Wednesday, April 18, 2012


For those far away, this production will be performed at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA. Hope you can come!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On Publicity Photos and Plowing Ahead

At this point, we are quite in the thick of things. Clara is making paper hats and paper swords and pop-ups and paper paper paper. I am sewing endlessly, running rehearsals, and working to make sure everything comes together. It is a busy time three weeks before opening.

This morning, Amanda--our Helena--and I had a photo shoot so we would have a few shots to send out with publicity. So we traipsed about Staunton with pop-up books and paper stars. I thought I would share some of my favorites with you as a teaser for what's to come.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Some news coverage

Today people across America wore white to support women's rights, particularly women's healthcare and the current legislative issues concerning the government's control or coverage of that care. In Staunton, many of us joined the cause, myself and Linden included, and even our little Staunton made a bit of a splash. Although I, like many women on campus, was not able to make the "walk about town" this evening, you can see pictures here on the website for this movement.

Although work with white paper and costuming gender in All's Well is an entirely separately conceived set of ideas, the political movement and the production we are working to produce have a lot in common.  Both projects are seeking to question standard ideas of who holds power. Both are concerned with the roles of women in taking action and having freedom over their stories and their choices. Both are using the color white as a signifier for women and women's bodies.

When a news reporter came to lunch to interview people wearing white he latched onto our project, and focused the news report of the Wear White project on All's Well instead. You can see the report here. While grateful for the airtime for our ideas, we hadn't meant to usurp the press coverage, and our project isn't about fighting for women's rights exactly, but the Wear White project certainly is. I hope the men and women who wore white today have raised awareness for the legislative issues at stake in our country today, and I hope that a little over a month, our production can raise some questions for our audiences to ponder and mull over for years to come.

If you're new to this blog you can check out this opening essay to find out what the All's Well production and the paper design is all about.

For more information about Wear White, visit their tumblr.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Knitting, Masculinity and the Value of Craftwork

The emergence of Etsy “the place to buy and sell things handmade” and other online communities have made people’s skill available to the world to purchase. You can sell your knitting, your altered t-shirts, your 1000 paper cranes, to someone who will want them. In some ways this seems like the best sort of mix of capitalism and patronage. People who want to own the handmade things pay the people who want to make the handmade things, and everyone ends up happier. However it is not possible for the economy of Etsy to be self-sustaining because it depends on undervalued labor. As Sara Mosle writes in her piece, “ Peddles a False Feminist Fantasy” the difference between younger women today and their work in handcrafts and their mothers and grandmothers, is that younger women want to “be recognized and compensated for their talents” (2).  There is no way to sell a knitted sweater on Etsy for a reasonable price given the cost of materials and the amount of time it takes to make it. As a result, hand-knitted sweaters become objects with a “priceless” worth. Worth so much that it is problematically valuable.

The problematic value of a handknit sweater plays into the most famous of all knitting urban legends, “the boyfriend sweater curse.” The story goes if you knit your boyfriend a sweater it will end your relationship, either by the process of knitting it, or by the boyfriend’s insufficient love of the sweater when finished. Books such as Judith Durant’s Never Knit Your Man a Sweater (Unless You've Got the Ring), organize their whole premise around the curse. Other publications mention the curse in their introductions. Guy Knits, a book of patterns for men to wear, bosts this introduction,

“Men who knit are still in the minority, but guys love knits--let's not neglect them. When we knit for a guy, it usually means that the knitter is not the wearer. So we need to understand what the guy is comfortable wearing.  Do this, and you needn't worry about that old boyfriend-sweater curse. As always, knit with love, but make sure that love is not blind.  After all, handknits should enhance, not complicate, a relationship.”

As a book full of patterns for men, the book assures the reader that these patterns are so excellent they are in no danger of the curse.

The introduction to Guy Knits also brings up an interesting question of gendered language. Although the introduction admits only a “minority” of male knitters, and that “usually “ they are not knitting for themselves, the author assumes that the reader, and therefore the knitter, is a woman. When publications do recognize the possibility of knitting men, the writers often congratulate those men for being man enough to knit with titles like Knitting with Balls. The tone of these congratulations often implies that knitting is something men need courage to undertake. Which is strange because although knitting is a female-dominated field, but it is also a powerless one, and one that men can enter if they happen to be interested in knitting, but they would have no other incentive to do so.

All of this is a big messy issue, but one which is close to my heart for several reasons. One is that my boyfriend is a knitter and a good one. He knits lace and cables, writes and designs his own patterns, he's even had a pattern he designed published in Interweave Knits, a widely recognized knitting magazine. When I tell people that my boyfriend knits most people are both very surprised and very impressed. I think people are impressed for two reasons: for one, I think people are impressed that he thinks something which is usually considered a female craft (at least at this point in history) is worth learning. They are impressed that he is interested in knitting as a craft, and interested enough to learn how to do it. The second reason people are impressed is because he knits astoundingly well. Not just because he chooses (or creates) really beautiful patterns, or because he uses very high quality materials, but he knits very evenly and carefully with an admirable attention to all the details of weaving in loose ends, and fixing all the mistakes he makes along the way. He doesn't just knit. He knits really well. And this is the reason I think all of our crafting is worthwhile. Even if none of us make money on Etsy. Even if Linden and I have spent hundreds of hours doing craftwork for All's Well, this work is important not just because our work has given value to those objects and costume pieces, but because our work has given value to ourselves. We have and are building some really exciting skills. Both of us have been learning a lot through the experience by learning new skills. We've both become much more creative and capable with paper as well as with fabric. Learning from Jenny McNee of the American Shakespeare Center has been lovely in part because she is a good teacher and a good sounding board for our ideas, but also because she is incredibly skilled. She knows how to make fabric do incredible things. I think that skill itself is a thing of value, worth learning, worth possessing in oneself and worth preserving for the future.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Writing and Sewing - Women's work then and now

