On becoming a student again: ten days at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India (Part Two)

Note: Last Thursday, I published the first part of a post detailing my experiences at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, on the south-western tip of India. This post continues with the story of what I learned as a student – and not a very high-achieving one! – while at the ashram. If you haven’t yet had the chance to read the first post (or to look at the great photos!), please click here.

Like many of my peers in the academic labour force I do the job I do because I was naturally good at school and enjoyed it; I got a lot of As and didn’t really have to try that hard. Worse still, I had little sympathy for the dullards who didn’t get it. Though of course I try extremely hard not to be such a jerk now that I am a teacher, the fact is that I do not properly understand, in my bones or in my brain, what it feels like not to be an ace achiever, and research on young students suggests that this lack of empathy probably impacts my teaching regularly, though not in ways I often notice. I suspect it impacts most of us.

At the ashram, participating in yoga (at which I am good but not great) and meditation (at which I am dreadful) each day – that is, being the student who can’t read the script, can’t sit still for long, doesn’t know the pose, and cannot stand on her head with ease – was really discomfiting for me. Fully outside my comfort zone, and then some. I had to learn to make peace with being just OK, rather than A+. That took more than a couple of days. In the process, however, I received a gift: I began to view life at the ashram from the perspective of an average student, which for these ten days I absolutely was. And through those eyes I learned some valuable things.

First, I realised how truly important a welcoming space is to any classroom setup, and especially for those who think they probably suck at whatever it is you are about to do together. Content-appropriate teaching space is something I’ve long fought for as a drama teacher who often gets assigned lecture rooms with fixed seating (ugh!), but the true value of a space not just appropriate but genuinely warm and welcoming appeared to me in my first yoga class at the ashram. We formed two long rows down the centre of the Satsang hall, the breeze glancing over us through the open arches on either side. Our teachers began class at the head of the room but quickly moved to walk the length of the hall, back and forth, passing amongst us quietly to offer corrections and assistance. The sounds of the jungle accompanied our poses, as did the gentle, meditative sing-song with which Sivananda teachers are trained to deliver their asana instructions. My sense of intimidation dissipated quickly; whatever happened in my poses, however I struggled or failed, I felt happy, at ease, and brightened in my surroundings.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam  Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

Second, I learned that if you are going to maintain a tight ship (and wow, is an ashram ever a tight ship!), you need to build in time for proper rest, and you need to offer it consistently. Although the worship practice at the Sivananda ashram advocates transcendence and eschews worldly things, we were reminded always that offering genuine, loving care to our bodies was an essential part of that work. I was given plenty of time to care for my (aching) human body at Neyyar Dam, and nowhere more so than during asana classes themselves, when I frankly needed it most. If you are familiar with yoga you know that each class ends with a closing rest, but at the ashram that rest was magnified tenfold, and disbursed evenly throughout our time together. After each series of postures in each yoga class we spent time resting in Savasana, lying on our backs in stillness amid the jungle sounds outside the hall, and we ended each class with at least five to seven minutes of blissful, complete rest, and typically more. I soon realised the classes were programmed for two hours simply because a full quarter of that time was set aside deliberately for resting.

The value of this approach to planning lessons was a remarkable revelation for me, as I suspect it would be for most Type A teachers. Ask yourself: do I strive to cram as much content as possible into a lesson? Do I go overtime to squeeze out one more brilliant point? Am I ashamed if class accidentally ends early? That’s still me, even 10 years on, and even though each year I program fewer texts and less content. The fact is I had not until now fully recognised that rest is not antithetical to, but rather an essential part of, hard work – especially if you cannot stand on your head with the greatest of ease. Yes, I knew the value of rest days as a cyclist, and yes, I believed in breaks as a teacher. But I don’t need a lot of rest to ride well on my bike and I don’t need a lot of breaks to absorb tricky, abstract ideas, because these two things are among my strong suits. I am not gifted at yoga, though. I truly needed the multiple, regular rests at Neyyar Dam – simply in order to make progress.

