By Kelsey Block
The RCAH Center for Poetry was pleased to welcome Lesbian Feminist Playwright Carolyn Gage to East Lansing last week. During her visit, Gage visited several classes, conducted her workshop, “Interrupting Racism,” and gave performances of her work.
Gage, 61, said she has been performing since the 1980s. She described the year 1986 in particular as “an explosion of creativity.” In order to become an artist, she said that she had to know her own history to discover her voice and her vision, which she did that year.
“I recovered my memories and realized I was an incest survivor, and I also realized I was a lesbian and I realized I was an artist,” she said. “I was 32 years old. For me to realize all of those identities, I had to have reached a certain level of independence and maturity. That was a huge year for me. Everything was the same and everything was completely different.”
As a writer, Gage said she knew that she wanted to fill a gap in literature. She said she wanted to acknowledge the difficult aspects of her past that weren’t openly discussed.
“I wanted to tell the stories that would’ve really helped me as a young person,” Gage said. “If I had been exposed to survivor culture, and it is a culture, then I might have come to an understanding that that was my own story sooner.”
Gage said she uses her activism to drive her writing.
“I am on fire all the time,” Gage said. “I always know what’s next. I feel like my writing is about salvation, especially for survivors of incest. You can feel so alone, so stigmatized and so crazy, then you read something from a survivor and it can save your life.”
Gage said she gets a lot of satisfaction from being a playwright, even though she hadn’t always known she wanted to be a writer.
“Somebody said your major themes in life are set by age 5, and by age 5 I was wildly invested in dolls. I had a large collection of dolls and I told stories with them, which I realized was actually playwriting. I feel like very early on it sort of found me. And I would enact it like they were puppets or something,” Gage said of becoming a playwright. “I was writing stories where goodness prevailed, and order was always restored to the kingdom, so I think a thing that save my morality was that I could create alternate worlds where things really worked out the way they should. In the family, I was powerless, and it seemed like evil won every time. But [playwriting] satisfies you. Some part of the brain is like, ‘yes, that was a good day, I spent the afternoon in a right world.’”
Gage said she remembers the first publishing experience perfectly.
“It was a small women’s press. I’d just been writing for years and felt like nobody knew I existed. I felt like I was in a little lifeboat watching the big-liners go by, waving and yelling, and they’d just go by. I felt like I hadn’t been spotted,” she said. “Then my publisher called me up and said ‘Andrea Dworkin just endorsed your book.’ Dworkin is a huge activist and iconic feminist, so if you’d asked me who’s attention on the whole planet do you want to get, I would’ve said hers … I had been seen, somebody knew my coordinates, I was not drifting in the ocean anymore. Everything changed that day, which was just an amazing thing. Andrea wrote a wonderful endorsement of the book and said everything in my fantasy that I would’ve wanted. The impact I wanted to have, I’ve had, and it was just like, ‘ahh,’ this big aching, it was complete closure. It was great.”
As for her identity, Gage said that she’s proud of being a lesbian feminist playwright.
“I sort of scream that out loud,” she said. “To not have that puts me in with all the misogyny in the theater, so I think it’s one of those situations that, until the world changes, I will always lead with that. Because not to say it almost feels like there might be some chance someone feels like I’m closeted.”
Gage described experiencing discrimination in the publishing industry, and said that people would often do things that were “intentionally” cruel.
“In the first 10 or 15 years, there were no theaters that would touch a work with a lesbian theme or lesbian character, so to take myself seriously, I kept submitting work knowing that it would not be accepted. But I felt like not to submit was worse. I kept seating myself at the table and they kept asking me to leave. But I heard myself say ‘I belong here,’ and I did that for years and years and years. It was wearing, and the work was often treated very disrespectfully.
“They were like, ‘you can come into this party if you crawl, and you can sit at the table but you have to sit on the floor,’ and I’d have to say, ‘well I guess I’m not going to your party,’ and you feel crazy. That kind of thing was enraging, but you can’t go there because it will make you crazy. It was just hard,” Gage said. “A major drama press offered me a book contract, and I read it and it was so unprofessional I couldn’t sign it. This was the biggest drama press in the US, they sent real contracts to people, but they sent me the lesbian contract. To me it was a cruel joke … I’ve never talked to anybody that had a contract like that; it’s just things like that where you’re like, ‘am I crazy?’”
To combat this feeling, Gage said she went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to vent about her experiences.
“I would find appropriate places to go and tell, but it was frustrating,” she said. “It was hard not to get bitter. For 15 years I put myself places that I knew there was no hope of being accepted, but you do it for your own sanity. ‘I’m sending it in,’ and I think that helped me keep going. It required a massive amount of denial but it kept me going. I knew I was in it for the long haul.”
Gage’s performance on Wednesday night included excerpts from several of her one woman shows.
“The one-woman show is economic necessity, because nobody’s producing my work. A lot of lesbian theater is one woman shows, because that’s the level of resources in my community at this time.”
As for performing one-woman shows, Gage said that the burden of memorizing makes it different from other types of theater.
“If you’re out there with other actors, they’ll save your bacon, but you’re out there by yourself and you just stand there, and 20 years go by. And it’s just you and it’s all on you. That’s a lot of pressure,” she said.
While she was here, Gage also conducted her “Interrupting Racism” workshop, which she has been putting on for 20 years.
“I think it was just because I write dialogue, and to me it’s always interesting to shift a scene. You’re basically interrupting and derailing a scene, and I know how to do that because I’m a playwright,” Gage said. “Suddenly people are wanting it. As the workplace has become more diverse, I think people are more comfortable talking about racism, I think we’re just more ready to deal with it. We’re all understanding now we have to change, and people are wanting to step up.”
In closing, Gage offered up some advice for beginning artists.
“I also encourage people starting out in the arts to learn what settling feels like and to know not to do it. I see a lot of people sidetrack into something that pays better. It’s seductive to settle, you’re often paid far better for settling than not,” Gage said. “Being an artist is a calling and a sacred fire, you have to look for it. You follow the light, don’t waste your time where the light isn’t, you have to follow your own light.”