Matt Hartman, Trinity Communications
On February 9, 10 and 11, audiences at Duke are invited into a ritual exploration of women’s rage.
Created in collaboration with Duke students, “fury” is devised and directed by Blair Cadden, a director, dramaturg and this year’s visiting artist in the Department of Theater Studies.
The piece weaves together ancient myth, recent and current events and the writings and reflections of the devising company, creating a communal theatrical ritual where women's rage can be honored, reclaimed and reshaped.
We spoke with Cadden — a Charleston, South Carolina, native who recently completed an MFA in directing at Boston University — about what inspired “fury,” what the devising process looked like and what she has learned from it. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
(Please be advised this production contains references to sexual assault, domestic violence, violence against women, transphobia, body dysmorphia and abortion, as well as depictions of blood, torture, ritualized violence and sexual harassment.)
What was the initial motivation for “fury,” and how did it take the shape of what you started working on last semester?
The initial seed actually came from a conversation when I was in grad school. One of my advisors asked me in a really neutral, nonjudgmental way, “Do you think you have a lot of rage?”
At the moment, I was very put off by this question and immediately responded with a very forceful “no.” I didn't think about it again for a long time, until it was midpandemic. I was reading infuriating headlines all day, every day and angry about some things in my own personal and professional life and, all of a sudden, I had this moment of, “Oh my god, I am absolutely filled with rage.”
My next thought was: “Why was it so uncomfortable to have that seen by someone else?” And then, from that very personal moment, I started doing a lot of reading about the psychology and sociology of women's anger and the ways that we're trained to suppress it or call it something else. And also the fact that anger is ultimately a positive emotion because unlike despair, which says things are terrible and there's nothing we can do about it, anger says, things are terrible and we should fix it.
All of that coalesced into the idea for a theater piece exploring those things, which at some point connected with the nerdy obsession with Greek mythology that I've had most of my life and the idea of the Greek furies, who are these instruments of righteous justice. But they're also depicted as these disgusting monsters because they're angry women.
You’ve approached “fury” as a piece of devised theater. What does that mean?
On the most basic level, it means that instead of starting with a fully written script, we're starting with a question or an idea or some source material that then gets turned into a script in a way that's more communal and collaborative, versus one person sitting alone behind a computer as the playwright.
What about this topic lent itself to devising?
I think there were two reasons. It’s a piece that feels very personal to me — probably the most personal thing I've ever put on a stage — and also I did not want it to be entirely an echo chamber of my own experiences as a straight, white woman walking through the world. So opening it up really broadened that and let other voices come in, other ways of looking at things, people whose experiences have just been different and colored everything a different way for them.
The second is that I always imagined this having a lot of physicality to it, being a piece that was told largely through movement as well as text. And I find that it's really hard to imagine and picture those kinds of storytelling alone at a computer. Actually getting in a room with other people with bodies that can move together and explore those physical ideas in space is pretty hard to replicate any other way.
What was the devising process like, and what should audiences expect?
The process was really interesting, because we started in the fall with drop-in workshops, which ended up meaning that we had a lot of different collaborators come through, but not always all at the same time. So there are a lot of ideas that were dropped in by different people who joined us briefly, and then sometimes those ideas would get picked up by the next group of people and get built on or molded.
So it's really been a really iterative process, as opposed to what you might call a more traditional devising process of one group of people in one room for an extended period of time. This has a lot of people's fingerprints on it in a way that I think is pretty exciting.
This semester, we solidified the cast and started working with the performing ensemble that will be seen on stage in February. At that point, we did have a pretty strong skeleton of a script. From there, it was really a process of kind of molding that to fit the people who were ultimately going to be performing it.
Some in that group have contributed writing of their own, and we’ve made adjustments to personalize certain moments or to better fit the identities of these performers. A lot of the physical exploration has happened with this group. They're a very game group of performers.
In terms of what to expect, there's not a lot of holds barred in this production. I don't want to say too much about that because I think part of the fun is being surprised by what happens. A lot of this play is about subverting certain expectations that we have for people based on their gender, and the cast found some really thrilling ways to mess with those tropes.
Let’s go a step further back: why explore this topic with theater in particular? What does theater allow you to do that you couldn’t do in another medium?
One of the things that really interests me about theater is the ritual nature of it. It originated as a ritual thousands of years ago and it still has a contemporary ritual built around it, but I've really gotten interested in bringing in more traditional elements of ritual into theater making.
What this piece became is a ritual for reclaiming rage. Rather than reading about it or watching a documentary about it, we actually get to watch these performers go through these moments that are inspired by different phases of a ritual process. The actions that they're taking enable them to own and voice and embody that rage.
By experiencing that reclamation in this much more immediate, visceral way, my hope is that folks in the audience will recognize the need for it and maybe feel a little more connected to it themselves.
You said this was a very personal play. What have you gained throughout the process of devising it with this group of students?
I don’t think my perspective has necessarily changed. I've certainly added other perspectives to it, but I think the thing that's been the most present for me is how nice it is to share this.
It was a thing that lived in the back of my own head for so long, first as a personal experience that I hadn't even learned how to talk about and then as the idea for this piece that I was starting to flesh out on my own before arriving at Duke.
I was alone in my head with it for so long, it's easy to second guess it. It's easy to wonder: “Is it legitimate to feel this much rage? Are people going to understand why I feel this way?” And then to share it with a group of performers who recognize themselves in it and add on to it and echo things: It's really vindicating and affirming.
The thing that I realized is that we have to share the rage and carry it together. And that's part of the story we're telling. How do we share it and support each other in it? Because I think that's when it flips from being something that feels like it's burning you up from the inside to being something that that can affect the world.