Gabriella hauls our bin, Sivananda ashram

Third (and very much related): I learned how important it is to end class on time. I really learned this, in my very stomach. The student who is not your devoted follower and cannot get enough of your instruction really just wants to eat her lunch now. She stopped listening to you ten minutes ago. Give yourself a rest, and show her some grace too.

Finally, I learned to feel real compassion, genuine empathy, for those who live their lives according to someone else’s timetable and rules. It’s been a while since I went to college; I’d forgotten what it feels like! The daily schedule I detailed last week is not optional: everyone who comes to the Sivananda ashram is expected to take part in the whole program, every day, unless they are unwell or are undertaking one of the on-site clinic’s Ayurvedic detox programs. Wake now; be in class now, and now, and now; eat now (in silence!); now turn out your lights. While initially I felt enormous freedom in being given no choice but to partake in ashram life, released for once from the burden of figuring out my next move amidst the apparently endless array of distractions with which we live now, I also felt keenly the pressure exerted by someone else’s idea of What Is Best For Me.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

I don’t often meditate; my mind wonders and I frankly don’t care. (The unadorned world is a marvellous place to take in – especially in gorgeous Kerala! – and I would rather not shut it out for long periods at a time.) I hate sitting cross-legged with no back support. The ashram’s dress code stipulates that knees and shoulders must be covered at all times and that all clothing must be loose (no Lululemon here, bless!) – which is, to be honest, not at all my preferred wardrobe for sweaty exercise. I showed respect for the rules as much as possible, but I truly appreciated when they bent a little to make space for those of us resisting in our hearts, or just plain uncomfortable. Nobody (well, ok, one person once) complained when I regularly chose to pull my knees to my chest during evening Satsang, and to glance out into the sky. Nataraj made a point of reminding us that yoga is an individual practice, one in which we decide what we need and follow only that which serves us best. I was reprimanded once, privately, for wearing a (quite modest!) dress that inadvertently revealed my knees while I was cross-legged, but nobody called anyone out or nagged excessively. Within the rules we knew how to be, and on the whole generous and kind we were.

Nataraj at lecture, Sivananda ashram

Though as a student I was not on board with all of the life choices made by those in permanent residence at Neyyar Dam, I nevertheless felt appreciated on my own terms throughout my stay. Of course, back in my room, I laughed with my wonderful roommate Gabriella at the silliness of some of it (did I mention we were more or less living in dorms?), but I also came to realise, with compassion once again, that the job of herding cats on yoga vacations is probably rather hard, and that the ashram rules exist to support everyone’s continued sanity and good humour.

Teachers and students working in harmony, sharing community, growing their own selves wider and taller: that will be my main memory of this place in the damp south Indian hills. That remembrance is built of the ashram’s commitment to an honest, delightful welcome, proper room to rest and breathe throughout the day, every day, and by the chance this trip afforded me to feel in my own body the true challenges that come with learning the brand-new and often-difficult from scratch. I hope I can bring these small gifts with me into my own teaching spaces come fall.

Om, shanti, jai!

Maya Krishna Rao’s “Walk”: demanding the right to freedom of movement for all women, everywhere

The two posts that book-end this one share my experiences at the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala, which I visited in mid-July; this post, by contrast, reflects on a remarkable performance I witnessed while visiting Hyderabad for the annual conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research at the beginning of the month. The performance, Walk, by the gorgeous force of nature Maya Krishna Rao, responds to the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in December 2012, an event that galvanised men and women across India and around the world and sparked angry protests against the pervasive culture of violence against women in India – protests that ultimately resulted in legal changes regarding rape and responsibility on the subcontinent, although the verdict is not yet in on their effectiveness.

My colleague, friend, and editor Elaine Aston (herself a force of nature in my discipline of theatre and performance studies!), has written a very moving review of Maya’s Walk, and has given me permission to share it with you here. I am honoured to do so.

