the Roundabout and put up stickers that said "In this theatre the taking of photographs, the use of a recording device and the production of plays by women is strictly prohibited" (Note: you can download these stickers from our web site.).
We went back each month and saw where they had tried to rip the stickers down and we’d just put new ones up over them (Hint: Avery labels are very hard to peel off.). Low and behold, their next season included a play by a woman. We take full credit for that. Unfortunately, the Roundabout went back to producing an all male season after that one. But that action was followed with other posters and stickers that addressed discrimination in the theatre world that we would fax each year in what we came to call our annual "Fax Blitz".
These posters (that said things like "There’s a tragedy on Broadway and it isn’t Electra" ) went to artistic directors all over the US who weren’t producing any plays by women. Other actions we’ve organized include two live protests of the Tony awards to show that women don’t win Tony’s because they don’t work on Broadway as often as white men do (We protest the Tony’s every year…we moved from live actions to stickering because of threats of arrest which we describe in another question.).
All of these actions eventually inspired the "theatre girls", as we came to be known, to officially break from Guerrilla Girls, Inc in 2001 so that we could focus on a new mission. We now create theatre pieces, plays, performances and street actions that highlight the disparity for women and artists of color in the theatre and prove that feminist are funny.
Why the masks and anonymity?
Aphra: The masks and the anonymity allow us to put the focus completely on the issues we address. No one knows that I am actually
Merle Streep. Sorry, please ignore that. No one is supposed to know who any of us really are and when we appear in public we wear wild wigs and gorilla masks to conceal our true identities. We all take the names of dead women artists to pay tribute to the many women who have gone before us. Each of us talks about the work of the woman whose name we have taken in our performances as a way to keep women’s history alive.
The masks assure that no one can say that we are doing this work to promote our own careers in theatre. We can’t be accused of being members of Guerrilla Girls On Tour to advance our resumes – we don’t use our real names or faces and therefore that is impossible. Both the masks and anonymity have been a fantastic tool to direct our energies completely on the issues of discrimination and racism and most are quite intrigued by our look so it helps to get attention as well.
We hear there is a anti-mask law that you aren't allowed to wear a mask while protesting. In fact, wearing a bandana around one's face is illegal. Has this gotten you into trouble?
Georgia: Yes. While protesting the Tony Awards in 2000 the NYPD told us that we would be arrested unless we took off our masks. There is some law that dates back to the Klu Klux Klan that says you can’t protest wearing a mask. We abandoned our Tony protest that year because we didn’t want to get arrested. We do have a great lawyer who is dying for us to challenge this law. We’re thinking about it.
You basically focus on the under-representation of women in theater. What do you attribute this inequality to?
Georgia: Where do we begin? The artistic directors who choose the seasons, the ticket buyers who buy the tickets, the actors who work at theatres that only produce work by white men….let’s say that we think everyone is part of the problem because no one is addressing the solution. Discrimination in theatre is not currently being looked at by anyone other than us at the moment. Why? No one, and we mean all who work in the theatre, sees it as a problem at all. Women get to the top of their chosen fields in theatre and then become afraid to say anything about the issues for fear of loosing their hard earned status.
The problem is complex and very deeply rooted in theatrical traditions of the past 30 years. Not only are women playwrights not being produced (Only about 17% of all plays produced in the US are written by women) but women directors aren’t hired, women designers, stage managers, etc. Not to mention theatre artists of color who are being kept out as well. Where are the women in theatre? It is well documented that 65% of all theatre tickets purchased in NYC are purchased by women. When will sexism in theatre end? When women want it to end.
What kinds of actions have done to promote your cause?
Lupe: Besides the Tony actions, the sticker campaigns and the fax blitzes mentioned above we’ve created street theatre pieces that we’ve performed during the Republican National Convention in NYC last summer. We’ve done collaborations with other feminist groups like the one we did with the South Korean group IPGIM and the performance we developed with Polish women activists in Warsaw. We co-sponsored the "March for Women’s Lives" in Washington D.C. last spring.
