Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Rachel Sullivan discuss ‘The Birds and the Bees’

Rachel Sullivan and Maggie Keenan-Bolger. Photo credit: StageDoorDish.com

Rachel Sullivan and Maggie Keenan-Bolger. Photo credit: StageDoorDish.com

 

While Cosmo and other magazines might fill their pages with countless fluff pieces about women finding ways to please a man and advice advocating that women should use underwear as a scrunchie for “sexy hair” (we’re not making this up), co-collaborators Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Rachel Sullivan are attempting to raise awareness about the reality of female sexuality.

Their new venture, The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged, takes women from all walks of life to open the conversation about what it is really means to be a female in today’s society.

It is their hope that their piece won’t just touch the minds and hearts of their audiences at Speyer Hall at University Settlement, from Weds. March 27 to Sun. March 30, purchase your tickets here,  but they want to tour with the production around the country, offering these good ideas to young people.

There are 22 women in the show, including five women over the age of 55, representatives from all sexual orientations, a transsexual male, women with disabilities and women from all different socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

But with such a large cast, and with a message that many mainstream investors are not clamoring to invest in, Maggie and Rachel have headed to Kickstarter to raise funds for The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged.

With just five days until their project ends (they don’t receive any funding if they don’t meet their goal), it’s even more important now than ever to dig out those extra quarters from under the couch and check your pockets for a few extra dollars to turn The Birds and The Bees: Unabridged from a concept into a reality.

I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Maggie and Rachel to chat about their motivation for The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged, how their play differs from a traditional stage production in content and setup and their hopes for the audiences who attend the shows.

 

Rachel Sullivan and Maggie Keenan-Bolger

Rachel Sullivan and Maggie Keenan-Bolger. Photo credit: StageDoorDish.com

SDD: How long has this project been in the works?

MKB: Quite a while, it’s been percolating for quite a bit. Rachel and I decided we wanted to do it about a year and a half ago. We had sort of a beginning stage and brought in friends and people who weren’t necessarily interested in theatre, but were excited and interested in talking about sexuality and other topics. We had a dinner party, saw a movie, and talked about it after. We talked about what people wanted to hear, what people felt like they were missing, and ideas for where we wanted to jump off. We did interviews/auditions in October or something. It’s been building up ever since.

SDD: Where did the idea come from?

MKB: I was traveling the country with the I Heart Female Orgasm project, and super exciting and super horrifying things come up, and people ask me after: things that should be general knowledge but aren’t, it’s not their fault; their doctors gave them bad advice or their parents didn’t tell them anything about sex and sexuality. So this program that I work with, for the first time, they’re about to talk about, it’s not shameful or secretive. So many women have this idea that they’re abnormal for any kind of reason. The reality of it is, is the only normal thing about sexuality is that it’s so different for everyone.

RS: Once you give people a stepping off point, it just floods out. Negotiating that was an awkward first step. A lot of colleagues and friends, if we mentioned an interest in it then they started talking about it nonstop. It was something people wanted to talk about but didn’t have a venue to talk about. People had so many questions, so we decided to do some research.

SDD: You wanted 500 people to take the survey and you got over 2,000 responses. What were some of the recurring themes in the survey? Did the outpouring of support surprise you?

RS: The survey wasn’t a short survey. We tried to make it as accessible as possible but there were so many questions we wanted to put in there. Ours was quite extensive, and not that many people would want to sit down and do a 15 to 20 minute survey, but they did. We had over a hundred pages of responses, a hundred pages of font ten. Going through and reading them, some of the responses were heartbreaking; some of them were surprising. The ones I liked reading were the best sex advices for younger women. The history of their sexuality was really sad, how many women have had unwanted or unsolicited sex or assaults. You know a statistic when you read it, oh yeah twenty give percent, but to see it represented in personal accounts, it’s very hard.

MKB: There was trend of feeling that they were abnormal. For some reason, some women felt weird because they were having too much sex and other women felt weird because they were still virgins. The reality is that it’s such a range for everyone. I don’t think anyone would classify normative sexuality, whatever that means.

SDD: What surprised you the most? What gave the most insight?

RS: How honest people were. It could be anonymous if you wanted; I think that helped.

MKB: The sheer volume of people who signed in to take the survey. You get pop-ups for surveys all the time. But clearly there is some kind of need for engagement in the subject that people want to have. People out of the kindness of their hearts and being willing to discuss it took this long survey and were very articulate.

RS: I was surprised that, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, but when you see it in a pie chart – rank these ten topics of what’s most important to you to see in a show or want to discuss, partner communication was, by far, number one; across the board, it wasn’t even close.

MKB: Reproductive rights and healthy sex.

SDD: I’m very interested in the production itself and how you’re putting this on.

MKB: We come in with these ideas or prompts gathered from the group or surveys and do different activities to gather materials. It’s primarily improv based. ‘Okay this worked, this is an interesting moment, how do we expand it? This moment didn’t work, well, what can we change about it?’ We’ll soon to have a set scene, so it won’t be like improv on the stage.

SDD: Why not do this the traditional scripted route?

