For the characters in Dirty Laundry, a devised, physical theater piece premiering Thursday, Aug. 9 at the Exit, cleaning the clothes is a high-stakes chore. As performer Emlyn Guiney puts it, "If you don't get your clothes in this cycle, you might not get home for dinner on time," and thus you might get hit by your husband. Moral of the story: Don't let those linens touch the ground.
A co-production by Inkblot Ensemble and The Collaboratory, Dirty Laundry is inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca's play Yerma, which is about a woman desperate to have a child with her unwilling husband. But Yerma's title character never appears in Dirty Laundry. "We didn't want to have a Yerma," says Guiney; such a choice might have disrupted the non-hierarchical nature of their artistic process. Instead, the group focuses exclusively on a scene in the Lorca play in which six laundresses gossip about Yerma's fate. The central question of the piece, according to director Amy Clare Tasker, is "How does gossip create and destroy communities?"
Much of the group's process has been about making "Laundresses 1 - 6" into full-fledged characters. Performer Erin Maxon sees Lorca's characters as "blank canvases on which we make our own arc." In crafting a scene, the ensemble starts with what Guiney calls "the meat of Lorca's words, the juiciness of his writing." Then through a series of movement exercises, many of them inspired by the practice of SITI Company's Anne Bogart, they explore who their characters are, rearranging and changing the text to serve the characters and also shaping the characters to serve the text.
All six laundresses have a distinct relationship to each other and to gossip. Performer Hannah Gaff says gossip satisfies the characters' "need to believe in the same thing." It also, according to performer Maria Leigh, lets women "share information that's vital," even to their survival. Communal laundering is not just characters' only news source; it also might be the only time they get to interact with non-family members. But at the same time, gossip, with its capacity to attack, divides. "If more than one person starts to feel isolated," says Guiney, the whole community "explodes." This back and forth defines the narrative of the half-hour piece.
In rehearsal, director Tasker functions less as the decider and more as an outside eye, letting the ensemble know how their ideas look and offering some guidance but ceding ultimate power to the collective. It's too rare, says Guiney, that Bay Area actresses get any real say over their artistic product -- if there are even enough roles for them at all. In the Bay Area, she says, "the female acting pool is hugely talented but also marginalized." The artists behind Dirty Laundry thus see their method as a small but significant corrective to a gender imbalance in the power structure in Bay Area theater.
Their aesthetic is minimal. The characters, says Maxon, all wear "layers, long skirts, and shawls, and everyone's got her color that means something" -- one woman in blue, another all in red. As for scenery, "we have sheets, metal wash-buckets, and that's it," says Maxon, "but we use them in a variety of ways." Indeed, in a recent rehearsal, a sheet was the vehicle for a prank, a security blanket to stroke longingly during a romantic daydream, and a proxy for an infant -- all in about 90 seconds. So strong was the performers' conviction that each transition felt momentarily like a violation: Everyone in the theater winced when the sheet baby got wrung out, even though we'd only been imagining it for a few seconds.
The ensemble believes it's crucial to explore gossip in an age of Facebook and tabloids. Social media, says Maxon, "creates a false sense of community" when the real community is in peril.
But community is thriving in this ensemble. "It's women working in the play," says Leigh, "and it's women working on this show," which creates a palpable bond amongst the ensemble. And Dirty Laundry has gone far beyond gender in its creation of community. "People have a lot of really strong feelings about laundry," says Guiney, so much so that the group has been getting phone calls from people dying to tell their laundry stories. Maxon, for one, is not surprised that laundry creates ties that bind. "It's dirty," she says, "but everyone does it."