It was interesting talking to the directors of theatres outside New York City who asked us how they could possibly sell a play with the “F” word in it. We reminded them that over half their audiences were women, that our shows actively engage the audience by making them laugh first and think second and that men and women crave theatre that boldly stands outside the sterotypical idea of what theatre by feminists looks like. – Guerrilla Girls on Tour!
Odds are if you haven’t heard of Guerrilla Girls (in any of its forms), you’ve probably seen some of their posters or other forms of artwork. This anonymous group of feminist artists has been active since 1985 (and has remained anonymous to this day). Through their unique forms of culture-jamming, they have strived to critique and expose discrimination across mediums, all while wearing gorilla masks.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to ask a couple questions to Aphra Behn of Guerrilla Girls on Tour!
Kyle: What is the Guerrilla Girls on Tour! mission statement and how has this changed over the years?
Aphra Behn: The Guerrilla Girls, founded in 1985, split into three new and independent groups in 2001. Those new groups are Guerrilla Girls On Tour!, Guerrilla Girls BroadBand and Guerrilla Girls, Inc. When I joined the original group in the mid 90’s it was a grass roots organization whose mission was to end sexism and discrimination against women and people of color. Since I was a theatre artist I started Guerrilla Girl theatre actions. We fought sexism in the theatre world with sticker campaigns against theatres not producing any plays by women, fax blitzes and full-out protests of Broadway’s TONY awards to show that no women won TONY’s because no women worked on Broadway. There were/are so many different kinds of discrimination in the arts that we split to follow new frontiers in feminist activism. Guerrilla Girls On Tour! is also known as the “theatre girls”. We are an anonymous touring theatre company of 26 women trained in a variety of comedic theatre techniques who develop unique and outrageous activist plays, performance art and street theatre. We’ve presented over 200 performances and workshops around the world addressing reproductive rights, war, sex trafficking, hunger, herstory/history/hirstory and violence against women.
Kyle: You use pseudonyms of the names of dead female artists. How do you decide which names to use? For instance, why did you choose Aphra Behn?
Aphra Behn: Aphra Behn was a Restoration dramatist and the first woman to make a living as a writer in England. She also served as a spy for the government of Charles II, so she seemed to be the perfect Guerrilla Girl name. Each member is allowed to choose their own name and the name you pick must be someone whose spirit and herstory you want to carry with you into your activist work. Forgotten women of history are kept alive in this way by Guerrilla Girls On Tour! because we talk about who “we” are wherever we go. We have well known members like Julia Child and Anne Sexton and not so well known members like Edna Lewis and Lupe Velez.
Kyle: I understand the concept of wearing the mask to show power through anonymity… the idea that anyone could be a Guerrilla Girl, but what made you choose the gorilla animal specifically?
Aphra Behn: When I joined the group I was told that when the first press conference of the Guerrilla Girls was held one member was sent out to get some guerrilla disguises. She was a very bad speller and instead came back with gorilla masks. It was funny and it seemed to fit.
Kyle: The ‘Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?‘ piece is probably one of the most well known of the original Guerrilla Girls campaigns. Since the poster first came out, have things gotten any better?
Aphra Behn: Yes and no. For women in theatre it certainly has not gotten any better. We have stats that show that in 1908 less than 12% of all plays on Broadway were written by women and that in 2008 the stats were pretty much the same. There was a fantastic study done by Emily Glassberg Sands of Princeton University entitled: Opening the Curtain of Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theatre. This study concludes that “Female-written plays are perceived by artistic directors and literary managers to be of lower overall quality, to have poorer economic prospects, and to face worker discrimination.” Wow! What we have been saying all along is confirmed by a detailed study! You can view the entire study here.
Kyle: Your take on Kathryn Bigelow winning the academy award?
Aphra Behn: Guerrilla Girls On Tour! continues the Guerrilla Girls tradition of making posters and our latest one mentions that zero women have won Oscars for directing. Since Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar right after we created that poster we take complete and full credit for her win.
Kyle: You started in 1985… do you have anything special planned for your 25th anniversary?
Aphra Behn: As stated above the original Guerrilla Girls group existed for just over 15 years. As for our upcoming ten year anniversary we’ve created a brand new play – “If You Can Stand the Heat: The History of Women and Food”. – an energetic romp through humorous historical moments in the lives and works of world renowned master chef Julia Child, acclaimed food writer M.F.K. Fisher, and the grand dame of southern cooking Edna Lewis. We address women’s consistent anxiety around food and the body and investigate what responsibilities we have as surplus-food American citizens to the under-nourished nations in our global community. The show is a hilarious, flour-dusted, theatrically surprising stage conversation meant to dissolve fears of food borne from obliviousness and encourage freedom of the fork. Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody got a pie in the face.
Kyle: Does GGontour have anything planned for/against the healthcare bill?
Aphra Behn: We support the bill but recognize that it has many flaws and is not strong re women’s reproductive rights. See our poster entitled “Desperate Housewives”.
Kyle: What other projects are you currently working on?
Aphra Behn: We are hosting our 3rd annual GUERRILLA GALa – a networking event for women in theatre in the New York City area on April 28th. We’re organizing another protest of the Tony Awards in June. We’re planning a tour to Slovenia, Italy and Germany in the fall. And we just received the 2010 Yoko Ono Courage for the Arts Award. If anyone wants more info they can visit our web site www.ggontour.com or follow us on twitter at www.twitter.com/GuerrillaGsOT
Kyle: What needs to change in order for the Guerrilla Girls to remove their masks?
Aphra Behn: The end of discrimination. (sigh) These masks are not very comfortable. I look forward to that day! Go bananas!
To watch the Guerrilla Girls on Tour! trailer, click here.