In her beautiful work, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England, Susan Frye writes about the instabilities of gender constructions and how women in early modern England created much of their own identity as they worked with textiles and with text. Some of her book re-evaluates some of the misconceptions held by many today. She writes,

“The first misconception is that only women were associated with the needle and only men with the pen—a misconception held despite repeated attempts to complicate this binary by scholars as well as by early modern people themselves. The second misconception is that the needle was only associated with drudgery, while the pen was only associated with intellectual work.
To a certain extent the needle represented women’s obedience to a rigid insistence on sexual difference, but it is an unstable signifier and, as an object, it is small but phallic, penetrating as well as penetrable, conveying activity, even violence as well as creativity. The needle conveys the potential for active, thinking feminine, without precluding women’s use of the pen in paintings like Alice Barnham and her Sons Martin and Steven” (16).

She then discusses this remarkable painting and the stories it can tell about women's agency with a pen as well as with the more traditionally accepted needle, and it strikes me that this semester Linden and I are sewing and creating work with our hands, but also writing. We get to use these two expressions of feminized power together, to put on a play. And tonight as I'm typing up quotations for a social history paper, all this seems beautiful and serendipitous, and much like a gift.   

For more on the painting:

Monday, March 12, 2012

Some pop-up videos!

There are some wonderful resources on pop-up books available freely on YouTube. Here is a seven minute video by the Smithsonian Libraries in collaboration with their exhibit on movable books. It details the process of making a pop-up book. 

Here is a 53 minute lecture by David Carter which he gave at the Smithsonian Libraries, talking about his work in book making. Tidbits include his work on a giant book for an exhibit, his work teaching children about pop-ups, and a lovely question and answer session in which he talked about a pop-up ap for iphone.

And finally, if you'd like to get started yourself, a one and a half minute video on how to make a particularly stunning pop-up card.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Tell me, who is Helena?

The paper has arrived! Clara and I have been fortunate enough to receive of gift of good, sturdy fine art paper from which to build our pop-up book. Clara's father, who is an art professor, insisted that a project this artful should, indeed, be a work of art and therefore must be crafted out of quality materials--so he sent us a generous gift of beautiful, strong bristol board among other papers.

Serendipitously enough, the box the paper came in is the perfect size for crafting an overlarge pop-up book and Clara and I are already plotting ways to paint it white and make it the cover of our book. As Clara begins to construct prototypes of the four sets that will form the pop-up book (you will see the pictures scattered throughout this entry), I have begun to think about the ways in which the book and pop-ups and writing will feature in the production of the play itself.

In a meeting at the beginning of the semester, my thesis supervisor, Ralph Cohen, challenged me to make sure that the concept Clara and I had created for the design of the production was a part of the directing of the production as well. This was something I had already been considering--in the early stages of this process, Clara and I tossed around
various ideas: having characters quite literally be on book, reading their lines, characters performing the act of writing in significant moments in the play, and even--in a wild moment--burning the entire paper set as a statement about the ephemerality of theater (something we have reconsidered in the face of our tremendous hours of work and the quality of some of our materials).

As we have settled into our ideas somewhat, it has become the connection between gender identities and paper and writing that most interests me and will be at the center of what I do as the director of this production. We have been thinking of pop-ups as feminine--paper telling its own story--and written text as masculine--the phallic pen put to passive paper. And what originally drew me to this play was the way in which Helena both does
and does not write her own story. She has more soliloquies than most of Shakespeare's heroines--she is certainly trying to tell her own story in a way so few female characters get to. But at the same time, once she has married Bertram, she must play by his rules--she must fulfill the story he creates when he writes the letter.

So what we will be playing with as we begin rehearsals in a month, is this very idea. Who opens and closes the pop-up book? Who turns the pages? Who, in other words, is responsible for the development of the story? I have begun to think more and more about which characters might interact with the book--Helena, Bertram, the King--and how and when they might do so. I have also decided that Helena will, indeed, be literally on book for parts of the play. She will be reading her lines from a text that has been given to her, delivered in or with Bertram's letter. Part of what we will explore in rehearsal is when Helena is on book and when she is creating her own story.

One of the effects of this choice is that--as Ralph Cohen put it--the actress playing Helena, in this case, the lovely Amanda Noel Allen, must perform the act of reading. This offers a lot of potential--when is Helena surprised? Delighted? Disgusted? When does she laugh at what she says? When does she resist saying it? And, more intriguingly, who, then, is Helena? If she is not the words Shakespeare (and his editors) have given her, who is she? Is she Amanda herself? Me? Some sublime combination of the two of us? Or the three of us? Whose story do we end up telling? As we consider these questions, I leave you with an Oscar-winning animated short. It has a lot to say about the act of reading.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2011)