And currently we have a ""girlcott" list" on our web site. It lists theatres across the US that are not producing any plays by women. We ask that anyone who has a ticket to one of these theatres join our girlcott and not attend a performance at that theatre until they produce a play by a woman.
We also have the Hrosvitha challenge. Hrosvitha was the first female playwright and her plays are out of print and not produced.
We challenge theatres across the world to honor the woman responsible for founding the tradition of women writing for the stage and produce her work. And we’ve trained thousands of young people at universities around the world in our street theatre and poster making techniques so that they can form grassroots organizations addressing the issues of sexism on their own. -
Feminism is sometimes thought of as a dirty word. And some people are saying that feminism has been dead for the last 15 years.
Fanny: I think Feminism is alive and well... she is still kicking butt and taking names! After all the definition of Feminism for me is that women should be treated equally in all areas of their lives as men are... and who doesn't think THAT is important to work to make happen! We all know that women still earn 80 cents for every dollar a man earns and that only 15 percent of the US representatives and senators are women... what further proof do we need that equality has still not been reached and that more work needs to be done! When 50% of all the plays produced in this country are written and directed by women and when Hillary is swore into office... well, then MAYBE we can talk about not needing feminism any more!
Lupe: I would say feminism is on life support. I say this because from what I've seen on college campuses. Young women today do not seem to care about fighting for their equalities and rights nor do they seem interested in the problems that face women around the world since it doesn't effect them directly. –
Julia: Feminism is the Living Dead. An eerily relevant, political zombie come to haunt and titillate women with the long-forgotten thrill of "anything could happen." How frighteningly exciting!
Do you think the term has the same meaning as it had back in the 70's and/or 80's?
Julia: No way! Feminism has different goals now than it did in the seventies. There isn't a gal around these days that doesn't think sexual equality is important and essential. You really had to dig for ladies who had thought about such yammer three decades ago. Now, its a matter of convincing women that disparities actually still exist! The statistics seem fictitious...almost hyperbolic. My Dad didn't believe me when I told him that 1 in 4 women have been sexually assaulted. Now that the notion of equality has been normalized, we think the work is all done.
The UN recently came out against several countries that failed to meet a pledge they had made to revoke laws that discriminate against women. You've traveled the world, what were some of the more shocking things you've learned or witnessed?
Aphra: We’ve been to Canada, South Korea, Poland, France and Argentina and we plan on going to the UK and Japan in the near future. I’ve come away from these tours mindful of the things I have as an American women that women in other countries do not -- namely, the voice and the opportunity to protest. Women’s voices are not given a platform to speak in other countries and so when we travel abroad we always incorporate local issues into our performances via having our hosts come on stage with us and speak about current issues. They have shared with us that being able to speak publicly about women’s reproductive rights, gay and lesbian rights, choice and violence against women is a rare privilege for them. In many of the countries we visited religion has a strong influence on government and that serves to hinder the advancement of women. -
How do you feel the current administration is dealing with issues regarding discrimination against women?
Fanny: This administration doesn't even know how to spell the word discrimination! –
Lupe: I believe this administration is encouraging discrimination not just between the sexes but between racial groups and groups of different sexual orientation. –
Julia: I'm shocked and awed. They're not!
The Greater New York show that just went up at PS1 has been criticized for its predominantly male line-up of artists. Care to comment on this? Do you plan on addressing it in some way?
Aphra: Unfortunately there is a lot of this in NY. The arts lag far behind the rest of the culture at large when it comes to opportunities for women and artists of color. As I mentioned before the Roundabout is currently doing a season of 6 plays by white men. The Atlantic Theatre and Classic Stage Company are two more local theatre companies with all white male seasons It’s blatant discrimination.
What is your group currently up to?
