"Heroines" - A New Devised Performance Piece

Alex Chester

OnStage New York Columnist

Immersive, feminist, experimental and borderline Theatre of the Cruel is all words to describe “Heroines”, a new piece conceived/Directed by Lana Burns. Recently featured at the New Women’s Space in Brooklyn.

Showcasing four women, you are taken downstairs into a basement and are made to stand within the lit circle for the duration of the performance. We follow three women and their journey’s as women. It is by no means comfortable.  It is, in fact, uncomfortable which is the point. To be made to feel like a woman. You are immersed in their stories and their heartaches. Each actress is portraying a notable goddess or women that are known as a historic figure. After the show, I got to chat with these awesome chicks.

  • Lana Burns - Pen/founder/director
  • Syrissa Maria - Perse/devisor
  • Emily Shanny - Helen/devisor
  • Mary Harmer - Agava/devisor

Alex: So I guess my question for you ladies, is what inspired you to create this piece?

Mary: I’m gonna be real and say that I just got an email, that was like a nothing email from another theatre, that was from Lana that said if you want to make some experimental, feminist, art just forward it to my inbox, and I was like “Fuck Yeah!” I want to do that. So I emailed and came to rehearsals one day and that was it. And that’s how it started happening. And Lana had some preconceived ideas of what we were gonna do, to do with the goddesses that you see in the program: Agava, Persephone, Penelope, and Helena. And we started working with those and writing monologues, and it just kinda fell from there.

Alex: Awesome. Did you guys take your own experiences and implement them...

Mary: Yes, before you even finish that question, yes.

Lana: And so basically everything in there (the piece) is pretty much verbatim, and our stuff, some of our stuff our friends had read about online, that other people had heard... all the cat calls and stuff... actually one of the ones, the really creepy one, “here pussy, pussy” is actually something my mum told me about. And she hates that word to this day.

Emily:  And we’re inspired throughout the day-um, every morning of the performances, I’ll go and I’ll hear something throughout my day. I was standing outside and I heard this guy cat call me outside of a 99 Cent pizza place and he said: “why don’t you gives us a smile?” All of a sudden I put that into one of the scenes.

Mary: I wrote my monologue the day after election day. That was about... I was drawing from Agava and um she lives in the dictatorship of Dionysius, and it just felt really true of our experience now, and that’s kinda what we kept discovering is that um, the same problems applied throughout history for women, it just took different forms. And so it was kinda easy to find material...cause... it’s a pretty fucking messed up world we live in.

Lana: Yes.

Syrissa: Yes. And we even said when we started devising it, and it’s funny because we start off with characters and just building what kind of a character and seeing how we feel, like how we move in it, and we like relate to that character. And then all of a sudden we just started blending in things that we’ve actually experienced, so it was one of those, yeah it was almost cathartic, like she said it was just things you were going through now and they’re so relatable.

Mary: A lot of it too was once you tuned yourself to what was happening, you couldn’t not see it.  Like during this performance even, everyday found myself getting like pissed about stuff cause I’m like “Goddamn” cause I was so sensitive to it, just like reading this and saying this every day. Um which is hard, but it’s real and we should pay attention and do something about it.

Emily: And we all picked our characters out of um, a hat, and so they were very well-suited for us.

Mary: Yeah, which was just coincidence on so many levels.

Sryissa - but that is what I guess is so awesome is because all of those characters almost represent, like any other book or movie you’ve seen, they all represent someone you know. It’s like even you can’t personally feel one...

Mary: And it’s like the same, every piece of art that you make, particularly theater, is you. Even if you make another part, it’s all you.

Alex: I agree with that.

Syrissa: And that was everyone’s feedback. It was almost so true, that that’s why it was kinda funny, that we were laughing.

Group: Like the subway scene... the subway scene... it happened to me... yeah, it happens all the time... I’ve had it happen... yeah, all the time... It’s creepy.

Alex: So what’s the next step for this project?

Mary: We are working towards creating a collective.

Lana: So with this, I’ve been wanting to form a collective for a long time...and like I guess I kinda found like my opportunity here... cause it’s a new space and I can reach out and find completely eclectic bunch of people. Which ended up happening,  just because I put posters and like at Blue Stockings...

Emily: I found out through a bookstore called Blue Stockings.

Lana: I messaged Syrissa through a friend of mine, um and yeah so did that, and essentially I’m a big fan of classical studies, which is why we got the goddesses. But I always like wanted to have chorus work, and I feel like, women especially... women push chorus work, which is something so phenomenal to me, and have you ever seen anything by Pina Bausch? She does this like really amazing...and I can’t remember it, like a dance or something, and there’s this whole bunch of women who are standing on this dirt stage, and they are wearing... I think at the beginning they are wearing white dresses, but it’s just like a very powerful dance, where they like... seems to me when I go on a bit, and this might be a wrong reading, but maybe with art, there’s no wrong reading. I felt that it was kinda about violent... I think it was “rite of spring”, anyway, um I felt there was a violence towards themselves, and I feel like there’s so much ummm behind it. And in another instance, um,  which really inspired me was, I was...in high school, I did a “Women of Troy” and there’s like these really beautiful moments where we work as a chorus, Have you ever heard of “Woman of Troy”?

Alex: Yes

Lana: It’s powerful...