Before continuing, please have a look at the video of Maya performing Walk (below) that Elaine flagged in her review of the piece on the blog she co-writes with Geraldine Harris. The video is of decent quality and will give you a clear idea of the ways in which this performance works not (just) as theatre, but as a piece of fervent, feminist, political activism. It’s inspiring, and especially worth sharing with students if you are teaching plays or other literature about women’s experiences from India or Pakistan (or elsewhere!).

With thanks once more to Elaine – and enjoy!



Walk, Maya Krishna Rao

University of Hyderabad, 10 July 2015

Review by Elaine Aston, Lancaster University

Women’s right to be able to walk the streets of India’s cities, day or night, without being afraid for their safety is powerfully invoked and advocated by Maya Krishna Rao’s solo performance, Walk. Originally composed as a protest over the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pande on a bus in Delhi in December 2012, the piece has since been performed in multiple spaces, from streets to schools and colleges. Seeing Walk live at the International Federation of Theatre’s conference at the University of Hyderabad (6-10th July 2015), moved me to post these brief reflections.

To walk towards women’s right to safety, Maya invokes a number of steps that must be taken. Orally and physically choreographed to Sudhir Rikhari’s mesmerising music, in the space of fifteen minutes Walk itemises what must be given to women in the interests of social justice. Give me a law that will protect women from male violence and give it to me now, today, Maya demands; give me multiple convictions of rapists, not just the isolated one; give me a policeman who will write down women’s accounts of violence rather than ignoring their testimonies; and give me a world where women can be free to say no, where consent has real meaning and validity. Don’t walk, talk or a think with ‘him’ – with men who have the power to hurt and to harm, or to legislate against women’s interests – stay with me, talk and think with me, she urges. And Maya’s ‘law’, she makes clear, applies not just to when women walk the streets in their daily lives, but also to when they enter their homes which should be free from domestic abuse.

The power of this performance resides not just in its political message, but in Maya’s skill and ability as a performer to speak truth to the nation; to make her audiences sit up, listen and reflect. The idea that in order to right the wrongs done to women who are abused and violated requires significant politico-legal action and a sea-change to a misogynist culture, is expressed in and through the physicality of her performing body. Her movements embody the oscillation between the desire to be free from violence and the existing restraints and constrictions that impede this goal. In her opening sequence, for example, there is determination to move forward, but also a dragging, stepping back. Equally, with her Kathakali -trained body, steps forward are sometimes interrupted as she pauses, one leg suspended in mid-air, sure in purpose and yet seemingly, momentarily, uncertain as to where her foot will fall to complete the movement. She also has one of those voices that speaks from somewhere deep within the body – a voice that speaks powerfully, rhythmically and poetically of the political steps that must be taken. At the same time, hers is also the voice that reaches for the dark, deep notes of despair, anger or frustration over the political ground still be covered, and comes to speak as or reverberate with those voices who have been lost to and silenced by rape.

I want to walk; I want to sit on the bus; I want to lie in the park; and I want to try not to be afraid of the dark. These are basic ‘wants’ which chorus a plea for social justice that needs urgently to be heard and acted on, both within and beyond the Indian nation.


On becoming a student again: ten days at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India (Part One)

Note: this post was horrifically long, so I’ve divided it into two. The concluding post will follow next Thursday.

In the high summer, full-time academics often get asked what it is we are up to. Or, more accurately, we get knowing, slightly envious looks from people who ask us when we will be going back to work. Although I always gently correct in these situations, letting acquaintances know that we are in our research-intensive term and then explaining a bit about my current writing project, the truth is that most of us are enormously privileged to have large swaths of unscheduled time in July and August (and sometimes May and June, depending on where you work). Of course, such freedom bears with it responsibility: I need to mind my deadlines, and plan work days accordingly. But I’m also fortunate to be free in summer to experiment, try new things, and make fresh discoveries. That is something I happily trade for a slightly less impressive salary than I might make in one of the more timetable-intensive professions.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge advocate of taking breaks and holidays; without dedicated recharging time I become weary and lacklustre, no good to my students or my colleagues. But holidays are also, for me, often a chance to learn and grow – whether as a scholar, a teacher, or just a human being in the world – and so they were for me this year.