RS: Maggie and I could write a play and bring in 20 people to play it. The script would be our voice, limited to the perspective that the two of us share. When we invite all those other women to include their opinions, the piece is just going to get broader and stronger and bigger than what we can achieve just the two of us in a room. The women are creating their characters; they’re creating the lines that they’re going to say.

MKB: We both come from more traditional backgrounds. As an actor, I always felt like a round peg in a square hole. I’d ask myself how do I change myself to accommodate this character? With devising, you’re finding the best of yourself and putting that on the stage, which I feel is so exciting and validating in a way that traditional theatre often is hindering. I felt like I had to smother certain parts of myself to fit into a certain role or type that was more stereotyped than reality based.

RS: We have some women in their sixties in the group. Maggie and I could interview them and get a sense of their perspective and opinion, but really hearing their voices and listening to them will give us a much better concept. Otherwise, it’s like we’re putting their character onto them. We look for what people are good at – game show scenario. This person is amazing at being a gameshow host. We are editing and refining based on the skills of the people in the group.

SDD: Is devising easier or more challenging than a traditional script?

MKB: I find it a lot harder. It’s a lot more time. It has its advantages and disadvantages.

RS: It’s 20 minds brainstorming something instead of just one or two. Yes, yes, let’s go with that, don’t know where it’s going to go. We work together because we’re kind of opposites sometimes.

MKB: Where I like things written down and ready to go, I can be like ‘Rachel okay that’s nice but you need to have a process,’ ‘Okay Maggie, that’s nice but you need to build up to it.’ Decision making – the whole rehearsal is about making decisions and finding what works.

SDD: Why does your collaboration work so well?

RS: We’ve been working together for so long, done so many projects, exceeded a project that had so many struggles along the way. We’ve created a foundation of trust for each other. We are able to give each other feedback, which is essential. We care about each other’s feelings. If somebody says something – veto. It’s done with love and care, it’s not ‘Maggie, your ideas suck,’ or ‘Rachel, what are you talking about?’ The humors that we bring to it, we know, we’ve figured out. Maggie is really good at this. I’m really good at that. The other person – nice when you figure that out. Opposite talents.

SDD: This is a very delicate subject, how did you approach it with your actors?

MKB: When you bring up sex in any situation, people get tense. There’s an immediate response to it. It’s hard for Rachel and me to talk about it; it’s hard for 25 people to talk about it. And when you have to present it to an entire room of people, what’s nice with Rachel and I, we have the short hand if something is going really bad in my session. We can chat and then go back to what we are doing. There are specific rules in the group: any time you take a break, take a break, recognize everyone has different limitations and abilities, we aren’t going to reprimand you for needing to sit down if you have to or go to the bathroom during a scene because it’s a little too much.

RS: We have a fear bucket. Anonymously, we ask everyone to write down what is scary to them about the process or what we are doing and we put it in the bucket to let out the anxiety, the fear, the confusion, whatever is going on. I know that someone in the group pretty much wrote the same thing, that I am not the only one afraid to invite my family to see a show about sex. Maggie and I sometimes don’t put in the bucket because there’s two of us and we just call out ‘I’m afraid of this,’ putting it out there. We have a title, we have show dates, we’re selling tickets, but we don’t have a show yet. I hope we get a show; that, about devising is scary. Some people make fun of it or belittle it. We already have vagina monologues, why do you need anything else? A lot of people are positive, which gives us a lot of strength. People don’t know what to expect. We’ve had people up and challenging us at different points, ‘I don’t like you’re doing this or not doing this,’ but we just have to get through it.

SDD: Why is this important now?

MKB: I’m under the opinion that it’s always the time to do a project like this.

RS: There are so many things pointing to ‘Hey, let’s start talking about this: legitimate rape, trying to take away certain reproductive rights, decreased funding to planned parenthood,’ not just talking – indicative of a larger viewing of women and their sexuality. Sex education seems to be getting worse and worse. Abstinence is only prescribed.

MKB: We don’t have a mandate about how much young people are supposed to learn about sex before they graduate high school. If they taught other things like that, we would be doomed. It’s something pretty much every person is going to have to deal with at some moment in their lives and it’s absurd that we are not preparing people for it and that we are not giving the advice that we have or the things that we know about it for younger people before they figure out what the heck is going on with their bodies.

SDD: What do you hope to accomplish with The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged?

RS: I hope that people leave talking. If they’re angry, if they’re confused, if they hate it, if they like it, I hope something in there starts a discussion. I hope it’s a spark for more conversation about dialogue.

MKB: The nice thing about theatre dampening it is it’s more acceptable to talk about theatre pieces about sexuality, deeper conversations about how society deals with sexuality, how you personally deal with sexuality. It’s a jump off point for a deeper conversation.

RS: I hope there’s at least a snippet people recognize or can identify with. I hope they leave thinking ‘Hey, I’m not abnormal, people on this journey are figuring out things too.’

 

 This interview has been broken into two parts with  the second part soon to be released in the coming days. This is a delicate, important topic that I felt was important to turn into something more digestible than releasing it all at once.  Please consider donating to Maggie and Rachel’s Kickstarter here or visit The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged website for more information.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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