Women of the Arts 2019: Laura Sisskin Fernández is winning at “the poles”

The one-person show has become a staple of the independent theater skyline. They began as star-vehicles and are now tour-de-forces for emerging artists allowing the audience to have a “theatrical conversation” on an untold variety of topics.

Laura Sisskin Fernández won great acclaim a season or so ago with this fascinating exploration of a woman who – in order to heal from a traumatic sexual experience – takes [of all things] a pole-dancing class. Peppering this intense subject with humorous moments in dialogue plus music, she created “You Hold a Pole Everyday” written and performed by Fernández and directed by Laura Murphy. “Pole” takes us inside a pole dancing studio, where after a traumatizing experience,  a barista cautiously seeks connection with her own physical power but reluctantly finds herself learning the moves alongside her Spanish Mother and Grandmother.

Part of the Women’s Work Theatre Festival, Fernández revives this fascinating piece for a new audience. Tickets are on sale at https://www.laurasf.com/you-hold-a-pole-everyday

We were happy to speak with Laura Sisskin Fernández briefly before a rehearsal.

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Tell us about yourself.

My name is Laura Sisskin Fernandez. I’m a New York City based actor and singer/songwriter and first generation American on my mother’s side. 

I took a wonderful solo writing workshop led by Pat Shay and Mary Theresa Archbold about 4 years ago. To help us find our topics, we were given the prompt “What’s your worst fear?” I put dancing in the middle of a dance circle. The next question was, “How can you amp that fear up?” I wrote pole dancing.  I think being a bit more politically aware now, I have worse fears, but after my like 8th time giving up on this piece, I decided to stick to this original idea, when the #metoo movement came about. It really gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own experiences and how afraid I was to use my own voice. So I wrote this solo show to really figure out, as someone who avoids confrontation like the plague, what I would say if I wasn’t “nice.” 

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What inspired you to create this piece?  

I wrote a version for Planet Connections Theatre Festivity last summer in 6 weeks. I had the idea of taking a pole dancing class after going through a traumatic sexual experience. I knew I wanted to incorporate some original songs, since I was spending more time playing music at the time and also saw writing this solo show as a way to get back into acting. Really, it was all over the place. I had an idea for the lead character’s journey and thought, okay what dialects can i sort of pull off. And that’s how I came up with the other classmates, who had their own experiences or 2 cents to chip in in support of the heroine’s journey. I think creatively it was fulfilling in that I got to play different characters, sing, and sound design for the show. But I knew I wasn’t really saying what needed to be said. I was still dancing around it (pun not intended, ugh). One friend said, why don’t you just have your character take the class with her mother and grandmother. So I rewrote it and did just that. It’s a lot more personal, it’s a lot more Spanish, which means it’s intense but equally hilarious (hopefully). And it says exactly what I didn’t know how to articulate the first time around. Working with my director, Laura Murphy, who is also one of my closest friends was invaluable. There were a lot of revisions being made, because once on its feet impulses changed. The questions, “What are you really trying to say?” “What is this moment really about?” came up a lot. We found ways to get to the point faster and more deliberately. We found the rawness in simplicity.

What is it like being a woman in the arts … in NY … in the 21st century? 

I’m finding that a lot of women in the arts are taking their careers into their own hands more and more. Producing, writing, directing…whether it be a solo show or a web series or a feature film. I feel like I’m constantly surrounded by women or hearing about women who are really going for it. There really isn’t a need to wait anymore. The most powerful pieces I’ve seen recently have come from female playwrights. It feels like to me women are finally starting to be taken seriously and people are finally interested in women’s stories/perspectives, women’s issues, the woman’s experience which has a lot more nuance and color than we’ve seen coming from a male dominated scene. 

Who do you feel is the “audience” for this piece?

The audience for this piece is feminists. Period. I received feedback that men were able to relate to the play, not only women which was beautiful in a really heartbreaking way. And I’d say it’s for mature audiences since it deals with #metoo themes. 

What’s next?

Continuing to work with amazing women creating their own work! I’m part of a sketch comedy group, (currently without name) and we’ll be performing at Under St Marks on August 2nd at 7pm in “Class and Crass: A Sketchy Show” hosted by Classy Cassie. I’ll also be acting in an incredibly moving piece, Still, Birth, written by Coley Campany and Robyne Parrish, that deals with the effects of pregnancy loss. It will be playing in two different theater festivals, Rogue Theater Festival in August and DREAM UP FEST in the fall.  I have a couple opportunities to perform You Hold a Pole Everyday in other cities on the east and west coast, so looking into doing a tour as well!

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Women of the Arts 2019: Sarah Elisabeth Brown … Represent!

Sarah Elisabeth Brown remembers when.

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Her retrospective anthology, Lovebird Jamboree, premieres next week at the veneable Fresh Fruit Festival. Simply put, one of NY’s leading LGBTQ arts hubs. Lovebird Jamboree
The Wild Project
195 East 3rd Street, NYC
Running Tues. 7/9  8:30 pm; Fri. 7/12  9:00 pm; Sat. 7/13  2:00 pm
web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/527

Brown has provided us with existence-validating stories of love from “back-in-the-day.” 