I’ve just returned from three weeks in India, my first time in South Asia. I travelled to Hyderabad for the annual conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research (the next post up on the blog will feature a report from my friend and colleague Elaine Aston, on a stunning piece of feminist theatre we witnessed there), and then on to Neyyar Dam in Kerala, to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari ashram.
Sivananda ashram Sivananda ashram

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

I spent ten days at the ashram, engaged in a rigorous daily program of meditation, chanting, volunteer work, and yoga. This post, and the upcoming part 2, tell the story of what I took, as a teacher, from that time.

The first thing to know about me is that I am probably the last person you might imagine at an ashram, let alone one in a jungle. I only began practicing yoga about five years ago; before that I notoriously resisted it. To this day I find myself cringing as often as not when (typically white, Anglo) yoga teachers close our practice with “Namaste”. (Note to those teachers: while in Neyyar Dam we read from chant books written in Sanskrit every day, and never once did we say Namaste.) I am also hopelessly afraid of spiders, snakes, do badly with mosquitoes, and would rather not shower in full view of a nervous-looking gecko. Plus, I am a fiend about cleanliness. Add all this up and you don’t exactly get Indian ashram, in the middle of monsoon season to boot.

What took me to the Sivananda centre, then? Well, I’m pretty thrifty: I could not imagine someone else (Western, my university) paying my way to India and not tacking a proper holiday onto my work duties. And I’ve had a really, really hard year, with family illness, lots of emotional turmoil, and moving continents all in the mix. (For more context, should you wish it, click here.) Finally, there was the slightly nervy allure of doing something completely outside of my normal: this year, of all years, I felt a pull to step beyond myself, even if only for a short time, to see what would happen if I cut myself off from my world and lived briefly in the shoes of another version of me. Could I let myself relax, in order to perhaps expand myself a bit, as we do in yogic breathing or when practicing poses? I’m always insisting my students challenge themselves to take a leap beyond their comfort zones; it’s only fair that I do the same once in a while.

Sivananda ashram

At Neyyar Dam, the day begins at 5:20am, or 5:15 if you are, like me, unlucky enough to get a room beside the first morning bell (there are two; the ashram is spread across a hillside in the unspeakably glorious Western Ghats). The next thing you hear is the sound of recorded devotional music ringing over the hills from the temple in the town below, and then you’re off, sprayed all over with insect repellant, yoga mat or meditation cushion in hand, hurrying toward the main hall for morning Satsang – half an hour of silent meditation, followed by daily chants, readings, and announcements. Tea is at 7:30, often accompanied by a very small snack of food blessed during the ceremony at the end of Satsang. Milky, warm, and sweet, the tea, offered beneath a tree in the communal courtyard below the hall, provides a small boost of protein and comfort before a challenging two hours of asana practice (yoga poses in the hatha style, in a set order according to Sivananda tradition). By 10am you are ravenous, so it’s lucky that brunch is ready: you head for the dining hall, leave your shoes at the entrance, wash your hands, and then take a place at one of the long prayer mats set facing one another at the far end of the room. Hare Krishna is sung, a mealtime prayer of thanks spoken, and the ashram’s founding teachers praised before everyone tucks in, side by side, eating with their hands in silence. The food is delicious, vegetarian, and bountiful: staff and volunteers return again and again offering seconds, thirds, and more. Finished, you return to the long, communal sink and wash up your plate and cup. Many hands, light work

tea kettles, Sivananda ashramKeralan Feast for Swami Shiva's death day, Sivananda ashramSivananda ashram

