For clarity: in this review, Arnstein refers to Katie Arnstein as an artist, and Katie to the persona she assumes on stage.
In this review:
It's a Girl!
A trilogy by Katie Arnstein
This review will consider the three plays, Bicycles and Fish, Sexy Lamp and Sticky Door, which constitute the It’s a Girl! trilogy currently performing at The Vaults Theatre as part of The Vaults Festival. All three are interrelated one-woman shows written and performed by Katie Arnstein, presenting a very clear and cogent, if somewhat specific, argument for modern feminism.
The trilogy depicts the ordinary and normalised sexist treatment of women today and the expectations placed upon women both in everyday life, whether social or professional. Whilst Arnstein’s content is heavy and raw, and whilst the sociopolitical undertone of these plays is serious and harrowing, the trilogy remains lighthearted and engaging. Comedy is used articulately throughout these works not as something to negate or discredit the social realities of women presented but to ease the audience into them, to critique and challenge them in an uninvasive manner. It is when we feel most at ease, most intrigued and wrapped up in Arnstein’s material that we find the entrails of misogyny, sexism and sexual violence and prejudices. The overall content of the trilogy is quite extensive, ranging from particularised focus on the sexual objectification within the arts, of actresses in auditions, to a more generalised focus on everyday sexism, either confined to dialogues within friendship groups or amongst colleagues, or outreaching acceptedly into the public sphere.
Although the texts of these plays allude to certain aspects and contents of one another, they could largely be seen as distinct and separate plays. I will say, however, that Bicycles and Fish would stand out to me as the only one of these three plays whose content would seem too disparate, incomplete and introductory if it were to be staged as a stand-alone play, for reasons I shall elaborate upon later. Furthermore, even though there are definite similarities between these plays, with structure, style and technique being virtually identical, the coverage and content each of them provides are most unique and varied from play to play. I would like to see even more of an interrelationship between these plays, however, if they are truly to qualify as a trilogy. A few reappearances of characters and allusions to content discussed elsewhere is not sufficient to contextualise these plays alongside one another, nor is the mere theme of feminism.
As Sticky Door emphasises, this trilogy should not be seen as a product of message-based theatre. Instead, the trilogy devises a safe space for the exploration of feminist concerns. It is a type of therapy, both for Katie and for those audience members who have unfortunately experienced the same, common injustices. With direct audience address, website links, catchy slogans repeated in collective chant (such as ‘Time’s up’), frequent cultural references and simply Katie’s overall manner of delivering the material, a definitive sense of communality and community is produced. There is a certain emotional response to this work evidenced by the roaring full-house ovations each of Arnstein’s works receives. In this way, the trilogy is required socially; it is cathartic, replenishing and, above all, encouraging.
This being said, I am not sure that communal therapy is the principal intention of this trilogy but, rather, a by-product, especially in regards to the first two plays in the series. The overall focus does, unfortunately, remain rather inconstant and throughout, making for an inconsistent rhetoric. This friction is located in many aspects of the work, such as in the subjectivity vs the applicability of the content, in the triviality vs the congruity of certain material, or in the didactic vs the expressionist modes this performance alternates between, and so on.
The friction here lies in the structure of each play that initially present themselves as didactic expressions of feminist concerns, as articulations of the social realities of women, intending, supposedly, to divulge these to an unknowing public; we are provided with quotes, speeches, rhetorics and thinkings, all intending to demonstrate the ubiquity and danger of sexism and, with references to President Donald Trump, how this is accepted nay encouraged systemically, but, most importantly, to educate audience members. Yet, the content that follows is otherwise story-based and hence fictitious and histrionic but also self-contained and simply expository, undemanding and unchallenging. What starts off as a direct challenge to our culture and politics ends up as storytelling and catharsis. Both are equally valid modes of theatre, but one certainly compromises the other in this trilogy.
As indicative of a lot of postmodernist theatre, there are the classic Brechtian influences: placards, estranging musical numbers, episode titles, and a presentation of the self as actor playing character. These are used to engender more of a comedic effect as opposed to anything didactic or confrontational, and whilst this is a misuse of the technique, for escapist dramatic effect, this nevertheless adds character and quirk to the performance; it just means that some features, such as the episode titles, are used superfluously and to little benefit. In other words, Katie appropriates the techniques to her advantage, but sometimes they are rather overused. The ukulele songs, however, I think are a perfectly articulate and vastly endearing feature, helping to maintain that lightheartedness that characterises this performance and which this performance definitely requires.
Overall, a touching and empowering trilogy that depicts aspects of the female struggle with clarity and precision. Whilst all plays have their own unique trajectories, all together, these plays provide their audiences with detailed and manifold content. I would just be wary of the disparity between the first play and its two descendants.
“An intelligent, compelling and thought-provoking trilogy, presenting heavy content in a digestible nay flavoursome way.”
Bicycles and Fish
I find the content of this play to be particularly inarticulate and incomplete in relation to the other two of the trilogy. I imagine this is because it was the first play to be written, before a trilogy was even on Arnstein’s mind, and so there was little thought as to what would be communicated overall in the plays’ combination. This is an issue with an easy solution, however: editing. There is definitely a rockiness to this play, accentuated in the overuse of placards and in excessive movement. Sometimes, Katie seems to be all over the place, covering every section of the stage and titling every location with a placard. With the placard comes the written text, then there are the songs, the seated storytelling, the re-enactments; there are simply too many techniques used in too quick a succession.