 

As the recent century turned, gay marriage was still a dream and there were those out there fighting for equality and simply the right to love. Author Brown met with more than a dozen individuals, heard their stories, compared the similarities, took-in the differences, and emerged with an eight-character “chorus line” of journeys about just finding that special person. Based on her series of interviews from people in the LGBTQI community – gym junkies, sex workers, academics, softball jocks, and wannabe Jell-O salad aficionados, etc. – all get their say in this heartfelt, funny set of monologues.

12241600_10206644812776378_2517362858927292169_nSupported by the Santa Fe Community Foundation, Lovebird Jamboree strides into NYC sharing how far we’ve come and far we still have yet to go.

Sarah Elisabeth Brown asked questions, wrote answers, which should rise many discussions. We staretd by meeting with her about her process.

 

 

 

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I am a product of a 70s alternative education. I remember writing the script for Annie in sixth grade by taking the synopsis off the back of the record album (yes, vinyl) and writing the scenes to fill it in from there. Theater has always been a serious part of my life. In high school, I attended North Carolina School of the Arts and graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan, otherwise known as “Fame in the Woods.” Afterwards, instead of going the path of a conservatory like most of my friends, I set out for the “real world” by way of Chicago with a theater company called Theater Oobleck, a company that wrote all their own work. When I expressed that I wanted to play more substantial roles, one of the writers sat me down and said, “Write your own play and we’ll do it.” I wrote my first short play for Theater Oobleck, then I went on to Hampshire College where I developed my degree, “Playwrighting: An Off-The-Desk Approach.” I used movement, improv, Theater of Images, and traditional playwrighting approaches to develop my own style of playwrighting. Afterwards, I created performances for Luna Sea, BUILD, Bearded Lady, and Theater Rhinoceros in San Francisco. Then later in New Mexico at the Santa Fe Playhouse and at Theaterwork. The last decade I’ve have spent writing and working in New York City participating with Workshop Theater, New York Women in Film and Television, and the Jacob Krueger Studio. 

What inspired you to take on such an undertaking?  

At the time, I was operating as the Playwright-in-Residence at a theater company called, Theaterwork in Santa Fe, New Mexico, run by a man named David Olsen. David had been mentoring me for several years on developing a story-collecting project called, “Spirit Club: Stories of Mental Discomfort and Healing,” which I developed as part of my role as a mental health advocate. That project was built from sixty interviews done with people who’d been diagnosed with serious mental health issues on the key stories in their lives. The Santa Fe Community Foundation had partially funded Spirit Club. They had been very happy with the project so when they put out a call for projects that helped build and empower the LGBTQ Community, our application to do another story collecting project was approved. This time, I took most of the interviews from my friends and people in the community that I knew. This time the interviews were about the key love stories of their lives, which was great fun. 

In terms of that, once the idea is there, how do you write … what’s the creative process?

For awhile, I hoped that the interviews would lead to a storyline that I would then make into a traditional play with dialogue and a plot. At some point, it dawned on me that there was an elegance and simplicity to the stories themselves, plus because of the grant, we were on a tight timeline, so I began the work of honing the individual stories themselves as individual entities. Of the eight stories told in Lovebird Jamboree, there are some that are simply edited versions of what people told me in their interviews. Others are composites from several interviews that seemed to fit together and fill each other out. Still others were given fictional structures that accentuated the humor inherent in the piece, such as in Jell-O Salad and Game Time. 

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Steeped in reality like this, what realizations or epiphanies (if any) did it give to you?

There will always be a part of me that will envy trans men for their courage to step so fully into the masculine. Even though I’ve settled into a more feminine version of myself these days, I take a certain freedom and permission from them to explore my own boi side. I think this has helped me achieve more of a balance within my particular blend of masculine and feminine. Having come up queer or what I suppose would be called “pansexual” now, there were always trans people in my life, my community, and sometimes in my bed. However, having the intimate structure of the story collecting project, gave me access to a confessional side of things. I remember being particularly fascinated by the stories of trans men talking about being woman-born and the differences between their heterosexual experiences versus their lesbian ones, and then experiencing gay male type relationships as a man. I resonate with the idea of being a shape-shifter and have felt very fluid in both my gender and my sexuality, so these descriptions of one being experiencing all these kinds of relationships feels liberating and fascinating to me. 

Who do you feel is the “audience” for this piece? 

When I wrote it, the people who gave their stories came over and over again and there was a beautiful interplay between the actors and the people they played. Certainly, this is a play of celebration of untold love stories in the LGBTQ community. I’m hoping that now, twenty years later, the audience has expanded. Back then, you could never have a presidential candidate like Pete Buttigieg. Gay Marriage wasn’t even on the agenda. People thought it was too soon, too early, and that the world wasn’t ready. It was a different era. We weren’t trying to fit in as much as we were trying to create something different in relationships. Now that LGBTQ rights are much more broadly discussed in wider progressive politics, I think this is a good piece to come to for people in place of acceptance, who’d like to be brought deeper in. People who’d like a more intimate peak into lives of people who may be different from them. I can see this piece being a good educational experience for college age people.

What’s next?

I have a showcase of short plays coming up here in the city later this year.