After the meal it’s time to help with chores; everyone, including staff, is assigned a modest duty that might take 15-30 minutes each day to complete. (Mine was emptying garbage bins; at first I grumped, until I realised it was among the quickest “karma yoga” jobs to finish. Suffice to say I have a new appreciation for the labour of garbage collectors!) From noon until 2pm ashram visitors can take optional meditation and asana coaching classes, and then it’s time for a lecture on some aspect of yoga practice or Hindu spirituality. Herbal refreshment and a small snack appears under the tea tree at 1:30pm, and at 3:30 a further two hour asana class is held. A lighter meal is served at 6pm, and at 8pm evening Satsang takes place, closing the day with another round of meditation and chanting, always accompanied by music played on a keyboard, with tambourines and other noise-makers. It is raucous, joyful, soulful. And then, thankfully, bed.

Like many taking part in the ashram’s “yoga vacation” program (it runs every two weeks throughout the year), I found this schedule thoroughly exhausting at the start, and I was briefly freaked out by both the amount and the fervour of the devotional practices that form the heart of Satsang. I’m not a morning person by any means, and for the first few days the morning bell tore me out of dreams, leaving my eyelids droopy and my chanting mostly yawns. Eating only twice in the day, and right after exercise, took getting used to as well; at first I seemed to starve profoundly in the mornings, and I wolfed far too much brunch as a consequence. And then there was the yoga itself. Even the beginner classes at the Sivananda centre progress quickly, and when I arrived the previous group’s beginner sessions had already moved on to poses I consider relatively advanced, from headstand to crow. As I’ve been doing yoga for some time now I challenged myself in the intermediate classes and set a goal for my stay: to manage a headstand, completely unaided. (I’m proud to say I achieved this, for three whole seconds on my penultimate day.) Nevertheless, every day was gruelling, with four hours of yoga followed by much cross-legged sitting for meals and Satsang. My body ached.

There were fringe benefits to all this, though. Soon I was sleeping soundly at night, waking before the bell, and then giving myself permission to nap after brunch. I began to find the regular chanting enchanting; what was at first intimidating and confusing grew familiar as I realised I had learned the words to a couple of our daily chants and could join in with tambourines and clapping as the pace sped up and our voices lifted higher. I confess I remained a professional skeptic during the lectures, frustrated in particular with what seemed to me a deeply anti-intellectual, anti-materialist approach to the idea of the human mind, but more and more I grew to appreciate the balance and inquisitiveness with which Nataraj, the ashram’s longtime director, handled questions from the group. I spoke up more. And then, on my final Saturday, I volunteered to curate our group talent show. (Ok, so that part is, perhaps, a touch predictable. Drama queen, me.)

The greatest benefit I derived from my time in Neyyar Dam I could not have imagined before arriving, though: I discovered, unexpectedly, what it is like to be a student again. And not just any student, but one who comes from outside the school’s norm, is unsure of everything, doesn’t speak the language, and isn’t especially good at lessons. In the second part of this post, I’ll share in detail the valuable lessons I learned when I found myself watching life at the ashram through the eyes of one of my own typical students: an average achiever.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

Om, shanti!


On Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Shaw Festival (Part 2)

A little while ago I posted to this space the program note I wrote for the Shaw Festival production of Top Girls, one of my favourite plays by the prolific and inspiring British feminist Caryl Churchill. At that time I promised I’d write a review of the production after I saw it – which I did last Friday night, at the luminous premiere in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We had a perfect evening for the festivities – cloudless blue skies dying to black under the twinkling lights of the Court House Theatre. Opening party-goers dined beneath a festive canopy in the gardens at the historic Lakewinds guest house before undertaking the short, picturesque stroll to the show. At the interval, we spilled outside with wine and ice-creams as the stars came out. Inside, the stars of the show lit up the stage. And yes: it was every bit as charming, as dream-like as it sounds.