Alex: Yes

Lana: It’s so strong! And so I remember doing this, and I remember like all this kind of energy that I got from these other women... and like this empathy of wealth of these characters. So it was like real, it was strong, and I felt with a chorus of women, and what you can do with it, and I hope to expand this...you know these...each of these...everyone who has been involved along the way, who’ve, who’ve jumped in for devising for a few like months or... who have jumped out, have all given so much energy. And I just... I... on a monumental, I just would love to see that expand. So... yeah...

Alex: Definitely

Lana: So hopefully if I can remain here, I would like it to get bigger and continue on. Maybe more devising... I got tidbits of writing on my computer... which are all female based again... So...be interesting to enter it in for a group.

Alex: It’s nice to see an all female company.

Lana: Yes, for sure.

Syrissa: It’s nice to work with people who actually understand where you are coming from I think, and have that idea of open-minded feminism, almost where it’s like we can all collaborate and we feed off each other.

Mary: And we’ve had fights though, and they’re respectful fights...it’s a space like we are... and we are automatically safe... you can automatically like trust, that you can like express yourself and that’s what we want to try and like... gather people...and collect them... so we can have more of that existing.

Emily: The most important thing for me that I want to give away with the show is to open a dialogue, with the people who come to the show. If it’s a dialogue with cast members, great!

More importantly, if it’s a dialogue with our community, is it a dialogue with the other people who came to see the show, is it a dialogue with somebody who didn’t see the show?

Syrissa: And yeah, she’s right. And that’s all we really want to do, and especially when people are like “Oh can like my boyfriend come? or can men come?”  The point is that no one is shaming anyone, the point is this is the world we are live in. Let’s do the right thing.

Mary: We even had an experience last night where we felt a very masculine energy in the room, and we hadn’t had that before and we almost felt like challenged, and a couple of us particularly felt really challenged by that... um... that maybe they weren’t really receptive to it in the same way as the other people in the room, it was a totally different vibe...and rather than going like well that’s really messed up, or what kind of dick heads, we were like thinking that’s who we want to talk to, because they’re the people that really need to hear it, and if we all gather and agree how do we make change? It’s like we all just live in a beautiful little sanctuary, which really isn’t reality.

Emily: One of the most important parts is that every night is different. Who comes, what is the energy like in the room? How are we received? How are we perceiving? And what happened to us throughout the day that we wanted to improv into it. So every night its different, and one night isn’t better than the other, they’re just completely different shows.

Mary: And that’s the cool thing about doing something interactive, and this level of intimacy, and also like things that get fucked up ever time, there’s flaws, and it’s just excepting that like that is what theatre is... Last night our loop thing didn’t work, and we were like ahhh, and we just, you just jump in and fix it’s because that’s like what it’s about. Like liveness, and reading the room.

Lana: That’s theatre in a nutshell. Especially devised theatre, I feel like again, that’s a strength. As much as I love traditionally scripted things, I have... I guess... again, this is my first properly like group devised piece, so it’s very fresh to me. But it’s so much fun because every night, again, it’s different. The scenes, like the cat call scene, or the uncomfortable questions... we improv it every time. So we’ve kinda trained each other to like... to respond.

Mary: It’s different from any fourth wall theatre. Where you walk into the room and it’s dark and the action happens up there, and you could be asleep for all they know, and nothings expected of you. There is an expectation that you’re gonna have some kind of reaction, and we are gonna be able to see it very clearly, and read it and try and figure out what to do with it. And I think that was like a very good purposeful choice that we made to do it this way.

Lana: From the get go I had a ban on chairs. I didn’t tell them this until we were later in the devising process, but I... I like... I did not  stray too far into the theatre of the cruel, which this definitely does stray into sometimes.

Alex: Mmhm

Lana: But like, it’s so much more fun, I feel like when you don’t have the traditional sitting, and you’re just like kinda immediately prompting the audience for something different or to prompt them to respond and like, I guess in a more active way I feel like, I mean as an audience member personally I adore prompting, because it gives me a chance to get involved with it. I guess it’s the performer in me speaking out on anything else. From the get go, I wanted to do chorus work, if there’s a whole bunch of us we can be all over the place interacting. You know like, there was a point... there was one night where we had the equivalent of performers to the equivalent of audience members, which was certainly interesting, to say the least.

Alex: I can imagine.

Lana: Yeah.

Emily: Yeah, yeah but it was kinda cool.

Syrissa: The dynamic was so weird, but like in a good way. Like in a good way and it was so powerful and afterwards they were just like... they had so many questions and we just sat there. Like we literally just stood on the stools still, the show was over, and we just talked about it. And it was cool to hear that they understood everything we were trying to get... you know our message. But I feel like in this show, as well moving forward, we are looking for people who would be interested in collaborating. The best part is about this is that no one is out of this, as long as you are a woman and you have a voice like that’s amazing.

Emily: And what was so intense as well, cause there was almost a sense of urgency when we were making it, like very active conversation constantly, and like everyone always has ideas cause you never run out of stimulus for this... and then people who have connected have also been like... because they have their own experience that hasn’t been like tapped into like this before, they’ve never seen anything, they’ve never related to as much or... um... that kind of thing which is... scary but cool, that it’s like that we can make that happen I guess.

Alex: Awesome! Thank you, ladies.  

I hope as these women continue on with this project, more women of color will become involved. I think the more diverse and inclusive the more powerful their message will be. They will be able to reach an even broader audience. This really is an awesome concept and I hope to see it grow into something bigger. We more than ever, need art like this. We need women to rise up and tell their stories.