Growing up in El Paso, Texas my access to theatre was fairly non-existent. Prior to going to college, I could count the amount of plays I’d seen on one hand. So when I got the opportunity to be an intern in Chicago the summer of 2011 I tried to see as much theatre as I possibly could. I found my way to the Goodman Theatre for Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss and Steppenwolf Theatre for Will Eno’s Middletown, both of which were extremely memorable as some of my first experiences with real professional regional theatre. That being said, neither were the most memorable show I saw that summer. It came from a storefront.
Some work colleagues of mine said that they were working with a fairly young company called The New Colony and that I should come out to see a show they were working on called 5 Lesbians Eating A Quiche. My interest was piqued. Not only was I not going to say no to a comped ticket offer, but the title sounded silly and zany enough to fit right in with my sense of humor, which had been crafted by Mel Brooks and Monty Python as a child.
Not really understanding what storefront theatre was all about, I fully expected to walk into a small theatre space with traditional lights, curtain, etc. Then I showed up at the Dank Haus German American Cultural Center. I walked up a couple flights of steps and found a pretty bare space with sets of folding chairs and a fairly meager set. I of little faith, hoping to be wowed by theatre that would make my Texas upbringing quake in its proverbial boots, was looking at something that I felt I could’ve produced myself – but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
After being greeted by colleague of mine at the box office, they handed me a name tag with instructions to write a woman’s name on it. This was, after all, a gathering of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein. I sat down as “Emily” and watched as cast members walked among my fellow “sisters,” asking us how our orchids were doing or commenting how it’s been ages since they’ve seen us. My initial perceptions were peeled away. Slowly but surely, this ensemble was creating a community among their audience.
Over the course of the play, we were included more and more. We all glared at another member of the audience as the characters singled her out for not bringing a quiche to this year’s quiche making contest. We were encouraged to attempt to sing along to the Society theme song. Then we were locked in together because of the nuclear bomb that was dropped by the Communists just outside of our bunker. By the time the characters had begun to announce that they were lesbians, not one of us in the audience thought of them as characters, but as fellow sisters that were in a safe place where we could come out after being oppressed by their husbands or a mid-20th century society. We were encouraged to admit who we truly were, to shout it out together.
Like almost everyone else in the audience, I too admitted I was a lesbian, but it isn’t until now that I realize the forward thinking of this approach to performance. From the moment I walked into the space, I was never once isolated. I also never once thought of the play as a LGBT play, a tall order for a show that has the word lesbians in the title. Instead of focusing on the otherness of the women as a part of this club, the New Colony focused on what connected them – and asked you to connect as well.
Most anyone who has taken a formal theatre class can tell you about the importance of communion with an audience. This company did it with jokes and an understanding of the absurdity that there are those out there who don’t feel this sense of inclusion – and that’s the core of this show. It wasn’t for another 55 years that these women would have been able to get married anywhere they wanted to in the country. Yet I was never hit over the head with an overtly didactic message. Instead I was asked to have fun, laugh, and engage.
To this day, 5 Lesbians is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen. Upon leaving the space I not only gained a sense of what theatre can be, but also what shared experience should be.