Before I share my thoughts on the production proper – which I found smart, sharp, fun, and moving – I want to share the story of how I came to be at the glamorous premiere I’ve just described. Bear with me – there’s good reason for this diversion.

I’ve written program notes for several theatres in Canada and the U.K., and each company compensates essayists differently. I’ve been given honoraria (including by the Shaw), complimentary tickets to several productions (from festivals like Stratford that run a season in repertory), access to directors and key artists, as well as royalties from the subsequent reprinting of notes when shows go on tour. But this was new: Shaw invited me to attend the opening night dinner for Top Girls as well as the cocktail reception beforehand, during which I would meet both the talented artists who created the show as well as a large helping of wealthy donors, those who help keep Shaw going from year to year. Then we would all see, together, the opening performance itself, seated cheek-by-jowl with Shaw’s theatrical glitterati as well as a brace of critics from over the lake in Toronto.

The Shaw puts on a great party, and I and my companion had enormous fun sipping our gin and tonics under the big white tent. I won’t lie, though; I found it rather uncomfortable to be seated at a table with jobbing artists on one side and extremely rich people on the other (however generous, friendly, and philanthropically minded those people are). I could tell from brief looks and a few small moments of awkwardness that the artists around me were used to this routine: of course the dinner offers a good time, but it’s also work for them. They must be consistently convivial and forthcoming with their chat; they help to star-dust the evening for the donors who pay for elite access to the festival’s inner workings when they cut their big cheques. Then it dawned on me: I, too, was at work as I munched my seared tuna. No wonder I had been nervous beforehand! Although I’d not lit the show, designed costumes, acted or directed, I had provided creative labour for the festival. As they flattered me with a gala invite, the Shaw staff also slyly invited me to perform my virtuosity as a researcher and writer for those seated near me.

Again, lest I seem ungrateful for what was a genuinely gorgeous evening, let me say once more that I had a really nice time, and I suspect everyone around me did too. But that should not hide the fact that for some at the cocktails and supper party “pleasure” and “work” had to commingle inextricably. This is the nature of so much “creative class” labour today: you’re never off duty when it’s your job to manage the pleasure of others for profit. (For a smart, very critical look at the way the creative class has been imagined by urban theory over the last decade, check out this article by Jamie Peck.)

Creative (or “immaterial“) labour isn’t a new thing, of course: artists have always been linked to patrons with money. (If you’ve never seen Impromptu, watch it now!) But the emergence of the creative class as a broad spectrum group is a modern phenomenon, and in its current iteration it is tied to the rise of neoliberalism as a socio-political economy for the information age. Creative labourers generate content (they are writers, graphic designers, web developers), manage consumer experience (they are brand managers or ad execs), set a mood (if they are not designers, they work “in design”), shape a zeitgeist (inevitably, they write blogs. Ahem.) They may well be talented artists making real, tangible things – like beautiful pieces of theatre! – but just as importantly they create an aura, a sharp desire that makes others want to be a part of their culturally-aware awesomeness. The building and maintenance of this aura is key to the work accomplished by today’s creative workforce – just as it was key to the work the artists and I did under the tent at the Top Girls opening party.

Top Girls is a play about the cruelties of neoliberal economics: it pits its sixteen female characters against one another in the fight to the top of the “super-business-woman” pyramid. After eating my gala dinner and then watching director Vikki Anderson’s production, however, I realised that Top Girls is also very much a play about the pressures of the creative class, for women artists and brand executives alike. And while my gala experience was helpful in framing the reading I’m about to offer, it was ultimately two particularly innovative choices made by Anderson and her team that threw this production’s focus on the working lives of creative women into stark relief.

Fiona Byrne as Marlene in Top Girls.

(At right: Fiona Byrne as Marlene, Top Girls’ high-flying, smart-dressing main character. Photo by David Cooper.)

