“Does this outfit make me look fat?” It’s a popular question we’ve all asked without really considering the larger implications of what it says about our self-image and the social expectations about our body. Thankfully Dani Bryant is creating art that dives below the surface of a world that worships physical beauty.
In her initial work as a devised-method playwright, Dani explored overarching themes focused on the power struggles women have with body image and food. The concept of devised-method writing was new to me but Dani’s provocative themes and her rich body of work on her website had familiar soundbites from conversations past with other women in my life. It was easy to see why her long list of creative plays with captivating titles like, “Diets are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Spanx You Very Much” were widely celebrated. I realized the world needs to know more about Dani, her style and the real experiences of the women who have given their powerful voice to social change.
As a devised-method playwright, Dani says she’s a facilitator and community arts educator. Her approach is uniquely organic and collaborative. She starts with conventional ideas and assumptions about our female body and gender politics, but offers a series of community dinners and roundtable discussions that provide further insight and research.
During these discussions, a variety of techniques are used – adaptive listening, dialogic practice, theatre techniques and radical engagement strategies – to draw out the experiences of real women participants, as well as the stage actors who shape the discussions. Like a sculptor carving and polishing her artwork, Dani uses these stories and insights to chisel a multi-dimensional play whose collective voice resonates deeply with women and audiences.
The aha moment here is the power play combination of collaborators, and the input and formation of true stories from real people who struggle to love their bodies amidst pressures from family, friends and social media. Stage performers in the play reshape this raw material with additional input from the director, designers, choreographers and everyone involved in the production. This focus on their personal stories as a critical way to more fully inform and shape the content and characters in theater productions. This “all in approach” provides more than group ownership; it is creative magic.
As Dani’s transformative work evolves in style and subject matter, the magic continues in her latest production, “Gender Breakdown”. Set to open in Chicago on Feb. 22 at Collaboraction Theater, “Gender Breakdown” evolved from conversations about women theater makers and injustices in industry power dynamics. The 2016 ousting of an artistic director at Chicago’s Profiles Theater and a growing national dialogue decrying the lack of gender parity, combined with widespread evidence of sexual harassment and abuse in the overall theater industry, primed Dani’s new activist spin.
Dani and her collaborative team repeat their sharp dissection of conventional paradigms about the female body using deft Shakespearian skill as they create metaphorical constructs that reflect challenging theatrical environments for stage artists. The audition process drives the action on stage for aspiring artists, against an industry backdrop where the gender gap for women is already greater than statistics in other industries. In the play, women don’t make the cut and this sets up serious and humorous situations for the audience to experience new insights without force feeding the disparaging truth.
Dani admits people think they know sexism and misogyny but when you go deeper into underlying layers and forces that intersect – issues like race, class, sexual orientation, and privilege – you realize it’s more complicated than you thought. Whether it’s pay inequities amongst men and women, or the small number of plays written and produced by women, the results from a Gender Breakdown study confirm the numbers aren’t great. I think Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and playwright Marsha Norman said it best, “If life worked like theater, 4 out of 5 things you would have ever heard would have been said by men.” We all know how messed up the world would really be if only men’s voices were heard!
But hope is alive in “Gender Breakdown.” The play creators are all female, as is the design and production team responsible for bringing “Gender Breakdown” to the stage. You’ve met Dani and her talent for shaping story, and her co-creator Erica Vannon is also a theater force. She serves as director, producer and collaborative artist In the play, and has worked with Dani on other projects including, “Spandx You Very Much.” Erica is the founder of a project based theater company, her and her experience teaching movement workshops continues to foster creativity and common language, all critical element in “Gender Breakdown.”
The all female design and production team on and off stage includes: Sarah JHP Watkins (set designer), Becca Venable (lighting designer), Katherine Pavlovna Goldberg (costume designer), Karli Blalock (sound designer), Sarah Moeller (producer), Kelly Butler (production manager), Caitlin Body (stage manager), Brittany T. Jasper (assistant stage manager), Becca Venable (technical director) and Carley Walker (master electrician).
As Gender Breakdown gets ready to make its world premiere, the play’s message moves beyond gender inequity and injustices in the theater world. Audiences learn how and why women are still marginalized in America. Insights garnered from more than 200 conversations and interviews of gut-wrenching stories of violence, segregation, disrespect and marginalization expose the real issues surrounding gender politics and racism.
“Gender Breakdown” could just be our yellow brick road for women to escape the negative perceptions and experiences rooted in college theater programs that encourage dysfunctional talk around body image. We need to continue to pull back the curtain and help every Dorothy to stand together to break the silence if we are to achieve equality.
I believe Dani Bryant is the great and powerful Oz we need. She shapes meaningful dialogue that provides rewarding experiences for theater artists as well as insightful entertainment for audiences. As Dani pursues a master’s degree in more clinical studies grounded in the therapeutic models of stage experiences, her work and private practice with artists will continue to enrich the landscape for women and our larger world.