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Friday, January 27, 2012

Body Awareness Director Talks About Evolving Families, Asperger's, and Yes, Body Image

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2012 at 1:00 PM

Visiting photographer Frank (Howard Swain) takes shots of Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) in Body Awareness. - DAVID ALLEN
  • David Allen
  • Visiting photographer Frank (Howard Swain) takes shots of Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen) in Body Awareness.

In the Aurora Theatre's upcoming comedy Body Awareness, a male photographer of female nudes is a guest artist during Body Awareness Week at a small college in Vermont. He stays with the professor who has organized the event, as well as the professor's partner and the partner's son, who may have Asperger's syndrome.

The play, written by Obie Award-winning playwright Annie Baker and directed by Joy Carlin, is a production in the Global Age Project (GAP), an Aurora Theatre Company initiative that "encourages playwrights and directors to explore life in the 21st century and beyond." The play is in previews starting tonight (Jan. 27), and it opens Feb. 2.

Director Joy Carlin has been an actress, director, and teacher in the Bay Area since 1969. We talked with her about what the play has in common with the movie The Kids Are All Right, how families are evolving, and academic humor.

This play is part of the Global Awareness Project about life in the 21st century. How does it fit into that?

It's about the way families are evolving from what we think of as conventional -- mom, a dad, and two and a half kids. In this play it's two moms and a kid. And then the child, the 21-year-old child of one of the partners, seems to have Asperger's syndrome, and that's another issue that seems to be increasing as we go forward. The number has grown so significantly. I think those are two big issues.

Then the guest photographer comes to stay with them for a week and throws another issue at them. It's been dealt with before in that wonderful movie Annette Benning was in, The Kids Are All Right, about a man coming into a lesbian relationship and sort of stoking old fires.

Why the title, Body Awareness?

The play takes place over the course of five days, Monday through Friday, and that is the week that one of the main characters in the play has called Body Awareness Week at the small college where she teaches. She's a feminist, and she wants to bring attention to how people are self-conscious and they shouldn't be. And it so happens that it's the same week as national Eating Disorders Awareness Week and she says, "Well, we've chosen to call it Body Awareness Week."

She's brought guests in to the college to give talks -- singers and psychiatrists, and one guest is this photographer who happens to be famous for taking photos of nude women, and he's staying at their house because I guess there aren't that many hotels in Shirley, Vermont. He goes around to colleges with this exhibit, and he feels by letting women pose nude for him, it gives them a stronger sense of themselves, that they re-own their bodies. Phyllis, the character who has created Body Awareness Week, is horrified by this, and then her partner is rather intrigued by the idea.

What's interesting is that these people are very deep and complex, and the woman who's intrigued by this and tempted to do it herself, Joyce, she has issues about herself and her body. These are all subtextual things we've dug out of the script. These are terrific actors. I've had this cast together for almost a year. Once we knew we were going to do it, we just cast it.

Besides these two characters, there's the son who's kind of a genius, but he can't relate to people. He's awfully prickly. Then there's the photographer, and you don't know what his intentions are, he could be and probably is, a real creep.

This is a comedy. Where does the humor come from?

Like any good play, the humor comes out of the characters and also the situation -- a lesbian couple's life is turned upside down by the presence of a visiting photographer. And they are too -- in a serious and comic way. That's the other good thing -- it's comically serious. The dialogue is extremely well written, and that's what you're laughing at too. It's a witty and deeply truthful play about modern life.

What are you most enjoying about directing this?

These actors -- they bring so much to it. We all know about Asperger's now and photographers like this one and small college towns. I really like the play -- it covers a lot of material in a quick, funny hour and a half, and we've been able to work very well on small details -- we've had a lot of time to do that.

I've brought in designers Kent Dorsey and Christine Dougherty. I worked with them a lot at A.C.T. in years past. It's a happy team over there.

The playwright is very interesting -- she's just sort of blossomed out with three plays that are being done all over the United States, this one and The Aliens and Circle Mirror Transformation. She's young and she's familiar with this territory because her mother was a professor at Amherst or something -- she was brought up on a small campus. So there's a lot of academic humor.

Body Awareness continues through March 4 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $30-$55.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Emily Wilson

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