First, Anderson chose to show us the backstage labour involved in preparing to go on as one of Churchill’s strong female characters. Before the play began, and while the house lights were still up, we saw the cast enter one by one, sit at makeup desks, prepare their faces and put on their costumes – all while bopping and air-guitaring to ’80s pop and rock tunes selected by sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. (Top Girls dates to 1982.) Throughout the show this backstage space returned as the women took off the trappings of one role and put on another; the conceit was clever and it spoke elegantly (as did Anderson’s director’s note) to the typically invisible grooming women are expected to undertake in their “off” hours in order to “stage” themselves for success at work each day. (Men, too, suffer increasingly from these expectations, I know; the pressure on women remains much more powerful.)

So Anderson’s frame-story was one about gender, power, and the performance of self – Judith Butler 101. But it was also more, and for me this “more” was the bit tied to the playful dancing. These women didn’t trudge on joylessly; they entered smiling, chatting, grooving, and eager to share some of this time with one another. Yes, we saw their silent work at their mirrors, but we also saw them coalesce as they worked into a community of artist-professionals who were supporting each other through their shared tasks. Several danced together; two exchanged quite intimate words and gestures. Most gave each other shoulder squeezes and short pep talks that I suspect were more for one another than for us – gestures of solidarity and support among a group of women about to go to work for the night, rather than performances of “play” for audience edification.

Laurie Paton as Jeanine in Top Girls.

(Laurie Paton prepares to become Jeanine in Act 2. Photo by David Cooper.)

Top Girls was written in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule; it demonstrates how the cult of the individual she championed wrecks the potential for feminist community and feminist political solidarity across difference. Anderson’s frame-story implies that community is actually an essential component of success for a contemporary “creative” woman. Is it a bit utopic, perhaps unrealistic? Maybe. But, then again, each of these seven performers killed it on Friday night – so if those squeezes, grooves, and supportive words at the top of the show were made of real stuff, they sure did real work, and it got real results.

Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit in Top Girls.

(Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit. Photo by David Cooper. )

Anderson’s second innovation has to do with Angie, the high-flying main character’s not especially high-achieving niece. In many productions of Top Girls Angie is costumed blandly and played as a bit of a lump – exactly how her bitter mom (Joyce) and her successful aunt (Marlene) describe her to others. But Anderson clearly doesn’t believe Joyce and Marlene: Julia Course’s Angie is vivacious, wacky, smiley, full of life – frankly hilarious, a show-stealer. No wonder Kitty, the smaller girl down the road, wants to play with her all the time!

Course’s Angie is also glued to her exercise book, an item Churchill mentions only very briefly in Act 3 but which Course and Anderson choose to read as evidence of Angie’s burgeoning creativity, a zest for drawing, words, and imaginative play. Here, Angie isn’t a dullard who “isn’t going to make it” because she’s not smart or ambitious (as Marlene declares meanly at one point); nor is she doomed to failure because she doesn’t come from money and hasn’t had opportunities. This Angie’s trouble comes from the fact that her brand of imagination – the kind that takes wing under forts built of blankets, or in notebooks hidden under mattresses – isn’t valued by the culture around her, a culture that lusts after the kinds of creativity Marlene peddles when she tells her employment agency clients how to present themselves in an interview, what parts of themselves to reveal and what parts to conceal. Marlene’s creativity is for-profit, carefully honed and framed, but Angie’s creativity is messy, chaotic, just for fun – for pleasure with no strings attached. If she could tame it, shape it, sell it… well then, surely she could make it. But that’s not Angie’s style – and that’s why Marlene condemns her as someone with no style at all.

Top Girls opens with a lavish dinner party to celebrate Marlene’s promotion to director of her agency; I suspect Marlene would make a pretty attractive guest at any opening night gala. Angie, on the other hand, would be a complete disaster at a glam dinner: all legs, arms flailing; all too-small, too-shiny dresses and mad, frenetic energy. Or, then again, maybe she’d be just what more gala dinners need: less work, more unbridled play.

Party on, ladies!