Aphra: We currently have three plays in repertory -- Feminists Are Funny – a 70- minute energetic look at our own herstory that ends with a lively discussion with the audience on the current cultural trends for women and people of color; Silence Is Violence – includes up-to-date stats and empowering strategies for campuses and communities addressing violence against women; and Guerrilla Girls On Tour Show, which just had its US premiere at Saint Joseph’s College in CT and Earlham College in IN. The Guerrilla Girls On Tour Show is an 80 minute physical romp through the herstory (sic) of women in world theatre, dramatizing the accomplishments of women theatre pioneers such as Lady Mary Wroth, Anna Brenko, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, and Zulu Sofola, to name a few.
We’ve just recently created the Guerrilla Girls On Tour Network for Women In Theatre. This is an email list serve for women theatre artists. Our purpose is to create a forum where we can network, post job opportunities and share resources and ideas. In a male dominated profession, we feel it is important to consciously network with one another. Then, for example, when we are in a position to hire, we will have a pool of female professionals to call upon. This group is not for 'out-of-context' self-promotion and you may not announce shows, or promote yourself without good reason. To join go to:
Guerrilla Girls On Tour also produces work via our web site: www.guerrillagirlsontour.com.
What's on the horizon for the Guerrilla Girls on Tour?
Aphra: We have stayed away from performing in NYC in the past because we didn’t want anyone to recognize us. We are rethinking that policy and are considering several offers to perform in the NYC area in the future.
Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "I'm so glad I live in this city."
Julia: I saw somebody fall on the subway tracks once. And in response, a witness remarked "don't anybody call the police, that J train won't come for hours!"
Lupe: Almost every time I go out on a tour I encounter a lot of narrow minded people. That's not to say there aren't any narrow minded people in New York. I do encounter a lot of very cool feminists both female and male every time I go on tour as well. However in NY you can hear or see more than one point of view and in the small towns we visit there often seems to be one dominant point of view that is held by the majority and forced upon the community.
Who is your favorite New Yorker (dead or alive) and why?
Fanny: Shirley Chisholm. I think she was amazing and inspiring…the first African-American women to run for the presidency!! I am waiting for other women to take up her hard won baton and run like hell towards the White House.
You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history would you go back to?
Julia: Yesterday. I would have paid attention to my alarm.
Lupe: I would go back to 9/11 and try to change the events of that day.
If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
Julia: I’d turn all the dames into hairy activist apes.
Georgia: I would change NYC from being all about making money to being about a serenity for living.
Aphra: I would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex or race. Wait a minute. that is the law!
You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
Fanny: Buy some Avery labels and download some stickers from www.guerrillagirlsontour.com and sticker all the bathrooms in NYC theaters that don't produce plays by women! That sounds like a rousing good time to me!
What source(s) do you turn to for news?
Julia, Fanny, Aphra, Georgia and Lupe: NPR, CNN, BBC, NY Times, 1010 WINS, Village Voice, Air America, my shrink, and my mirror, mirror on the wall.
What advice do you have for Bush as he embarks on his second term?
Julia, Fanny, Aphra, Georgia and Lupe: Get rid of your global gag rule. Reinstate the Office on Women’s Initiatives that Clinton created and that you ended. Do something concrete about the sex trafficking of women and girls.
Bloomberg, 4 more years?
Aphra: Bloomburg has shown himself to be very hypocritical. First he says that people have the right to marry whoever they want. Next, he’s appealing a ruling that would allow NYC to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples! I say no to 4 more years.
Fanny: 4 more years of Bloomberg? Arsenic anyone?
If you could ask God one question, what would you ask
Georgia: How are we doing?
Fanny: When are you going to let everyone in on the fact that you are a woman?
Julia: Alright, so which one of us are you?
Members of Guerrilla Girls On Tour:
Aphra Behn, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Brice, Louise Brooks, Coco Chanel, Julia Child, Alice Childress, Cheryl Crawford, Alexandra Exter, Hallie Flanagan, Loie Fuller, Lorraine Hansberry, Edith Head, Lady Augusta Gregory, Laura Keene, Nella Larsen, Kate Drain Lawson, Eva Le Gallienne, Ethel Merman, Diana Sands, Sophie Treadwell, Remedios Varo, Lupe Velez, Hazel Mountain Walker, Anna May Wong.
Interview by Raphie Frank and Mindy Bond