Words by Jessica Rovniak.
It’s hard to have an honest conversation about female sexuality without someone looking at you crazy–As if they’ve never seen or heard of a woman. Why though?
For the cast of the touring show Warm Women, a performance art piece portraying the journey of sexual discovery for a woman, the answer is unanimously a lack of dialogue, specifically one about being a woman. “I realized I was trying on a lot of other hats and words and not saying ‘woman’ at all, and that felt natural and really beautiful to come into,” Rebekah Nagy, Warm Women cast member, says. “I realized I was uncomfortable with being a woman because everyone else, or society, is uncomfortable with what women are.”
In late February, I met with the entire cast Rebekah Nagy, Helen Gutowski, Laura Ornella, and Madeline Sachs, lead by Susannah Simpson, at Daya Yoga Studio in Bushwick. The show is described by Susannah as, “a performance art piece investigating the breadth and depth of female sexuality,” focusing on the good, the really good, and the not so good moments of being female. The piece was developed as a group exploring themes of sex such as love, trauma, transcendence, nurturing, and tenderness.
The Warm Women cast hope to spark a dialogue in which people are more comfortable with openly talking about female sexuality, and stop thinking it as a social faux pas. To do so, the cast is taking their show on the road. The tour kicks off this Friday, March 4th at Daya Yoga Studio in Bushwick.
Here’s a look behind the scenes of Warm Women.
JESSICA ROVNIAK: How did you guys go about writing the piece together?
SUSANNAH SIMPSON: Each rehearsal session, we explored different aspects. We first [explored] insecurities. A lot of the text in the piece was generated by me literally [asking the girls questions] like, “What are three shitty things someone said to you?” “What are three beautiful things someone has said to you, in a moment of sheer tenderness?” Our first time, we did an exercise where we asked each other those questions and we wrote the answers down or drew them. We then read them aloud like, “Your tits are magnificent.” It was so beautiful hearing them and echoing. Bottom line, that is the nexus of the beginning of what this is.
What was something that came out of collaboration that surprised you?
HELEN GUTOWSKI: I was really surprised and not surprised by the commonalities in our stories that we shared, because as Susannah mentioned, most of the text is generated or pulled directly from our real-life experiences. We shared stories about first sexual experiences. We shared stories about periods. We shared stories about falling in love and sexual trauma. It was really great to be faced with this reality that everyone seems [is like], “Oh, my sex life or my love life is so dramatic” or “my sex life and my love life is so X, Y, Z.” [But], when you share all these stories and you hear other women expressing similar if not identical situations–it’s comforting in a way.
MADELINE SACHS: I’ve almost forgotten whose lines, what lines are mine.
LAURA ORNELLA: Whose line is it anyway?
SACHS: Whose line is it anyway? [Laughs] Because now I identify with all parts of it. I could probably remember that line about your soul. That was one of my lines I think, but I identify with the “your tits are magnificent” one the most, even though it wasn’t mine. [Laughs]
What has being and working on this piece meant for you?
REBEKAH NAGY: There have been so many funny things in my life, this transitional phase…It [has] led me to be more honest with myself and more honest with other people, but mostly [about] self-expression. I give fewer fucks with what people think.
Performance of difficult material that makes people feel uncomfortable has been kind of…I’ve described it as a coming out in a way that feels like [me saying], “That’s right everybody, I’m a freak! What?” For the first time in my life, after my whole life hiding it or apologizing for it or dissimulating it, it feels really good to be out in that way.
ORNELLA: It’s not something I would’ve normally gravitated towards on my own, like, in this format, but then you work on it for a year and all of a sudden it becomes just an extra limb. You start to understand how that functions and how necessary it is. I think that’s been the nice part, it’s [that] I know how to work my other limbs, in terms of being an actor, and there’s another extra limb I’ve gained [by] coming to rehearsal and working on this. I think a lot of people, performance-wise, get really scared that they can’t do these things, but to know that literally one person, Susannah, was like, “I’d like to make something, standing in a restaurant that we work at,” is amazing. Anyone can do it, it just takes a support system.
There are moments in the piece that range from tender, to heart breaking, to real and uncomfortable. What part means the most to you?
NAGY: I like the power of the “I’m not wet enough” scene, because I reacted negatively at first when the audience would laugh at that scene. I was upset and offended, and [had] a lot of feelings. I’ve since decided that the really uncomfortable place it puts people in is so important, and I’m psyched that they’re laughing genuinely and then nervously laughing and then [saying to themselves], “Ew, was I supposed to laugh? Oh shit.” I want people to feel that more.
SACHS: I like that part. It’s sort of the crescendo of the piece, in my opinion. I’m excited to go on this tour. I really like the process of opening up dialogue among women. I think it’s really important for women to just be talking about their shit.
When did you get the idea to tour with this show?
SIMPSON: I was talking to my partner, Jose, after he saw the piece and he’s seen my work develop. We’ve been together five years, we started dating when I was just making solo dance pieces, and he was, like,”This piece is amazing. It’s gonna go so far. You’ve got to keep doing it. It’s essential.”—Oh, oh, oh, he was like, “This needs to be mandatory in all high school sex-ed classes.” [Laughs].
The group is in fact stopping at Helen’s high school on the tour.
SIMPSON: We can’t perform the piece there because it’s pretty sexy.
NAGY: I don’t know what the age cut-off is or don’t feel qualified to [say] who is too tender to see this piece, but the fact is that, I’m not saying that we have to push to do it at high schools necessarily. But, without our message, some [students] are getting sexual messages that are way more explicit and fucked up. They are getting really terrible, poor, shaming, dis-empowering, rape-y, and terrible messages–it’s unfortunate. I think a lot might have to change before our [show] would be accepted to be done in high schools, but the fact that what we’re doing is considered inappropriate? When the education, the biological, is not even sex-ed they’re given…They’re not taught about consent. They’re not taught about empowerment. They’re taught about biological reproduction…I could go down a rabbit hole.
GUTOWSKI: My biggest goal for the tour is to use every performance as a jumping off point to facilitate a conversation with members of the audience, and ideally, do some of the text generating exercises we did in rehearsal with [the audience].
SIMPSON: Getting women talking [has] been really important about doing this piece. For me, that is very important, but also getting all humans talking. Having male identifying men in the audience, talking to them about it, sharing this with them, getting them to have questions, and [have them] think about and see the female perspective in such a close, unabashed way, was so gratifying.