Bicycles and Fish starts with a rather hesitant definition of feminism and its applications from an overly PC Katie. This is actually rather clever, as, by doing so, Katie closes herself off to hyper-criticisms by getting there first, so to speak, but also clears her text of any over-intellectualisations or wildly extensive discourses, reminding us of the fundamental core of feminism, and this acts as a precursive lens through which we are to view the rest of the performance. However, the content slightly loses its way when it teeters towards childhood sweetheart Danny or crippling cystitis, and too much time and information starts to be given to and about rather trivial or negligible items like these. Whilst this does allow us to develop a greater sense of Katie’s identity, this could be achieved through far fewer details, not to mention that this sense of her identity is completely obliterated if spectators only watch one of these plays and not the full trilogy, in which case they would have to start all over again. The content regains its focus, however, towards the end, when Katie starts to tell the audience of her personal experiences of sexual harassment.
In these ways, focus is a huge issue for this performance, and I would be very careful when considering how all of the material presented combines to form one all-encompassing message. On the other hand, when considered as part of a trilogy, this performance is a good introduction, preparing us for the materials that will be expressed in the following plays. Yet, it still needs to have a trajectory of its own, and it feels as though, whilst Sexy Lamp focuses distinctly on sexism in the acting industry and Sticky Door on personal sexual encounters and stigmas surrounding female promiscuity, this play seems to have a very obscured premise, ranging from sex education in schools to first kisses, to the absence of laws against inequality, to sexual harassment/violence. Conversely, this play retains a lot more character than the others as we follow Katie growing up, through education, her first job, etc. It is just in need of finding that perfect balance between personality and significance: when does demonstrating character/persona complement the aims of the performance, and when does it add mere inessential texture and subtract from the content at hand?
“A great performance but still in need of a firmer groundwork and focus.”
In this play, Katie uses Kelly Sue DeConnick’s recognised Sexy Lamp Test as the perfect analogy of her encounters with sexism within the acting industry, demonstrating how the sexual objectification of women replaces any integrity and personality of female characters in theatre and film. This is communicated literally by Katie’s dressing as a lamp, in a matching leopard-print, satin dressing gown as the audience enter, deconstructing the very notion of the sexy lamp when she reveals herself as a human, a sentient being with an identity beyond corporeal form, and tells us her story.
This play is a lot more focused than its older sister, Bicycles and Fish and charts the role the arts have played in Katie’s life clearly and efficiently. Katie conveys to us her internalised ideal of the character of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, using her as an archetype of the empowered female she yearns to be. This together with other items on her dreams bucket list constitute a thread that will run throughout the entire play, contextualising and supporting the material presented. This gives us a good ground for reading the material, as we see how dreaming to be a big star like Judy Garland motivates young actresses to expose themselves to difficult and dangerous situations within the industry and, more importantly, how this dreaming is exploited by working professionals.
Using acting as a premise, Katie explores the different roles we assume in society, from fragrance-shop sales assistants doubling as escorts –– unknowingly and unwillingly, that is –– to heroes against sexual harassment on public transport, and this is an intelligent way of exposing how women are groomed in our society to assume certain roles to the benefit of men and to the detriment of themselves, and just how surprisingly easily this can be subverted.
“A clear and thorough play, eye-opening and uplifting.”
There is something significant about Sticky Door that differentiates it from the other plays. In this play, we feel as though we really uncover the true Katie Arnstein as she tells us that her storytellings have been inaccurate, untrue, that they are, in fact, retellings of experiences over which she would have liked to have more control. She defines her stage as a safe place, a place to relive memories but with a difference: she stands up for herself. In Sticky Door, Katie’s helplessness, depression, loss of self and loss of confidence is exposed, and we become aware of the true, harrowing power of misogyny and its potential ramifications for and amongst women.
Katie depicts a toxic cycle of self-abuse, motivated by a need for self-liberation and self-empowerment, of independence from men. She takes our hands and journeys us through her psychology as she distances herself from male influence, scared to make her emotions available to men, scared to let men in. This is truly the most human of the trilogy, demonstrating the need for and fear of love that affects so many women today.
Boxing off the playing area of the stage, leaving a doorway for Katie to exit through at the end of the performance, is a very powerful design, meaning that this ‘truly’ is a safe space that Katie can imagine into existence as a form of therapy for herself, to express these memories and thoughts to a willing and appreciative audience. I find this to be very significant.
I must say that this play is utterly fraught with references to items expressed in the previous plays, and, without having seen these, these would just feel as though a series of hollow evocations. That being said, other characters, those who only played minor roles in the previous plays, make a reappearance in this play and much to its benefit, retaining a greater presence than before. The use of these characters is most rich and compelling.
This play does flutter a bit with its focus, with the metaphor of the sticky door not being entirely convincing in its relationship to the content of the text, and the audio files we are presented are far too generalised for this very specific narrative. However, overall, a very clearcut and hard-hitting performance.
“A powerful performance tackling human themes with intellect and integrity.”
Photography Credit: Katie Arnstein and associates.